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OM in the News: Boeing’s Dreamliner Nightmare

January 20, 2013
Recent 787 emergency evacuation

Recent 787 emergency evacuation

By now, you likely know that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered U.S. airlines to ground the Boeing 787 Dreamliners in their fleets until the lithium-ion batteries on the planes could be proved reliable. The FAA’s action, writes USA Today (Jan.17, 2013), came after Japan’s two largest airlines grounded their combined 787 fleets because an All Nippon Airways (ANA) plane had to make an emergency landing when the crew detected a battery’s burning smell.

The 24 Dreamliners flown by ANA and Japan Airlines  represent nearly half the 50 that Boeing has delivered to airlines. More than 800 of the planes are on order. The Dreamliner is Boeing’s newest and most technologically advanced jet, and the company is counting heavily on its success; it is the first commercial aircraft to be made largely of lightweight, fuel saving, carbon composites rather than conventional aluminum and steel.  Passengers like the airy cabins, large windows and comfortable humidity.

But the Dreamliner has had technological and supply chain problems from the start, which resulted in its being 3 years late in delivery. Last month, United Airlines and Qatar Airways had to divert or ground planes because of electrical issues. The 787 relies heavily on electricity and thus needs the large lithium-ion batteries to power it. Batteries, though, aren’t the plane’s only problem: On Jan. 8, a fuel leak on a Japan Airlines flight to Tokyo was detected before takeoff from Boston. On Jan. 11, cracks were spotted in the cockpit window of an ANA in Japan. The same day, another ANA flight was delayed because of an oil leak from an engine generator.

Boeing has said the 787’s reliability is “well above 90%.” As you teach reliability in Chapter 17, however, recall that the overall reliability of the Space Shuttle was .98–and, indeed, 2 Shuttles crashed out of 100+ flights.

How do passenger’s feel about the plane? “The uncertainty surrounding the Dreamliner makes it a plane that isn’t one that you can book and expect to fly reliably,” says one travel analyst.

Discussion questions:

1. What is the major operations issue facing Boeing right now?

2. What was the reliability of other technologically new planes introduced in the past 50 years?

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