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More Dreamliners Grounded

January 16th, 2013 - 2:18 pm

Another day, another Dreamliner dashed:

The emergency landing followed a string of problems in the past month with the Boeing 787, known as the Dreamliner, including a battery fire, fuel leaks and a cracked cockpit window. All Nippon said the problems Wednesday involved the same lithium-ion batteries that caught fire last week in Boston on a Dreamliner operated by Japan Airlines.

Last week, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration ordered a comprehensive review of the Dreamliner’s manufacturing and design, with a focus on the plane’s electrical systems. During a news conference last Thursday, the U.S. transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, made no mention of grounding Dreamliners. But if the problems continue, tougher measures could presumably be taken.

Aeronautics is just about the toughest business in the world. For scale and complexity, probably only auto manufacturing competes with it. The jetliner makers might not have to worry about as many models as carmakers do — although maybe more than you think, if you include all the variations on each — but the potential problems and potential losses dwarf what any carmaker faces.

There are very few big players — just two, really, building the big passenger jets. And the younger player, Airbus, had to be willed into existence by European governments with big, fat checkbooks. Russia tries. China wants to try. But the jetliner business is really just Boeing and Airbus, because you need immense scale to take those risks and absorb those losses.

The safety considerations are… we need a bigger word than “immense” here. We’re not talking about adding some side airbags to a vehicle that can turn left and right and rarely travels faster than 75MPH. We’re talking about a jet traveling at 36,000 feet, carrying hundreds of civilians who don’t take kindly to getting set on fire or plowing into a mountain.

I’ve followed the Dreamliner’s production since Boeing first announced it, because it really did seem like the Passenger Jet of Tomorrow. There were bunches of reasons big (much lower fuel consumption) and little (bigger windows, making for happier passengers) and wonderful (space-age airframe allowing for higher pressurization and much happier passengers). But if you asked me today if I’d like to hop on board a 787 for a five-hour flight, or take a crappy, beat-up seat on the ancient 737 just down the tarmac, I might just take the old ’37.

Boeing has a real nightmare going with the Dreamliner.

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