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18 January 2013

Should passengers fear the 787?

Should you be afraid to fly on the 787? If you listen to or read some of the more dramatic stories from some media outlets, the 787 is a flying death trap that should scare the living daylights out of anyone who is even thinking of flying in one.

The FAA and other civil aviation organizations have taken the rare step of grounding an entire fleet of aircraft until a thorough investigation can find the cause of several recent incidents, most notably battery fires that occurred in two different 787 aircraft over the last couple of weeks, including a fire earlier this week that led to the evacuation of the 787 pictured below.

While the investigation continues, more than a few major media outlets are painting a rather dire picture, speculating that there may be serious, even fatal flaws in the aircraft design that could ruin the program, make airlines and passengers abandon the aircraft, and even bankrupt Boeing.

Is all this speculation supported by any facts? It is too early to tell. It could turn out that the worst fear mongering of the most irresponsible media outlets could turn out to be true. Perhaps it could also turn out that there is no serious problem at all, and within a few days the problem will be fixed and the 787 will be flying again.

The reality is that the truth will likely be somewhere between these two extremes, and the if the history of previous introductions of new airline models is any guide, it is very likely that end of the story of the 787 grounding will have an ending that is closer to the more benign extreme.

If you are a concerned future 787 passenger, what should you do? You should pay attention to the unfolding story and make up your own mind on whether you want to fly on a 787. Based on what usually happens in in the world of aircraft development, the story will most likely unfold in the following way:

  • Boeing, the current 787 customers, the FAA, the NTSB, and the Japanese aviation authorities, as well as other relevant parties, will get together and share relevant data about the design, certification, assembly, and operation of the 787.

  • Dozens or perhaps hundreds of the appropriate experts will work together to figure out what went wrong, why it went wrong, and what has to be done to fix the problem.

  • The FAA and Boeing will require that airline operators take a number of specific actions to resolve the key 787 issues, and all of these requirements will be openly shared with the general public.

  • The changes will be made, the aircraft will return to service, and all the relevant parties will follow the 787 very closely to ensure that the changes worked.

  • Sometime in the next few weeks or few months, normal production and service will resume.

My prediction is that as the investigation process moves forward, the media and concerned passengers will pay less and less attention to potential 787 safety issues.

Is this what will happen with the 787? Only time will tell, but if the past is any guide, the scenario laid out here will be the one you will most likely see.

Photo credit: Reuters


  1. I think this is a fair summation. There is cause for concern as is evidenced by the FAA taking the unusual step of grounding the aircraft. Is there an underlying cause for this spate of problems or are these just unfortunate coincidences? The electrical problems are certainly a cause for concern and it is fortunate that they have not occurred in conjunction with any other equipment failure that could in tandem have seriously jeopardised passenger and crew safety.
    A solution will be found, most likely quickly, and the aircraft will return to service but Boeing and the FAA may have issues to address internally. Key to the future success of the programme will be whether the aircraft continues to see further problems arising outwith what would normally be classed as 'teething troubles'.

  2. I agree...
    But it is also possible that the whole design is just too complicated, which was the case with the Concorde (remember?) so it is impossible to fix 100%.
    If this is the case and the parties are under enormous pressure for letting the thing fly again, sooner or later there will be a crash or two...
    That's gonna be a terrible situation and I wonder what they are going to do then.
    Are they gonna scrap the whole program and possibly bakrupt Boeing or just keep the planes flying no matter what....?
    In case of the latter the 787 will be history (just like the Concorde). It is only a matter of time.

  3. Watch "Broken Dreams" : Boeing 787. Very telling!