FAA questions safety of Boeing 787

Image of Qatar airlines Boeing 787

Image credit: Strower, 1 November 2012

Following a week in which there was a Boeing 787 safety incident each day, the FAA has ordered a safety review.  Though FAA inspectors spent 200,000 hours inspecting the design during the development process, they now have concerns about elements of the design as well as how the plane is built, and the safety of the electrical systems.

Many new aircraft designs experience a certain number of problems when they first go into production, and these often attract lurid headlines.  This seldom indicates major underlying problems.  However, it also seldom results in an FAA review.

There are only 50 Boeing 787 aircraft in service world-wide, six of which are operated by United Airlines in the USA.  Five incidents in a week therefore represents an alarmingly high problem rate.  It is 10% of the fleet!

Safety IS an issue

The FAA quote U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood as saying that “The safety of the travelling public is our top priority.  This review will help us look at the root causes and do everything we can to safeguard against similar events in the future.”

The Boeing 787 fleet has collectively logged 50,000 hours in the air – an average of just 1000 hours per aircraft.  In aircraft terms that is still factory-new.  (The now-resolved wing support problem in the Airbus A380 fleet only emerged at 1800 hours of service, so further surprises could still lie in store for Boeing.  Or not, as the case may be.)

Critical systems

It is clear that this is a serious review, not just a formal checking of the paperwork.  The FAA will check the design of critical systems.  Particular emphasis will be given to the electrical systems.  The interaction between electrical systems and mechanical parts of the aircraft will be examined in detail.  In addition to reviewing the design, the team (which includes Boeing engineers) will also examine manufacture and assembly.

Lithium ion batteries restricted

The fire hazards of Lithium ion batteries have long meant that they may not be shipped by air.  Since 1 January 2008 Lithium ion batteries have also been illegal for passengers to carry in checked-in luggage.  According to reports, in one of the recent Boeing 787 safety incidents a Lithium ion battery manufactured in Japan installed in a Boeing 787 exploded.  Fortunately there was no penetration of the hull.

How did Boeing get permission to install Lithium ion batteries as standard equipment in the Dreamliner?


The likely reason for the review of the manufacturing process is that the Boeing 787 relies on outsourced manufacture to a greater extent than for other planes.  There have been credible, serious allegations aired about outsourced manufacture at Boeing, in relation to structural elements of the 737 NT.  This has been linked to structural failure after minor runway incidents.

Boeing 787 aircraft will continue to fly while the review takes place.

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