Despite setbacks, airlines and passengers still on board the Dreamliner

Although the FAA has grounded the entire U.S. fleet of Boeing's new plane, experts say that its technological advances are too advantageous to abandon.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which has suffered through many years of delays and mechanical issues, is now grounded around the world after a series of incidents including two onboard fires. But experts predict the plane will still be a hit with airlines and passengers when it is once again cleared for takeoff. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Boeing's 787 Dreamliner has suffered through a series of high-profile delays and setbacks, culminating in this week's grounding by the U.S. government, but thanks to its cutting-edge technology, it's almost certain the plane will thrive in spite of the repeated body blows.

The Dreamliner -- the much-heralded, next-generation plane that Boeing designed to offer airlines big fuel efficiencies and access to new intercontinental routes -- had already stumbled through more than three years of delays including an onboard electrical fire before the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration grounded the entire U.S.-based fleet this week in the wake of new onboard fires. Other countries quickly followed suit.

But notwithstanding those problems, the Dreamliner is one blessed airplane, given that while airlines and passengers are certain to be wary of it going forward, few are likely to turn their backs on it for good.

The basic features that got so many people excited about the Dreamliner remain the same, even as the headlines about its fleetwide grounding blare: Airlines have ordered more than 800 of the new airplanes because its first-of-a-kind composite fuselage and new-style engines promise them 20 percent fuel savings, as well as a long-haul range capable of opening up routes never before possible -- or at least, economical -- in a nonstop flight.

At the same time, passengers have been lining up to fly the plane because it's at the vanguard of both in-flight comfort and amenities, and recent excitement over the plane's arrival in cities like San Jose, Calif., demonstrate just how enthusiastic some are to get on board.

A fire tied to lithium-ion batteries aboard an All Nippon Airways 787 earlier this week, coupled with a similar fire on a Japan Airlines 787 earlier this month, forced the FAA to take action. On January 16, the agency issued an airworthiness directive grounding the entire U.S.-based fleet of Dreamliners -- six United Airlines planes -- until the aircraft can be deemed safe. The two fires followed other recent mishaps on a number of Dreamliners including oil and fuel leaks, a cracked windshield, and false warnings from an electrical panel. "Before further flight," the FAA said in a statement, "operators of U.S.-registered, Boeing 787 aircraft must demonstrate to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that the batteries are safe."

But while Boeing is certainly reeling from the latest setbacks to the $32 billion Dreamliner program, the aviation giant should be able to put these latest episodes behind it and resume delivering the planes before too long, several experts told CNET.

"They'll work this out," said Bob Mann, president of RW Mann, an aviation industry analysis firm. "It's a black eye. It's not a knock-out blow."

To Mann, the likelihood of the Dreamliner program's future success boils down to the fact that the plane features "so much breakthrough innovation" as well as the reality that carriers around the world have made tremendous financial investments in the 787, not to mention that many have based their future business plans on being able to fly the kinds of routes that the plane makes possible for the first time. Plus, having planned for those new routes and fuel costs, they have nowhere to turn: Boeing's chief competitor, Airbus, doesn't have a plane in the works that can match the Dreamliner on these key features.

Though composite materials have been used in some planes for a while, the Dreamliner is the first to feature a fully composite fuselage. That makes the plane lighter, making it more fuel efficient, but it also helps make the passenger experience better, according to Mann.

That's because the composite fuselage is stronger than that on other planes, allowing the cabin to be more pressurized. The upshot, explained Mann, is that Dreamliner flights are pressurized to mimic being at an altitude of about 6,000 feet, a much more comfortable environment than on other planes, which are usually pressurized to about a 9,000- or 10,000-foot altitude. And the plane is also designed to have a much more comfortable level of relative humidity, Mann said, because the composite fuselage doesn't need to be kept entirely dry to avoid corrosion.

At the same time, the Dreamliner's fuel efficiency is driven by the plane's "no bleed" engines. Boeing claims that "all of the high-speed air produced by the engines goes to thrust [while] pneumatic systems that divert high-speed air from the engines rob conventional airplanes of some thrust and increase the engine's fuel consumption."

For now, no one knows exactly what the root cause of the recent fires is, beyond being tied to the lithium-ion batteries used on the plane. Japanese officials have argued that the battery was operating above its designed voltage limits, according to CBSNews.com.

The 787 relies more than any other modern airliner on electrical signals to help power nearly everything the plane does. It's also the first Boeing plane to use rechargeable lithium-ion batteries for its main electrical system. Such batteries are prone to overheating and have additional safeguards installed that are meant to control the problem and prevent fires.

GS Yuasa Corp., the maker of the lithium-ion batteries used in the 787s, said Thursday it was helping with the investigation but that the cause of the problem was unclear. It said the problem could be the battery, the power source or the electronics system.

And, of course, lithium-ion batteries have been blamed in fires in other products, like Chevrolet's Volt .

The prospect that the Dreamliner's battery system is fundamentally flawed is, of course, a major concern for Boeing. But no one has yet definitely pinned the problems on the batteries. And to Chris Sloan, an aviation writer and enthusiast who runs Airchive.com, there's nothing particularly unique about the Dreamliner getting off to such a rocky beginning.

Many planes, Sloan argued, have had rough beginnings. Among them are the Lockheed Electra, which had three crashes in its first year; the McDonnell Douglas DC-10, which had a wide range of problems and was grounded following a massive crash in 1979; and the De Havilland Comet, which suffered through a series of stress fractures and crashes. In each case, Sloan said, airlines and passengers returned when the planes were once again cleared for flight. One significant difference between those planes and the Dreamliner is that no 787 has crashed, and no one has died aboard the plane.

Ultimately, said Imperial Capital aviation analyst Ken Herbert, Boeing is likely to be able to count on airlines and passengers continuing to support the Dreamliner because of all the plane's advantages, and particularly because so many airlines have invested so much in the aircraft. "I haven't heard any long-term wavering on their desire to take delivery of the plane," Herbert said. "Airlines have planned on this [for years], and for them to change right now, if they're expecting one, it's not an easy switch to make."

To be sure, Boeing has a huge deal riding on the outcome of the investigations being done by the FAA and the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. If the final determination is that the batteries are incompatible with the plane for one reason or another, it could be a major setback costing Boeing months and significant amounts of money. But short of that worst-case scenario, once the federal agencies sign off on the plane's airworthiness, Herbert has little doubt that the Dreamliner will once again be a favorite of the world's airlines and many aviation enthusiasts.

"I'm not expecting any public pushback or concern about flying on these planes," Herbert said. "Boeing has a lot at stake on her now, and the next few weeks are pretty important from a timing standpoint, and a public perception standpoint, and safety and reliability standpoint. They've got to be really careful that they don't do anything else to jeopardize (the public's) interest in getting on one of these things."

But will passengers come back? Herbert thinks so. "Generally, people still regard the industry as very safe, and they've got a lot of confidence in it, [which is] rightfully well-deserved [due to] the improvements Boeing and Airbus have made in their aircraft. Unless there's something else, people will move on quickly."

 

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