Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, the company’s first new commercial airplane in 15 years, won the hearts of aviation fanatics and airline fleet managers long before the lightweight, carbon-composite aircraft even left the ground. Its fan base held strong through a series of glitches that delayed the plane’s entry to service by more than three years. And even as Boeing’s critics snickered at the plane-maker’s multi-billion-dollar production errors, the airplane itself remained beyond reproach.
That changed on 7 January when a lithium ion battery on a 787 flown by Japan Airlines caught fire in Boston. Nine days later, a second battery fire on an All Nippon Airways flight in Japan triggered a government-ordered grounding of every Dreamliner in service – 50 planes in all.
As headlines around the globe trumpet safety concerns about the Dreamliner, Boeing faces a potential backlash from airlines whose passengers may become skittish about flying on the plane, regardless of its lauded fuel-efficiency and comforts. Experts say the magnitude of the Dreamliner’s budding image crisis depends on how long the 787s are grounded and, of course, the findings of safety inspections.
But, for now, the traveling public accepts Boeing’s assessment that the most recent Dreamliner problems amount to little more than teething problems that might plague any new airplane, according to experts in the aerospace and airline industries. Basically, the public has confidence in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulatory bodies to verify the safety of airplanes, said Charlie Leocha, director of the Consumer Travel Alliance, a group that advocates for travellers.
“We feel that the FAA does an amazing job in terms of safety,” Leocha says, adding that the 787 grounding probably will not dent the plane’s popularity.
“It will be back, and it’s going to be a great airplane,” he said.
Perhaps more to the point, the typical air traveller does not consider the aircraft make and model when booking a trip. Price and convenience are more important, says John Wensveen, Global Head of Airline Advisory Services at Radixx, which runs an airline passenger services system.
“Generally speaking, the traveling public doesn’t know what type of aircraft they are going to be getting on when they book a trip,” he says. “In most cases, they don’t alter their travel arrangements based on an aircraft.”
Michael Boyd, an airline consultant and chairman of Boyd Group International, puts it more bluntly: “The average person will get on a duck with a chair on its back. They don’t care. An airplane is an airplane.”
The Dreamliner, which has been in service less than two years, can easily weather the ongoing flood of bad publicity, and it is highly unlikely passengers will book away from the 787, Boyd says.
“It’s just a bad battery,” he says. “We’re not looking at a huge structural fault with an airplane. Other than that, this airplane is a great piece of machinery.”
The Dreamliner is the world’s first commercial airplane featuring an airframe made largely of light-weight carbon composites instead of aluminum. It promises fuel savings of 20 percent compared with other widebody planes its size on similar routes. Some industry watchers refer to the 787 as a “plastic” airplane. In addition to the composite airframe, the plane boasts myriad design firsts and passenger comforts like larger windows and mechanisms to dampen in-flight turbulence.
In its design and manufacturing, Boeing used more outsourced engineering talent and labor than on previous planes. The company had hoped the strategy would save money while tapping into a deeper pool of engineering talent. But the sprawling chain of about 50 partners around the world was overly complicated and prone to kinks. As a result, the 787 program was three years behind schedule and, by some estimates, at least several billion dollars over budget by the time the plane came to market in September 2011.
At least publicly, the high-profile snags did little to dampen enthusiasm for the plane among airline customers who craved the promised fuel efficiency. Boeing had 821 orders for Dreamliners on its books at the time of first delivery. The company now has about 850 orders and insists the program will be profitable over time.
The Dreamliner still has an impressive following of aviation enthusiasts, who devour every shred of news on the 787. For years, so-called “AvGeeks” have tried to glimpse and photograph the 787 from a roadside perch near Boeing’s Paine Field in Everett, Washington, where most of the the planes are assembled.
Glitches aside, the 787 is a wildly popular aircraft that has captured the imagination of the aviation industry and the broader flying public. A side-effect of that popularity, however, is intense scrutiny and perhaps a somewhat higher unofficial standard of safety and reliability set by airlines and passengers. More than any other commercial airplane in modern history, the 787 lives under a magnifying glass. And any failure – large or small – is a potential PR nightmare for Boeing.
COOL UNDER PRESSURE… MAYBE A LITTLE TOO COOL
For the most part, top Boeing executives have kept a relatively low profile throughout the crisis. On 9 January, two days after the first battery fire, Mike Sinnett, the chief engineer for the 787 program, told media that the 787′s problems are on par with those suffered by the 777 when it entered service in the mid-1990s. The 777 fleet was never grounded, however.
Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney noted in a letter to employees that since entering service 15 months ago, the 787 fleet has completed 18,000 flights and carried more than a million passengers safely. He said the reliability is consistent with that of previous new planes and so are its flaws.
“We have high confidence in the safety of the 787 and stand squarely behind its integrity as the newest addition to our product family,” McNerney said in the letter.
“While the 787′s dispatch reliability rate is on par with the best-in-class introduction of the 777, we will not be satisfied until the 787 meets the even higher standard of performance we set for it and promised to our customers,” he said.
Boeing’s fourth-quarter earnings statement released on 30 January included the following quote attributed to McNerney: “Our first order of business for 2013 is to resolve the battery issue on the 787 and return the airplanes safely to service with our customers.”
Boeing’s main website, meanwhile, features a prominent page with company statements on the unfolding saga and a question-and-answer section that is a little heavier on questions than answers.
Steps like these are helpful to the company’s image, but Boeing would benefit from a far more aggressive posture, says Jordan Friedman, partner at Bond PR And Brand Strategy. Friedman, who has several clients in the aviation industry, has significant experience in crisis communications.
“The public needs to be reassured,” he says.
“I think they (Boeing) need to make a bold statement to the world, to the public, to their airline customers, and to anyone else that’s going to touch this plane in some way,” he says. Friedman recommends a grand gesture like sending Boeing’s CEO on a Dreamliner flight around the world to assuage passenger safety concerns.
“Even if people think this is just a photo op, they need this photo op,” he says.
A LITTLE PERSPECTIVE
Radixx’s Wensveen says previous new airplane launches from Boeing and its top rival Airbus also hit snags that some would consider on par with the 787 battery fires.
For example, the Airbus A380, the world’s largest commercial airplane, saw its reputation mildly tarnished in 2010, three years after its entry to service when an engine on a Qantas-operated A380 failed and caused the plane to return to Singapore where the flight originated. In early 2012, hairline cracks were found in brackets of the wings of several A380s, triggering expanded aircraft inspections.
These things happen, Wensveen says, and they are typical of new airplane launches. “I don’t think it’s really impacting the traveling public. It’s just something that’s expected right now.”
Robert Mann, an airline consultant with R.W. Mann & Co, says the latest twist in the Dreamliner saga has produced some breathless media reports, but he thinks that, in the end, there will probably be an easy fix.
“I think it’s been headline news, but the issue is that thankfully no one’s been hurt,” Mann says. “I suspect it will come down to a bad batch of batteries.”
Gordon Bethune, the former CEO of Continental Airlines and a former Boeing executive, was more emphatic, complaining in a 27 January USA Today Op-Ed that FAA bureaucrats have grossly overreacted to a relatively minor failure on a new airplane. Bethune noted that the last time the US government grounded a worldwide fleet was in 1979 following a fatal crash that occurred when an engine separated from an American Airlines DC-10.
“This month’s action is different. Grounding airplanes to cover your butt would never have let Orville or Wilbur change the world.”