Boeing 787: a dream on hold

Charles Zizza, Contributing Writer

In April 2004, aerospace giant Boeing commenced a development program that would result in the design and ultimate completion of an aircraft that would push the standards of civil aviation farther than ever before. In December 2009, that aircraft made its maiden flight.

The 787 Dreamliner is the height of the airliner industry. For airlines, the airplane’s lighter materials and new engines offer greater efficiency as well as greater range capabilities. The 787 is 20% more efficient than aircrafts of similar sizes and has a range closer to that of larger liners like the 747 rather than other medium-sized aircraft.

The 787 improves more than just business prospects, however. Its advanced design characteristics and computer systems make flight smoother and larger windows give passengers better views of the world below them opposed to other airliners.

The 787 Dreamliner is Boeing’s baby and, presumably, the pride of the company. But the plane has also created a few problems for Boeing, airlines, crew, and passengers.

On January 16, 2013—little more than a year after the first 787 was delivered to ANA in Japan, the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all Boeing 787s to be grounded. The order came after a fire onboard a Japanese Airline’s 787 which was the result of the overheating of one of the plane’s lithium ion batteries. Shortly before, a similar accident occurred on an ANA 787.

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, claims that the lithium ion batteries used in the 787s are “inherently unsafe” and are prone to overheating. This, he says, is because the cells in the batteries are large and do not leave enough space for ventilation.

Minor technical problems with new aircraft, however, are not unusual and, considering the technological innovations of the 787, it was even more likely. In the extremely competitive industry of aircraft manufacturing (particularly airliner manufacturing), Boeing is at the top along with its competitor Airbus, which is owned by the European company EADS. The recent news of the problems with the Boeing 787 and the subsequent groundings have been frequently reported on by the mainstream news including three nights on which it was one of the top stories for NBC’s the Nightly News. Such negative publicity could prove highly destructive to the reputations of both Boeing and its new airliner, especially when compared to the mostly positive publicity that Boeing’s European competitor Airbus has received recently for its new Airbus A380—the largest passenger airliner in the world.

While the situation with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner may seem severe, minor technical problems in new aircraft are considered normal. Currently, the only factor keeping the 787 fleet on the ground is the lithium ion battery. Once the FAA is convinced that the battery will not be a problem for future flights, it will lift the order to keep all 787 aircraft on the ground. Boeing says “[it stands] behind the overall integrity [of the 787].” Hopefully, it will be determined that the only significant problem with the otherwise impressive aircraft is its lithium ion battery. With luck, Boeing will work out the kinks in the 787 within a reasonable time frame, and it will continue service without any further sizable technical issues. If history is any indicator, this will be the case.

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