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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

March 5, 2013 at 10:42 AM

Is the fix in on the Dreamliner?

I hate headlines that end in a question mark, too, but this is a topic that demands it. Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Ray Conner implied Monday that engineers have identified and fixed the problem with the lithium-ion battery of the 787 Dreamliner. It’s understandable, given the proprietary technology, that he wouldn’t want to post details on the Internet. Still, more information would have been helpful, rather than passing the buck to the Federal Aviation Administration.

“So much depends on where the FAA goes,” Conner said. “Hopefully they will agree with the certification plan, and then we’ll go into testing. Once we get that, this will move really fast in terms of being able to get the airplanes back into the air.” He means Boeing hopes the FAA agrees, instead of “hopefully.” Or maybe not. Maybe Boeing is just hopeful, which won’t be good enough. After the FAA gave the li-ion technology a pass that seems ill-advised, the agency is not going to be a lap-dog, nor will Deborah Hersman, the formidable chief of the National Transportation Safety Board. They will take their time, whether Conner is hopeful or not.

As a commenter posted in the Seattle Times story: “I love how Conner throws the FAA under the bus…. Hey Ray… It’s not the FAA that created the problem it was YOUR team, buddy. I guess this is something that you learned from McD’s. Don’t accept responsibility and pass blame on to others. You really think that we are that stupid. BTW…. Go back to school and learn math again. Your numbers don’t add up for the amount of hours you stated that 200 engineers put in over a given time frame to come up with a resolution.”

I can’t speak for the math. One of the most interesting comments was reported by Reuters. “In response to a question by analyst Joe Nadol, Conner said ‘no question’ that most of the mistakes with 787 were made early on in the program.” In other words, when the worst of the radical, poorly overseen outsourcing was happening. So the logical follow up is: What else is wrong?

The lithium ion batteries were a concern from the start, requiring a special waiver, essentially, from regulators. But the 787 hasn’t logged enough time in the air to be sure all the bugs are known and fixed. Maybe there aren’t any more; computerized design and advanced manufacturing are supposed to smooth this process. But that assumes a culture that puts engineering excellence first, rather than Welchian bean counting.

It is to be hoped that Boeing engineers have spent the costly and humiliating time of the 787′s grounding testing and retesting, pushing into the headwaters of every assumption about this airplane. Boeing doesn’t have endless second (or is it third?) chances to make the Dreamliner a success.

And Don’t Miss: Why do we trust Amazon? | NY Magazine

Today’s Econ Haiku:

He hates Louisville

Gets paid to fly in and out

CEO derby

Comments | More in Aerospace/Boeing

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