Business
2:19 am
Thu August 8, 2013

The 787 Returns, And Boeing Is Watching Its Every Move

Originally published on Tue February 25, 2014 5:58 pm

Aviation experts continue to follow up on a number of recent accidents and incidents: the Asiana crash; a botched landing by a Southwest jet; and problems with an emergency beacon on a Boeing 787.

The entire fleet of 787s was grounded earlier this year for battery problems. Now, the aircraft are back in service, and Boeing is monitoring them around the clock.

There are tens of thousands of things that can be measured and tracked on Boeing's new flagship jet, and that's just what they're doing inside the company's 787 Operations Control Center in Everett, Wash.

Boeing Vice President Mike Fleming is giving a rare tour of the facility. He points to two giant maps showing the location of each 787 currently in flight. The maps also show the planes' speed and altitude.

But there is much more. Boeing has delivered about 70 787s so far. Equipped with highly sophisticated onboard monitoring systems, the planes send back massive amounts of information while in the air. Computer software sifts through the data, and anomalies or potential problems pop up in yellow or red on giant computer screens.

"So a red item ... [means] there is a maintenance action that needs to go out and be cleared on the airplane before you have it depart," Fleming explains.

In other words, the part will have to be replaced or a system fixed before the plane can take off again. Most of these are pretty minor issues, but they still have to be addressed. The goal is to do it as quickly as possible. Delays and canceled flights make passengers unhappy and cost the airlines a lot of money.

With real-time monitoring, Boeing and the airlines are more likely to have replacement parts on hand even before the plane lands. That job falls to Andy Beadle, a procurement agent at Boeing.

"Getting a head start on things, it's kind of a dream come true because I get four or five hours that I normally never got in the past," Beadle says.

Overall, Boeing says it can offer a level of customer support it couldn't deliver before. In an extreme case — Fleming says he can think of three such instances — Boeing experts talked directly to pilots who had questions while in flight.

"I think it's made a difference every single time," he says, "in terms of the level of understanding that we gave the pilots in terms of what they were seeing on the airplane [and] their level of comfort with the aircraft. In every one of those cases, the airplane went on and did a normal landing."

Monitoring an airplane while in flight is nothing new, but the sophistication here — and the amount of data being reviewed — is. United Airlines, the only U.S. airline currently flying the 787, is pleased.

"Boeing created the aircraft, they designed it [and] they know it from the inside out, so it helps to have both of us monitoring it at the same time," says United Airlines spokeswoman Christen David.

What's more, since Boeing can track data from every flight simultaneously in real time, the airplane maker can spot trends or problems across the entire fleet much sooner. That is especially important when a new plane like the 787 goes into service.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The year didn't start out well for Boeing. The entire fleet of its much-anticipated Dreamliner was grounded after a couple of battery fires. Now, those 787s are back in service in time for the summer season. And as NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports, Boeing is monitoring them 24-7.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: There are tens of thousands of things that can be measured and tracked on Boeing's new flagship jet, and that's just what they're doing inside the company's 787 Operations Control Center in Everett, Washington.

MIKE FLEMING: Why don't we start over here on the right?

KAUFMAN: Boeing Vice President Mike Fleming is giving a rare tour of the facility. He points to two giant maps showing where each 787 currently in flight is.

FLEMING: And on those maps, you can also get information about their speed, what altitude they're on, those kinds of things.

KAUFMAN: But there is much more. Boeing has delivered about 70 Dreamliners so far. On this morning, 30 of them were in the sky. Equipped with highly sophisticated on-board monitoring systems, the planes send back tons of information. Computer software sifts through the data, and anomalies or potential problems pop up in yellow or red on giant computer screens.

FLEMING: So, a red item right here would mean there is a maintenance action that needs to go out and be cleared on the airplane before you have it depart.

KAUFMAN: In other words, the part will have to be replaced or a system fixed before the plane can take off again. Most of these are pretty minor issues, but they still have to be addressed. The goal is to do it as quickly as possible. Delays and cancelled flights make passengers unhappy and cost the airlines a lot of money. With real-time monitoring, Boeing and the airlines are more likely to have replacement parts on hand, even before the plane lands.

ANDY BEADLE: I'm the person that's looking for the parts.

KAUFMAN: Andy Beadle is a procurement agent at Boeing.

BEADLE: Getting a head start on things, it's kind of a dream come true, because, I mean, I get four or five hours that I normally never got in the past.

KAUFMAN: And Boeing says, overall, it can offer a level of customer support it couldn't deliver before. In an extreme case - and the company's Mike Fleming says he can think of three such instances - Boeing experts talked directly to pilots who had questions while in flight.

FLEMING: I think it's made a difference every single time. Well, in terms of the level of understanding that we gave the pilots in terms of what they were seeing on the airplane, their level of comfort with the aircraft, in every one of those cases, the airplane went on and did a normal landing.

KAUFMAN: Monitoring airplanes in the air is nothing new, but the sophistication here and the amount of data being reviewed is. The only U.S. airline currently flying the 787 is pleased.

CHRISTEN DAVID: Absolutely.

KAUFMAN: United Airlines spokeswoman Christen David.

DAVID: Boeing created the aircraft. They designed it. They know it from the inside out. So it helps to have both of us monitoring it at the same time.

KAUFMAN: What's more, since Boeing can track data from every airline's flight simultaneously in real time, the airplane-maker can spot fleet-wide trends or problems much sooner - something that's especially important when a new plane like the 787 goes into service. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.