Unless you’re an aviation enthusiast, it’s unlikely you know who Gordon Bethune is. A quick peek at his Wikipedia page shows a career working for various airlines (and even a stint at Boeing), but the thing he’s most known for is his long tenure running Continental Airlines. Most consider him to be the savior of Continental in the mid 90s. I was never a Continental customer myself, but all of my colleagues who flew Continental swear by the man. He commands attention in the aviation industry on a fairly regular basis even though it’s been almost 10 years since he’s run an airline.
With that being said, it was inevitable someone would ask Gordon about the grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. But, I was still surprised when a close friend sent me a link to Gordon’s op-ed piece in the USA Today. Gordon believes strongly that it was a mistake to ground the 787:
The jump earlier this month to ground the 787 Dreamliner, a thoroughly vetted airplane with 1.3 million safe hours of operation, is absurd. The people making this call are career politicians and bureaucrats with no — zero — expertise in aviation.
That’s a pretty aggressive way to start an op-ed, but I think it’s pretty clear where he stands on the issue. Once you get to the meat of the article, though, he’s quick to focus on a point that should resonate as to the size of the reaction as compared to the scope of the issue as it’s currently known:
The battery failures on two jetliners, on the ground in Boston and on an ANA flight in Japan, were different and appear unrelated. Both were safely contained, as designed.
I’m on record (here and here) saying that I’m prepared to get back on the 787 even though I do understand why government agencies around the world grounded the Dreamliner. There are two factors in play here, IMO, that haven’t existed in previous issues with planes. First is social media and the immediacy of the news media to report on a story. Second is the fact that this is the first time the emerging technology of large-scale lithium-ion batteries have been used in such a significant way in flight. I’ve heard other rumblings from people that the grounding may take a much longer time than we are considering because nobody’s entirely sure what it will take to rectify an issue that hasn’t been clearly identified.
While I think Gordon’s article is a bit more sharp in tone than it needs to be, the underlying message is one recognizing an overreaction. In most situations, an overreaction to protect customer safety would be fine. But, the longer the 787 stays grounded without a “root cause” for the two recent issues, the harder I think it becomes for investigators to say, “we didn’t find anything, go ahead and start flying again.” People are going to be looking for a reason, it’s the way our society works. And, again, I get that.
I just hope we make progress on this soon before the public loses confidence in a story that’s yielded very few new facts in the last week.