London - “Don't fly on this plane!” That was the message racing around Twitter on Wednesday, with a link to the news that Boeing's flagship new Dreamliner jet had faced another emergency landing, and the airlines that own nearly half of its planes had grounded their entire 787 fleets.
And that, in a tweet, encapsulates one of the biggest pieces of turbulence facing the US plane-maker. People have already decided they don't want to fly on a jet involved in an emergency landing, fire, fuel leak, broken window, electrical fault and battery problems. Component problems can be fixed; reputations are harder to repair.
A man walks under All Nippon Airways' (ANA) first Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft after it landed at Haneda airport in Tokyo. Credit: REUTERS
For the time being, though, that's not the only battle on board at Boeing. The company's shares fell five percent to $72.80 (about R650) in New York after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ordered all of the Dreamliners operating within the US to be grounded.
It came after one owned by All Nippon Airways was forced to make an emergency landing in western Japan, when instruments on board indicated a battery error.
It was the latest - and most serious - malfunction on board the 787: there were four others on All Nippon and Japan Airlines Dreamliners last week alone. Both airlines, the two biggest single operators of the aircraft, have grounded all of their 24 Dreamliner jets.
Major safety fears are now swirling around the world's first mainly carbon-composite jet, which had inspired hopes that it would revolutionise air travel with its lighter weight promising to lower airlines' fuel bills.
They will weigh heavily on Boeing.
“All new aircraft have teething problems,” says Zafar Khan, Société Générale's aerospace and defence analyst. “The fuel leak and cracked window come under that banner. But I think the fire [aboard a Japan Airlines' Boeing 787 at Boston's Logan Airport last week] is more serious. If it had broken out two hours earlier, then it would have been a major incident; thankfully it was on the ground after people had disembarked.”
Another Boeing analyst had a counter view: “I've worked in aerospace for three decades, and I can't remember one aircraft development that didn't have any problems. It happens.
“The 787 is a very big sea change from anything that's gone before - you're bound to have a set of problems to address, but Boeing will sort it out, and I believe this programme will get back on track.” But on Friday, the FAA's move to launch a review of a plane it had already spent 200,000 hours on testing and approved to fly in August 2011 was highly unusual.
“Unprecedented,” says Mr Khan. “Clearly they want to have a proper look to reassure the public as well as themselves and Boeing that the plane's certification was thorough.”
Yet Boeing is counting on the success of the Dreamliner, which was delivered to its first customer in September 2011 - three years late, after production delays. Boeing has said it would at least break even on the cost of building the 1,100 new 787s it expects to deliver over the next decade. But if current investigations being carried out by the FAA and Japanese safety teams find faults, Boeing could also face extra repair costs.
“If they do discover something more substantial, it could also impact Boeing's delivery schedule,” Mr Khan points out. Boeing was hoping to have five 787 jets coming off its production line each month by the end of the first half of this year, and expected to hit 10 per month by the end of the year. If safety investigations demand extra work on any of the Dreamliner's components, airlines' delivery dates could be delayed. If customers opted to lease jets to fill the gap, Boeing could be subject to consequential damages.
The cost is impossible to estimate until the FAA and Japanese safety investigations are completed. But Boeing's Dreamliner nightmare has echoes of those of Airbus, its European rival and maker of the world's largest passenger plane, the A380. Production problems on that model pushed the costs billions of dollars over budget and years behind schedule; then the discovery of cracks on wings cost Airbus's owner, Eads, €200m to repair and meant safety checks on each of the jets. A separate problem also saw a Qantas A380's engine explode in mid-air, forcing the grounding of its entire fleet of A380s for more than two weeks.
The impact continues: Airbus will report on its sales and deliveries in 2012. It is set to say it booked orders for more than 800 new planes last year - beating the 650 orders in 2011 - but only sold nine of its flagship A380.Airbus's chief commercial officer, John Leahy, has told The Wall Street Journal that slow A380 sales were due to “a combination of the economy and the wing issues”. With its own safety concerns and the shaky global economy continuing to hit aviation, Boeing's 787 could face similar problems - or worse.
“With the A380's wing and engine issues, they were able to fix the problem pretty quickly,” Mr Khan adds. “There wasn't a design problem with the aircraft. With [the Dreamliner], there are reports of a battery issue, so there is going to be a question mark over whether that whole auxiliary power system needs to be redesigned.”
So far - except for one man hurting his hip on an inflatable escape slide - no one has been injured in the recent incidents. Boeing, headed by chairman and chief executive Jim McNerney, also points out that its 787 problems aren't miles apart from the issues that were reported after the launch of its successful 777 jet 20 years ago.
So far, sales have not been hit. British Airways, which has 24 of the planes on order, says its first May delivery date still stands: “We are confident that any safety concerns will be fully addressed by Boeing and the FAA as part of their recently announced review into the aircraft.”
Virgin Atlantic is to receive 16 Dreamliners from Boeing from summer next year. “We have every confidence that Boeing and the relevant authorities will ensure sufficient oversight is maintained and that corrective action will be taken if problems are identified,” said a spokesman.
The other airlines who have already taken delivery of 787 jets include Qatar Airways and Air India, which both have five, United Airlines, which has six, Ethiopian Airlines, with four, Chile's LAN, with three, and Poland's Lot, which has two.
One aviation analyst warned: “Boeing will face a major battle to rebuild confidence in the airplane. It will take time.” - The Independent