MADRID—Three years of Boeing 787 delays should have provided ample time for airlines and their maintenance organizations to ready themselves for the new generation of aircraft. Reality looks quite different, though.

The MRO community may have spent years preparing for the arrival of the airframe's heavy use of composites, but it has failed to sort out all the repair issues. Furthermore, the MRO sector and airlines are only starting to wake up to all aspects of the new realities associated with the 787 and, a few years later, the Airbus A350. An increase in software complexity and more electric systems are just some of the other issues that will force changes within maintenance organizations.

A big question still hangs over the repair strategy for composite airframes. While monolithic structures should be more durable than traditional honeycomb composites, damage incurred in the field could be more difficult to repair—and visible damage typically will require feedback from the OEM.

This is causing anxiety in the aftermarket because airlines and MRO facilities would like the structural data to create repairs; however, manufacturers are safeguarding that intellectual property. James Kornberg—Air France Industries' general manager for customer support, products and business development—voices concern that OEMs will have a monopoly on these repairs and that the lack of competition will escalate prices. He also worries about the time it will take to devise fixes.

Boeing plans to quickly develop repairs that are not covered in the structures manual by using 3-D models and associated intellectual property, says Arne Lewis, a company associate technical fellow for 787 services. Because of the design integrity and data needed, it would be difficult for MROs to design fixes outside the repair manual, he argues, a view that is echoed by Airbus. But Lewis and Roland Thevenin, a senior composites expert at Airbus, concede that if airlines or MROs propose repair schemes with appropriate data and testing methodologies, creating fixes would be faster.

For the near term, Boeing has devised a system that will allow small damage to the composite structure to be mended using a 1-hr. patch repair. But for larger damage, authorities have not approved a simple repair mechanism.

Franz Josef Kirschfink, director for technology projects at Lufthansa Technik, worries that the current patching approach is too ad hoc to make regulators feel comfortable with the process. He says that more automated processes that are stable and reproducible will have to be developed to gain regulatory buy-in for large repairs.

What is more, he says, better nondestructive inspection tools will be required. Boeing has designed a system that can identify nonvisible damage to a composite structure, but Kirschfink argues that “we have to [create] a detection system that does not say whether there is a problem, but provides much more information on what is the type of damage and what are the actions that have to be taken.”

Even if composite repair is drawing most of the attention, there are many other support issues to worry about with the new aircraft, says Tobias Hundhausen, who is in charge of Air Berlin's 787 fleet introduction; he points to field-loadable software in particular. Technicians, for example, will have be comfortable using a laptop to troubleshoot problems.

The 787's large use of fiber-optic wiring—the aircraft has roughly 1.7 km (1 mi.) of fiber—will require a huge amount of training, says Hundhausen.

Some of these complexities will affect route decisions. For example, Air Berlin, which is to receive its first 787 in 2014, plans to serve major airports first, concerned that operating it to some of its more remote destinations could be a risk owing to lack of support.