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Is Boeing's Dreamliner turning into a nightmare?

It was supposed to be the plane of the future. Given the recent string of problems, Boeing's 787 is starting to look more like an Edsel than a dream.

Seattle is famous for its international brands: Starbucks, Amazon, Microsoft. One of our biggest is suffering right now. Boeing is mired in what one analyst on NPR referred to as a "five-year crisis," the 787.

Three years late, suffering from design and manufacturing glitches, the plane that was supposed to reinvent the way commercial jets were designed and assembled has limped into the marketplace. This week, strange cockpit smells and a possible on-board fire caused the emergency landing and evacuation of a 787 in Japan, resulting in the fleet being grounded in Japan and in the U.S. This follows numerous problems with 787 fuel spills and electrical problems, cracked windshields, defective engines, and a battery fire. (A chronology of 787 "glitches" can be found here.)

"Smoke on the Water" was a great rock song; "Smoke in the Cabin" is not a great airliner slogan, unless, I suppose, the 787 in question is the "Lake Quinault Lodge" edition. The market place is jittery about the plane, and questions are being raised about whether it was approved to quickly or is ready for prime time. All eyes are on it because this was supposed to be the revolution: a fuel-efficient composite aircraft that would save airlines lots of money in the long term. Boeing has already said it won't repeat the 787's manufacturing process again. The plane is the result of a one-time experiment. Not exactly reassuring. Even Wall Street is getting impatient with Boeing.

Reputations are established early, and first impressions often last. Just ask Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn who alienated many voters with his opposition to the downtown tunnel. His image as "not a team player" has been fixed almost from day one, and it's brought a huge number of challengers who think his vulnerable as a result.

Digging back further, one worries that the 787 might be entering the territory of the old Ford Edsel, launched in the late 1950s as the car of the future. It featured a grill that looked like a mouth sucking a lemon, which was very appropriate. It was full of glitches and turned into a flop. They made Edsels in 1959 that were pretty much as reliable as other Fords, and tried again in 1960 but removed the distinctive grillwork so that they looked like any other regular Ford. But the brand, disguised or not, was dead. It lives on in the language as the epitome of failure, the branding equivalent of a human skull on a post to warn of a minefield.

The 787 isn't the only Northwest engineering project that is coping with problems of design and manufacture. There is the Columbia Crossing Bridge, which required major redesign when it turned out to be too low for ship traffic on the Columbia River. There are the pontoons for the new 520 floating bridge which were delivered with major cracks in the concrete. The pontoons have to be repaired before they've seen any use. Pontoon leakage can create big problems for a floating bridge, as anyone who remembers the sinking of the old old Lacey V. Murrow will remember.

Another recent example is the ongoing fiasco that is the Chetzemoka ferry, poorly designed, listing, and problem-prone. It is also, pound for pound, the most expensive ferry boat ever constructed, according to KING-TV, at over $80 million. Now it's been further damaged while in dry dock for repairs. One wonders: would it have been cheaper and safer to bring the Kalakala back in service?

Design, engineering and manufacturing problems aren't unique to automobile lemons or jet planes, and often they do get worked out. But the 787 came with such promise, and with a high degree of Boeing bullying. No one in the Northwest wants Boeing to fail, the stakes are too high for the economy. But if one does feel a little bit of Schadenfreude, it is because Boeing used a lot of muscle to extort money from the state to help underwrite building the plane here. Boeing moved its corporate headquarters and frequently holds the threat of moving its manufacturing elsewhere to gain concessions from unions, politicians and taxpayers. Your father's Boeing now often acts like a semi-abusive parent. The change was a conscious act on Boeing's part to break with its past. It's become a brand that's tougher to love than it used to be.

If the wreckage of the 787 is limited to its tardiness to the market and its glitches, well, we'll all be relieved. No one wants a crash, let alone one caused by design failure. But so far the 787 seems to be a lesson in corporate hubris.

Knute Berger is Mossback, Crosscut's chief Northwest native. He also writes the monthly Grey Matters column for Seattle magazine and is a weekly Friday guest on Weekday on KUOW-FM (94.9). His newest book is Pugetopolis: A Mossback Takes On Growth Addicts, Weather Wimps, and the Myth of Seattle Nice, published by Sasquatch Books. In 2011, he was named Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle and is author of Space Needle, The Spirit of Seattle (2012), the official 50th anniversary history of the tower. You can e-mail him at mossback@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 7:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Comparisons of building an innovative airplane and a litany of unrelated projects makes nonsense. Bridge building and ferry design and aircraft manufacture have one thing in common: engineering, Raising specters of giant failures at this early stage of the Dreamliner's development misses more important perspective.
The fact that the 787 is innovative in materials and design is the promise that Boeing engineering brought to the industry. A better comparison would be the long forgotten teething troubles of all new airplane designs. The B-26 of wartime fame flew straight into a mountain on its first takeoff because engineers learned about the center of gravity the hard way. The 777 had dozens of "recalls", the McDonald Douglas DC 10 had an innovative spot for the 3rd engine, and then the cargo door failed disastrously. Boeings 737 had early fatal crashes because pilots found out the hard way about the high T tail. Aircraft design and testing have come a long way since those days, but there are still aspects of flight that can be learned only by putting a plane into service.
Perspective is all good, but it helps to compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. Not airplanes to ferry boats.

pherford

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 8:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Corporate hubris is too kind a term, Boeing is under the leadership of a Jack Welch acolyte; personal gain is the most important corporate strategy. What Jim McNerney has forgotten is that when a piece of Scotch Tape or a Post-it fails nobody dies. When an airplane fails people can die.

I must take exception with your comment on the Lacy V. Murrow Bridge though. I agree with your point, but when the sidewalks were being removed, H.W. (Mac) McCurdy just before he died told everybody that to remove the sidewalks on the bridge was to guarantee sinking. He built the bridge pontoons and the sidewalks were the structural beams that gave each pontoon rigidity. Unfortunately, younger engineers ignored him; they knew better. Lucky for H.W. he died a year before it actually sank.

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 8:29 a.m. Inappropriate

This is what happens when you move the corporate HQ to Chicago and try to put together a plane made from parts that are purchased from foreign companies and abandon the successful historical strategy of producing as much of the product as possible in-house. Oh Boeing, ye reap what ye sow... very sad.

leeroyski

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 9:01 a.m. Inappropriate

The 787 problems are due to a combination of the Walmartification of Boeing's supply chain as well as the BPification of the FAA.

Like Wallmart, many of the pieces are now built in foreign countries. Boeing is just becoming an assembler. Between the casino analyst idiots on Wall Street and Boeing's cost accountants, they figured just build the pieces all over the world wherever the labor was cheaper. Not working so well.

And like BP, Boeing's regulator, the FAA signed right off on the Lithium batteries that are now catching fire. The regulators are more like marketing agencies for the companies they are supposed to oversee. Again, how's that working?

Knute could have had a decent article here. But to compare a composite jet plane to the Columbia Bridge or cracked pontoons is pointless.

He could have at least compared the 787 to the failed Beech Starship, which was also a composite plane that didn't fare well in the marketplace for a number of reasons.

Beech Starship frequently asked questions:
http://www.bobscherer.com/Pages/Starship-FAQ.htm

Beech Starship in flight:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glEHRVVmkAE

Hopefully the 787 won't become a dud like the Starship.

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 9:41 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow! I like how the author uses the Dreamliner's current woes as a means to take another swipe at our current mayor. Will this become a staple feature of all future Mossback articles during the mayoral campaign, that no matter what the subject happens to be, we'll be sure to find some McGinn-bashing?

(But consider this scenario: the overly crowded mayor's race allows Mayor Mike to squeeze by the primary, where the other nominee happens to be Steinbrueck. With the arena deal being the only major issue dividing them--McGinn being for, and Steinbrueck being against--, the political deck gets completely reshuffled, with past foes like the construction unions becoming born-again re-election supporters. The end result could make the Edsel analogy, as applied to McGinn, look like a lemon.)

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 10:16 a.m. Inappropriate

cocktails42:

Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Seatttleites opposed to the public financing of a new sports arena in Sodo, despite the actions of elected officials. And for many good reasons.

So I wouldn't be so sure that if it's McGinn-Steinbrueck, the bicyclist wins.

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 10:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Just a little sensationalist don't you think?
Nighmare? Edsel? Is there any research on other issues related to new planes? Are these events out of bound of resonable expectations?
And this line "If the wreckage of the 787 is limited to its tardiness to the market and its glitches..."
Give me a break - of the problems are taridness and glitches- is that a "wreckage", plus its invocational of a plane crash, which is no small matter.
I expect this kind of thing from Fox.

BrettHill

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 12:35 p.m. Inappropriate

I wish that Boeing had spread out its innovations with this project -- making the materials and design changes first while keeping the old manufacturing model. Then we might have a better chance of knowing if it's the materials, the design, or the manufacturing that's giving this project such fits. As the daughter of a Boeing engineer, we used to laugh at the layers of quality control that went into those planes ("if nailed is good, nailed and screwed is better, and nailed, screwed and glued is best") I'm sorry to think that those standards are no longer in place.

sandik

Posted Thu, Jan 17, 12:47 p.m. Inappropriate

It's hard to write this story without mentioning McDonnell Douglas, whose management is largely responsible for the outsourcing of Boeing's manufacturing (as well as the move to Chicago). Hopefully the real Boeing can rise above this burden, and the 787 will not go down (literally as well as figuratively) as the 21st century's DC-10. It is truly a landmark engineering achievement, but the M-D manufacturing process isn't up to the task.

dbreneman

Posted Fri, Jan 18, 1:17 p.m. Inappropriate

A distinction needs to be drawn between a failure of design/engineering and a failure to manufacture/assemble according to specifications.

Another classic local example not mentioned in the article is "Galloping Gertie" - the original bridge across the Tacoma Narrows that suffered a spectacular failure due to poor design. The workers who constructed it did so according to the blue-prints they were provided, but the bridge was doomed to fail because of it's innovative 'ribbon' design that neglected to take into account the high winds typical in the Narrows.

Contrast this with the 1994 collapse of the Seongsu Bridge in Korea - a well-designed bridge that failed due to poor quality steel in some parts of the bridge and improper welding techniques in the bridge's construction.

Posted Sun, Jan 20, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

An interesting note about the design of the first Narrows Bridge is that the original design by Washington engineer Clark Eldridge, the one commissioned by the state Toll Bridge Authority, was far superior and designed to accommodate the Narrows' high winds. The design was changed at the insistence of the Federal Government, which would not provide matching funds unless the bridge was designed by an East Coast engineer of their choosing (Leon Moisseiff). It was the feds' "New York" design that failed, another lesson in the danger of outsourcing critical engineering responsibility.

dbreneman

Posted Sun, Jan 20, 9:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Zeppelins are starting to look more attractive with every passing glitch.

Djinn

Posted Mon, Jan 21, 9:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Where are Dino and George Jetson?

Posted Wed, Jan 23, 1:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Boeing mismanagement, corporate arrogance and internal missteps and intrigue are all fair subjects to analyze and critique. And there's plenty of it to moan about. But to somehow assign the 787 as a design and market disaster is fuzzy logic and lazy analysis. The aircraft's design has uniformly been judged as an engineering marvel, state-of-the-art in its approach and capability. The technical glitches the 787 has endured are unfortunate but inevitable when launching such a technically complicated machine. As we all have witnessed, the 21st century innovations bring us amazing advances, but the challenges in making these things operate at such a high level are much greater than the metal-bending days of yore. Not an excuse, just reality. Two cases of catastrophic battery systems failure: a concern? For sure. A cause for condemnation of a 21st century aircraft? No way.

Posted Fri, Jan 25, 2:49 a.m. Inappropriate

I am glad that my days of heavily frequent flying are over with. First the service collapsed, and now it's the planes. This is corporate suicide, and it'll be studied in business schools for many decades.

NotFan

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