The 787 bad news continues to regularly come in, and there has been an expectation and assumption that we are being told the full truth, and that every 787 problem is exposed and reported on. Indeed, some people think that the 787 problems are unfairly getting more exposure than is the case with other airplanes.
It is unlikely that the 787 problems are getting an undue or unfair amount of exposure. Indeed, I’ve not bothered to mention all the problems on the ground with 787s that have resulted in delayed or cancelled flights, because I’m willing to accept that many/most of those may indeed be ‘teething problems’ or trivial events such as all planes regularly experience.
But the ‘big’ problems – you know, the ones with flames and smoke, or the ones involving planes turning around and returning urgently to a nearby airport – our reasonable expectation is that the airlines disclose those and the media make some mention of them. Sure, sometimes the airlines don’t tell us what the problem was, and that is disappointing, but at least we believe we know of the events, even if we don’t know exactly what they were. That enables us to make informed decisions about our preferred airplanes and airlines.
But on Friday, a story leaked out about yet another 787 fire that had occurred on the previous Sunday and which was only uncovered when an astute plane-watcher wondered why a Qatar 787 had been parked for five days on the ground rather than flying (and it seems from Flightaware the plane is still motionless today).
This begs the terrifying question : Are we not being told about all the 787 fires that are occurring? How many more fires and other problems is the 787 encountering that we don’t know about?
When pressed for an explanation, Qatar Airways said the plane had ‘a minor technical issue’ (an interesting new way of describing a fire on a plastic plane that can easily burn itself into a cloud of toxic smoke and nothing else), and both it and Boeing refused to comment any further. This newspaper report says that smoke was seen near an electrical compartment. This article says the plane caught fire ‘as it was moving into position to take off from Doha airport’.
One could almost understand Qatar’s lackadaisical approach to the matter, because the first article also points out that one of its 787s had similar electrical problems last December (do keep in mind that the 787 problems predate its high-profile three month grounding earlier this year – there have been electrical problems going back all the way to pre-certification test flights).
So, is the 787 the unluckiest or the luckiest plane out there? One might almost think the latter, because its most severe problems seem to be happening on the ground between flights or when a plane is close to an airport and able to safely scurry there.
Most of all, shouldn’t there be an obligation on Boeing and the airlines to report all such problems? This obligation is in two parts – first, a natural requirement for airlines to share details of their safety records and what happens to their planes, and secondly, the vital need for airlines to share problems with their competitors. If a plane has a weakness that one airline uncovers, safety concerns should mandate that the problem is openly shared with all other airlines.
Update : Apparently the affected 787 resumed flights on Wednesday 31 July, after a ten day grounding. That’s a puzzling time to spend on the ground – too long for a trivial event, but too short for a major event.
We repeat our call for formal open sharing of all airplane incidents.