Dreamliners back in the air, controllers back on the job…

On 01-05-2013, in Viewpoint, by steve

devilUnless I am very much mistaken, the grounding of the Boeing 787 has been the longest in aviation history and only the DC-10 comes close, but that was in another time and age. Just a coincidence, of course, but still a telling story and a sign of this age the FAA’s enforced decision last month to furlough air traffic controllers due to a shortage of money caused by the federal budget restrictions implemented by politicians with little understanding of what this would cause in specialized areas like aviation.

Boeing screwed up big time with the 787 battery system as did Washington with its lawn-mower approach to straightening the federal budget.

Of course this was not the first major issue with the design of the 787. The center wing-box is now much heavier that was originally foreseen due to additional bits that had to be bolted on when it was discovered that the first load calculations were incorrect. Not that Airbus did any better with the 380. Incompatible software at different fabrication locations resulted in wire harnesses being too short, probably another first for the industry. Then cracks found on the rib-feet of the wings were discovered accidentally… while engineers were looking at the wing of the Qantas 380 that had one of its engines go boom. While the cracks did not pause an immediate safety problem, had they not been discovered like this, it is anybody’s guess what might have happened later on.

The way air traffic management should be financed has been a matter of debate for a long time now. In Europe, full cost recovery means that basically the airspace users pay everything and there is no danger of the money running out. Except of course if the airspace users themselves go belly up as had happened, well, more or less, after 9/11.

In the US, the FAA is federally financed and like all federal agencies, it is subject to the government budget. If the government coffers are empty, the FAA stops.

Of course, apart from the financing method, the US system has been the envy of many experts by the simple virtue of being much, much more efficient than Europe’s fragmented, much more expensive system. After the furloughs one may be excused to be wondering why such an otherwise excellent system was allowed to sink so low.

Boeing has hammered together a solution for the battery problem and the 787s are returning to the sky. Mind you, this solution did not eliminate the inherent risk of using this kind of battery, they just made sure that the chance of a misbehaving battery is lower and if one does go berserk, the effects are contained. We will see…

Controllers have returned to work and the furlough induced delays have been eliminated. Hopefully, politicians have learned their lesson.

What keeps bugging me is this: how could these things happen in the first place? And have we done everything to prevent them happening again?

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