LONDON – 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 787’s past 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 on Jan. 16, 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 U.S. 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 U.K. 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 percent 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 here apparently clamor 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 “road map” 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 in Britain since Qatar Airways’ inaugural flight just before Christmas, it claims a “noise footprint” some 60 percent smaller than other planes its size. Around London’s Heathrow, such contours spell votes: Mayor or London Boris Johnson has spoken of 750,000 Londoners having their lives blighted by aircraft noise. As Howard Davies’ 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 United Kingdom’s Department for Transport will ramp up the fines for louder planes.
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. While Airbus is quick to point out that its design — and batteries — are very different from those troubling the safety teams examining Boeing’s plane, it has been described as the response to the 787.
There was no hint of schadenfreude from boss Fabrice Bregier 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 ￡50 billion 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.
From the ashes of its burning battery, the Dreamliner will surely make a phoenix-like return.