Trouble with Boeing’s 787 Airplane

by Jamie R. Lebovitz | March 17th, 2014

Boeing’s newest commercial airplane, the 787, has been plagued with problems ever since it was launched two years ago. After many years of production problems, there were a number of fires(fortunately no crashes or fatalities) caused by lithium ion batteries which are being used for the first time in passenger aircraft. The entire fleet was grounded for months until Boeing came up with a fix. Some would call this “growing pains” or “teething,” expected with any new airplane model. However, the 787 is quite unusual compared to most other commercial jet aircraft. Foremost, is the fact that this airplane is made primarily of composite materials which are lighter in weight and, as such, provide more efficient fuel burn. Second, most of the parts from wings, tail, fuselage and other major components, have been outsourced by Boeing to other manufacturers; thus, issues of quality control have been a problem. Until just recently, Boeing thought everything was under control.

Now, however, Boeing is inspecting the carbon fiber composite wings of 787 Dreamliners for potential hairline cracks that are due to a change in the way the wings are manufactured. The inspections of 42 planes started a few weeks ago after the airplane maker was notified of the problem by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which makes the wings in Japan. “We have been notified by our supplier MHI that a change in their manufacturing process may have led to hairline cracks in a limited number of shear ties on a wing rib in the 787. This condition may be present in a limited number of airplanes still in production,” said Doug Alder with Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Boeing says potential wing cracks do not exist in any of the 123 Dreamliners that have been delivered and are currently in service.

The company says it takes one to two weeks to fix those wings where cracks are found. The repair involves applying a piece of carbon fiber material to the area in question. So far, the company says it has not had to completely replace any wings of the 42 Dreamliners being inspected. “We understand the issue, what must be done to correct it, and are completing inspections of potentially affected airplanes. We are addressing affected airplanes as required. We expect no impact to 2014 delivery guidance,” Alder said. Boeing recently increased production of the Dreamliner to 10 per month but has been wrestling with manufacturing issues as it gets its Dreamliner assembly line in Charleston, S.C., up to speed.

Growing pains?  In this author’s opinion, after having represented scores of families in airplane crash cases over the past 30 years, the 787 has encountered more problems than any other airliner manufactured by Boeing or its competitors, and more are likely to surface. The good thing is this: given the unusual number of issues with the 787 over its limited history, the FAA, Boeing and others in aviation safety have this airplane type on their radars and stand ready to identify and troubleshoot any manufacturing flaws which may surface in the future. Put simply, those who are responsible for the safety of the flying public, are being very proactive and aggressive in this case.

Written by Jamie and Jordan Lebovitz