787 Grounded Possibly For Months, Cause Of On Board Batteries Fires Still Unknown – A Major Crisis For Boeing – Loss Of Prestige For America As Technology Leader

By Paolo von Schirach

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January 25, 2013

WASHINGTON – I pointed out just a few days ago (see link above) that the worldwide grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner is a public relations disaster, (on top of the economic damage), for America’s leading aerospace company.

The 787 story gets worse

Now the story is getting worse. There is no idea as to when the problems will be fixed. Experts are talking about months, not days or weeks. The cause for this almost unprecedented action by the Federal Aviation Authority, America’ air safety agency, is that the 787 brand new on board batteries may catch fire, as a couple of recent episodes involving Japanese airlines have demonstrated.

Still, as of today, no idea as to what went wrong. But it is clear that there is a basic design flaw. In the meantime, the 787s do not fly. Boeing cannot make new deliveries. The company’s prestige is damaged, its future earnings are in question.

This is huge. The 787 was and is the next generation airliner. It is supposed to be the most cost effective. It is built with new materials. It is supposed to consume far less fuel. The airlines liked it so much that they placed over 800 orders for the Dreamliner.

Problems from the beginning

But from the very beginning there were mishaps. Indeed, we should keep in mind that the gestation of the 787 project was very troubled. As most (about 70%) of the aircraft parts have been subcontracted, Boeing relied on its (overstated, it turned out) “system integrator” ability to manage a complex network of designers, vendors and suppliers spread all over the world. And it did not work. There were repeated and very embarrassing glitches that caused delays upon delays. New delivery deadlines were announced and then not met, many many times. In the end, the first 787 was delivered three and half years behind schedule. This is not exactly an example of flawless project supervision by a world leader in sophisticated technologies.

But all the redesign and upgrades made necessary to solve the assembly problems that had caused all the delays apparently did not take care of everything. Hence these battery accidents and the subsequent grounding of all 787 aircraft world wide.

Well, we should hope that National Transportation Safety Board safety experts, working around the clock with Boeing’s top specialists, plus others in Japan and Europe, will come up with an explanation of what went wrong and will be able to fix the problem, once and for all.

This is a disaster

But, in the meantime, this is an unmitigated disaster. For decades Boeing was the world standard when it came to aviation technology and safety standards. Sure enough, these days Boeing is locked in a difficult global competition with Airbus, its aggressive European rival. Still, Boeing continued to enjoy a high level of international respect based on its performance.

Now this reputation is badly damaged. Can it be repaired? Of course it can. But imagine that after the “battery crisis” something else happens to another 787, revealing more design flaws. Then it will be really difficult to climb back.

Flawless high tech is America’s main ticket to stay competitive

The real point of all this is that America’s chances to survive as a leading player in the hyper competitive global economy rely almost entirely on its technological prowess. Unless America can out innovate its competitors and move up the value chain with a stream of commercially profitable high end products, it will lose its world economic leadership. Quite frankly, America has already lost its edge in many sectors: auto, consumer electronics, machine tools, renewable energy, to name just a few.

Until recently, aerospace was one of the few bastions of US global prestige. (No longer primacy, because of the successful emergence of Airbus as a totally credible competitor). Now, well now we are not so sure about that hard earned prestige anymore. The longer the unfixed 787s stay on the ground, the worse the prognosis.

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