Air Transport World

The hidden cost of high tech: advanced composites. (composite material aircraft parts are very expensive to repair) (includes related articles about Nordam's composite repair facility and regional airlines's cost concerns)

In their enthusiasm for advanced materials and systems, have manufacturers lost sight of the needs of their customers?

A lot of ink has been spilled extolling the virtues of high-tech in commercial-transport aircraft, and with good reason. Modern cockpit automation dramatically reduces aircraft operating costs by eliminating the need for a third person on the flight deck. Yet, despite the absence of a flight engineer, today's glass cockpits offer a substantial increase in the quantity and quality of information available to the crew and maintenance personnel.

Meanwhile, new-materials technologies allow manufacturers to carve thousands of pounds off airframes, permitting increased carrying capacity and substantial fuel savings.

Nevertheless, these advances in technology do not come without a price. A new A320 costs $35-40 million but will carry only as many passengers as a $6 million 727-200. Boeing's 747-400 will set you back $140 million to carry maybe 36 more people a bit farther than a $25 million 747-200.

Of course, the fact that today's aircraft are vastly more expensive on a cost-per-seat basis than they were in the days of analog instruments, flight engineers and sheet metal is news to no one. But beyond the initial cost of new aircraft, airlines are learning that there are less-quantifiable expenses and there are the ones that they are beginning to identify as the hidden costs of high tech.

Too often, some airline executives say, a "technology for technology's sake" mindset exists among aircraft designers, with little thought for the actual needs of the airlines that will purchase, operate and have to maintain these high-tech marvels.

Not aviation "Luddites" but rather, individuals in business to make a profit and earn a return for their shareholders, these people no longer are convinced that high technology always is better. The concerns and experiences that they present should be taken seriously by the aircraft designers in Long Beach, Seattle and Toulouse.


When manufacturers talk about advanced composites, they stress the huge weight savings over metal and the ease with which they can be formed into complex, drag-defeating shapes. They talk about the fact that composites don't corrode or fatigue. They extol the tremendous strength of composite structures.

Airline maintenance departments see another side to the composite revolution, however, and it has them worried. They are concerned about the lack of standardization of composite materials and the cost of replacement parts. Contrary to expectations, they are discovering that composites are far from maintenance-free and repairs that were quick and easy on sheet-metal structures are complex and time-consuming when composite structures are involved. They fret over the scarcity of nondestructive-testing procedures. They deal with regulatory agencies that may be even farther back on the learning curve than themselves. Most of all, they are discovering that when composite repair is concerned, they often are going where no one has gone before.

Jim Epperson and William F. Weaver of American Airlines deal with issues such as these every day. Weaver is manager-aircraft composites. Epperson is composites/bonded structures project engineer. Both are based in Tulsa at American's state-of-the art composite-repair facility.

They are proud of American's composite-repair capability but see major drawbacks to the widespread use of composite technology in aviation. …

Log in to your account to read this article – and millions more.