Monday, December 14, 2020

Boeing Widens 787 Dreamliner Inspections After Finding More Assembly-Line Defects

Federal regulators determine defects don’t pose an immediate safety risk, but added scrutiny has slowed deliveries

The Wall Street Journal 
By Andrew Tangel and Andy Pasztor
Updated December 14, 2020 3:54 pm ET

Boeing Co. has expanded inspections of newly produced 787 Dreamliners after finding a previously disclosed manufacturing defect in sections of the jet where it hadn’t been initially detected, according to industry and government officials.

Boeing engineers and United States air-safety regulators agree the newly discovered problem doesn’t pose an imminent safety hazard, the officials said. But the new issue is likely to ramp up a Federal Aviation Administration review of 787 production safeguards sparked earlier this year by other defects, one of these officials said.

The broader quality-control checks, covering the entire fuselage of the planes rather than just certain sections around the tail, are why inspections are taking longer than previously anticipated, the officials said. It also explains why no Dreamliners were delivered in November.

The Chicago-based plane maker disclosed the inspection and delivery delays Dec. 4 without specifying the reasons for them.

The defects in question are spots where the surface of the 787’s carbon-composite fuselage isn’t as smooth as it is should be, a Boeing spokesman said. Such areas can create tiny gaps where fuselage sections are linked together and could lead to premature structural fatigue, which can require extensive repairs. The spokesman said the inspections have pinpointed areas where assembly of portions of the 787 fuselage “may not meet specified skin flatness tolerances.”

The defects mark the fourth assembly-line lapse affecting Boeing’s popular family of wide-body jets that has come to light in as many months. Other than May, after the Covid-19 pandemic roiled airline operations and forced the plane maker to briefly shut down production facilities, November was the only month since 2013 without a Dreamliner delivery, according to an analysis of delivery data.

The company found the latest issue through strengthened quality-assurance practices over the past year, when other defects had been identified, the Boeing spokesman said. And he said the company has asked suppliers to perform similar checks. “These findings are part of Boeing’s review of assembled 787 aircraft to ensure each meets our highest quality standards prior to delivery to customers,” he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which has been considering actions to mitigate the problems by potentially issuing safety directives, on Sunday released a statement saying the agency regularly engages with Boeing on “continued operational safety and manufacturing oversight processes to appropriately address any issues that might arise.”

Under pressure from the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing also has stepped-up internal manufacturing controls focusing on other lapses ranging from inspection paperwork problems to debris mistakenly left behind by assembly-line workers inside 737 MAX jetliners and military tankers.

The wide-body passenger jets, which Boeing first delivered in 2011, have an excellent safety record and are frequently used on long international routes. If found on planes already carrying passengers, the latest defect can be addressed during comprehensive maintenance checks that are required as the jets age, some of the officials familiar with the matter said.

Delivery delays threaten to add to Boeing’s financial strain as it struggles with fallout from the pandemic, which has sapped global demand for air travel and passenger jets. Boeing Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith has said Boeing expected to continue working to clear its growing inventory of undelivered Dreamliners through next year.

Earlier this year, Boeing disclosed the skin-smoothness defect near the rear of the planes, as well as improperly sized shims—or parts used to fill small gaps where the fuselage sections are joined together. It wasn’t immediately clear how many planes have been found with the skin-smoothness defects in additional locations, but officials familiar with the matter said instances appeared relatively isolated.

Boeing engineers previously determined that when the defects involving skin smoothness and shim size both occur in the same location, the result can be tiny imperfections creating a potential hazard such as a cracking in the fuselage under extreme flying conditions. Boeing in August took the unusual step of voluntarily grounding eight aircraft in airlines’ fleets for immediate repairs.

Those earlier problems prompted the Federal Aviation Administration to start reviewing quality-control lapses in Boeing’s 787 production stretching back almost a decade.

Boeing also previously identified a third quality-control lapse affecting the horizontal stabilizer, a movable, winglike panel in the tail.

Earlier this month, Mr. Smith disclosed Boeing’s intention to further cut 787 production next year because of weak demand and a growing backlog of parked planes.

Boeing, which has been producing around 10 Dreamliners a month, as of early December had 53 built but undelivered 787s that had been in its inventory for an average of about five months, according to aviation-research firm Ascend by Cirium.

Mr. Smith said the monthly 787 production rate would remain below Boeing’s target of 10 before slowing to five in May at its plant in North Charleston, S.C. Assembly of 787s is set to end at a Seattle-area Boeing facility.

The 787 manufacturing issues are unrelated to design flaws in a flight-control system that kept the global fleet of 737 MAX jets grounded for nearly two years. The plane models are built in separate facilities.

—Doug Cameron
contributed to this article.

1 comment:

  1. back in Sept, the House Transportation Committee issued its long-pending investigation report, and as so often only entities found responsible, culpable! Thus it appears NO individuals will be identified and held legally culable.

    "After an exhaustive 18 month investigation, the House Transportation Committee concluded that there were multiple missed opportunities to ensure a safe MAX design and reverse flawed technical design criteria, faulty assumptions about pilot response times and production pressures.

    The FAA also bears responsibility for failing to adequately review and correct Boeing’s MAX 737 errors and safety flaws. The FAA failed in its oversight of Boeing and its certification of the aircraft.

    The 737 MAX crashes were not the result of a singular failure, technical mistake or mismanaged event. Instead, the two horrific crashes were the culmination of a series of faulty assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on Boeing’s management, and grossly inefficient regulation and oversight by the FAA."


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