Reliability Questions Send 787s Back to Boeing for Checkups

Boeing 787

“Today, the reliability of the 787 is better than 95 percent. It’s not as good as we’d like to see it. It’s not as good as our customers would like to see it. So we’re looking at ways to improve that reliability over time,” Boeing (NYSE:BA) Commercial Airplanes Marketing Vice President Randy Tinseth said at a press conference in the Chilean capital of Santiago on September 30. “I would refer to the problems as teething problems. I don’t think they’re systemic.”

But the list of problems that have plagued Boeing’s technologically advanced Dreamliner 787 is long. The Dreamliner’s technical problems began with two battery meltdowns in January, which caused regulators to implement a four-month, worldwide grounding of the 787 Dreamliner — the first such grounding in 30 years.

Boeing engineers and other industry experts redesigned the system so that the battery cells would be separated and insulated, which put the plane back in the sky in April. However, more technical issues followed. A jet operated by United Continental (NYSE:UAL) was forced to make an emergency landing in Houston; an Ethiopian Airlines 787 caught fire at London’s Heathrow Airport because of a faulty emergency beacon; a faulty fuel pump indicator and an oil level indicator caused United  flights to be diverted last summer; and then, Norwegian Air Shuttle was hit by a string of mechanical malfunctions.

As with other carriers that have experienced technical hiccups with the Dreamliner, Norwegian Air CEO Bjorn Kjos remains supportive of the company and the aircraft. Kjos told The Wall Street Journal in an interview last month, before the problems began, “For us to succeed, it’s absolutely vital to keep a cost focus, and that takes things such as new fuel-efficient aircraft.” Recent incidents have not caused the airline to change its plans to phase in more Dreamliners on its routes, as Norwegian Air Shuttle’s communications manager, Charlotte Holmbergh Jacobsson, told the Journal. “We’ll get a third one in November and hope it will function without problems,” she said. “We have confidence in these aircraft, that’s why we bought them.”

But just because airlines have confidence in the plane does not mean that they are not disturbed by the problems. Norwegian Air said Monday that it had called in Boeing’s management for a meeting in Oslo, Norway, this week to address the number of technical problems its two Dreamliners have experienced. “We are going to tell them this situation is far from good enough,” company spokeswoman Anne-Sissel Skaanvik told Reuters. “We have not had the reliability that we had expected from brand new planes, so something must happen, fast. … Clearly Boeing has not had good enough operative quality control.”

In September, the recently acquired, two-aircraft Dreamliner fleet of Norwegian Air, the third-largest budget airline in Europe, suffered several technical problems. At the beginning of the month, a brake indicator issue grounded one of the 787 aircrafts at Arlanda Airport north of Stockholm, forcing Norwegian Air to temporarily lease an aircraft from Boeing competitor Airbus to keep passengers moving. The next issue was reported a week later: A Dreamliner scheduled to fly from Oslo to Bangkok apparently experienced problems getting enough electricity from its power supply units and was unable to take off. Once again, Norwegian Air leased a plane from Airbus in order to move the passengers. The airline operator’s 787 Dreamliner fleet ran into more problems several days later, as well.

Norwegian Air plans to bring one of its grounded Dreamliners back to the skies late next week.“Boeing has gone through the plane completely and made all the necessary improvements,” Holmbergh Jacobsson told Reuters. “We aim to have it back in operation towards the end of next week.” And, contrary to previous plans, the repaired plane will immediately begin long-haul service, rather than flying shorter routes.

The carrier’s second aircraft will be sent back to Boeing for an inspection of the 787’s hydraulic and electrical systems. “We have not had as many problems with this plane, but to be sure, we have chosen to go through the check list in this aircraft as well,” Holmbergh Jacobsson told Reuters.

One of the Dreamliner’s key selling points, which has likely earned it much favor from airline executives, is that it consumes approximately 20 percent less fuel than other aircraft of the same size. Fuel is an enormous share of costs for airlines, and fuel costs have recently increased dramatically. The success of the Dreamliner is critical for the company moving forward. Airline traffic is still growing in pretty much every corner of the world, but it is expected to grow the fastest in Asia, which means that is where most new demand will originate. Because air travel is expected to soar over the next several decades, airlines are already looking to revitalize their fleets, and many are looking to Boeing’s 787. Despite the production problems and technical issues, Boeing’s new 787 family of jets has collected about 930 orders to date and more than 82 orders so far this year.

Follow Meghan on Twitter @MFoley_WSCS

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