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Grounded Dreamliner could be Boeing's nightmare

A Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by All Nippon Airways (ANA) sits on the tarmac after an emergency landing at Takamatsu Airpirt in Takamatsu, west of Japan, on Jan. 16, 2013. The FAA announced Wednesday that it was grounding all 787 Dreamliners until they could pass a safety inspection.

Europe's air safety authority is following the lead of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration today, grounding all Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplanes. The FAA action comes after a number of safety incidents in recent days involving the plane's super-efficient lithium-ion batteries.  

In addition, airlines from the Middle East to Japan are switching aircraft for their Dreamliner flights, pending a safety review.

There are currently 50 Dreamliners in service worldwide. The first 787s were delivered to All Nippon Airways in September 2011 (ANA has now grounded its fleet). Airlines in South America, as well as Qatar, Poland, and Ethiopia, also have Dreamliners. Only United Airlines in the U.S. is so far flying the aircraft--it has six planes. 

A further 850 Dreamliners are on order from airlines around the world -- at more than $200 million per plane.

The ball is now in the Federal Aviation Administration’s court. Most foreign regulators will wait on a thumbs-up from Boeing’s home-country inspectors, before declaring the planes already in service worldwide, safe to fly again. Officials of the FAA, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board, and Boeing, are now headed to Japan to inspect a Dreamliner that reported battery problems and made an emergency landing earlier this week.

The danger for Boeing, says Seth Kaplan of Airline Weekly, is if the Dreamliner can’t get a clean bill of health -- and soon.

"Even beyond that, how reliable are these airplanes going to be?" Kaplan says. "That impacts what Boeing can charge for the planes, and the kinds of economics that airlines can get out of the planes.”

Those cost-saving ‘economics’ are delivered by the plane's lightweight, ultra-fuel-efficient materials, and extensive computer electronics.

Kaplan says Boeing has pushed airplane design into the future with the Dreamliner. Now, these new on-board systems need to be tested in real-world, day-to-day operation by airlines on global routes. Kaplan says this early in a plane's flying-life -- and especially in the case of a plane as complex and innovative as the Dreamliner -- a lot can go wrong before the manufacturer can iron out all the technical glitches and ramp up production. 

Kaplan points out that Boeing's European rival, Airbus, had significant operational and safety problems when it rolled out its new wide-body jumbo-jet, the A-380, several years ago.

“The 787 is a bit different [from the A-380]," says Kaplan, "in that it’s made from a different material -- composite material like plastic rather than aluminum, a very wireless cabin environment, a very diverse supply chain -- lots of suppliers involved.”

But Kaplan says at this point, there's little chance for Airbus to rush in and steal sales that might have gone to Boeing. The Dreamliner is unique in the marketplace at this point, with long-range capability, unmatched fuel efficiency, and a mid-sized cabin. That makes it attractive to airlines that want to profitably fill seats by flying from medium-sized metro markets -- such as San Jose, Calif., and Boston, Mass. -- to major overseas destinations like Tokyo. Kaplan says Airbus doesn't have a directly competing new jet for airlines to consider instead of the Dreamliner, which has so far been one of the best-selling aircraft ever. 

The last American-made passenger plane to be grounded by U.S. regulators was the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. Its airworthiness certificate was suspended in 1979, following a deadly crash.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.
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