How are Light Weight Aircraft Materials Holding Up? John Goglia

As we all know, aircraft manufacturers have been under tremendous competitive pressure to lighten up their aircraft so the airline customers who buy them can increase the aircraft’s range and lower their fuel costs. At the same time, airlines are under similar pressure to install light-weight materials in their cabins for the same reasons and also because they may be cheaper to purchase. So how are these new, lighter-weight materials holding up? I thought I would ask you, the maintenance community working on these aircraft, what your observations are.

This has been an area of much discussion over the last few years but the issue was brought back to my attention by a recent flight on a Boeing 787 from London to Hyderabad. As I wrote recently for Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/sites/johngoglia/2015/06/17/british-airways-787-flight-what-a-difference-a-year-makes/, I was surprised at how quickly the interior of the cabin had aged.

 I had flown a British Airways 787 just one year prior on the same routing – when the aircraft had just been added to the fleet – and had been very favorably impressed with the customer experience. Even in coach – which was always far from comfortable on a 10 hour flight even in earlier times – there was much to distract you from the 17.5 inch seat and awkwardly placed electric box in the foot space of every aisle and window seat. For one, the seat cushion was plump and, more importantly, the entertainment system was a great distraction. 

This time, a year later, the plane was decidedly worn. In fact, a light-weight panel that ran from the overhead storage bin to the bulkhead had broken and had been repaired with clear tape. I don’t know what that says to other passengers, but to me that kind of repair speaks volumes about the stress the aircraft and crews must be under to keep the plane flying. The seats had lost all softness. But the most personally annoying issue was that the entertainment system didn’t work and apparently a number of other passengers had the same problem. The headset jack is located on the inside arm of the seat so it’s vulnerable to passengers hitting into it, especially when getting up with the headset plugged in. 

So, of course, this was one flight and you can’t reach many conclusions from just one flight. But after I wrote the article, I heard from several 787 mechanics that the “cheap” interiors the airlines are installing are not holding up under the tremendous passenger loads. But I was wondering what others thought about the wear and tear aspect of these materials.

I was also curious what your experiences were with the aircraft’s composite materials and how they were holding up. It would be great if you could comment here – anonymously is fine – or send me an email at gogliaj@yahoo.com. I know mechanics often know the most about their aircraft – but are frequently the last to be asked for their input.  

Comments

John, I sure can’t speak to the heavy metal sector of our business, because my playground is turbine engine helicopters. Because weight considerations have always been a major factor in our world, and were non-pressurized, the newer generation helicopters are using composites rather extensively.

For the most part the composites are more challenging to inspect for cracks and debonding. Partially, because we have not gained the experience yet. I will say our OEM’s are very proactive about their involvement and communication with the operators so as to stay on top of issues as they arise.

Although not having anything to base this perception on; I think the OEM’s are leaning towards the auto industry in some regards. You might pull 300 thousand miles out of your auto’s drivetrain, but the plastic junk surrounding it sure won’t make it 300,000 miles. Some composite repairs are difficult and very time consuming. This lends itself to the decision to replace rather than repair, and I feel as the OEM’s are designing this in where they can. It’s a win win for the OEM’s, they save a few pounds making non-flight-critical parts lighter and cheaper, that’s a few more pounds of useful load, and we have to replace the non-flight-critical parts more frequently.

All I know is if you fly on one the better international air carriers you realize what bottom feeders our air carriers have become. Corporate greed written all over that sector of the business.

I would prefer to be completely sedated at check in, dropped in a shipping container and woke up in baggage claim upon arrival. Under this concept, no one is a flight risk, the traveler doesn’t have to put up with the airport or air carrier’s BS, they make more money flying us as cargo, and I avoid the mental anguish of air travel as we know it today. 1st class service could be you sedate me before I get to the airport, and wake me up in the hotel room or in my home!!!