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Dreamliner Returns, And Boeing Is Watching Its Every Move

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Aviation experts continue to follow up on a number of recent accidents and incidents: the Asiana crash, a botched landing by a Southwest jet and problems with an emergency beacon on a Boeing 787.

The entire fleet of 787s was grounded earlier this year for battery problems. Now, the Dreamliners are back in service and Boeing is monitoring them around the clock.

There are tens of thousands of things that can be measured and tracked on Boeing's new flagship jet, and that's just what they're doing inside the company's 787 Operations Control Center in Everett, Wash.

Boeing Vice President Mike Fleming, is giving a rare tour of the facility. He points to two giant maps showing the location each 787 currently in flight. The maps also show the planes' speed and altitude.

But there is much more. Boeing has delivered about 70 Dreamliners so far. Equipped with highly sophisticated on-board monitoring systems, the planes send back massive amounts of information while in the air. Computer software sifts thru the data and anomalies or potential problems pop up in yellow or red on giant computer screens.

"So a red item ... [means] there is a maintenance action that needs to go out and be cleared on the airplane before you have it depart," Fleming explains.

In other words, the part will have to be replaced or a system fixed before the plane can take off again. Most of these are pretty minor issues, but they still have to be addressed. The goal is to do it as quickly as possible. Delays and cancelled flights make passengers unhappy and cost the airlines a lot of money.

With real-time monitoring, Boeing and the airlines are more likely to have replacement parts on hand even before the plane lands. That job falls to Andy Beadle, a procurement agent at Boeing.

"Getting a head start on things, it's kind of a dream come true because I get four or five hours that I normally never got in the past," Beadle says.

Overall, Boeing says it can offer a level of customer support it couldn't deliver before. In an extreme case — Mike Flemming says he can think of three such instances — Boeing experts talked directly to pilots who had questions while in flight.

"I think it's made a difference every single time," he says, "in terms of the level of understanding that we gave the pilots in terms of what they were seeing on the airplane [and] their level of comfort with the aircraft. In every one of those cases the airplane went on and did a normal landing."

Monitoring an airplane while in flight is nothing new, but the sophistication here— and the amount of data being reviewed is. United Airlines, the only U.S. airline currently flying the 787, is pleased.

"Boeing created the aircraft, they designed it [and] they know it from the inside out, so it helps to have both of us monitoring it at the same time," said United Airlines spokeswoman Christen David.

What's more, since Boeing can track data from every flight simultaneously in real time, the airplane maker can spot trends or problems across the entire fleet much sooner. That is especially important when a new plane like the 787 goes into service.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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