Public perception, engineering and Boeing 787 troubles

As the Boeing Co. awaits approval by federal regulators on a solution to return the 787 to commercial flight, the company quietly is checking the public’s opinion of the grounded Dreamliner.

Boeing is conducting a survey about air travel in general and flying on the Dreamliner in particular, asking email subscribers of NewAirplane.com to fill out an online poll.

The company’s move comes as the Federal Aviation Administration considers a Boeing proposal to resolve problems with the 787’s lithium-ion batteries. FAA Administrator Michael Huerta has said he expects a staff report this week on the matter. The agency grounded the 787 on Jan. 16, following two battery failures.

Boeing’s survey isn’t the first of its kind.

In February, 32 percent of respondents of The Travel Insider’s poll said they wouldn’t fly on a 787. Local analyst Scott Hamilton also recently surveyed readers of his Leeham Co. blog. His poll shows about 46 percent of respondents say they’ll wait a year or two after Boeing resolves the 787’s problems to fly on one. Almost the same percentage of respondents said they’re confident in Boeing’s solution, though details of that are not yet public.

Analyst Richard Aboulafia, with the Teal Group, opines that Boeing’s problems could be exacerbated by the lack of engineers in key management positions. Neither Boeing CEO Jim McNerney nor Ray Conner, the president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, are engineers, which means the right message may not be getting from the engineers to the public.

Aboulafia writes:

For a traveling public prepared to avoid any plane associated with fires, talk of managing heat and smoke rather than fixing the system completely was like waving a red cape in front of an economy-class bull.

Boeing can do better than this. In fact, the company probably is doing better than this right now. The company’s engineers are likely working on an array of alternative plans, including a complete system redesign. My concern, however, is that they aren’t messaging this at all. …

But for Boeing to message that this fix is the company’s sole proposal speaks to a culture that’s more in tune with financial needs than engineering requirements, a problem that set the stage for the 787’s problems in the first place. … It also speaks to management difficulties with harmonizing regulatory and market needs with engineering requirements.

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