Back in 2003, Boeing needed to develop a new plane to replace the decades old 767 with a more efficient alternative in an age of Sh80 per litre fuel.
As explained by a Boeing representative to Africa in a talk during my training, Boeing had decided to concentrate on connecting city pairs, a point to point model.
It felt that passengers would prefer direct routes rather than flying through hubs such as the major European cities or Middle Eastern cities such as Dubai or Doha.
Rather than compete with the A380 in the very large airliner category, a decision was made to build an efficient airliner in the 200 seater range, and the rather well named 787 Dreamliner was born.
The plane was made mostly from lighter composite materials rather than the traditional aluminium. Larger diameter, more efficient engines were built for the new plane.
Lastly, electric systems replaced hydraulic and pressurised bleed air systems for airplane systems such as flight controls and cabin pressurisation.
While most of those changes were made with the intention of saving fuel, the end result was an engineering marvel with high-tech gifts for pilots, engineers and passengers.
There were of course bumps along the way, with delays caused by problems due to a globally distributed supply chain and some rework needed on already built planes.
Eventually though, everything came together and Boeing went on a “Dreamtour”, in perhaps a stretching of the “dream” monicker, in which the plane made stops in among other places Nairobi.
Staff endured long queues to view the plane egged on by our radio DJs, clearly a testament to the excitement that the plane was generating. And then the problems started; a window crack here, a fuel leak there, electric malfunctions.
As one of the most keenly followed airplane launches, the media breathlessly reported on every hiccup. Some of these were indeed routine failures or could be brushed off as teething problems.
Usually all planes suffer failures of some sort, but as a result of dual or triple redundancy safety is not compromised. Repair is either done immediately or deferred until a check when it can be attended to.
But then a battery caught fire on ground and one overheated in the air. The batteries were made from lithium, which can catch fire when overcharged or excessively discharged.
This thermal runaway as it’s called is very difficult to stop once it starts so the efforts are concentrated on preventing it from starting in the first place. A fire in general in a plane is a bad thing; even if you’re not incinerated by the high temperatures, the smoke from burnt plastic can easily overwhelm both crew and passengers.
Operators and then regulators rushed to ground the 787.
Batteries are required in planes to power critical electric systems in case of failure of the generators. Lithium batteries pack the most energy for a given weight, a fact that anyone with a mobile phone smaller than a brick appreciates.
In an increasingly mobile world, consumer companies have found ways of mitigating the risks of lithium batteries though aviation authorities have until recently been reluctant to join the bandwagon.
The issue then is that there has to be a balance between regulators allowing technology to progress while still prioritising safety. Clearly both the regulator and the plane manufacturer took a chance with the batteries that they felt were safe.
Unlike in the past where it took an accident for a drastic measure such as a grounding to occur, now in a sign of how seriously safety is taken, severe incidents have resulted in the plane being grounded.
And the planes won’t be allowed back in the air until the authorities are satisfied that the batteries are safe.
This may all turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Boeing. All this playing out in the public arena is a sign that the system is working as it should.
Thus, when is returned back to service, I’d like to urge all to feel free to travel on the Dreamliner and enjoy their low fares enabled by the very efficient 787.
Ondiek is a computer programmer and pilot with a major airline