Lightning Strike Forcibly Separates Fuselage Of American Airlines 787

Photos of damage to the fuselage of an American Airlines Boeing 787-9, registration N839AA, caused by a lightning strike, are spreading through social media. The incident occurred on Monday’s Tokyo Narita to Dallas – Fort Worth flight.

The plane, originally delivered in October 2018, has been on the ground in Dallas since the – and should remain there for some time as work is done on the aircraft.

Aviation watchdog JonNYC describes the work that is expected to be done to the aircraft to restore it to operational condition.

Jon also notes that “the 787 has a known issue with” lightning strikes. While on average it’s said that every commercial plane is struck by lightning at least once a year, I believe it’s been over 40 years since a crash has been attributed to a lightning strike. The fuselage of a plane will conduct electricity and allow it to trasmit from the strike and generally out the tail.

However Boeing actually reduced lightning protection in the wings of 787s in order to reduce costs and speed deliveries. They maintain that safety has not been compromised.

Here’s video from an Australian domestic Boeing 787 flight’s lightning strike.

And photos from a past American Airlines Boeing 787 lightning strike:

Deliveries of new Boeing 787s were halted this week for analysis of an issue with the fuselage. Deliveries of the aircraft were last paused from May 2021 through August 2022.

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Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Carbon fiber reinforced polymer aircraft such as the Boeing 787 and Airbus 350 and parts of the A220 and B777X are harder to protect from lightning than traditional aluminum aircraft.
    The irony is that the very noisy Qatar Airways/Airbus spat over that airline’s A350s was because QR believed that degradation of paint was a safety issue while Airbus said it was cosmetic.
    Although the QR/Airbus dispute has been settled and the undelivered A350-1000s are being prepared for delivery, Boeing 787s have been reported with the same paint degradation as on the A350.
    Perhaps the FAA is going to demand that Boeing strengthen the lightning protection on the 787 in addition to everything else it is finding wrong.

    It would be interesting to know how far away from DFW the flight was struck by lightning.

    It will take plenty of time to fix all of that.

  2. What’s scary about this situation is the fact that the airplane continued flying in this state for God knows how many hours on end? You would think that with a gash that big to the fuselage something more ominous could have happened. You guys, Boeing really needs to go back to the drawing board and address this issue properly. The mere fact that the 787 has a “known issue “ with lightning strikes is not especially reassuring! They had had to reduce the resistance in the wing frames to events like this one but at the same time, no safety was compromised sounds like total BS to me.

  3. Does anyone know if the cabin lost pressurization? Also is the cockpit alerted that lightning just whacked them?

  4. I have to imagine that airlines have their planes insured against non-catastrophic damage like this, to manage repair costs and ease the revenue impact of taking them out of service for a month or two. It’d be really funny if what finally gets Boeing to get their sh#t together is that their product becomes uninsurable. The hard-counter for an MBA bean counter is an actuary.

  5. Luke
    insurance is a process of spreading financial risk for the insured with the insurer. The insured pays for the right to be able to share risk with the insurer who will assess the payout relative to the risk they calculated.
    Lightning strikes are not supposed to create this much damage to an aircraft so the insurer could be willing to pay in alignment with the calculated risk. But if the damage was magnified by a manufacturer defect, the insurer either might not cover it – even if was insured – or turn around and seek compensation from the manufacturer.
    Ultimately, either the manufacturer or airline pays for claims which are outside of the calculated risk.
    AA and other very large airlines self insure large portions through reserves of the normal parts of their operation which include certain aircraft damage including things like hard landings by a pilot or normal weather damage to their equipment. Only if the cost of the repair exceeds the insurance level is there the basis for a claim – which will trigger a payout/calculated risk reassessment and potential adjustment of the premium.

    The Qatar/Airbus dispute is probably a better example of what happens and will happen in this case. Other airlines had paint degradation issues with their A350s besides QR but they worked privately with Airbus – which likely either directly compensated them for the additional maintenance or offered credits for future orders.

    If AA believes the damage is excessive relative to the weather situation the flight was in, they could seek compensation from Boeing.

    Airbus has improved the lightning protection on the A350 and Boeing likely will on the B787 either because of a federal requirement or because the costs become too high not to.

  6. Oh cripe, calm down. This type of damage is considered in the design of the aircraft. Its not a safety issue. Yes, it can be a pain to repair, but the repair manual contains the procedures.

    And the FAA does not regulate aircraft costs, just safety.

    (aerospace composite structures engineer)

  7. And now a 30 year veteran of Boeing will be Chairman of American. I hope that results in better, not worse, planes from Boeing. We will have to wait and see.

  8. Tim, that was an extremely long-winded way of basically making the same point as me. If the cost to insure Boeing aircraft – whether by amortizing costs across the business and over time, or via an explicit third-party policy – becomes unpredictable or uneconomical, then airlines will reconsider their future capital purchases.

    Steve, you were probably addressing Gary, but I definitely don’t consider this a safety issue, and would think nothing of it had I been on this aircraft. I was never in any danger. But Boeing’s lackadaisical attitude will likely increase maintenance costs for their customers.

  9. “However Boeing actually reduced lightning protection in the wings of 787s in order to reduce costs and speed deliveries. ”
    Need we say more? 737s, 787s, — anything else with shortcuts?
    I get the aluminium v composite point, but there are several reasons I prefer to fly Airbus.

  10. That the aircraft continued to fly to a safe landing manes that the overall design actions taken for lightning strike protection worked. It might look ugly but function was preserved. To an engineer survive and look pretty is a far different consideration than survive and maintain structural integrity

  11. @Luke – I would expect AA and other major carriers to self insure for this type of damage. At most they would have some level of catastrophic reinsurance against loss of use like when an entire type of plane, 737 Max for example, is out of service or liability related to a crash which would only kick in above a certain level. Just like most large companies self insure their employee healthcare (the “insurance company” you contact is only a claims processor for the company) it is cheaper to self insure (or in this case maybe do without and just reserve for anticipated costs) than pay an insurance company’s admin cost and profit

    However if it is determined this is a defect on the part of Boeing (likely not since the FAA was aware and certified it) AA could sue Boeing

  12. @Greg

    My first thought but the black we see is not open space but a layer of carbon fiber material. We won’t know how much this penetrated but I don’t see a hole through the other side.

  13. thanks, George.
    no, I do not sell insurance but I do think American and Boeing understand it
    and the way the Airbus situation was handled – as nasty as it publicly got -might provide an indication of what could happen with Boeing and the 787.
    The difference is that AA had a plane that actually suffered damage due to weather while Qatar did not.
    Maybe AA will just eat it or maybe the issue isn’t really about money but about a live test of yet another 787 system that the FAA decides to weigh in on – and end up making Boeing’s and the airlines’ lives harder in the process.

  14. Regardless of whether a lightning strike is of immediate concern (it is not) the reality is that the long term effects are far more eye raising. A perfect example is JAL 123 in the 1980’s. The need for repairs offers far more chances for mistakes. No, the JAL flight was not a lightening strike, but it was involved in a situation that involved a repair, flew for thousands of hours after, and eventually crashed as a result of the repairs being faulty. The reality is that if you build in more cause for repairs you create more cause for faulty repairs.

  15. Thanks Tim! Your comments are always informative and respectful and I appreciate that. Too little of that in these times…..

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