What next for Boeing and the Dreamliner?

It was billed as the jet of the future but technical issues have forced airlines to ground planes. What does this mean for the $24.2bln fleets of Middle Eastern carriers?

Akbar Al Baker’s excitement was evident for all to see. The chief executive of Qatar Airways had flown more than a dozen journalists to Boeing’s Seattle headquarters in November to witness the carrier take delivery of its first Dreamliner 787 and he wanted the world to see just what his airline could offer its passengers. 

“I just got a new toy, so I am very happy. This is a moment to cherish,” an ecstatic Al Baker told Arabian Business at the official unveiling ceremony. “Today’s delivery marks the beginning of a new chapter in Boeing’s partnership with Qatar Airways, which is based on a mutual commitment to excellence,” he added.

The inaugural flight back to Doha was greeted with great fanfare with a red carpet and VIP reception. But less than two months later the outlook is far from rosy. A little over a week ago the airline grounded its five-strong fleet of 787s following a string of safety issues at other carriers, including an electrical fire that required an emergency landing and two fuel leaks. Airlines across the world, from India to the US, Europe and Ethiopia, were forced to take their fleets out of action, an embarrassing fate for a plane so eagerly anticipated by both the aviation industry and passengers alike.

“This is easily the worst product launch for any Boeing jet,” says Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis at Virginia-based Teal Group Corporation.

“To see anything this bad, you need to go back to Douglas’s DC-10, but that plane was grounded after hundreds were killed, while here we’re only talking about one injury-free flight evacuation. Clearly, this is a much safer plane and we have a much safer air travel system today too, but it is deeply embarrassing and very expensive for Boeing,” he adds.

As its name suggests, Boeing’s Dreamliner is more than just another plane. The Seattle-based planemaker billed the long-awaited 787 as a leap forward in aircraft design and a symbol of the aviation industry’s greener future. The use of new battery technology promised to burn 20 percent less fuel than rival planes using its ultra-modern part-composite airframe makes the aircraft much lighter, potentially longer lasting, and cheaper to fly.

The decision last week to ground the plane is the latest in a series of setbacks, which have included cost overruns and years of delays. When the plane entered service in 2011 it was already more than three years late after Boeing struggled with the leap in technology.

The latest trouble occurred when pilots for Japan’s All Nippon Airways were forced to make an emergency landing after receiving a warning of battery problems. An investigation later found that flammable liquid had leaked from the lithium-ion battery, which is below and slightly behind the cockpit. That problem was followed by a battery fire onboard a Japan Airlines plane. Both incidents involved the battery, raising concerns that the jet’s electrical problems could be far worse than originally believed.

The 787 is the first plane to make extensive use of lithium-ion batteries, which have in the past been cause for concern due to the potential to catch fire. The FAA has given the batteries extra scrutiny and issued a special rule for their use in the Dreamliner but Boeing will need to act quickly to determine if the fault is with the battery itself or the wiring. In the meantime, what does this mean for the seven Middle Eastern airlines that have placed bets on the aircraft’s technology?

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