Plane Under Scrutiny
Fri January 18, 2013
On the Deck Of Boeing's 787 Assembly Line
Outside the Boeing plant in Everett, newly assembled 787s sit ready for delivery. The lineup includes new planes for LOT Polish Airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways. Inside, the production line rolls on despite this week’s setbacks for the company’s newest jetliner. Dreamliner number 94 stands at the front of the line. It’s an order for Thomson Airways, which is set to be the first British airline to fly the Dreamliner.
Airlines around the world have grounded the planes amid concerns about its lithium-ion batteries. It was a battery issue that forced an All Nippon Airways’ 787 to make an emergency landing in Japan earlier this week. Boeing says it’s working with the FAA and contractors to solve the battery problem.
The Future of Flight Museum, next door to the Everett plant, offers the only public tours of the facility. About 15 tourists showed up for a tour Thursday morning. Our guide, Mike, led us along balconies that overlook the production lines for the 747, 767 and 787.
On the 787 line, there was no evidence of the scrutiny currently focused on this aircraft. Mike said the operation looked just like any other day, as gigantic cranes moved parts overhead and the thunder of rapid-fire riveting filled the massive building. Near where the 787s exit the building, a wall displays the colorful tails of all the Dreamliners delivered so far to various airlines. They're mounted like trophies.
A Canadian tourist, Marilyn Anderson, asks Mike about the “recent mishap” with the Dreamliner. He refers her to the Boeing Company website.
Following the tour I asked Anderson if she’d fly in a 787, after the FAA gives the all-clear. “I think it would have to be a while in the future at this point because it’s very fresh,” Anderson said. “I think they’d have to, sort of, get the cobwebs out of it and try it a little more.”
She said she’d wait at least a year, but her husband, David, a commercial pilot, says he’d be first in line if given the chance. Others on the tour also said they wouldn’t hesitate to board a 787 once it’s cleared to fly again. Restoring confidence about the 787's safety will likely remain a task for Boeing and partner airlines for a good while.
At a restaurant across from the plant, Boeing workers with blue badges come and go. Most say they’re not allowed to talk to media. But a young mechanic brushed off the 787 battery issue as a "supplier problem." He said his co-workers don’t seem worried about any potential slowdowns or impact on their jobs.
Karl Seuring, a commercial pilot and a Boeing contractor, was finishing up his lunch. His company, AirSpeed Engineering Center, works on safety issues with Boeing’s older aircraft. He put a positive spin on the recent troubles with the 787.
“I think it’s been amazing that we’ve had so few problems,” Seuring said. “This is a revolutionary airplane.” Seuring says people in the industry tend to expect a few bumps along the way as any new plane goes through a rigorous certification process and safety controls.
Seuring understands future 787 passengers might be wary about safety issues but he doesn’t see any reason to hesitate. “Matter of fact, an airplane that has this level of scrutiny, with this sort of a problem, will be that much safer than those that haven’t been reviewed,” Seuring said.
Asked whether Boeing might lose business because of this 787 problem, Seuring responded with a little joke. There’s a saying, he said, the greatest competitor for a new Boeing airplane is an old Boeing airplane.
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