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July 30, 2009

The Dreamliner Problem Gets Worse

A Boeing artist's rendering of the 787 Dreamliner
Photo: Courtesy of Boeing Image

by Clive Irving

The Seattle Times is reporting today that Boeing's 787 Dreamliner may not be able to make its first flight until next year. If this is the case, Boeing will face rising anger from its airline customers and punishing demands for compensation due to late delivery. More critically, the structural flaw causing the delay is no longer likely to succumb to a quick fix. In fact, the latest revelation calls into question the integrity of the design.

When Boeing revealed the flaw, it said that there were 18 ruptures on each side of the fuselage at the junction with the wings. Translated into lay language, this puts the focus on the part of the structure that carries the most severe loads--what is called the wing box. The flaw was found in May during static tests in which an entire airplane that never leaves the ground is subjected over a long period to continual stresses similar to those in flight, and then some: The stresses are taken to "ultimate load," over 50 percent more than would in reality occur.

Until today, experts had assumed that the 787 wing failed near that point of maximum stress. Now, according to the Seattle Times aerospace reporter, Dominic Gates, it seems that the wing surfaces began to rupture well before the maximum stresses were applied. That being so, the test flights would have been pointless. Maneuvers would be severely constrained by fears of structural failure in the air.

At the heart of this crisis is Boeing's use of plastic composites in place of metal.  

Two Japanese companies, Mitsubishi and Fuji, make the parts that have failed.  What the Boeing engineers are now attempting to do is to alter the way the structure absorbs the most severe loads. These loads would be transferred from the composites to titanium where the wings meet the wing box.

There are two critical questions here. Will the fix work? And, how long would it take to modify the rwn Dreamliners already completed and then to incorporate the changes in the 30 in various stages of completion?

The cost of the delays and changes has already been estimated at around $11 billion. This, and compensation paid to customers, could mean that Boeing would have to sell six hundred 787s before it turns a profit. And the bitter irony here is that the world's airlines so loved this design on first sight that they have already ordered 850 of them. With the airline business in the doldrums, it might seem odd that there is such a demand for new airplanes. But the Dreamliner promised much lower costs in fuel consumption and much higher efficiency. That greener, slimmer future is suddenly on hold--for how long?

Further reading:
* Is the Dreamliner in Real Trouble?(Daily Traveler on CNT)
* What is Wrong with the Dreamliner? (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* Boeing's Dreamliner Debacle (Daily Traveler on CNT)
* Read The Daily Beast for more aviation expertise from Clive Irving, Condé Nast Traveler's senior consulting editor.
* On the Fly: The Daily Traveler on the airline industry


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