The Dreamliner's Plague of Problems: Should We Be Worried?

Is the new 787 Dreamliner in trouble? Should I avoid flying it?

Those are typical questions raised by the news of two unscheduled landings and the resultant announcement that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a formal rule requiring airlines operating the 787 to check its fuel systems.

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My answer to the first question is: No, new airplanes frequently encounter such minor problems—especially those that are innovative. Earlier, the super-jumbo A380 faced several such issues, including some brief groundings. And even now, safety authorities are recommending similar inspections and replacement of key parts, where necessary, on the relatively mature A330 design.

Overall, the worldwide airline safety system is working as it should. As soon as a problem arises, manufacturers, airlines, and government agencies assess the causes, the likelihood that the problem affects other similar planes, and the proper fix. It's like auto manufacturers' recalls, although much more frequent and on a much faster track. If the problem appears to be life-threatening, the planes involved are grounded until repairs can be made; otherwise, operators are required to inspect and repair while the planes remain in service. Safety is not threatened, as demonstrated by the exceptionally good safety record of major airlines in recent years.

On the question of whether you should book a flight on the 787, my take is that, for a few weeks, the chances of a cancellation or equipment substitution due to the plane's problems are maybe just a little bit higher than usual. My hesitation to book on a United 787, however, would be based on the appalling cattle-car seating United has installed in the economy cabin—not safety reasons.

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