Yesterday's decision by the Federal Aviation Administration to ground all US-based Boeing 787s — the crown jewel in Boeing's commercial aviation product portfolio — is unquestionably an alarming one: it halts the most advanced airliner ever designed from carrying passengers until Boeing can get to the bottom of lithium ion battery fires that have disrupted one flight and left another aircraft smoking at the gate. United, which owns all six of the US 787s currently in service, will be forced to cancel a number of international routes or backfill them with other aircraft until the situation is resolved — and in all likelihood, aviation authorities in other countries around the world will follow suit.
Can the Dreamliner ultimately be a safe way to fly?
By all appearances, it's a troubled start for one of the most ambitious airliners since the dawn of the jet age, beleaguered by cost overruns, delays, and a list of incidents that seems to be growing by the day. Will Boeing need to write down the $30-plus billion in research and development that it took to get to this point? Can the Dreamliner ultimately be a safe way to fly?
To answer those questions, it helps to look back at the most popular jet airliner ever made, Boeing's workhorse 737. If you've ever flown on a commercial flight, odds are quite good you've flown on a 737; it's as close to ubiquitous as a 500 mile-per-hour machine has ever become.
In 1991, a 737 operated by United fell out of the sky on final approach into Colorado Springs, Colorado, killing all aboard. Three years later, a USAir (now US Airways) 737 suffered a similar fate in the skies over Pittsburgh. In both cases, the flight recorders revealed that the pilots had experienced an unexplained and sudden loss of control. Eventually, investigators found a common link: the aircraft's rudder control module was prone to seizing and even reversing — meaning left became right, right became left — when it grew very cold and mixed with hot hydraulic fluid. Understandably, pilots grew confused by the reversal and had inadvertently flown their aircraft out of control.
Once the problem was discovered and verified, the FAA ordered operators to replace the rudder control units. Today, the 737 is an active member of an unprecedented era of safety in aviation that saw just one fatal accident per 2.5 million flights last year.
Meanwhile, a highly-publicized crash landing of a 777 at London Heathrow in 2008 — Boeing's next-youngest airliner after the 787 — exposed problems with ice buildup in fuel lines that led to a redesign and retrofit.
Boeing isn't the only culprit
And Boeing isn't the only culprit: Airbus's 737 competitor, the A320 series, suffers from an issue that can cause portions or all of the instrument panel to go blank. Regulators both in Europe and the US have identified the issue and are requiring a fix. The A320's bigger cousin, the widebody A330, was required to upgrade pitot tubes — components critical in gauging airspeed — after a defective design is believed to have contributed to a 2009 crash of an Air France flight in the Atlantic. And the enormous double-decker A380 has been cited for engine problems and cracking wings in its brief existence; both of those issues are actively being corrected.
Indeed, a quick glance of the first few pages of airline incident tracker The Aviation Herald reveals an important reality: that problems with commercial aircraft of all types are a daily occurrence. Government regulators, manufacturers like Boeing, Airbus, and Embraer, airlines, and pilots operate out of an abundance of caution because the stakes are so high with every flight that leaves the ground, and you'd be hard pressed to find a single model of airliner that hasn't been beset with numerous upgrades and retroactive fixes designed to make them safer.
With each new airliner comes new technology researched and refined since the introduction of the previous one, and the Dreamliner is a particularly deep example — it's the first constructed primarily of composite materials and to replace a number of hydraulic systems with electric ones in order to save weight. Even the best engineers and a decade of testing couldn't suss out every issue that the 787 would face in the real world.
Problems with commercial aircraft of all types are a daily occurrence
And if they're commonplace in the industry, why is the 787 getting so much press for these issues? Part of the blame falls on Boeing, United, and its other carrier partners for attracting so much media attention on the Dreamliner throughout its development and launch — and for emphasizing just how "new" and "different" this aircraft really is from its predecessors. And the FAA's decision to ground the fleet is admittedly unusual — as The Wall Street Journal points out, it hasn't happened to an entire model since the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 in 1979.
But the DC-10 went on to be an extraordinarily successful (and safe) aircraft for over two decades after that grounding, and it's still in use with cargo operators even today. Every precedent from a century in aviation innovation suggests that the 787 will do the same.