Woes Mount For Boeing's Much-Awaited Dreamliner

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft does a flyby. i i

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft does a flyby at the Farnborough International Airshow near London in July. Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images
A Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft does a flyby.

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft does a flyby at the Farnborough International Airshow near London in July.

Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Boeing's fleet of 787 test planes remains grounded. An onboard fire during a test flight a month ago revealed a serious problem in the new jet's electrical system and the company is still trying to come up with the precise fix.

The composite-built, twin-aisle, long-range jet should have gone into passenger service well over two years ago. But not a single plane has been delivered. The plane Boeing calls the Dreamliner is still being tested.

Flight tests are supposed to validate systems and reveal any problems, but a flight on a Tuesday afternoon in November was far from ordinary.

A piece of debris inside an electrical control panel caused a short and then a fire. What happened next has been described as a cascading series of failures. The fire self-extinguished within 30 seconds, but the plane lost primary electrical power, Boeing said. The system meant to distribute power to an array of devices — from cockpit displays to microwave ovens — went haywire.

While the pilots never lost control of the plane and it landed safely, the fire "exposed a fundamental weakness in the systems architecture of this airplane," says Jon Ostrower, a well-connected and closely followed aviation writer.

It's just the latest in a long series of problems for the 787, says industry analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group. "There are three things that make this aircraft unique: One, composite materials — they found all kinds of problems working with composite materials; two, global supply and design chain, and of course they have had all sorts of problems; and the third is more electric aircraft and, well, turns out they've discovered issues with that part of the aircraft's pioneering design as well."

Boeing now plans to rework the software for the power distribution system, but the company isn't offering details or even an estimate of how long it will take. Ostrower and others say the fix could take four to six months. "When you start unraveling software in such an integrated system where one part of the airplane depends on another part of the airplane which depends on another part of the airplane, you get a bit of a domino effect in terms of not being able to just change one thing in isolation," Ostrower says.

Stan Sorcher of SPEEA, the Engineers and Technical workers union, adds that extensive outsourcing of the 787 will make it harder for Boeing to implement changes on this jet than it would have been on the company's earlier airplane programs. "The problem-solving culture is much weaker, it's not so strong; there aren't teams," he says. "The suppliers own the designs and when it comes time to develop a solution and implement it, Boeing simply doesn't have the same authority to say, 'This is how we are going to proceed,'" Sorcher says.

Suppliers could balk and demand additional payments from Boeing.

Meanwhile, airlines that ordered the new jet are growing increasingly restless. On Monday a top official for Air India said the airline will seek $840 million in compensation from Boeing, and recent reports say another carrier, China Eastern, intends to cancel all its 787 orders.

Still, about 850 orders for the new model remain on Boeing's books. It's a huge number and the company says it continues to believe the 787 is a great airplane that will deliver outstanding value.

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