Page One

The Planet Uncovers Another Dreamliner Malfunction

By Gar Smith
Friday January 18, 2013 - 01:20:00 PM
Where Are We Anyway?
Gar Smith
Where Are We Anyway?

I have to grant that the Dreamliner is a gorgeous plane. I recently returned to SFO aboard one of Boeing's new 787s. I certainly appreciated the fact that there was lots of legroom and headroom (you no longer need to stoop while waiting to leave your seat: you can stand fully erect without bumping your head on the overhead baggage area).

In addition, the lightweight carbon fiber construction makes the Dreamliner 20 percent more fuel-efficient 20 percent less polluting. The new design also improves air quality and removes toxic fuel contaminants from the air-conditioning system – producing the cleanest air, well … in the air.

But the Dreamliner has gotten off to a rickety start and is now grounded. In a single week in January, several of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliners caught fire, leaked fuel, experienced braking problems and suffered electrical malfunctions. What next? 

Well, on my recent United flight from Houston to San Francisco, I looked on with amazement as the aircraft's in-flight maps showed the plane headed for a landing in Tokyo by way of Seattle. (The map informs passengers to expect a total flying distance of 1,718 miles and a scheduled 10:30 AM arrival.) And that wasn't all. The map's on-screen language appeared to be Korean and Houston was inexplicably transplanted to somewhere east of Portland. (See photo.) 

Could it be that someone at Boeing handed the Dreamliner's in-flight visualization contact over to Apple Maps? Fortunately, the pilot knew where we were supposed to land. 

At the end of the flight I asked an attendant if, perhaps, the plane was scheduled to continue on to Tokyo's Narita Airport. She confirmed that SFO was the final stop. When I told her about the presentation on the in-flight map, she expressed surprise and could offer no explanation. 

In addition to the leaks, the fires, the brakes and the electrical fritzes and the other incidents that industry officials dismissed as "teething problems," there are a few other bugs to be ironed out. 

Here's one relatively small item I felt obliged to pass along to Boeing's engineers: While the reading light over my head was a state-of-the-art, energy-efficient LED bulb, it was aimed so that the light fell on the top of my head, not in my lap. Even with the seat flung back to its furthest position, the light only illuminated my chin. 

When I pointed this shortcoming out to a flight attendant and asked if the overhead lights could be adjusted, I was told this was not possible. (Note to Boeing: the specific dim-bulb problem was found above seat 25E aboard United flight 1153.)