Crosscut

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.

By Knute Berger

January 17, 2013.

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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Printed on October 01, 2014