Is that “Dream of a Dreamliner” you are about to board safe? Or was it cobbled together by drug-crazed and dazed Boeing workers in a union-busting alternative assembly line in South Carolina?

Those matters were kicked back into the headlines by an Al Jazeera special report this week, and this time the smoke wasn’t coming out of the lithium ion batteries that caused last year’s epic grounding of the “plastic fantastic” airliner, but from an enraged Boeing management. (See also here.)

Let’s be clear about one thing: if you’re flying economy, your arse isn’t safe in most so-called Dreamliners, since the seats are so goddamned small in the cabin layouts chosen by most airlines, including Jetstar’s 787s and those of Air New Zealand, which inaugurates its use of the high composite jet today on the Auckland-Perth route.

The Dreamliner takes your rear to a place it was never intended to go. The rest of you is probably safe, so long as it can be provided:

  1. The pilot doesn’t screw up;
  2. The required maintenance is done;
  3. The plane was correctly assembled (which, in the longer run, it almost certainly was);
  4. No one does anything really stupid when it comes to air traffic control or using the taxiways on the ground; and
  5. There is no criminal act perpetrated against the flight (apart from the decision to squeeze in twice as many seats as Boeing originally envisaged).

In short, a Dreamliner today is — based on the hard, material, and legal obligations of a licensed air operator of the type — just as safe as anything else flying the routes for which jet airliners are made. It is subject to the same exceedingly small risks as other Boeings or Airbuses.

The are, however, problems other than the tight seating most airlines have chosen, and for which Boeing isn’t responsible. The pressing problem, admitted by Boeing, is reliability. The benefits of the 787 family in terms of reduced fuel consumption (and very little airport noise) are useless if the jet can’t be reliably available when airlines that are using it schedule it. The available figures suggest this problem is being solved at last.

The certification of the 787 Dreamliners by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been very seriously and publicly criticised by the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) with specific reference to various parts of the design and the reliability of the lithium ion batteries located under the rear passenger cabin and the cockpit.

There is no doubt that those issues have now been satisfactorily addressed in the practical sense, with the batteries in particular encased in a fiendishly clever fire box, so that the batteries can now ignite, burn, smoulder or otherwise malfunction without burning holes in the floor and fuselage or poisoning the cabin air. They are not required for the cruise phase of flight.

Which is neat. However, the exact cause of those two combustion events which caused 787s to be grounded last year has not been determined, which means that Boeing and the FAA have solved the consequences of a problem whose origins aren’t understood. Which isn’t neat. But it isn’t unsafe, either.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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