Derek Spicer is a senior airline Training Captain on Airbus and Boeing aircraft. In the first of a series of columns entitled, “This is your Captain speaking”, Spicer explains the FAA’s grounding of the 787 Dreamliner, and why passengers should take heart in the fact that safety is the number one priority of all players.
The FAA has, quite correctly, grounded all US registered Boeing 787 Dreamliners following a number of high profile electrical system glitches and in particular two fires caused by lithium ion batteries. It would be easy to sensationalise these stories, resurrecting tales of the delays and supplier woes Boeing suffered to bring the ‘Seven Late Seven’ into production.
However, the truth is that although the consequences of an inflight fire on an airliner can be horrendous, the Boeing 787 is a good aeroplane that is well built. In a similar vein to Airbus and the aftermath of the Qantas A380 catastrophic engine failure, Boeing will be working closely with the FAA to identify causes of the problem. Once identified the issue can fall into one of the following areas:
Maintenance: If there is any issue with the maintenance schedule or a particular method used by the operator, only now identified after entry to service, then a change of practice and a warning sent out to operators as a service bulletin will avoid future issues. This can be done quickly and inexpensively, and would come into force on all aircraft worldwide. The 787 would fly immediately.
Manufacture: In the case that an incorrect manufacturing technique or process is identified then Boeing will have to change the build process, work with the supplier and adjust practices in house. The FAA will approve a change in manufacturing process quickly and simply. It would mean that new aircraft off the production line would be to the new corrected specification. Existing delivered aircraft would be grounded until modified to the later standard.
Design: The most serious consequence is that there is a requirement for redesign and major modification of the electrical system. This means that the 787 would remain grounded until the FAA would give supplementary certification for a modification to the aircraft, after all the required test schedule is completed. This is the worst-case scenario for Boeing and damaging to the confidence of the travelling public.
Despite dramatic scenes on mobile phone video of passengers and crew evacuating a 787 on the runway this week, the fact remains that the airline business is the most highly regulated and safety orientated in the world. Every step is taken to mitigate and avoid threats and errors. Although these regulations are set in international law, there is a carrot as well as a stick.
Airlines; maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) facilities; and operating crew are all highly trained in open safety cultures. Questioning and feedback are commonplace and if you spend any time in a cockpit, training centre, maintenance facility or production line, you will see that Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) are not just being followed, they are being reviewed and questioned and fed back to the management and FAA constantly.
The aviation business is a passionate one where most are driven and proud to be associated with it. In this business it is normal for the most junior employee to notice and raise concerns over procedures that will be positively discussed at board level. While keeping a watchful eye on Boeing and the FAA, we can be confident in this process and look forward to the Dreamliner taking flight once more.