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A Nightmarish Week For Boeing's Dreamliner

Jan 12, 2013
Originally published on January 12, 2013 12:08 pm

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Of course, this last week has been kind of a nightmare for Boeing and its new 787 Dreamliner. In three separate incidents in as many days, airline carriers reported problems with brakes, with fuel leaks and a battery fire. The U.S. Department of Transportation has announced a comprehensive review of the new plane. Joining us now to talk about Boeing's new 787 is Joe Nocera, op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and our man on finance and other matters. Joe, thanks very much for being with us.

JOE NOCERA: And thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: By all accounts, of course, this is one of the most technologically advanced planes ever built, and Boeing took their time designing and building it. So how do they get it into operation - and it starts springing a fuel leak?

NOCERA: Well, what Boeing would say is gosh, this stuff is complicated. And of course, it is. And it has six electrical systems; you know, hydraulic power's now been switched to electrical power; and it's got computers and batteries, and so on and so forth. So what Boeing would say is, we're still working out the little glitches. On the other hand, if you're flying one of these things and these glitches cause you not to fly, or to wait for four hours to fly - as happened, also, this week - you're not very happy about it.

SIMON: Yeah. I mean, if you look at your ticket and see it's Dreamliner, this past week, you would wonder, oh, am I ever going to take off? Or, when we get in the air - you know, are we going to be losing fuel?

NOCERA: Well, it is - you know, it is three years late. It was supposed to come to market in 2008. It came to market in 2011, and a large part of the reason for that delay was precisely because it was really complicated, and it was not unlike any other airplane that had ever come before. It has, you know, lightweight parts, and it has - it's fuel-efficient; and it's this, that and the other thing. And I should also point out, Scott, that these problems have had zero effect on Boeing's sales.

SIMON: Well, that's important. What's your estimation of that? Has the company just addressed it so powerfully?

NOCERA: No, that's not the reason at all. The reason is that we have an aging fleet worldwide, and so companies need airplanes. And Boeing and Airbus made very different bets on what the world was going to need. Airbus bet on - giant aircraft that hauls 6- or 700 people. And Boeing made a bet that the world wanted smaller planes that went point to point, that had 200 to 250 people. As a result, Airbus's backlog is about 250 airplanes. Boeing's backlog is about 850 airplanes. So if you cancel a Boeing order 'cause you're mad about these problems, or you want them sooner, you don't have any other place to go.

SIMON: And what is your estimation of how Boeing has handled the problem so far?

NOCERA: Well, they're in a tricky spot. On the one hand, in their heart of hearts, they believed that these problems are really small; that it's not putting anybody at risk; and it's just kind of a teething process, as they like to say, with a brand-new aircraft. But they can't say that out loud because then they sound callous and uncaring. And so when the Department of Transportation and the FAA say, well, we're going to investigate the electrical systems, you know, Boeing can't say, don't worry, we're going to fix all this. They have to say, we're on board. And so it's basically been a headache that they think is not quite justified, but they can't say that out loud.

SIMON: Now that - you've, of course - have covered these kind of cases before, where corporations have to handle questions from the public. And this is a hard line to finesse. On the one hand, you have to be concerned about the problem - but not so concerned you leave people to be alarmed about it.

NOCERA: Well, take another example, which doesn't have anything to do with Boeing. Take Toyota and its accelerator problem, which they just paid a billion dollars to settle lawsuits. You know, it basically turned out that the problem with the accelerator had nothing to do with the electrical components, or any other components, of Toyota. It had to do with - they put the mat in wrong, and sometimes people just, you know, put their foot in the wrong place. Nonetheless, to get this problem behind them, they had to pay a billion dollars. Now, Boeing's not going to have anything like that because they haven't had crashes; they probably won't have crashes - at least around these sets of problems. So it's just trying to kind of keep its head down, play the good citizen, and get through it.

SIMON: Joe Nocera of The New York Times; speaking to us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York. Thanks very much, Joe.

NOCERA: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.