OEMs must meet customer demands for more efficient, lighter, environmentally robust aircraft that also fulfill the demands of the airlines’ own customers.                                                                       

“We continually listen to our customer demands” is a phrase not merely given lip service in this industry; it’s a deeply-held mantra that must be delivered to maintain competitiveness and ensure business success.

It’s equally true, however, that long delays in the development and delivery of new aircraft types are not in the interests of airlines, their passengers, or the OEMs. And it’s even more true that a lengthy grounding of a new aircraft less than 18 months after it entered service is not merely shocking in the 21st century, it’s seriously disruptive and a costly hit to the bottom lines of vendors and customers alike.

The 787 issues are not teething problems; one aircraft caught fire and another was forced to make an emergency landing. In both cases, the aircraft’s lightweight lithium ion battery malfunctioned and this battery remains the focal point of investigations in the US and Japan. US National Transportation Safety Board chairman Deborah Hersman said that assumptions made by Boeing and FAA to justify certifying those batteries must be reconsidered and she warned there was “a long road ahead” before the root cause of the incidents is known.

This is where the 787 issues differ from those of the Airbus A380 wing cracks problem, which at least became understood relatively quickly. However, the A380 similarly experienced lengthy production and delivery delays and its subsequent wing issue is also expensive and disruptive early in the aircraft’s lifetime. OEMs cannot have it both ways: they cannot continue to say that new aircraft production delays ultimately ensure a trouble-free entry into service, only for airlines to have to take their new aircraft out of service for weeks or months because of serious technological problems. That’s not just the long road, it’s the wrong road.

Technology advances in this industry are not only essential but also a fundamental principle of how the era of powered flight transitioned from the Wright Flyer to modern jets. But it may be time to reassess approaches to testing and certification processes, which have similarly come a long way from Orville and Wilbur’s relentless try it, fly it, try it again methodology. Increased reliance on separate, parallel testing and simulations have clearly not always delivered the promised shortening of time from program launch to delivery. If you really want to see how badly parallel testing can turn out, look to the military’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. A commendable aspect of the FAA’s comprehensive review of the 787’s critical systems is that it is taking a holistic look at how all those systems work and interact together. But the need for this review also indicates a potential requirement for new aircraft to be exhaustively flown and tested as the integrated systems they are before final certification and customer delivery.

It’s essential that these lessons be fully understood and addressed before the launch of development programs for the all-new narrowbodies that ultimately will follow the 737 MAX and A320neo. In the long-run, that is the best way for OEMs to truly meet customer demands.