Boeing Alerts FAA About 787 Dreamliner Problems, Grounds Eight Planes
Matthew Greenwood posted on September 15, 2020 |
Quality control and manufacturing standards have been called into question—again.

As if the global grounding of the 737 MAX wasn’t enough, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is now in the sights of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The troubled plane maker recently informed the FAA that it had produced parts for the 787 that did not meet its internal standards. The FAA could require more extensive inspections for as many as 900 of the 1,000 Dreamliners the company has delivered since the plane entered into service in 2011—almost an entire decade’s worth of aircraft production.

First, Boeing said that some airplanes have horizontal stabilizer shims that are not the proper size. These stabilizers are wing-shaped flight control components located on the rear of the plane.

Second, during fabrication of the stabilizers, some components were clamped together with greater force than necessary—potentially creating gaps larger than the five-thousandths of an inch that is allowed—which could cause the components to age and weaken prematurely.

Third, the inner fuselage skin of some aircraft didn’t meet flatness standards: there are very stringent standards for that smoothness, and any variation greater than the width of a human hair will fail to pass Boeing’s internal tests.

And fourth, discovered later on, some shims were either improperly installed on, or removed entirely from, the vertical tail fin of the plane.

Aircraft components must fit together precisely—often down to hundreds of an inch. But microscopic gaps can occur. Shims are the component used to fill these tiny gaps: they are precisely sized using a laser measurement instrument to exactly fill those spaces. The shims on the tail fin seem to have been removed entirely before final installation of fasteners, while the shims on the stabilizer fins seem to have been the wrong size—possibly due to the improper clamping of the components.

Shims are a key component for the aircraft’s structural integrity. According to the FAA report, missing or improperly installed shims could result in the failure of a larger, principal structural component of the aircraft to sustain its load—possibly undermining the plane’s structural integrity or causing a loss of control.

The company voluntarily told airlines to ground eight planes in August for repairs related to these issues. Those planes were manufactured last year. Any Dreamliners still in production will have the flaws corrected before the aircraft are delivered. “We are correcting the issue on airplanes that have not been delivered,” said Boeing spokesperson Jessica Kowal. “The rework generally involves removing fasteners at the affected locations, applying a calibrated clamping force, measuring for any gaps and shimming if required.”

Another 787 issue revealed.

The FAA is investigating the matter and has not demanded further action or inspections—yet. Inspections can take a lot of time, and the regulator stated that “it is too early to speculate about the nature or extent of any proposed Airworthiness Directives that might arise from the agency’s investigation.”

It would not be uncommon for the FAA to require additional inspections, and those inspections would be far less invasive and costly than if the agency should demand repairs. The FAA could mandate accelerated inspections, however. And if the inspections reveal that there’s an issue, the plane could be grounded immediately for repairs—and more inspections after the work is done.

For its part, Boeing determined that, beyond the eight planes grounded, the rest of the Dreamliner fleet meets limit load capacity. And no 787s have reported any issues related to these flaws.

“Safety and quality are Boeing’s highest priorities; we are taking the appropriate steps to resolve these issues and prevent them from happening again,” Boeing said in a statement. “The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been fully briefed, and we will continue to work closely with them going forward.”

The problem stems from various production issues at Boeing’s Dreamliner factory in North Charleston, S. C. It is the only factory that can manufacture all three variants of the 787. This facility performs final assembly and deliveries of the Dreamliner (duties it shares with the company’s Everett, Wash. factory) and assembles all of the 787’s tail sections. Boeing is said to be considering consolidating all of its Dreamliner production at the North Charleston factory, lightening the load on its main Everett production line.

The North Charleston assembly line has already caused headaches for Boeing. Earlier this year it was flagged by the FAA for allegedly not complying with its Organization Designation Authorization program, which allows the company to inspect its own aircraft and give the planes airworthiness certificates on behalf of the regulator. The FAA accused Boeing plant managers of putting inappropriate deadline pressures on staff tasked by the FAA to perform oversight and safety inspections—including harassing and berating them. And while those staff are supposed to report to FAA-chosen managers, the factory had assigned other managers not approved by the FAA to oversee the work. The FAA has proposed to ding Boeing with a $1.25 million fine for those violations.

The North Charleston plant is also suffering from reduced demand due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the company-wide financial strain caused by the 737 MAX crisis. Last year at this time the factory had produced 100 Dreamliners—while this year it has only completed 42.

If the aerospace giant is going to rely on that factory for all of its Dreamliners, it’s going to need to review, in painful detail, how well the facility puts its planes together. Boeing has been overhauling its quality control, relying more on high-tech monitoring and less on in-person inspection. There is clearly a lot of room for improvement: those new processes seem to have been used to manufacture the aft bulkhead sections of the now grounded 787s.

Because of the 737 MAX grounding, Boeing has already lost significant credibility when it comes to the safety and reliability of its aircraft. To its credit, the company seems to be on the ball this time. But while the plane maker appears to have been proactive in reporting the Dreamliner problems to the FAA, it’s going to be another stain on the company’s image. The FAA’s reputation has also been bruised due to the 737 crisis, so you can bet the regulator is going to be merciless in whatever action it takes.

The last thing Boeing needs right now is another extensive grounding of its planes—and increased doubt about the reliability of its aircraft. The FAA’s actions in this matter will go a long way in determining just how significant the Dreamliner’s issues are.

Read more about the criticism Boeing and the FAA have received over their handling of the 737 MAX inspections at 737 MAX Certification Could Open Big Rifts in Global Aviation Market.

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