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11 January 2013

FAA orders comprehensive review of the 787

The 787 is a new aircraft model that is noteworthy for technological advancements and design features that set it apart from other airliner models. This week, the 787 has been noteworthy for all the wrong reasons.

On Monday, an onboard fire at Boston's Logan airport led to a formal NTSB incient investigation. Later in the week, there were three other incidents, including an incident with a second 787 at Boston. The week ended with the FAA ordering a comprehensive safety review of the 787.

  • On January 7th, a Japan Airlines 787 at Boston’s Logan Airport had a fire in a battery associated with the auxiliary power unit (APU), causing some damage to the area in the aft electronics bay close to the battery, and an injury to a firefighter. There was only a maintenance and cleaning crew on board, no passengers were injured.

  • On January 8th, another Japan Airlines 787, also at Boston, had a minor fuel problem that delayed a flight. This leak was from a vent designed to release fuel and was apparently caused by a fuel valve that was left open. The plane departed for Japan later that day.

  • On January 9th, the crew of an ANA 787 in Japan received an error message about the aircraft’s braking system, and the flight was cancelled. It was a false message and there were no problems with the brakes.

  • On January 11th, ANA reported that cracks appeared in a787 cockpit windshields, the third time this kind of event has occurred in their fleet of 17 aircraft.

NTSB investigation
The first incident was the most serious, and resulted in a formal investigation by the NTSB, an ongoing process that also involves Japan Airlines, Boeing, FAA, and Japan’s equivalent of the NTSB, the Japan Transport Safety Board. Normally this kind of investigation is launched when there is an accident. This fire was certainly not an accident as defined by the NTSB, but the NTSB’s reaction implies that this is being considered to be a serious event, very likely for at least a few reasons:

  • The 787 had a number of prior incidents since entering passenger service last year.

  • The aircraft also had a number of development issues that delayed commercial flights for several years.

In addition to the incidents this week, prior incidents and issues include the following:

  • A November 2010 fire during a test flight that forced an emergency landing in Laredo, TX. The problem was traced to an electrical power distribution panel, and flight testing was halted for two months while the panel was redesigned.
  • A July 2012 engine failure during a taxi test of newly manufactured 787.

  • An electrical problem led to a December 2012 emergency landing of a United 787, and United later found a related electrical problem on another 787.

  • A grounding of a Qatar 787, also in December 2012, after finding a similar electrical problem.

  • A December 2012 FAA Airworthiness Directive (AD 2012-24-07) requiring 787 operators to inspect part of the engine fuel system for possible improper installations.

FAA comprehensive system review
On Friday January 11th, the FAA announced that it would undertake a comprehensive review of critical 787 systems, including how those systems were designed, manufactured, and assembled. This goes well beyond the electrical system that was involved in the fire at Boson's Logan Airport, and is separate from the NTSB investigation.

What does this mean for passengers?
Taken together, these incidents and issues don’t add up to a safety concern for passengers because there is so far no consistent pattern to these problems, and none of these past problems have led to any serious aircraft damage or to any injury to passengers or crew.

The recent NTSB investigation may have been launched in part because it is a new model and because there may be useful insights gained from thoroughly investigating incidents such as the Boston APU fire. There are currently fewer than 50 787s in commercial service, with over a third of the aircraft being delivered only in the past three months, and with six of the eight operators having fewer than six months experience flying this model.

As operators around the world gain more operational experience with the 787, there will certainly be more incidents. However, unless several of these incidents have one or more causes that are unique to the 787, there would be no real reason to suspect that the aircraft has some sort of issue exposes passengers to excessive safety risks.

Is it safe to fly on the Boeing 787? If you define safety as an acceptable risk, then the 787 is safe to fly because there is nothing that currently indicates that the 787 has a much greater likelihood of experiencing safety-related problems compared to other large jet airliners. However, that answer may change as a result of the current NTSB investigation or if problems are discovered as airlines gain more operational experience.

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