Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner is poised to clear another hurdle in restoring its image as United Airlines, the only U.S. operator, resumes flights after the jet’s battery flaws forced a three-month grounding.
United Flight 1 is scheduled to depart Houston at 11 a.m. local time en route to Chicago, where the airline and Boeing both have their headquarters. The passengers will include Boeing Chief Executive Officer Jim McNerney and Jeff Smisek, CEO of United parent United Continental Holdings Inc.
U.S. Dreamliner service gives Boeing a chance to buff the 787’s reputation in the world’s biggest aviation market after the first grounding of an entire fleet type since 1979. Qatar Airways Ltd., Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise and Air India Ltd. are the only carriers whose 787s are flying commercially again.
“They need to show this aircraft is truly ready for prime time,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group, a Fairfax, Virginia-based aerospace consultant. “You can get customer confidence back pretty quickly in this business if you can show a consistent pattern of no glitches.”
Boeing and United reinforced that point with plans to have their CEOs aboard. When ANA Holdings Inc., the biggest Dreamliner user, flew a test flight in April, the planemaker’s representative was Boeing Commercial Airplanes President Ray Conner. Smisek flew on United’s first 787 flight, in November.
Returning the plastic-composite 787 to service will let United add new routes such as Denver-Tokyo, which is slated to begin June 10 and wouldn’t be financially feasible with bigger aircraft. Boeing bills the wide-body jet as achieving greater fuel efficiency and longer range than any peers in service now.
ANA, Japan Airlines Co. and LOT Polish Airlines SA say they plan to start returning 787s to service in the first week of June, while the other operator, Latam Airlines Group SA, said May 15 that its Dreamliners would fly in “coming days.”
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration cleared the Dreamliner for service last month after a Jan. 16 order that the planes be parked for two lithium-ion battery malfunctions. The first was an incident on a Japan Airlines 787 in Boston that U.S. safety investigators later called an uncontrolled chain reaction that charred the battery.
Boeing redesigned the battery to include more protection around individual cells to contain any overheating, a steel case to prevent fire and a tube that would vent any fumes outside the fuselage.
The changes mean that any other failures would be “no longer a safety concern,” Boeing 787 Chief Project Engineer Mike Sinnett said in April. He was scheduled to join McNerney and Smisek on today’s flight.
Since ANA first received the 787 in September 2011, Boeing delivered 50 of the aircraft through April. The twin-engine planes have a list price of $206.8 million for the current 787-8 and $243.6 million for the 787-9 version.
Boeing’s first post-grounding delivery was a handover this month to Tokyo-based ANA.
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