The 787, aviation reporting, and participatory journalism

By IKU KAWACHI

Developing and putting into production a brand-new commercial jetliner is always a massive undertaking for aerospace companies like Boeing (United States), Airbus (France), and Embraer (Brazil), one that can cost tens of billions of dollars.

While such corporations only commit to new programs after carefully assessing market needs and available technologies and engaging in much discussion with potential customers, any number of problems can occur during development and testing. Today, with communication more immediate and citizen-centric than ever, we are witnessing a re-invention via the Web of every facet of aviation reporting.

The Boeing 787, a wide-body airliner designed to replace the 767 that forms the backbone of major airlines like American, United, and Air Canada, is being toted as the latest and greatest aircraft to emerge from Boeing’s highly successful Commercial Airplanes division. The last commercial airliner to be developed by a major corporation was the double-deck Airbus A380, which took to the skies in April 2005 but was only delivered in October 2007 after much delay. For Boeing, it’s their first all-new commercial aircraft program since the larger 777 that entered service in 1995.

The sheer complexity of such programs and the vast number of parts, employees, and contractors that are involved perhaps make the occasional hiccup unavoidable — a problem with the wiring harnesses here or a dispute with a contractor over poor workmanship there.

Unfortunately, the development of both the A380 and 787 have fallen far behind schedule. The latter was scheduled to embark on its first flight in August 2007 and be delivered to its launch customer, All Nippon Airways, in May 2008. Its first flight took place last December, and no one is certain when its flight test program will conclude and the airline can finally take delivery.

Naturally, it is the airlines and their stockholders that are the most concerned; most have spent billions on their orders of the aircraft and are depending on it to expand or replace their fleet. What may be more surprising is how pertinent the rise of citizen or participatory journalism is to the aviation industry. Everyone from employees to industry analysts to mere aviation fans is taking part, uploading photos, posting newsworthy tidbits on their blogs, and exchanging information on discussion forums.

Take Airliners.net: the largest aviation-related database in the world, it has hundreds of photos of every stage of the 787 development program, from its initial roll-out ceremony in July 2007 to flight testing conducted just a few weeks ago. (Remember, this is of an airliner that has yet to even carry its first civilian passenger.)

Blogs, both spin-offs of news publications like FlightBlogger (Flightglobal) and Things With Wings (Aviation Week) and privately maintained sites like All Things 787, report on the latest news related to the aircraft, whether it occur in Everett, Wash., where it undergoes final assembly, or Mumbai, India, where the floor beams are constructed. Matt Cawby, an aviation photographer, covers Paine Field in Everett like a beat reporter, posting photos and videos on a semi-daily basis of the latest aircraft spotted there.

Even Boeing itself has taken to reporting on its new aircraft in new ways, launching a flashy interactive Web site dedicated to the 787 and other development programs such as the 747-8. Its vice president for marketing, Randy Tinseth, has his own blog, a PR tool of sorts to update those interested on Boeing’s progress.

It could even be argued that the immediacy and ease of participatory journalism have made Boeing, their contractors, and other aerospace companies more accountable to the flying public. When one of the flight test aircraft was evacuated because a small fire broke out in an electronics bay during flight, users at Airliners.net were discussing what had happened and All Things 787 had broken the news within hours, prompting Boeing to hurriedly issue a series of press releases explaining the incident.

Perhaps it is only natural, given how trends in journalism, social media, and communication as a whole have influenced all areas of society—even those that may seem too technically obscure to interest the public at large.

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