New Planes from Boeing Grounded Amid Safety Concerns

Friday, January 18, 2013

First flight of Boeing 787 Dreamliner on December 15, 2009 (Flickr user Dave Sizer)

It’s something that many of us take for granted: commercial air travel. We check in, squeeze into our tiny seats, buckle up, prepare for lift-off, and eventually, for landing.

Of course, every once in a while, things don’t go quite as planned. There are malfunctions, bird strikes, and worse. Still, plane travel is still one of the safest ways to travel. 

This month, however, a whole model of planes is being grounded for safety reasons. After an incident in Boston and another involving the emergency landing of a plane in Japan, Boeing 787s around the world are being held on the ground by regulators.

What’s the issue with the Boeing 787? And will it fly again? And as we move towards an era of greater technological reliance, is American training enough engineers to keep us the pace?

Miles O’Brien is a broadcast news journalist specializing in aviation, space and technology. He is the science correspondent for PBS NewsHour, and a regular correspondent for the PBS documentary series Frontline.

And Dr. Cynthia Bir is a biomedical engineer and professor at Wayne State University.


Cindy Bir and Miles O'Brien

Produced by:

Kristen Meinzer

Comments [8]

MarkB from Portland, OR

Comment 1: Outsourcing for Boeing wasn't about costs, it was about sales. Having parts of the plane built in other parts of the world (e.g. Japan) made those countries more likely to buy the finished plane, especially as many large carriers are still quasi state controlled.

Comment 2: The original story showed the medias naivety about the engineering field when they looked at the number large number of aeronautical engineers graduated by China compared to the US and assumed we are outgunned. Boeing has far more mechanical, electrical and software engineers than aeronautical. You don't need that many people designing wings, etc. It takes far more people to write the millions of lines of code that run the plane than to design the wings.

Jan. 19 2013 11:05 AM
Alexander from New York

How many times did Dr. Bir say "you know" "you know" "you know" (ad nauseum), in this interview? It was embarrassing. Before she teaches students, she should learn how to speak English properly and not sound like a "Valley Girl".

Jan. 18 2013 03:39 PM
Mamie Bobb from McLean, VA

All the way back in the early 70's..... I was coming back to Washington DC from LA. As the plane was taxiing out it felt like we ran over a truck. The whole plane shuddered and we all felt this huge bump. Then when we were actually taking off, it did it again. Massive bump and a shuddering of the whole plane. After reaching cruising altitude the pilot came on the loud speaker and said that he was lowering the landing gear so the flight engineer could take a look at it. After doing this, he said that it looked like we 'burned a little rubber in taking off - but everything looks fine'. About a half hour away from landing in DC he came back on and announced that we had been given permission to land on a particular runway at Dulles Airport, which was (according to him at that time) the longest runway in the world. Well - you immediately start wondering if everything is really all right, why do we need to do this? It didn't help that the plane was filled with servicemen who were returning home after their tours in Viet Nam and they completely panicked. They were sure that after surviving Nam, they were now going to die in Virginia! I was all right till this started - then I got pretty nervous myself. Well, we landed and the minute we stopped, the plane was surrounded with fire trucks. The pilot came back on again and said that for the first time in his 20 years as a pilot, he was going to have to be towed in. We had blown a tire on landing. When we actually departed the plane we all looked back and saw that we had actually blown both tires on the right side. Needless to say, despite the late hour, every passenger waited till the flight crew departed and we all gave the pilot a standing "O".

Jan. 18 2013 03:33 PM
Claudine from Long Island

Yes, in 1990 I was flying home to NY from LA. About half an hour into the flight the captain got on the loudspeaker to tell us that there was something wrong with the de-icing mechanism of the plane, so we had to fly back to LA. This was right after a bunch of planes had gone down due to de-icing problems. That half an hour in the air knowing I was in a faulty plane was one loooong period of time.

Jan. 18 2013 03:21 PM
RAOUL ORNELAS from Bend, Oregon

Too much technology, too much out sourcing for cheap labor including using and not testing (long range testing - two years or more) lithium batteries that have not been proven in areas that require large instant short energy demands, prior to using them in any large commercial aspect such as on trains, planes or even on ships. Last, using composite materials is a problem for me, why, because as far as I know, it is still not possible to detect fractures in products like kevlar. Perhaps the the dream liner is an example where the technology cart has been placed before the horse (the traveling public). I've been flying on Boeing aircraft for around thirty years between Seattle, Alaska and Europe - these products are well tested and proven.

Jan. 18 2013 01:41 PM
Kirk from Dallas

I have never questioned flight technology. I do however sometimes question a particular implementation of that technology by humans.

Jan. 18 2013 12:26 PM
Stephen McGourty from Arlington, WA

I just heard your story on Boeing and the 787. As a Boeing worker of 27 years (in IT) I would like to say that amongst the workers of Boeing we tend to feel that the reason the 787 was three years late and having problems now is that too much of the airplane design and production was outsourced. We are hoping that the company has learned its lesson and will not outsource so much of the next plane. I know that we never had problems as bad as the 787 and were never as late as this plane was when we keep work in house. I would say those results speak for themselves.
I agree that America has a problem with replacing engineers. I have done a small part to help here by tutoring math at local high schools for years.

Jan. 18 2013 09:42 AM
Liz from Fort Bragg, CA

We were on the tarmac awaiting take-off when my husband, an auto mechanic, noticed a loose wing flap. He showed the flight attendant and, sure enough, minutes later were all changing planes. What if we had been sitting on the other side of the plane?

Jan. 18 2013 09:37 AM

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