TOPICS > Politics

Electrical Problems Cause Bumpy Ride for Boeing’s 787

January 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The FAA announcement on the Dreamliner investigation largely focused on Boeing electrical circuit issues, and prompted in part when a landed plane's battery caught fire. Margaret Warner talks to The Wall Street Journal's Andy Pasztor about the FAA's 787 review announcement and what's at stake for Boeing.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on the Dreamliner’s problems, the FAA review, and what’s at stake for Boeing and the aircraft industry, I am joined by Andy Pasztor. He covers the aerospace and aviation industries for The Wall Street Journal.

Andy, welcome to the program.

ANDY PASZTOR, The Wall Street Journal: My pleasure.

MARGARET WARNER: How unusual is it to have this sort of high-profile FAA review so relatively soon after the debut of a new plane?

ANDY PASZTOR: I would say extremely unusual, maybe even unprecedented.

You have to go back to the 1970s to find a time when the FAA took such dramatic action. The way in which it was announced, as well as the substance of the announcement, is really quite dramatic.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, he said that the top priority, as I’m sure you heard, is going to be on the electrical systems. Why is that important and how many of the past incidents we recounted are tied to that?

ANDY PASZTOR: Several of the most serious incidents are tied to the electrical systems. And the FAA and Boeing are looking at the electrical systems primarily because this plane uses electricity much more than previous jetliners and does much more with it.

The batteries are much more powerful. The generators are much more powerful. Many of the systems that used to be run by — in other ways are now run by electric pumps.

The cabin pressure is controlled by electricity. So you really have an extremely complex electric grid which has, indeed, presented some problems and some defective wiring and some other issues over the time this plane has been carrying passengers.

MARGARET WARNER: And then he also said — from the way he described the review, it sounded pretty comprehensive. They were going to look at everything from the design all the way through the manufacture and production. What’s the problem there?

ANDY PASZTOR: Well, I think that’s the most interesting part of the story.

It is extremely broad, design, assembly, manufacture, and the issue here is really quite significant for Boeing and the rest of the industry and for future jetliners.

In this case, Boeing decided, in order to shorten, they hoped, the assembly process and save some money, they had many subcontractors design and manufacture big subsystems for them and really ceded a lot of the design work to the subcontractors.

And then the plane is assembled, of course, in a final assembly plant that Boeing operates. What the FAA is trying to get at and the issue that has been talked about for — really since the was originally conceived, is it possible or is it realistic to expect a wide-flung worldwide network of subcontractors to provide parts and subsystems and then to assemble it in one place and to make sure that the wires fit into the wire harnesses, that the parts fit correctly?

This is a huge issue for the industry. And this is a big test case that the FAA is now delving into.

MARGARET WARNER: It’s sort of like the global manufacturing on steroids, in terms of the process that actually a lot of different manufacturing companies and products are using.

ANDY PASZTOR: Well, that’s absolutely right. But, in this case, you’re talking about super-sophisticated systems on top of an aircraft that itself has technology which is cutting-edge.

So, really, the FAA is — I believe is concerned because they are worried about some of the design issues, but also quite concerned to make sure that the assembly is being done correctly.

And it’s a very unusual situation. This plane is carrying passengers. It was certified in late 2011. And, in effect, the FAA today said, well, we think we did our work very well and we think the plane is safe, but we have to double-check because of these — the number and type of incidents that have occurred.

This hasn’t happened in recent memory on any major jet transport.

MARGARET WARNER: So, what’s at stake here for Boeing? I mean, how much of their future is riding on this Dreamliner?

ANDY PASZTOR: Boeing is, of course, a global company with lots of programs and huge revenue.

But I think this is a very important moment. It’s really a wakeup call for the company. And its immediate financial condition, maybe its midterm financial condition, its reputation, its relations with investors and with customers and with passengers really are at stake here.

This is an extremely significant step. It’s not a make-or-break issue for the company, I don’t believe, because it’s too big for that. But this is an extremely important turning point for Boeing — could be an extremely important turning point, of course, depending on how the review turns out and what they find.

MARGARET WARNER: And do we know when the review will be done?

ANDY PASZTOR: No.

The FAA has been very careful not to sketch out a timeline for it. Boeing says it’s cooperating with the review and it has its experts working on it. I understand, from people I talk to, that Boeing was quite resistant in the beginning to this idea. But it remains to be seen what the FAA comes up with.

To some extent, the FAA is, indeed, reacting to public pressure and public concerns. And so I’m not sure that the FAA officials themselves at this point really know what direction they want to head in. They are going to look at — they are going to look at the data, and that could take, I would say, several months, at least.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Andy Pasztor from The Wall Street Journal, thank you.

ANDY PASZTOR: Thank you.