November 25, 2013
Credit: Guy Norris
It is easier for Boeing to be upbeat about the 787 these days. The Dubai Airshow saw the program pass the 1,000-order milestone in record time for a twin-aisle program, on the back of a large order from Etihad for the 787-10, while flight tests of the 787-9 continue to accelerate with the introduction of a third aircraft to the certification effort.
Yet overshadowing the brighter promise of the mid- to long-term future is the urgent challenge of improving the troubled 787-8's in-service reliability levels. The task is proving more complex and frustrating than Boeing had imagined, and at Dubai the manufacturer conceded that overall performance is now not expected to reach that of the 777 until sometime before mid-2014.
Boeing Commercial Sales Vice President Marty Bentrott says some operators such as Qatar Airways have experienced “some early teething problems,” and seen “reliability issues with some components.” The company is “committed to resolve those problems. We are making good progress but 'do we have additional work ahead of us?' Yes.” Bentrott says the company estimates that it will be “another six months or so” until the 787 reaches “the reliability rate of the 777.”
Boeing has been battling for improved reliability rates on the aircraft since it began suffering system and component glitches shortly after entering service in late 2011. Although the process was interrupted during the prolonged grounding of the fleet in the wake of the battery issues in early 2013, the recovery initiative was stepped up as teething issues persisted. Earlier this month Boeing disclosed that, along with measures to boost the reliability of some components, it is also developing software improvements to reduce the number of nuisance warnings and improve the robustness of the aircraft's self-diagnostic or built-in-test equipment capability.
The process involves simplifying some of the software that runs in the 787's avionics system. Revised software loads are expected to be installed in the fleet by the end of the year, with some of the changes being tested on the 787-9. The 787's software-intensive control and monitoring systems measure vast amounts of data, far more than any previous airliner, and this has triggered an unexpectedly high number of low-level alerts that have led to inadvertent higher-level events, turn-backs and diversions. The aircraft has been internally dubbed by Boeing as a systems “hypochondriac,” flagging notices to flight crews who generally react by erring on the side of caution. “We are looking at software improvements to reduce the number of nuisance warnings and improve the built-in-test equipment capability,” says 787 Airplane Development Vice President Mark Jenks.
Although Jenks is keen to point out that Boeing is not trying to “dumb down” the software, “we're doing things to simplify it. The 787 system has more data than it needs—it's a very smart airplane. So we are fine-tuning that in some areas.” The process is being dovetailed with flight tests of the 787-9, with simplified loads flying on the initial test aircraft. In addition, results from investigations into system call-outs or '“squawks” from the heavily instrumented 787-9 test aircraft are being rolled back into the software update. Revised software loads are being prepared for installation throughout the fleet, with operators such as Air India expected to begin updating aircraft in December.
Commenting recently on the focus on improving the software, Boeing President and CEO Jim McNerney says “improving dispatch reliability of the 787 is one of our top priorities. We are not satisfied with the fleet-wide performance, even though it is at 97% on average. There are some customers who are not at that level and we're not pleased about that. We still have more work to do and while we are otherwise pleased with feedback in areas like fuel burn, we will not be satisfied until we meet customer expectations across the board.” McNerney says ironing out issues with the software heavy is a key priority. “Old messaging (in the software) is roughly one-third of the issue. It's frustrating for us and very frustrating for our customers. It's an all-hands-on-deck effort. We want to get everyone higher but when you add it all up there's been a steady improvement.”