Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner could be unsafe, says fired Boeing engineer

Boeing's new carbon-composite 787 Dreamliner plane may turn out to be unsafe and may lead to more deaths in a crash, says a report by controversial veteran journalist Dan Rather.

The new plane is mostly made from carbon composite materials, which, though very strong, are inherently more brittle, rather than the more traditional aluminium alloys, which are more flexible. Sceptics say that this means it is more likely to shatter on impact and may emit poisonous chemicals when engulfed by fire.

Rather's report is based on interviews with former Boeing engineer Vince Weldon as well as various industry experts, a transcript of the show indicates. "The problem is all the unknowns that are being introduced and then explained away as if there is no problem," Weldon is supposed to have said in an interview to be broadcast as part of Rather's report.

Weldon compares a recent crash in a standard aluminium plane, where the dented but intact fuselage kept fire at bay and allowed the passengers to leave the plane alive. In a composite airframe, the fuselage would not crumple. It would shatter. The shattered hole would enable the fire to get into the airplane. Weldon says this means fewer people getting out, and more deaths.

The engineer says Boeing fired him after a 46-year career because of his persistent complaints about the design of the 787. He claims that others at Boeing share his views, but are afraid to speak out. Boeing did not permit its officials to go on camera for Rather's report. But it said on Tuesday that Weldon's claims were not valid, and that the plane would not fly if it were not safe.

A Boeing representative said the company had looked into Weldon's claims, and technical committees had reviewed them. It said the materials it plans to use were "absolutely" safe, that they had been tested, and were sure to be certified by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).