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THE FAILED ROMANCE OF THE MAIDEN FLIGHT

Everywhere in the world, the Boeing-787 has been grounded owing to detection of ‘faults’. This has been a financial jolt to the users, at the time of a global economic downturn. I too am disappointed at the moment because I did not expect, and also did not want, things to happen this way. For the convenience of readers, the following lines are recaptured from my article in The Telegraph, on July 21, 2011: “It has always been a passenger’s delight to ‘fly first’ (preferably in the cockpit) the ‘test/technical demonstration flight’ of a ‘green aircraft’ (an aircraft that is flyable but unpainted, unfurnished and fitted with basic equipment) in India since India does not manufacture various types of Boeing or Airbus passenger jets yet. About a decade ago I flew the twin-engine Boeing-717 (subsequently aborted) from Mumbai to Delhi in the cockpit along with the test-pilot and the engineering entourage of the aircraft. But it could not pass the litmus test of both manufacturer’s quality and the consumer’s choice.

“On July 14, 2011, I flew 52 minutes from Delhi and back (via Jaipur sky) in a technical demonstration Boeing-787-8 (Dreamliner). In an overcast sky of high humidity and gentle head wind, the787 Dreamliner took flight level 20,000 feet, gaining a ground speed of 700 kilometre per hour and smoothly penetrated the dark, salt-pepper, scattered cumulo-nimbus cloud with occasional, mild lateral turbulence thereby giving a feeling of fragility and fear, of addiction and passion. Apart from the cloud, what could possibly unnerve an uninitiated passenger is the occasional crackling noise of the unconventional raw material (like carbon-fibre used in windows), adjusting with the changing altitude of the aircraft and weather conditions.”

Indeed, Boeing thus far appears to have faced an unprecedented turbulence in the manufacturing schedule of the 787-8. First, it was the “delay in airworthiness of flight control software availability” and the “need to complete manufacture of some subcontracted parts of airframe on production owing to worldwide shortage of aerospace fasteners at time of subassembly”. This resulted in postponing the maiden flight from 2008 to 2009. More delays followed. These delays, however, “did not take into account unofficially reported problems requiring strengthening of centre wing box”. Ultimately, “Boeing abandoned plans to assign first six (trial) aircraft to airlines”. Boeing again felt the “need to reinforce wing-fuselage joint (side of body)” and its woes resurfaced with the unofficial report that the “787 prototype was 9,548 kg (21050 pound) overweight”. Boeing also “acknowledged range deficiency of early 787-8s”. The most damaging of all was the report of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 2010-2011: “Boeing declines to supply Jane’s with illustrations of these events.” Boeing also “has failed to post 2008 prices”.

The 787-8 is the “first airliner with all-composites primary structure in fuselage and wing; and first to dispense with engine-bleed and pneumatics in favour of increased electronic components”. Having crossed the major teething problems, Boeing’s next dilemma is likely to emerge in case fresh, unforeseen or unanticipated problems arise from the extensive use of composite raw materials before the mass production of the machine. In this background, it would be imperative for Air India to make judicious and careful use of the new assets that have been ordered from the Boeing-787-8 manufacturing plant. This is a wide-bodied aircraft with an acclaimed pedigree, and a fuel-efficient marvel no doubt. Nevertheless, one also sincerely hopes and prays that this new Boeing machine would be used in such a way as to enable the Maharaja carrier of India to turn a corner through its experienced and inexhaustive human resources, in the near future. The machine may be good. But it has got to be the man behind the machine who will matter to make success out of that.

Today, Air India faces a rather difficult situation since it had placed an order for 27 Boeing 787-8, powered by two General Electric X turbofans (each in 52,800 to 69,000 pound static thrust), on December 30, 2005. Thus before its induction into the fleet, Air India had already incurred huge financial loss owing to time and cost over-run. The grounding of Boeing 787 now will further push up its overall operating cost thereby leading to further financial distress. Intended to reduce seat or mile costs while providing increased versatility by enabling direct operations into smaller airports, thereby obviating the inconvenience of passenger transfers at hubs, each Boeing-787-8 aircraft, as reported by Jane’s 2012-2013, is likely to cost between “US $193.5 million and US $227.8 million” (Rs 1,060 crore and 1,250 crore) That is not cheap. But Boeing, reportedly, “has failed to post 2006 prices”. What does that mean? Does it imply an escalation of price owing to delay at the manufacturer’s end? If that is the case, is not there any clause in the ‘contract’ for penal provision for the delayed delivery?

The question may be asked as to whether Boeing-787 Dreamliner is a potentially unsuitable financial, commercial or technological enterprise. The answer, to this author, is an emphatic no. Far from it. Boeing has been a brand for 97 years; it axiomatically implies quality as it prepares to celebrate its centenary in July 2016. Boeing stands for aviation, both combat and civil. With the merger of Boeing and McDonnell Douglas on August 4, 1997, the former emerged as the largest aerospace company in the world with a work-force of 162,602 employees (February 2011). It has produced, and continues to produce, from aircraft to rotorcraft, missiles to precision-guided munitions, with commercial aviation as one of the strongest and most enduring arms thereof.

However, the present problems of Boeing-787, reportedly one of the ultra high-tech, sophisticated aircraft of the 21st century, should not have come at a time when the global economy faces a strong head-wind. Understandably, this sophistication had to have its fair share of trials and tribulations. With 40 major suppliers from four continents and an order list of 860 aircraft (as on January 1, 2012), Boeing’s main challenge undoubtedly is a combination of finance and technology. Since it has got a market of at least 59 buyers (as in January, 2012), it has to retool and relook at each and every customer’s aircraft. And that would definitely cut into the Boeing balance sheet and take the scalp of some human resource managers thereof.

One ends with a report on recent “incidents” of All Nippon Airways: “Cracks appeared....in the cockpit window of a 787 Dreamliner heading from Tokyo to Matsuyama in southern Japan. The flight, NH-585, carrying 237 passengers nine crew members.... The return flight was cancelled to allow for the window to be replaced.” The spokesperson of the carrier pointed out that “this was the third time that cracks had appeared in the wind shield of one of the seventeen 787s operated by ANA: the other two incidents happened last year”. However, she also noted that this crack “did not endanger the aircraft”.

Nevertheless Boeing-787 appears to be going through severe turbulence owing to various reports pertaining to “leakage of oil engine”, “brake malfunction”, “improper installation of electrical wiring”, “battery fire damage”. Although no aerodynamic or structural defects have been found in the aircraft, the fact remains that Boeing’s image in the market has been dented, resulting in potential financial loss for both Boeing and its customers. That is not good news. As for now, at least Boeing studies show “20-year market for between 2000 and 3000 mid-size airliners of 787 class”.