Dreamliner: Not quite a dream start

Courtesy AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi

Courtesy AFP/Kazuhiro Nogi

ON September 26, 2011, All Nippon Airways (ANA) became the first commercial airline to receive the Boeing 787 Dreamliner after a 3-year delay in the planned delivery.

Some 15 months later, on Jan 9 this year, an erroneous computer report of a brake problem resulted in a flight being cancelled. Two days later, an oil leak in an engine was reported. On that same day, a cockpit window on one of the aircraft cracked during a domestic flight. This same aircraft experienced a fuel leak while undergoing tests in Tokyo. Then on Jan 15, another Dreamliner operated by the Japanese carrier made an emergency landing at Takamatsu after a smoke alert went off.

On Jan 16, ANA grounded its fleet of 17 Dreamliners and its management made a public apology to its customers for the inconvenience. Rival Japan Airlines (JAL) also grounded its 7 Dreamliners, following an incident in Boston on Jan 7 when a fire started in a lithium ion battery pack and the aborted take-off a day later because of a fuel spillage.

Together, the two Japanese carriers operate almost half the number of the world’s 50 Boeing 787 in operation. The other owner airlines that have also taken steps to ground their fleet are Air India (6 aircraft), United Airlines (UA) (6), Qatar Airways (5), Ethiopian Airlines (4), Chile’s LAN Airlines (3) and LOT Polish Airlines (2).

It is not just ANA and JAL that are facing Dreamliner issues. On Dec 4 last year, UA made an emergency landing in New Orleans after electrical problems were detected. Again on Dec 12, another Dreamliner aircraft experienced an electrical problem. Then on Jan 8 this year, faulty wiring to the battery was detected.

Electrical power distribution problems also caused a Dreamliner aircraft of Qatar Airways to be grounded on Dec 12 last year.

It is therefore not a surprise that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the United States has deemed it necessary to issue a directive to ground Dreamliner operations pending safety investigations. The move is supported by its European counterpart. The agencies are concerned that failures of the lithium ion batteries in use could result in the release of flammable electrolytes, heat damage and smoke. According to the FAA, “These conditions, if not corrected, could result in damage to critical systems and structures, and the potential for fire in the electrical compartment.”

When problems were first reported, many observers had dismissed them as the expected “teething problems” of any new equipment. After all, Airbus 380 has had its fair share of start-up issues. But the FAA directive and expressed concern of the respective national agencies may have given the matter new urgency even as Boeing declared its confidence in its product. Boeing Chief executive Jim McNerney said: “We will be taking every necessary step in the coming days to assure our customers and the travelling public of the 787’s safety and to return the airplanes to service.”

It is in Boeing’s interest to resolve the issue ASAP, considering how this could affect Dreamliner orders, although understandably the limited choice in the market may well cushion any impact. Boeing has more than 500 Dreamliners on order, with significant numbers from Air Canada (37 aircraft), UA (36), Qatar (30), Air India (27), JAL (25), Aeroflot (22), LAN (22), Delta Air Lines (18) and Gulf Air (16). Boeing needs to sell 1,100 Dreamliners over the next decade to break even.

While the company faces the prospect of compensatory payments, its relationships with customer airlines have been dealt a severe blow. Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al Baker told the BBC: “I don’t think there’s any excuse for these problems anymore.” He might not agree with Scoot (a budget offshoot of Singapore Airlines which had recently decided to place an order for 20 Dreamliners) chief executive Campbell Wilson that the problems were “a flash in the pan”. Mr Al Baker said he would expect Boeing to pay compensation for its failure to deliver usable planes.

More than just disruptions of scheduled flights, some airlines may now find their plans to expand into new routes and set up new operations being set back for the lack of aircraft. In light of the keen competition among the airlines, it can be expected that the opportunity cost will be high.

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About David Leo
David Leo has more than 30 years of aviation experience, having served in senior management in one of the world's best airlines and airports. He continues to maintain a keen interest in the business, writes freelance and provides consultancy services in the field.

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