For airlines, fuel efficiency, quietness and a unique range far outweigh a battery problem that will be fixed
As Boeing showed off its multibillion-dollar baby on the Dreamliner’s promotional world tour in 2011, one quirky feature was regularly pointed out: a sleekly designed but redundant ashtray, a compliance with regulations laid down in a different age. In the darkest torments of Boeing executives during the past few incident-packed weeks, it may have finally appeared of use: somewhere to enjoy the cigarette of the condemned, a quiet smoke to mask the smell of burning battery.
A little over a week ago, America’s government and air authorities stood shoulder to shoulder with their top exporter, Boeing, to assure the world that the plane was safe after a string of incidents from fuel leaks, windscreen cracks and battery fires. They still say it – only, right now, that no one should fly in it.
By Wednesday, a diagnosis of teething problems was no longer enough. The burning battery was back, and Japanese authorities said the latest incident was “highly serious”. Corrosive fluid had leaked down through the state-of-the-art electronics below the cockpit. Hideyo Kosugi, a Japanese safety investigator surveying the All Nippon Airways 787 that had made an emergency landing at Takamatsu airport, said the stuff had gone right through the floor.
After the Japanese airlines operating almost half of the Dreamliners worldwide decided they could risk it no longer, the US Federal Aviation Administration grounded all 787s in its jurisdiction. From India to Qatar, Poland to Chile and finally Ethiopia, the global fleet was taken out of action, an ignominious fate for a plane that had been so eagerly anticipated for so very long.
In an industry where different models are normally denoted by numbers alone, naming the 787 the Dreamliner was to invite attention: a bold statement that this was to be something fundamentally different. This craft does not simply carry the commercial aspirations of Boeing; it has become symbolic of aviation’s promises for a greener, quieter future.
For passengers, there was the thrill of bigger windows, funky lighting and increased cabin pressure, said to reduce the ill-effects of flying. Thomson, the first UK customer, has built an ad campaign around it. But for airlines, the critical selling point was fuel efficiency, where the airline executives’ and the environmentalists’ interests briefly coincide.
While rivals mutter that the aspirations have yet to be matched in operations, the lighter plane promised a 20% cut in the soaring fuel bills that have wiped out profits for many airlines.
The Dreamliner also promised a range unique for an aircraft of its size, potentially making direct flights to long-haul destinations viable with fewer passengers, not least, the secondary cities in the emerging Bric economies – Brazil, Russia, India and China – to which business people in the UK apparently clamour to fly.
Improvements in those spheres are by no means unique to the Dreamliner. But perhaps more than any other plane, it has come to represent the technological innovation that the aviation industry claims will allow it to meet its wider obligations to the world: that we can fly and not fry, even with ever more flights.
A carbon dioxide “roadmap” produced by Sustainable Aviation, an industry group addressing environmental issues, sees the fuel efficiencies delivered by the 787 and its successors as a way to cut about a third of all projected carbon emissions, a major part of a plan that would let traffic double by 2050 and still meet the emissions targets aviation signed up to in the wake of the Kyoto climate negotiations.
For airports in Britain’s crowded south-east, the Dreamliner is also a name to conjure with. Briefly in operation here since Qatar Airways’ inaugural flight just before Christmas, it claims a “noise footprint” some 60% smaller than other planes its size. Around Heathrow, such contours spell votes: Boris Johnson has spoken of 750,000 Londoners having their lives blighted by aircraft noise
As Howard Davies’s commission sits down to reflect over the next two and a half years on the future shape of Britain’s airport capacity, Heathrow will want to demonstrate that noise is not a insurmountable political obstacle. Current proposals from the Department for Transport, penned before Justine Greening was shuffled out of the department, will ramp up the fines for louder planes: Virgin’s Richard Branson has suggested banning noisy aircraft from the airport – but then his airline has 16 Dreamliners arriving from next year.
So Boeing’s problems are aviation’s problems too. Little wonder that few airlines, beyond the annoyance of those already operating the now-grounded 787, have offered anything but unqualified support and confidence. With 799 aircraft outstanding, the order book dwarfs the 50 in service. The ambitions of the fleet planners everywhere for new routes and for lower overheads hang on the 787s rolling out of the Seattle factory.
Observers have little doubt that the Dreamliner will fly again. Douglas McNeill, investment director at Charles Stanley, says: “It will get fixed. Boeing just has no alternative – it’s just a question of how much time and money it takes. If it’s just the battery, it could be relatively simple. If it’s an overhaul of the whole onboard power generation, it’s a time-consuming and costly task.”
If safety has always been paramount, the industry is taking absolutely no chances in preserving its proud boast; according to the International Air Transport Association, 2012 was the safest year on record. McNeill dismisses safety fears: “It would be more than odd, it would be astonishing if there was an issue that escaped the hundreds of thousands of hours of testing that Boeing and the FAA carried out.
“It’s hard to imagine the Dreamliner not re-entering service quickly, but in the worst-case scenario it could have a real impact. It was going to be a big step forward in terms of noise and emissions.”
Not everything hinges on the Dreamliner: rival Airbus has the A350 coming down the line, also built with composite materials and lithium-ion batteries. It has often been described as Airbus’s answer to the Dreamliner, although the European manufacturer is quick to point out that its design – and batteries – are very different to Boeing’s plane.
There was no hint of schadenfreude from boss Fabrice Brégier at last week’s Toulouse event when Airbus announced a record year for aircraft deliveries – though second to Boeing in orders. In the long term, the efficiencies will come: concerns about the new technology may again hold up the process more than those worried by climate change or the bottom line would hope. “Airbus and Boeing will need to get these planes into service,” McNeill adds.
Boeing meanwhile has said it will do all it can to restore confidence. Chief executive Jim McNerney pledged to “work around the clock” with investigators, adding: “We will make available the entire resources of the Boeing company to assist.” For a corporation the size of Boeing, worth around £50bn even with its shares sliding, the current problems should amount to little more than a spot of turbulence. Airbus quickly recovered confidence and orders despite cracks in the wings of its pioneering A380 in 2011. Boeing’s bosses will hope that the Dreamliner can swiftly rise above its current problems and return to the skies.
Influential US regulator the FAA joins Japan in taking troubled planes out of service, followed by India and Chile
American regulators followed the lead of Japanese airlines by grounding the Boeing 787 Dreamliner on Wednesday night, saying a recent series of safety incidents meant urgent action was needed.
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said it would require airlines to demonstrate that the plane’s cutting-edge batteries were safe before allowing further flights. It has notified regulators in other countries of its action.
Japan’s two leading airlines, All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines, had already grounded their fleets of Boeing 787s after one of the Dreamliner passenger jets made an emergency landing, the latest in a series of incidents that have heightened safety concerns over a plane that many see as the future of commercial aviation.
After the FAA announcement, India and Chile were the next countries to move. Air India spokesman K Swaminathan said India’s aviation authority had directed the state airline to stop flying the Boeing planes on Thursday morning as it waits for an investigation by Indian regulators to take place. “Air India has temporarily ceased operation of its Dreamliners,” Swaminathan said.
Chile’s LAN airline said it was suspending flights of its three Dreamliners in compliance with the FAA directive.
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and other air safety authorities around the world are likely to bring in similar measures now that the FAA has intervened. A spokesman for EASA told the Reuters news agency that it would usually follow safety directives if they were issued in a country where the aircraft was built. “In this case we have issued no airworthiness directive so far, so the FAA’s directive should be endorsed by EASA,” the spokesman said.
In one show of faith, Poland’s LOT airlines sent one of its two Dreamliners on its maiden transatlantic flight from Warsaw to Chicago, to the reported disquiet of some passengers interviewed. LOT is the only airline within the jurisdiction of EASA that has taken delivery of the 787 so far.
Other countries whose airlines use the 787 are Ethiopia and Qatar.
ANA said instruments aboard a domestic flight indicated a battery error, triggering emergency warnings. The incident was described by a transport ministry official as “highly serious” – language used in international safety circles as indicating that there could have been an accident. Boeing shares fell 2% in after-hours trading to $72.80 (£45.50) after the FAA announcement.
Its move came as American safety investigators were due to fly to Japan on Thursday to liaise with Japanese counterparts.
ANA and Japan Airlines have 24 Dreamliners between them, representing almost half of the 50 delivered by Boeing to airlines worldwide. Last week the FAA announced a full review of the revolutionary plane’s design and manufacture after five incidents in five days on different planes in Japan and the US. These included a battery fire, fuel leakages from engines, and cracks developing in the cockpit windscreen.
Given the Dreamliners’ significantly greater fuel efficiency than most models, airlines have been queuing up to buy a model that promises greener, quieter – and cheaper – aviation.
The aircraft’s design also makes emerging long-haul destinations feasible with fewer passengers. In Britain, British Airways, Thomson and Virgin have placed orders, with BA expecting to operate the first of its 24 Dreamliners this year.
Production problems drastically held up delivery of the aircraft: it first entered service in late 2011, four years after the first 787 was unveiled. Issues have since been reported with the plane in India and Qatar. While analysts say such “teething problems” are not uncommon, Boeing will be acutely aware that rival Airbus has the new A350 coming to offer an alternative for airlines updating their fleets.
Aviation consultant John Strickland said: “This story is going to run on for Boeing. The key thing is that the Dreamliner 787 is so leading edge.”
The Seattle-based manufacturer may be facing a repair bill to rival the £200m costs Airbus incurred as a result of cracks in the wings of the A380 in 2011. : “Boeing is aware of the diversion of a 787 operated by ANA to Takamatsu in western Japan. We will be working with our customer and the appropriate regulatory agencies.”
Plane makes emergency landing at Takamatsu airport, western Japan, in latest safety scare for troubled new aircraft
Japan’s largest airline, ANA, and its competitor JAL have each grounded their entire fleet of Boeing 787 Dreamliners after an emergency landing due to a smoke alarm in the cockpit – the most dramatic of a spate of incidents involving the troubled aircraft over the past week and since its inception.
All Nippon Airways said the plane’s eight crew and all 129 passengers had evacuated safely on inflatable slides. Instruments in the cockpit indicated there had been a battery malfunction and the pilot had noticed a strange smell.
ANA said the plane diverted to Takamatsu, western Japan, at 8.45am on Wednesday. It had been bound for Haneda airport in Tokyo.
A spokesman for the Osaka airport authority said the plane had left Yamaguchi at 8am and made the emergency landing after the smoke alert.
The incident is certain to rock global airlines’ confidence in the new aircraft, which went into commercial service just over a year ago after a three-year delay caused by design and production problems.
In the aftermath of the emergency landing, both ANA and JAL said they were grounding all their Dreamliners until satisfied they are safe to fly. The incidents have caused particular concern in Japan, the Dreamliner’s biggest market, with ANA and Japan Airlines (JAL) flying 24 of the 50 planes to have rolled off the production line so far.
ANA is the biggest operator of the 787 in the world so far, having taken delivery of 17 aircraft including the first one flown commercially.
The aircraft has been hit by half a dozen incidents in the past week, including two fuel leaks, a battery fire, a wiring problem, a brake computer fault and a cracked cockpit window. Before that there had been engine failures during testing and in one case a Dreamliner cargo plane was forced to cancel takeoff when one of its General Electric turbines lost power.
US aviation officials say the aircraft is safe and it is not unusual for new models to experience minor mishaps, but the recent incidents have inevitably raised questions over the Dreamliner’s safety. More than 800 Dreamliners have been ordered by airlines around the world.
The aircraft was supposed to have heralded a new era in commercial flight. Boeing officials say the plane, which is made of carbon fibre and other lightweight materials, is 20% more fuel-efficient than conventional airliners and 30% cheaper to maintain, and features design improvements for more comfortable medium and long-haul flights.
Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel told Reuters: “We’ve seen the reports, we’re aware of the events and are working with our customer.”
On Tuesday Japan’s transport ministry said it was launching an investigation into the cause of two fuel leaks on a JAL Dreamliner. That came after US transport authorities and Boeing started a joint investigation into the aircraft’s manufacturing, design and assembly.
“Looking at this from the point of view of average citizens, having these sort of incidents occur seemingly day after day, one could become very uneasy,” Akihiro Ota, Japan’s transport minister, told reporters.
“We plan to look into the scale of these accidents and what the overall situation is. We will convey the message to those who operate [the plane] that it is absolutely necessary to be safe.”