This article was originally published on January 17, 2013.—Eds.
Q: What is the 787 Dreamliner and why do we care?
A: The Dreamliner is a massive jet from Boeing, the company's most fuel-efficient airliner and the first major airplane to be made with composite materials--specifically, carbon fiber reinforced plastic. It's made of 80% composite by volume, which makes it much lighter than typical planes without sacrificing strength, and has a lot of nice consumer-facing features--bigger windows, new noise reduction techniques, modular bathrooms, and more space for passengers. It'll hold up to 296 passengers, too--this is a big boy. It's not a revolutionary plane, but we all care about it because it's the next evolution of the planes we'll all take. You probably won't fly on an all-electric plane any time soon, but you probably will fly on a Dreamliner.
Q: Cool! So how come I can't catch one flying out of my local airport tomorrow?
A: Well, here's the thing about the Dreamliner: it's been plagued with more serious problems than any other major new jet line in recent memory. Its batteries have a tendency to catch on fire. Earlier this week, both Japan Airlines and the FAA grounded all Dreamliners under their control until we can get a handle on why these things keep breaking.
Q: What's wrong with them?
The Dreamliner relies on electrical power much more than its predecessor, the 777. Earlier planes used bleed air, which is super-hot, super-pressurized air taken from within the engine, and used it for all kinds of functions, from de-icing to pressurizing the cabin itself. But in order to cut down on energy use, the 787 relies instead on electrical power for that, from some very powerful lithium ion batteries. Those batteries have of late taken up a new hobby: catching on fire and freaking the hell out of all of us.
Q: Wait a second, lithium ion batteries? Like in hybrid/electric cars? And phones and laptops and a million other things?
A: Well, kinda. There are different kinds of lithium ion batteries, using different chemicals and different reactions, and they behave pretty differently. This is a great explanation of what's going on in those batteries, but in short, the Dreamliner uses cobalt oxide batteries, the same kind as what's used in smartphones, laptops, and tablets. It's chosen for all of those purposes because it's got a crazy-high energy content for its size and weight--like, twice that of the batteries used in electric cars--but it also has one very big problem. That would be heat.
Gadget makers have worked for years on cooling methods so their batteries don't catch on fire, and sometimes they do anyway, but these batteries are pretty small and not all that hazardous. The batteries in a Dreamliner, on the other hand, are huge. And on fire.
Q: But planes always have problems at first, right? Aren't these just growing pains?
A: Yeah, that's a common thought, helped along by just about every Boeing exec and anyone else who has a financial stake in the Dreamliner not catching on fire repeating it. And it's not false, exactly. But the problems the Dreamliner is having aren't exactly the same kinds of problems as, say, the Boeing 777. The 777 has had eight so-called "aviation occurrences," which is airplane code for "accidents." But those problems were mostly easy to solve--there were a few issues with the de-icing system, which was subsequently redesigned, and all the other issues were one-offs, like a 2011 cockpit fire that was probably due to "a possible electrical fault with a supply hose in the cockpit crew oxygen system."
The Dreamliner has had many more problems. Cockpit windows have cracked several times. At least three of the 50 active Dreamliners have had overheating problems with the lithium ion batteries, leading to smoke and/or fire. Two planes have had fuel leak problems. These are much more difficult to manage than a de-icing flaw; you can't just swap out the batteries, since there are no other batteries with the same size and energy storage, and as the batteries are a much more integral part of the plane's entire operation, this isn't a small issue. The fact that the Dreamliners have had similar problems is a cause for concern.
Q: How long was this thing in development? How did this slip by?
A: Ah, good question. The Dreamliner has had a very long and tumultuous birthing process, with several redesigns over the years. The Dreamliner is actually several years behind schedule on many of its deliveries; you'd think in that time someone would make sure the thing didn't catch on fire. But nobody really knows how this kind of thing got by; best guess is that with such a new kind of electrical power system, nobody really knew how the Dreamliner would respond with repeated use. On the other hand, Qatar Airlines CEO Akbar Al Baker, among other "airline insiders," has said he's not surprised by the groundings.
Q: What happens now?
A: The FAA and the equivalents in other countries will conduct full-scale investigations into the problems with the Dreamliners. We won't know what the solutions are until we see those findings. So the answer to the sub-question here, "can the battery situation be fixed and how," is "it can probably be fixed, but until we know precisely what the problem is we won't know how." In the meantime, some of the airlines are demanding payment, considering they just spent millions of dollars on a plane they can't fly, and it's possible that others will decide not to continue with their purchases. Boeing has about 800 Dreamliners set to be built; if people start pulling out, the company is going to be in serious trouble.
I still think it's a brilliant plane that will inspire many others.
Starting to look like the short cut to more profit.. by using the outsourcing genie… has some very astounding draw backs….
The history of aviation has made it impossible to bid on anything unless you were a proven vendor with years of quality service. The decision to fabricate a new source of parts with so many new vendors with no prior experience has proven to be a mythical adventure…
OUTSOURCING is not the answer to profit margins… YUCK..
it may implode your future….
Very expensive miscalculation on the bean counters who wanted to outsmart the Machinist Union ….
They.... the UNION workers.... who had a rich history of getting it done right… they only wanted job security and to be a valued partner in the FUTURE OF BOEING ….
Management chose to hitch there wagon to a bunch of strangers who would work of nothing… Big Savings Right… YOUR CALL
Aircraft with the tendency to explode have not historically fared well. For example, after the LZ-129 exploded, killing a third aboard, the LZ-130 was grounded, ending the "Hindenburg"-class Zeppelin. The Me-163, with the rather unfortunate name "Komet," had the even more unfortunate tendency to become one. The Mitsubishi G4M- nicknamed the "Zippo"- would turn into a blazing conflagration if you so much as looked at it funny, which hampered it's mission effectiveness in the Second World War. Air France 4590, the first and last Concorde crash, in which ground obstructions caused the aircraft to spectacularly explode and kill everyone aboard, brought an end to the world's only supersonic airliner.
What I'm trying to say is that even though this isn't as bad an issue, yet, it most certainly doesn't bode well for Boeing or the Dreamliner(can we call it the Nightmare yet?).
Always defer to facts rather than philosophy.
J. James, your comments are in direct opposition to your signature. Alter either one immediately if you intend to express a credible opinion.
AH Miles, Isn't it interesting that you don't know the cause of the 787 electrical issues aside from what has been released to the media and yet you have 'determined' that the cause is non-union labor?
I am interested in FACTS, not biased supposition. When you have facts to share, get back to us.
nkfro, would you be kind enough to point out any factual errors I have made? Are you disputing that the Hindenburg exploded? Or that the Komet and Mitsubishi had fire issues? Or are you saying that Air France 4590 did not crash? Because those are the facts I stated. The other statements I made- "it certainly doesn't bode well for Boeing or the Dreamliner," "Aircraft with the tendency to explode have not historically fared well," and "it isn't as bad an issue, yet"- are completely true. I haven't even implied the aircraft was poorly made or unsafe- I merely pointed out the risks that a perception of fire danger poses, from a business perspective.
Help me out here, at what point did I lie?
Always defer to facts rather than philosophy.
The fact you are comparing the dreamliner to the hindenburg is the contradiction to your signature. You are taking the medias point and blowing a few small bugs way out of proportion.... The dreamliner hasn't killed anybody; it's just got a few bugs to be worked out!
The fact that it can catch on fire, and still land safely is pretty amazing. It obviously has huge redundancies built into it's design, and is incredibly safe.
There's just a few kinks to be worked out. As in any brand new product! Especially one so complex.
While the Hindenburg did explode, airship construction was already a very niche and soon-to-be obsolete market. They were competing for luxury passengers with the cruise liners. They could make a trans-Atlantic trip in half the time of a typical cruise liner. But the cost was definitely high. In 1937, the cost of a trans-Atlantic flight on the Hindenburg was $450, or more than $7,100 in today's dollars. Airships were not intended for the masses, but for the high-paying elite. And by the mid'30s you could already hop a transatlantic flight on a flying boat. It would stop in Bermuda and the Azores, and was much faster than the airships, at less cost. Soon thereafter came the Costellation and the DC-4.
But even before that, the breakout of war in Europe would have stopped all Zepplin flights to America. The Hindenburg was certainly not the first airship to explode, and airships were already on their way out due to war and airplanes. The Graff Zepplin 2 (the LZ-130) wasn't scrapped until 2 years AFTER the Hindenburg disaster. It was completed 1 year after the disaster, and flew for 11 months before stopping service. And in 1940, the Nazis scrapped it (and the unfinished LZ-131) so they could build more airplanes.
The Komet was an experimental rocket-powered aircraft with corrosive liquid fuels. While a few exploded on runways due to filling issues and corrosiveness, most of those that exploded did so due to enemy fire (once they used their rocket fuel they were simply gliders). Anyways, military plane, not really comparable.
"Zippo" was military too, a Japanese bomber. It exploded because it was shot at by the Americans. The Japanese purposely made them extremely light so they could have very long range. They did this by keeping them as light as possible, at the expense of crew safety. They had no armor plating to protect them, nor self-sealing fuel tanks. Hence they'd blow up with just a few well-placed shots. Not comparable to the 787 for so many reasons.
The Concorde did not explode, at least not until it hit the ground. It ran over a piece of titanium that had fallen off another aircraft, and the tire exploded. The rubber from the tire then cut some electical wiring and also hit the fuel tank, causing a shockwave in the tank that cause a fuel valve in the wing to burst open. So now you have fuel flying everywhere and cut electrical wires... needless to say, the fuel caught fire, one engine lost thrust, and it crashed. Not exactly an explosion or fault of the craft when you run over a piece of titanium on the runway.
What's more, only 2 Concorde were ever built, they were almost 30 years old, and normal operations resumed about 3 months after the crash. The problem was that there was only 1 (very expensive and old) Concorde left. Maintenence costs were very high, air travel was down after 9/11, and Airbus announced it would no longer provide support for the long aircraft, so it was retired. This aircraft's lack of a future had nothing to do with an explosion, but everything to do with age, costs, a crash, and lack of numbers.
Aside from being shot down by a SAM (such as Siberia Airlines Flight 1812 or Iran Air Flight 655) or being blown up by a terrorist bomb (such as Pan Am Flight 103), actual passenger aircraft explosions are rare. The most recent example is probably TWA Flight 800. Center fuel tank exploded shortly after takeoff and that was that. But yet the 747 aircraft is still flying millions of people around every year.
Or how about the Comet? About a year after it was first introduced in 1952 it started having serious problems, with 3 of the craft tearing apart in mid-flight (not quite an explosion, but just as devastating). They were grounded, the structural issues (including square windows) were found, and resolved, and the plane (with it's successive models and variants) went on to have a very long career. In fact, one variant, the Hawker Siddeley Nimrod, was still flying until mid-2011. That's a LONG time, almost 60 years of flying AFTER the 3 devastating mid-air disintegrations.
My point is that passenger airliners often have initial problems, some worse than others, depending on how much new technology is involved. Complicated circuitry and battery chemistries are fairly untested in these circumstances (airliners), and thus qualify as new technology. In the long-run, I think this is nothing but a major speed-bump for the 787. In 5-10 years very few people will even be able to recall these problems, I predict.
The 787's have not actually caught on fire. The batteries used have severely overheated, but there were no flames produced beyond the battery housing.
The 787 is a safe aircraft, and no one was injured or killed from these failures. We should appreciate the fact that the Boeing corporation had the courage to pursue such a technically advanced commercial aircraft design, given the huge development risks it posed.
The 787 is one of the most technically advanced planes in decades, I would imagine there will be things to work out that could not be foreseen. I wouldn't call it crap.
Not sure why anyone takes anything Dan says seriously. Yet another sad cry for attention.
There were 20 Concordes built, not two.
This is a prime example of irresponsible reporting on an issue that the writer clearly knows VERY LITTLE about. Also, who taught you how to write? My 8 year old presents better sentence structure and grammar in her math (sic) assignments!
Really Popular Science - you have to start looking elsewhere if you wish to be a credible source for non biased, informed, and accurate technical reporting in the future. Until you do I will not renew my subscription and I certainly will avoid clicking on the link to read this kind of drivel!
"The fact you are comparing the dreamliner to the hindenburg is the contradiction to your signature. You are taking the medias point and blowing a few small bugs way out of proportion.... The dreamliner hasn't killed anybody; it's just got a few bugs to be worked out."
I did not compare the two aircraft directly, for obvious reasons. Neither the source nor the problem itself are even remotely similar. As you can plainly see, I was warning about the severe repercussions of having an aircraft that is percieved to be dangerous. The Comet is actually an excellent example- Boeing itself capitalized on the general confusion surrounding the Comet fiasco and ruled the market thereafter. I honestly think we're disagreeing over nothing- I haven't even made the point you're arguing against.
"The Graff[sic] Zepplin[sic] 2 (the LZ-130) wasn't scrapped until 2 years AFTER the Hindenburg disaster. It was completed 1 year after the disaster, and flew for 11 months before stopping service."
You neglected to mention that the LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin 2 was not used as a luxury liner as it was originally intended, and was instead outfitted to conduct surveillance by the military. Passengers were simply distrustful of Zeppelins after the repeated disasters caused by very poor early 20th-century construction, egregious human error and explosive hydrogen.
"In 1937, the cost of a trans-Atlantic flight on the Hindenburg was $450, or more than $7,100 in today's dollars."
That's true, but I'd also like to point out for the sake of context that Zeppelins, their characteristics, scale and cost are very widely misunderstood. Strangely, the Hindenburg cost only about $45 million in today's dollars, compared to the hundreds and hundreds of millions a roughly equivalent modern airplane-in terms of floor space- like an A380 costs, despite the obvious size discrepancy. I can only assume most of the $7,100 ticket went to covering the special infrastructure costs an airship requires rather than to cover the cost and operation of the ship itself. The Hindenburg was also the first and last DZR Zeppelin to turn a commercial profit. People were obviously willing to pay the premium to fly on them, but that changed.
Sadly, Zeppelins existed many decades before the technology existed to make them economically viable and safe to operate, at the cost of 23 passenger airships that crashed, and 736 fatalities. Perhaps it's for the best, though, that people have abandoned them until recently- at least now they have a good shot at regaining a few niche applications.
Always defer to facts rather than philosophy.
I wasn't aware of some of the facts in your story and I"m hoping you can enlighten me:
"Cockpit windows have cracked several times" - I'm only aware of the one incident near Matsuyama:
When and where has this aircraft experienced several other cracked cockpit windows?
"At least three of the 50 active Dreamliners have had overheating problems with the lithium ion batteries, leading to smoke and/or fire". - I'm aware of only two battery failure events (one on the ground in Boston, and one in the air near Takamatsu). When and where were there additional battery failures amongst active Dreamliners?
Links to source material would be appreciated! Thanks.
Simply a poor choice for a title...
Dan, maybe your the crap...
Just noticed another item in your story that needs some comment from me:
You stated "On the other hand, Qatar Airlines CEO Akbar Al Baker, among other "airline insiders," has said he's not surprised by the groundings."
The linked story from BBC does not attribute this quote to Mr. Al Bakar, and neither does the companion piece which is a lengthy interview with the man. And further, what is actually said by the airline insiders is completely opposite to what you attribue to Mr. Al Bakar. The direct quote with context from the source article is:
"All the faults were discovered in one type of aircraft - the hyper-modern 787 Dreamliner - and the incidents, which have all occurred in a matter of weeks, have generally been treated as safety-scares by passengers and the general media.
Industry observers have responded differently, however, with many insisting they have not been surprised by what has happened."
Note here, the industry insiders are actually saying that response from passengers and media is unwarranted, and that the insiders are unsurprised by the occurence of the faults.
So it seems that you may have made a leap of journalism from general, unattributed comments regarding an overeaction by passengers and media to the incidents, to creating a statement from Mr. Al Bakar that he is not surprised by the grounding.
It could be that you have other background material you can share to validate the accuracy of what you wrote. It would be great to see it.
the latest i've heard is it was overcharging... lions are pretty finicky little buggers if you've ever felt your phone or laptop after charging or during heavy use... high current draw causes overheating which leads to thermal runaway and fire.. there it is...
"it's got a crazy-high energy content for its size and weight--like, twice that of the batteries used in electric cars"
Ok, besides the batteries catching fire, why aren't these batteries used in electirc cars? Volt would get 80 miles on a charge, plenty for a day of work/shopping; or even if you only had time to charge half the capacity you would still get 40 miles. Leaf could have 200 miles per charge.
"Q: How long was this thing in development? How did this slip by?
A: Ah, good question."
I would hope so. You're the one who wrote it. :-)
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Your comment cites the worst possible examples. The Me 163 Komet and the Mitsubishi G4 M were war planes, built under pressure during a war and most of them were damaged and lost due to enemy action. The Hindenburg was an airship, it did not really explode, it burnt, rapidly but there was no big bang. But since it was an entirely different technology it is not comparable, cars and ships and houses also catch fire sometimes. But your most inane example was the Concorde, after 30 years of operation one plane was lost, because of outside influence. Even though operation was presumed after a short while, the plane was withdrawn by the airlines because it was simply too expensive to operate.
@ A.H. Miles.
So you are telling us that the machinist union could have designed not just a plane but a better plane?
I am certain that in due course the 787 will get the right fixes, hopefully without loss of life. I should not have even read the article since I know that Dan Nosowitz rarely writes a well researched article. His strength are rants.
Very unfair headline, amateur reporting being passed off as legitimate journalism.
This is non-journalistic trash. Dan Nosowitz is slandering first, researching later, or never. There has been some impressive review and commentary in the comment section, however, to recover some value in the time I wasted reading the article which is sensationalist pulp at best.
"What I'm trying to say is that even though this isn't as bad an issue, yet, it most certainly doesn't bode well for Boeing or the Dreamliner(can we call it the Nightmare yet?)."
And then asks:
"nkfro, would you be kind enough to point out any factual errors I have made? Are you disputing that the Hindenburg exploded? Or that the Komet and Mitsubishi had fire issues? Or are you saying that Air France 4590 did not crash? Because those are the facts I stated. The other statements I made- "it certainly doesn't bode well for Boeing or the Dreamliner," "Aircraft with the tendency to explode have not historically fared well," and "it isn't as bad an issue, yet"- are completely true. I haven't even implied the aircraft was poorly made or unsafe- I merely pointed out the risks that a perception of fire danger poses, from a business perspective."
Help me out here, at what point did I lie?
Always defer to facts rather than philosophy.
First, I did not say you lied. I said;
"J. James, your comments are in direct opposition to your signature. Alter either one immediately if you intend to express a credible opinion. "
Your insinuation was that the 787 is likely to explode in the absence of credible facts. If that were not true, you'd not have used the Hindenberg as your first example.
My statement stands - Alter either your comments or your signature if you intend to express a credible opinion.
A statement released today indicated issues in the charging circuits.
It's a jetliner on steroids.
Y'know there's nothing like an article written in a smug and superior tone to make me think -- gee, that guy really knows his stuff. The headline alone just screams serious science.
We'll see how this story plays out, but I believe that I'll look for a competent souce of information in the future.
@ford2go - good points. I actually fell for it and thought he had some expert knowledge, which would have been cool if true. Sadly, it looks like "Dan holds an undergraduate degree in English literature from McGill University" which hasn't prepared him very well for aviation journalism. Still holding a faint hope he can pull this one out of the fire, but not holding my breath.
"Your insinuation was that the 787 is likely to explode in the absence of credible facts. If that were not true, you'd not have used the Hindenberg as your first example.
My statement stands - Alter either your comments or your signature if you intend to express a credible opinion."
Uh, right. I never said that it would explode. As I keep saying, seemingly to empty air, those are a few examples of why it is bad for aircraft to be considered unsafe by the military or general public. Whether the reputation is deserved or not is completely beside the point. What matters is how people see it.
"Your comment cites the worst possible examples. The Me 163 Komet and the Mitsubishi G4 M were war planes, built under pressure during a war and most of them were damaged and lost due to enemy action. The Hindenburg was an airship, it did not really explode"
All of these are completely true, but not the point I am arguing. We are talking PR here, not disaster investigation.
"But your most inane example was the Concorde, after 30 years of operation one plane was lost, because of outside influence"
No, actually that example works just fine. Your comment may be true, but it completely ignores the fact that for a while, the general public didn't KNOW that debris caused the explosion, and so they became distrustful of the planes and the Concorde gained a COMPLETELY UNDESERVED reputation for danger- in fact, that makes it the best example of the lot, not the worst!
Let me say it again: these not-so-minor teething problems are a BAD thing for the Dreamliner. Deserved or not, having a reputation for being a fire risk, or even just a reputation as a shoddily-built plane constantly laid up in maintenance, can be incredibly damaging. People won't order them, passengers won't fly on them, the military won't contract them. It's happens before.
Always defer to facts rather than philosophy.
"Empty air", JJammes? As said before, your comments are not consistent with your signature. Change one or the other if you intend to post a credible opinion.