March 27, 2013
As Boeing works to regain permission for its 787 Dreamliner to resume flights, the company faces what could be a costly new challenge: a temporary ban on some of the long-distance, trans-ocean journeys that the jet was intended to fly.
Aviation experts and government officials say the Federal Aviation Administration may shorten the permitted flying time of the 787 on certain routes when it approves a revamped battery system. The plane was grounded worldwide two months ago after lithium-ion batteries overheated on two separate aircraft.
Losing extended operations, or ETOPS, would deal a blow to Boeing and its airline customers by limiting use of the fuel-saving jet, designed to lower costs on long-distance routes that don’t require the capacity of the larger Boeing 777. Such a loss could even lead to cancellation of some routes.
“If the FAA approves (only) over-land operations it would be a very damaging blow to the 787 program,” said Scott Hamilton, an aviation analyst with Leeham Co in Seattle.
“Depending on how long that restriction remains in place, it would completely undermine the business case for the airplane, which was to be able to do these long, thin intercontinental routes” over water, he said.
Grounding the 787 already has cost Boeing an estimated $450 million in lost income and compensation payments to airlines. Further restrictions on the 787’s range could send the airlines’ claims - and Boeing’s costs - higher.
Until it was grounded on Jan. 16, the 787 was permitted to fly routes that ranged as much as three hours away from an airport. Boeing has asked the FAA to extend that range to 5-1/2 hours. That change would enable airlines to fly many more routes across remote areas such as the North Pole.
Now the jet faces the potential temporary loss of its ETOPS approval or a roll-back to two hours, according to government officials and aviation experts.
“It is completely within expectations for FAA to limit ETOPS for the 787,” one regulatory source in Japan told Reuters. He said that reducing the range to two hours would force Japanese airlines to fly more circuitous routes, burning up more fuel and cutting efficiency.