Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner will be allowed to fly farther from the nearest airport on some long overwater trips after U.S. regulators concluded that the once-troubled plane has proved its reliability.
The action is a vote of confidence for the world’s first jetliner built chiefly of composite plastics, a plane that was grounded last year to fix battery meltdowns on two Japanese airlines and whose delays during development meant that its 2011 debut ran more than three years late.
The clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration will let airlines put 787s on more direct routes, cutting fuel consumption. The FAA’s decision means Dreamliners will be able to fly as far as 5½ hours from an airport, the top duration for any plane, instead of the previous three hours.
Airlines must also be approved for such so-called extended operations, known by the acronym Etops. In the U.S., where United Airlines is the only current 787 operator, that would come from the FAA.
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“Foreign airlines must obtain approval from their own civil aviation authorities” for flights at the maximum range, the FAA said Wednesday in a statement.
While the twin-engine 787 has been used on oft-traveled long-range routes like those across the northern Pacific, the new rule gives airlines more flexibility to fly in the southern reaches of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans, and over the North and South poles.
“Our customers are eager to expand their 787 operations,” Larry Loftis, Boeing’s general manager for the Dreamliner program, said in a statement. “We’re delighted that this capability, which was designed into the airplane from the very beginning, has been certified.”
The FAA’s action applies to the 787-8 model, which can fly as far as 7,850 nautical miles. The new -9 version has a maximum range of 8,300 nautical miles, or farther than Boeing’s newest four-engine 747.
The Etops regulations are designed to ensure that commercial aircraft in the world’s most-remote airspace can safely divert to an alternate airport in the event of an engine failure or fire, according to the FAA.
In the early days of the jet age, twin-engine planes weren’t allowed to fly more than 60 minutes from an airport because they weren’t deemed dependable enough. Regulators have gradually increased the time allowed from a diversion spot amid improvements in engines and other safety enhancements.
FAA engineers based their decision on data from 250,000 hours of service on each of the two engine types available on the Dreamliner, according to the agency’s statement. The engine makers are General Electric and Rolls-Royce.
Boeing’s Dreamliner deliveries totaled 146 to 19 customers, according to the company. As of May 19, the global 787 fleet’s tally was 97,520 commercial flights, with an estimated 18.3 million passengers.
The cases for the 787’s lithium-ion batteries were redesigned last year after units in two planes overheated and, in one case, caught fire. The first occurred Jan. 7, 2013, aboard a Japan Airlines. 787 on the ground in Boston. Another battery overheated nine days later on an ANA Holdings Dreamliner flying over Japan.
The Dreamliner is the most-advanced model from Boeing, with features including an increased reliance on electricity to power the plane’s systems.