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Sun, Jul 25, 2004 - Page 12 News List

'Dreamliner' has yet to convince skeptics it is safe

Is the world ready for jets that pop freshly baked out of an oven? The pros and cons of Boeing's plastic Dreamliner project

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

If Boeing's plans for the 7E7 Dreamliner come true, air travel will become cleaner for the environment, quieter for those living near airports and more pleasant for passengers.

The US aircraft maker says all of these things will flow from the unprecedented use of advanced weight-saving composites and plastics in the 7E7 series of 200-300 passenger jets it will be producing from late 2008.

Advanced composites are being hailed by Boeing as the "new steel" of the 21st century.

They comprise thin yet incredibly strong sheets of carbon fibers and other non-metallic materials glued together with epoxy resins and baked in giant ovens or autoclaves.

The US-based plane maker says it aims to cut final assembly-time of the jets, using large, seamless, rivet free molded parts, from more than four weeks for metal airliners down to three days.

Although composite parts were first used by Airbus 20 years ago, they have never been used as extensively as in the new Boeings, with most of the fuselage, wings and tail made of the miracle materials.

But the design of the 7E7 series -- and the 62 early orders placed by All Nippon Airways, Air New Zealand, First Choice (UK) and Blue Panorama of Italy -- are "provisional" meaning as yet incomplete.

Many questions remain unanswered should one of them crash and burn.

Australia's National Airports Emergency Planning Committee has spent several years working on new procedures for composite aircraft accidents for Airservices Australia, which runs the country's major accident response units as well as its air traffic control system.

The issue for Airservices Australia was the habit of military high-composite aircrafts such as the B-2 stealth bomber or the Black Hawk helicopter to turn into toxic smoke instead of a heap of metal when they crash and burn.

Also, if broken but not burning, advanced composite materials may shatter into potentially lethal contaminants and clouds of light but exceptionally sharp long glassy needles.

Because some of Australia's major airports are shared by both its own air force as well as those of visiting allies, the emergency planning committee began reviewing procedures for such accidents well before Boeing announced the Dreamliner project early last year.

Although according to Airservices Australia, there was never any suggestion that the new Boeings -- or even the giant Airbus A380, which is 23 percent composite in structure -- would be banned, spokesman Richard Dudley said: "We were just determined to understand what different issues might arise in an accident, and do the planning well in advance."

The concerns of the closed sessions of the planning committee in the event of a crash were many, including whether a high proportion of survivors and their rescue workers would die from the longer term effects of inhaling toxic by-products and if there were any proven procedures for effectively decontaminating people exposed to the materials.

It seems there might not be definitive answers until after the jets are in service, even if the worst fears of some experts prove unfounded.

Leith Higgins, director of the Fire and Emergency Services Authority in Western Australia, has been Airservices Australia's leading adviser on composite materials and has studied them in great detail over the past three years.

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