Would you get on a Boeing 787 today? Or would you remember the pictures of charred batteries and think twice?
That’s the problem. Years from now, the Dreamliner may be profitable, even legendary like the 737 model Boeing (BA) has been making for almost 50 years. Today, Boeing will clear another hurdle, assuming the first U.S. 787 flight after the grounding—a United Continental (UAL) route between Houston and Chicago.
Air travelers may not easily forget the battery problem that grounded the plane in January, and that’s bad news for the eight airlines that have taken 787 deliveries. Scott Hamilton, managing director of Leeham, an aviation consulting firm, said “a surprising number “of people have told him they will try to steer clear of the 787 for at least six months. “There’s just going to be a little dark cloud following the airplane for a while,” he said. “The fix is what it is, but is it as good as Boeing and the [Federal Aviation Administration] say it’s going to be?”
Boeing swears by its battery alterations, and the Dreamliner has been flying elsewhere since the end of April. (Company vice president Randy Tinseth rode the first Dreamliner passenger flight post-grounding, on Ethiopian Airlines from Addis Ababa to Nairobi.) Plane junkies seem less eager to board, according to comments and admittedly unscientific polling on blogs like The Travel Insider and Hamilton’s Leeham News and Comment.
The grounding may also delay how soon the new model gets approval to fly long, remote routes. Carriers are permitted to fly 787s on paths that take it three hours from the nearest airport. That covers domestic routes and some international ones. But the longest flights, those that fly over the North and South poles, for example, often require special clearance to fly as many as 5.5 hours from the closest runway. Although Boeing’s 777s can do this, it remains to be seen if and when the 787 will get similar approval, a major drawback for a jet that was sold on its fuel efficiency.
Aviation investigators never really figured out why 787 batteries caught fire, compounding the problem for Boeing and its customers. Fire safety is a major criteria for winning long-range certifications. “I think the FAA may proceed a little bit more conservatively than they might have otherwise,” Hamilton said.
There’s also concern that the Dreamliner turbulence has created an opportunity for Airbus, which is preparing to roll out the model 350, its carbon-fiber answer to the composite 787. There’s mounting evidence that Airbus is rushing to finish its 350 prototype for a surprise maiden flight at the Paris Air Show next month.
Meanwhile, any concessions Boeing granted its customers for the recent delay will show up as cash outlays as it delivers planes in coming months. Yet it would take a lot to knock off course a corporate machine as massive as Boeing. Shares of the company didn’t swoon a bit this spring, in part because there have been few Dreamliner cancellations and because commercial jets are only a part of the company’s assembly line; it still gets about 40 percent of its revenue from military planes and space gear.