While the grounded A380s are the headline issue for Qantas, the continued grounding of the Boeing 787 test fleet after a fire emergency in ZA002 is cause for real concern.

The Dreamliner 787 order Qantas placed in December 2005 was the key to the retiring of old and increasingly unreliable jets in its fleet, from August 2008.

That infamously didn’t happen as delay after delay hit the program to build a super light ultra efficient plastic airliner.

Overnight, Bloomberg reported this analyst assessment which sees the certification and delivery of the first 787s being pushed back as far as 2012. Even before the in flight fire emergency occurred in the second of the test fleet 787s, on November 9, there were authoritative reports pointing to a further delay in what remains the current promise, that the first jets will be delivered, service legal and service ready, to All Nippon Airways in the first quarter of next year.

The story needs to be considered in parallel with this most recent Boeing statement on the incident.

EVERETT, Wash., Nov. 16, 2010 /PRNewswire/ — While the investigation into the incident onboard 787 Dreamliner ZA002 continues, Boeing has established a plan to fly two other aircraft, ZA001 and ZA005, back to Seattle from Rapid City, S.D., and Victorville, Calif. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has reviewed and approved the plans.

ZA001 was undergoing refueling in South Dakota when the incident on ZA002 occurred and the company decided to forgo additional flights. ZA005 was on remote deployment for testing in California.

The flights follow a series of inspections on the airplanes’ aft electronics bays. No testing will be performed on the flights.

The team investigating the incident in Laredo has developed a detailed understanding of the ZA002 incident, though more work remains to complete the investigation. In addition to the information already released about the incident, data show that:

* The total duration of the incident was less than 90 seconds.
* The fire lasted less than 30 seconds.
* The airplane concluded the event in a configuration that could have been sustained for the time required to return to an airport suitable for landing from any point in a typical 787 mission profile.

The team in Texas has completed inspection of ZA002 and has begun to prepare to install a new power panel and new insulation material. The team also is repairing minor structural damage that occurred during the event. This damage will be addressed with standard repair techniques in the airplane structural repair manual. The team is currently evaluating the timeline for completion of the repair work.

The incident on ZA002 demonstrated many aspects of the safety and redundancy in the 787 design, which ensure that if events such as these occur, the airplane can continue safe flight and landing.

No decision has been reached on when flight testing of the 787 will resume. Before that decision can be made, we must complete the investigation and assess whether any design changes are necessary. Until that time, Boeing cannot comment on the potential impact of this incident on the overall program schedule.

As Bloomberg and Flightblogger note, the devil is in the detail-or its careful avoidance-in the Boeing statement.

It doesn’t say that all of the required systems or structural redundancies required for certification for service entry performed to those standards during the emergency. Why doesn’t it say so?

The very mention by Boeing of possible design changes in its meticulously crafted statement is alarming. Design changes take time, not just to make, model, draw, specify and build, but to apply, especially if this requires sections of the jets which no longer conform to certification standards to be removed from all completed and partially completed 787s.

A delay of a year would mean Qantas subsidiary Jetstar wouldn’t receive the first of eight 787-8s until June 2013 (not counting other rumoured delays), and that the 787-9s which make up 35 of the 50 Dreamliners still on firm order from Qantas would not begin arriving until 2015.

That is a full seven years later than Qantas planned for in terms of developing Jetstar’s international routes, and replacing Cityflyer 767s, which like the airline’s older 747s, are becoming liabilities in terms of aged airframe maintenance costs and scheduling reliability.

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