Qantas engineers see risks in 787s
AUSTRALIAN aircraft engineers claim that three mishaps in three days to Boeing's 787 Dreamliner aircraft highlights the need for Qantas - a buyer of the planes - to retain a large maintenance workforce.
Boeing has joined airlines including Qatar Airways in backing the performance of the Dreamliners despite an electrical fire aboard one of the planes, followed by a fuel leak and a brake problem this week.
Qantas's budget offshoot, Jetstar, is not expected to receive the first of the group's 787s until the second half of this year - more than three years late.
The Australian Licensed Aircraft Engineers Association's president, Paul Cousins, said commercial pressures had forced Boeing to roll the 787s off production lines before they were "quite ready to be put into service".
Mr Cousins said Boeing was searching for a solution to the fire from a lithium-ion battery on a Japan Airlines 787 at Boston on Monday but he believed the planes should be taken out of service in the meantime. "It is ad hoc maintenance on the run. A fire has occurred on a composite aircraft and that is a big no no," he said.
Other industry sources agreed a fire was a serious matter but said new types of aircraft always experienced teething problems in their first years in service. The planes were subjected to greater pre-flight testing and certification than older generations of planes had been.
Mr Cousins said Qantas management had claimed that new aircraft would need less maintenance but the latest incidents demonstrated that the twin-engined 787s would require more.
"Complex machinery requires dedicated maintenance - that dedicated maintenance should be carried out by licensed engineers. You are going to see an increase in these incidents," he said.
"People need to start to realise that if you are going to fly an aircraft at 40,000 feet (12,190 metres), you can't just pull off to the side of the road and phone the NRMA to come and help. Aircraft now are complex."
He denied he was making alarmist claims to forward his union's aims to halt a reduction in the engineering workforce at Qantas. Last year, the airline announced it would be axing about 1260 jobs from its engineering operations in Australia, which will be centralised at a base in Brisbane.
But Qantas has accused the engineers' union of "being completely misleading" because new aircraft did require less maintenance than older planes.
"Boeing has indicated that the 787's performance is consistent with other new aircraft types," a spokesman said. "The Qantas Group is looking forward to receiving its first Boeing 787-8s, to be operated by Jetstar, in the second half of 2013."
He said Qantas had a large engineering and maintenance workforce employing about 5000 people.
Boeing has also insisted the 787s are safe to fly despite the incidents.
"I am 100 per cent convinced the airplane is safe to fly," Boeing's vice-president and chief 787 project engineer, Mike Sinnett, said. "I fly on it myself all the time."
Mr Sinnett said Boeing had "extreme confidence" in the plane, and its entry into service had been similar to the 777 passenger jet - both of which had been "better than any other new large wide-bodies that were introduced into the world's fleets".
Years late and billions of dollars over budget, the development of the 787 has been hugely embarrassing - and costly - for the American aircraft manufacturer.
In August Qantas cancelled orders for 35 new Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes - worth $US8.5 billion ($8 billion) at list prices - in an attempt to bolster earnings this financial year. Despite the cancellations, Qantas still has purchase rights and options for 50 of the longer-range 787-9 aircraft, the first of which will not arrive until 2016.
The parent is not altering the delivery of the 15 787-8 Dreamliners to Jetstar. The low-cost airline will use the 787s to replace its Airbus A330s on routes to Japan, Hawaii and Singapore.