The failure rained aircraft parts onto a suburban neighborhood. Fortunately no one on the ground was hurt and the plane was able to land with no injuries. But the vivid videos shot by passengers of the burning remains of the engine and news photos of holes in residents’ roofs and huge pieces of the plane in front yards certainly brought Boeing a lot of unneeded attention.
It’s the latest in a list of problems for various Boeing twin-aisle models — and the lucrative widebody jet business is important for the company, because that’s where it holds the clear lead over rival Airbus, which is first in single-aisle jet sales.
In fact, the latest 777 grounding may be the least serious of Boeing’s widebody problems, even if the headlines are the the most glaring.
But several other issues Boeing faces are not so easy to fix.
And even before the pandemic and the 737 Max grounding, Boeing has lagged in the single-aisle plane market.
Rival Airbus has more sales in that part of the market — along with a shiny new long-range single-aisle plane for which Boeing does not have a competitor. And with airlines moving toward using single-aisle rather than widebody jets on more routes, Aboulafia said Boeing’s competitive disadvantage is a more serious long-term threat to the company than the Max grounding.
787 Dreamliner, 777X and other problems
Beyond the existing Max challenges and new 777 grounding, Boeing has already announced plans to shutter a 787 factory in Washington state in the coming months since it needs to cut back production due to weak demand. The company expects to build only five 787 Dreamliners and two 777s or 777Xs each month, less than half of the pre-pandemic production rate for those aircraft.
The Covid-19 effect on international long-haul routes in particular “has shifted the anticipated replacement wave and overall demand for widebody airplanes,” Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told investors last month.
The 777 grounding
The 777 grounding after this weekend affected 69 planes that were in service with engines built by Pratt & Whitney. (Another 59 of the company’s 777s with those engines were already out of service due to lack of demand.)
The exact cause of the two engine failures over the weekend has yet to be determined. Given how long the engines have been in use, it’s unlikely that it was a design issue but could instead be a manufacturing or a maintenance problem, said Aboulafia.
“It could accelerate the retirement of some of these older 777s, but that’s not a major problem for Boeing,” he added.
Aboulafia said these widespread problems don’t mean Boeing planes are not safe. But he said the issues do underscore a growing challenge for a company that once was recognized as a safety leader.
“I think Boeing has a serious issue in terms of technical execution related to new plane development,” Aboulafia said. “Other than the Max, it hasn’t been a safety issue. But you could see it becoming a safety perception problem if they’re not careful.”