The Dreamliner fiasco: enough material to get at least five sociologists professorships…

Just before Christmas my Dad got a letter through the post from Honda. It was a recall letter for his 2002 CR-V. Apparently a fault had been discovered whereby the electric window motor could in certain circumstances catch fire, so all the CR-Vs were being pulled in for voluntary repairs.

I was reminded of this as I read the news that the worldwide fleet of 50-odd Boeing 787s has been grounded following a spate of battery fires. Now, a car door getting a bit hot and smoky at 60mph on the road is one thing, a big metal box filled with reactive chemicals on an aeroplane is quite another. You can’t open the door and leap out at 38,000 feet, for one thing. But the two incidents did get me thinking about innovation, and – among other things – how we deal with unknowns and uncertainties.

There is one thing about this series of problems with the Dreamliner that is really terrific, and that is that not a single person has (yet) lost their lives as a result. The last time a grounding order of this magnitude came into effect was in 1979 after two incidents involving the Douglas DC-10, one of which resulted in massive loss of life. The problem then was with a badly designed cargo door, which could spring open mid-air and cause a massive decompression. Even then it took until the second accident before action was taken. In the case of the 787, by contrast, equally serious steps were prompted by the mere possibility that something deep inside the plane might happen that could eventually lead to a full-blown fire. Now, you could just say it’s lucky that none of these incidents took place over a large body of water, but I prefer to be more positive and say it’s a pretty good indication of how ridiculously safe aviation is nowadays.

Even when these have had to be used in anger, (so far) nobody has been badly hurt.

Even when these have had to be used in anger, (so far) nobody has been badly hurt.

Linked to this is the number of events in relation to the number of jets in service – which again hammers home how impressively seriously contemporary air safety is taken. The Dreamliner has been in service since the middle of 2011, racking up thousands and thousands of miles, much of it on short, high-pressure domestic flights in Japan with launch customer All Nippon Airways. That’s a year and a half of service without anything going drastically wrong. Of course, one therefore has to question why it’s only now that there has been a spate of problems, but there have been hundreds and hundreds of trouble-free flights thus far. I like to think of nuclear power stations in the same way – there have been several accidents throughout the history of nuclear power generation, but there have also been very long periods where many, many places have been generating low-carbon electricity in relative safety. All of which means, of course, that when things do go wrong we react with even more surprise and intensity.

The third thing that struck me about Boeing’s recent troubles is that all modern aircraft are incredibly complex beasts. As I watched the Dreamliner saga unfold, I became more and more tempted to buy shares in the world’s other big aircraft maker, Airbus (that’s not strictly true, you can’t buy shares in Airbus, you have to buy shares in parent company EADS, and because they also make defence products I’m not too keen to buy them on ethical grounds). Turns out I wasn’t alone, as the EADS share price rocketed yesterday morning as news of the grounding filtered through.

Despite what the markets might say, though, I’d be willing to bet none of the technical people at Airbus are chuckling at this. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that a Qantas A380 super-jumbo had an engine fail in spectacular style much to the excitement of the world’s media. That in itself came not long after a catastrophic and well-documented chain of events unfolded over the Atlantic on a fateful June night, resulting in the loss of all 228 lives aboard an Air France Airbus 330. In that case, a series of tiny, tiny flaws in parts made by a range of manufacturers combined with some human confusion and misunderstanding to send the jet plunging into the Atlantic. The point here is that in this age of complexity, outsourcing and huge design teams, what has happened to one manufacturer’s aeroplane could very easily happen to another’s. Let’s not forget that much of the technology underpinning the Dreamliner is also due to be deployed in Airbus’ next product, the A350 that the company has already poured much time, money and effort into. So any lessons that arise from the 787 case could well be bad news for Airbus as well – because it’ll be their turn under the spotlight in three years time when the 350 launches.

Fourth is something that really got my back up, as it does with nearly all ‘bad news’ stories involving technology these days – the media coverage. There were helicopters circling over parked planes, simplified diagrams of aircraft and long, wistful close-ups of charred batteries. At one point, in a seemingly unrelated and minor event a windscreen on an ANA 787 developed a small crack (if you read aviation incident reports you will see that the outer layers of jet windows can, from time to time, develop cracks regardless of age and operation), and yet the mainstream media went into overdrive – ‘cockpit’ got added to the clickable diagram on the news website. I got the same feeling I did when the Fukushima nuclear event in Japan was unfolding, as if in this age of safety and responsibility the mainstream media were just bursting, praying for something catastrophic to happen. Nothing did happen, though, and within 24 hours the story has been banished from the front pages to the Business and Technology sections. And of course, you can bet nobody will bat an eyelid when the problem is fixed and the planes return to service.

An Airbus A380, just months after the Qantas engine failure - and yet the public had all but forgotten about the media furore.

An Airbus A380, just months after the Qantas engine failure – the public (including me) had all but forgotten about the media furore and were looking forward to the flight.

I’d like to finish with an overarching observation about commercial aviation development. Whether it’s aiming for lighter batteries, new ways of making more efficient engines or trying to make bigger and bigger planes to squeeze a higher number of people on board, there is one factor driving every single company forwards – reducing costs. As passengers’ wallets are squeezed and the price of oil goes ever higher, it becomes all the more important to deliver airlines value for money. In order to do this, the rolling out of new technology – and the associated unknowns and uncertainties that come with this – is inevitable. Now I am not for a second implying that this has led to compromises being made with regard to safety. Only that for the convenient and relatively affordable air travel to which we have become accustomed to be sustainable into the future, we have to accept that the kind of issues that have affected both the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787 may well arise, inconvenience, and maybe even concern us short term. The fact that such problems can now be identified and resolved without the loss of life is something of which we should be proud if not complacent.

At the very least, once all the dust has settled, this is going to generate a lot of papers for scholars of science and technology studies


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