Boeing should heed Comet's cautionary tale

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Over the past week or so, I've had a surprising number of e-mails and calls asking roughly the same question: Is the 787 another Comet?

The short answer is no. The Dreamliner, as Boeing Co. calls its cutting-edge, now-grounded 787, isn't the de Havilland Comet.

The Comet, about which I wrote a book. a few years ago, was the world's first jetliner, a spectacularly conceived and tragically doomed technological leap into the future. The U.K.- made Comet amazed the world when it started carrying passengers in 1952, flying almost twice as fast and twice as high as any propeller-driven airliner. But not long after it entered service, and in a span of less than a year, three Comets blew apart in the sky, killing everyone aboard.

The Dreamliner, which is an advanced though hardly revolutionary new airplane, has a serious flaw, and one that needs to be fixed. At least two of the Japanese-made lithium-ion batteries that supply electrical power have malfunctioned. One of the batteries caught fire in a parked Japan Airlines Co. Dreamliner at Boston's Logan Airport last week; another set off a smoke alarm on an All Nippon Airways Co. 787 over southwestern Japan. That Dreamliner made an emergency landing. The offending battery -- about the size of a breadbox, as it happens -- turned up swollen, charred and leaking flammable chemicals.

"˜Overall integrity'

No passenger should be allowed aboard a Dreamliner until this problem is solved, which it will be. Whether Boeing has handled the controversy well is debatable: I'm not sure they hit the right mark when executives said of the 787 that "We stand behind its overall integrity." People can have "overall integrity" along with a range of human flaws; airliners can't have "overall integrity" if their batteries can leak, smoke, catch fire or even explode.

But talk of the Dreamliner as a debacle -- a "Nightmareliner," as some headlines put it --- is far more overheated than the plane's bum batteries. So far, the 50 787s delivered have experienced problems, including one fuel-line leak, a crack in a cockpit window and a minor wiring flaw along with the battery issue, that are hardly unprecedented for a major new airliner.

Airlines that go first with a new model, whether for the prestige or to leverage technological advances such as fuel savings, often pay a price for the novelty as problems crop up requiring a fix that takes the plane out of service, usually for only a week or two.

In 2007, shortly after Boeing's main competitor, Airbus SAS, introduced the mammoth double-decker A380 into passenger service, the fleet was beset with minor problems, including wing cracks and improper cabin wiring. An engine blew apart on a Qantas Airways Ltd. A380 shortly after takeoff; no one was injured, and Airbus made modifications.

In 1997, after Cathay Pacific Ltd. launched a new version of the smaller Airbus A330, a gearbox malfunction started causing engines to shut down in flight; the airline's entire fleet was grounded for almost two weeks.

The point is, problems with a new airliner are a matter of degree and, of course, of redundancy and safeguards. A battery fire aboard a Dreamliner is unacceptable. But that does not mean an incident would be catastrophic: The Dreamliner is designed to survive such a fire, by containing it to a specific area and venting the smoke outside while the cabin air-pressure system protects passengers and crew.

By this measure, the Dreamliner's woes are within reason. Regulators have done the right thing by grounding the fleet. Boeing and its battery supplier need to take steps to assure the public that these batteries are safe.

Probable success

The Dreamliner project could still turn into a fiasco or, God forbid, a disaster, if more problems crop up or compound. But the strong odds remain that the jetliner will be what Boeing intends it to be: a triumph, a next-generation, fuel-efficient, ultracomfortable airliner that passengers will seek out, not seek to avoid.

With the tragic Comet, hubris prevented a more rational investigation of its deadly flaw. U.K. aviation authorities variously pointed to freak weather, sabotage and pilot error as possible reasons for Comet crashes; anything to spare blaming the plane itself. It wasn't until the third catastrophic mid-air explosion that the first-generation Comets were taken out of service for good and an industrial detective job of epic scope revealed the true culprit: metal fatigue.

In the early 1950s, a plane like the Comet could be allowed to fly again even after the cause of its first crash remained officially undetermined. That wouldn't happen today. Nor is it imaginable that any aircraft builder now would be as bold or as brazen as John Moore-Brabazon, who led the development of Britain's postwar aviation industry, was in defending the Comet before a U.K. board of inquiry.

"Of course we gave hostages to fate," Moore-Brabazon said. "But I cannot believe that this Court, or our country, will censure us because we have ventured. You would not have the aeronautical people in this country trail behind the world in craven fear lest they be censured in such a Court as this for trying to lead the world. Everything within the realm of human knowledge and wisdom was put into this machine."

The recklessly beautiful and futuristic Comet never ruled the skies. Instead, a U.S. manufacturer, previously an also-ran in the civilian airliner field with less than 1 percent of the market share in 1950, found an opening -- and Boeing's 707 "Jet Stratoliner" became the iconic airliner of the new Jet Age.

Sam Howe Verhovek
Sam Howe Verhovek is the author of "Jet Age: The Comet, the 707, and the Race to Shrink the World." The opinions expressed are his own.

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