Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner cleared another hurdle in restoring its image as United Airlines, the only U.S. operator, resumed flights Monday after the jet’s lithium-ion battery flaws forced a three-month grounding.
The 787 returned to service on United Flight 1 from Houston to Chicago, with Boeing Chief Executive Officer Jim McNerney and Jeff Smisek, CEO of airline parent United Continental Holdings, sitting next to each other in coach. They chatted during the two-hour flight, which landed about 1:15 p.m. Chicago time.
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, Ethiopian Airlines Enterprise and Air India are the only carriers whose 787s are flying commercially again.
“I trust Boeing that they know what they are doing,” said Flight 1 passenger Peter Wolf, a 25-year-old video photographer for an office furniture trade publication sought to fly on the 787 when he had to reschedule a flight to Chicago. “Lithium batteries aren’t an exact science yet.”
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Boeing and United, both based in Chicago, reinforced the flight’s importance by putting their CEOs aboard. When ANA Holdings, the biggest Dreamliner user, flew a test flight in April, the planemaker’s representative was Boeing Commercial Airplanes President Ray Conner.
“They need to show that this aircraft is truly ready for prime time,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of Teal Group, a Fairfax, Va.-based aerospace consultant. “You can get customer confidence back pretty quickly in this business if you can show a consistent pattern of no glitches.”
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.
“If you want to be the world’s leading airline, which is what we at United are working for, you’ve got to have the world’s leading airplane,” Smisek told reporters and passengers at a small ceremony at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport as the carrier served chocolate-chip cookies and water. “We’re delighted to have the 787 back in service. It’s a terrific airplane. Our customers love it.”
With Boeing’s McNerney standing nearby, Smisek acknowledged the lost revenue and inconvenience of the grounding.
“It was a fairly expensive piece of sculpture to have on the ground,” said Smisek, who also flew on United’s first 787 trip, in November. 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.
McNerney apologized again for the early struggles with the 787, which was more than 31/2 years late when it reached its first customer in 2011.
“We are very sorry about the delay that was caused by some of the technology workarounds that we had to implement,” he said. “But the promise of this airplane remains unchanged. We are confident of that. More importantly, we are confident in the safety of this aircraft. Safety means everything to us. It’s in our DNA.”