A scheduled United flight to Denver on Sunday needed to return to its originating airport, Houston's George Bush Intercontinental, after a cockpit indicator suggested a possible problem with the aircraft's brakes. Such issues happen dozens of times per month around the world, but this particular incident is getting extra scrutiny due to the type of aircraft involved: Boeing's 787 Dreamliner, which has gotten off to a rocky start since its 2011 launch with Japanese carrier ANA.
In the month of June 2013 alone, a look through The Aviation Herald's database suggests that aircraft operating for major airlines globally have suffered roughly 60 reported mechanical incidents, ranging from cracked windshields to losses of cabin pressure, disabled engines, and misconfigured landing gears. None are to be taken lightly — but the robustness of the aircraft involved, combined with the redundant nature of their systems and the extensive training of the pilots in command, means that practically all of them end without fanfare. And without fanfare, they're rarely reported by mainstream media.
"The 787 is a great airplane and we know it will continue to receive heightened attention when reliability events occur in service," a Boeing spokesperson tells The Verge. It's a nod toward the inescapable microscope that the 787 is under, having relaunched in the wake of battery problems that kept the brand-new airliner grounded around the world for months.
"...we know [the 787] will continue to receive heightened attention when reliability events occur in service."
A look back at the 787's other two recent incidents, an engine oil filter warning on June 18th and an oil quantity indication on the 20th, suggest no common thread between the three — these are apparently unrelated situations that reflect the myriad complex systems responsible for keeping a modern airliner in the air. It's a contrast to the battery problems that led to a big redesign of the aircraft's electrical system, where flights from Qatar Airways, United, and ANA suffered related issues in separate incidents over the course of several weeks.
On balance, the 787 has now had six reported mechanical incidents in 2013 with a little under 60 aircraft in service. It's a higher rate of failure than more mature aircraft ranging from the Boeing 737 to the Airbus A340, but "teething" is commonplace for newer airliners as engineers work out the kinks. Take the enormous A380 double-decker, for instance, which had around a dozen reported mechanical incidents in 2009 — a year that ended with just 23 aircraft having been delivered to airlines around the world. That's roughly half an incident per aircraft. If the Dreamliner continues having problems at its current rate, it will end 2013 with roughly one fifth of an incident per aircraft.
"We are working with United to return the airplane to service as quickly as possible," Boeing says. Unless a rash of incidents with the same root cause develops once again, there's no reason to think that the high-tech hauler will be grounded by aviation authorities for a second time.