Editorial: A reality check for aviation

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The grounding of the entire fleet of Boeing 787s – the flagship Dreamliner – is a move that the world's leading airline manufacturer had little choice over given the defects in it that have come to light. The flying public needed that reassurance, and for Boeing it was an inevitable first step in re-building a reputation that has undoubtedly been badly damaged.

Expert opinion is divided on just how big a risk to safety was posed by the fuel leaks, cracks, and problems with both brakes and electrical systems that have been reported. The Dreamliner was launched only 15 months ago and there are those in the industry who put what has happened firmly in the category of "teething difficulties". They may well be right. But that so many flaws should be appearing in an aeroplane supposedly at the forefront of aviation technology – hailed for setting new standards in both design and passenger comfort – is unfortunate to say the least, and leads to questions that not just Boeing, but the industry as a whole, should consider.

The first Dreamliner left the hangar in 2007, but a series of setbacks delayed its entry into service for four years. We are now entitled to ask whether it would have been better if Boeing had taken longer still over its preparation. That, of course, would have put it at a commercial disadvantage in an industry which to a great extent is defined by the battle for supremacy between Boeing and Airbus. When there can be no greater priority than passenger safety, is a rivalry of such intensity entirely healthy?

Figures out today showed that Boeing delivered slightly more planes than Airbus did in 2012 – 601 to 588 – to regain the global top spot. But perhaps the most relevant statistic to emerge was the drop-off in sales of Airbus's A380, the biggest airliner in the world. Only nine of the hoped-for 30 orders materialised, after cracks in the wings put off potential buyers. All of which points to an industry in which reliability and safety must always count for more than innovation and the race to be first.

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