February 18, 2013
Jens Flottau Frankfurt, Cathy Buyck Brussels and Bradley Perrett Beijing
Boeing is finally telling some of its customers not to expect the 787s they have ordered to be delivered as scheduled. While for a few, that notice is a disaster, and although most airlines are facing serious disruptions, some are quietly relieved that they will not have to take the aircraft just yet.
Norwegian Air Shuttle was the first airline to confirm it has been alerted by Boeing. Deliveries of its first two aircraft, previously scheduled for April and June, are likely to be affected. The carrier says Boeing has not announced a new delivery date or given written confirmation of potential delay.
Boeing's customer warning is only the latest sign that the manufacturer now recognizes what others have been predicting for some time: The 787 grounding is likely going to be a matter of several, if not many, months, rather than a short-term issue that can be resolved quickly. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has indicated that it will take weeks to identify the root causes of thermal runaway in a lithium-ion-battery on a Japan Airlines aircraft in January that led to the grounding of the 50-strong 787 fleet.
In addition to Norwegian, several other carriers are due to receive their first 787s in the next several months, including British Airways, TUIfly, China Southern Airlines, Air China and Aeromexico. And besides these, there are a number of operators that have been looking at growing their fleets—such as United Airlines, Qatar Airways, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Air India, LOT Polish Airlines and LAN. Boeing planned to deliver more than 60 aircraft this year and was about to raise the monthly production rate to 10 from five by year-end. Analysts including Ed Greenslet of The Airline Monitor are starting to revise their delivery forecasts downward. Greenslet tentatively expects 50 787s to be delivered this year, “but even that might prove to be high,” he notes.
Just one Dreamliner has been delivered this year, to Air India on Jan. 3. Unlike Norwegian, the other affected carriers have made no public comment about the impact on their operations, but that should not lead Boeing to believe all its customers are patiently waiting. Because the grounding is linked to fundamental aircraft safety, no airline wants to be caught publicly demanding a quick return to routine 787 flight operations before the root cause of the battery problems has been determined and sorted out.
In the meantime, some carriers are expressing support for Boeing. While Emirates President Tim Clark says “things will get worse before they get better” for the aircraft maker, he also believes that “in the end, they will get it right.” To Clark, there is also a more fundamental dimension to the battery defects, which Greenslet describes as “the largest product disaster in the history of the Boeing company.” Clark stresses that “it is vital that innovation continues to take place in an industry which relies on technology.”
But Clark's support and other carriers' silence do not mean that huge disruptions are not already occurring. Airlines such as Qatar Airways that have based the launch of new routes on 787 arrivals must revise their plans because they are lacking aircraft. Qatar could be forced to significantly curtail network growth if deliveries are extensively delayed.