Three lessons Seattle should learn from Boeing’s Dreamliner-gate

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The worldwide grounding of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner and its battery fire put everyone’s worst travel nightmare front and center. A local aerospace expert gave us three takeaways from the aftermath.

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Sam Kaplan, from the Trade Development Alliance, offers 3 lesson for Seattleites in the Boeing battery aftermath.

In case you only travel by car and haven’t been following the Boeing’s Dreamliner launch ordeal, here’s a quick recap.

An ANA domestic flight made an emergency landing in Japan on Jan. 16 after a battery malfunction sprayed a wacky chemical odor throughout the airplane.

Japan grounded all of its Dreamliners and the FAA and plethora of other global airline regulators soon followed suit.

As Boeing races against the clock to revive its broken fleet, we turned to a Seattle trade and aerospace sector expert to put the Dreamliner-gate in context.

Sam Kaplan is the president of the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle and works to raise the overseas profile of the region to encourage international trade and business.

Here are three lessons Kaplan schooled us on.

1. Wind and hydropower are great, but it isn’t worth a dam unless we can store it

“I’ve long thought that the Achilles heel of the modern day economy is energy storage,” Kaplan said. “We can generate energy with windmills and hydropower, but we have trouble storing it effectively.”

Washington’s impressive ability to generate low-cost hydropower was key to Boeing’s headquarters in Seattle. However, the pesky lithium battery that has caused all of the hullaballoo  is not a regional innovation.

Boeing sourced the lithium-ion units from Japanese battery maker, GS Yuasa Corp, and was a key selling point in saving airlines money in fuel costs.

“The airlines have been standing behind Boeing in the aftermath,” Kaplan said. “This 787 plays an important role for airlines because it saves them money, is fuel-efficient and is better for the environment.”

But the lithium batteries have had a track record of fire concerns that are now at the center of a probe by the National Transportation Safety Board. Now its a mater of time for Boeing and battery makers to address the fire concerns.

“Efficient energy storage is a tough nut to crack and this is another example of it,” Kaplan said.

2. Seattle and global business live and die together

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Boeing and Iraqi Airways debut the 747 in the 1970s. Like Boeing’s 787, this fleet was record-setting as the largest passenger fleet at the time and nicknamed “The Queen of the Skies.” Now one of the world’s most recognizable airplanes, the 787 will have a tough time living up to its big brother. (Photo courtesy of Rasha Asal)

According to trade alliance’s recent survey of international business and aerospace connections in the region, 40% of all jobs are tied to international trade, there are over 650 aerospace companies (many of them suppliers to Boeing and/or international companies with regional offices) and close to 90% of Boeing’s business is with international companies.

“This story really shows how we are tied internationally to this region. We have Boeing, but we also have Microsoft, Starbucks, Expedia and more,” Kaplan said. “When things are happening overseas, like the Japanese battery company, it’s most likely going to affect the Seattle region for good and bad.”

It’s important to note the U.S. regulators hesitated on grounding the fleet only after Japan’s two largest airlines, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, grounded their fleet. Europe, India, Chile and many others have followed suit in response.

It was the first time since 1979 that the FAA grounded a major airliner.

3. Humans are the worst at risk assessment 

It turns out that you are twice as likely to die from falling down than in a plane crash. A simple, yet horrifying, Google search of “how to survive a plane crash,” explains some of the underlying fear of Boeing’s battery nightmare.

“It’s true that humans are not always the best at risk assessment,” Kaplan said. “We are living right now in one of the safest eras of airplane travel ever and that’s with more flights.”

So while Boeing takes the bullet and rushes to fix their battery issue, the reaction, and perhaps overreaction, touches on our lingering global paranoia of airline travel.

“It’s not the flight you should be scared of,” Kaplan said. “It’s the cab ride at the end of the trip.”

Sara McCaslin is an editor and visual journalist for The Seattle Globalist. She worked for several daily midwest newspapers including The Flint Journal, The Columbia Missourian and The Boone County Journal before moving to Seattle. Sara trains the next generation of journalists through the Globalist Apprenticeship Program and is a graduate of the Journalism School at the University of Missouri.

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