The Federal Aviation Administration is reviewing its approval for the Boeing 787 to fly up to three hours’ distance from the nearest airport, raising the possibility the jet’s routing may be constrained once the agency lifts the grounding of the Dreamliner fleet.
Such a restriction would further damage the plane’s reputation and prevent airlines from taking full advantage of the jet’s ultralong range on routes across the poles or vast tracts of ocean.
Some longer 787 flights, such as All Nippon Airways service between San Jose, Calif., and Tokyo, might have to use less direct routes that stick closer to continental coastlines and use more fuel.
FAA chief Michael Huerta revealed the review Tuesday in testimony before a U.S. Senate committee hearing on aviation safety.
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Concerning the 787’s grounding, Huerta said only that his technical team is examining the results of Boeing’s tests on its redesigned lithium-ion battery system.
Huerta told reporters afterward that the FAA, which ordered the grounding Jan. 16 after two incidents of lithium-ion batteries overheating, will decide “very soon” when to allow the jets back in the air.
In response to a question from Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., he said the FAA is also reviewing “our original ETOPS certification” for the jet.
ETOPS stands for Extended Twin-engine Operations, and is granted based on reliability of an airplane’s systems.
The 787 originally was awarded ETOPS certification to fly up to three hours from the nearest airport. The plane is designed to fly up to 9,400 miles nonstop.
Just before the battery problems emerged in January, Boeing had been expecting to have that certification extended to 5.5 hours.
It’s important for the viability of the 787, as a twin-engine jet, that it can fly long routes previously available only to four-engine airplanes.
Any restriction on the ETOPS approval would be a blow to Boeing, which made the jet’s long range and its ability to fly nonstop between almost any two cities on Earth a major selling point.
Last month in Tokyo, Boeing Vice President Mike Sinnett insisted that “there will be no additional limitations on the airplane” once the grounding is lifted. He added: “We have had no conversations with regard to limiting ETOPS at all.”
Boeing had no comment Tuesday on Huerta’s remarks, said a spokeswoman.
Issaquah-based aviation-industry analyst Scott Hamilton, of Leeham.net, said the impact on the 787 program would depend on how much the ETOPS standard was reduced.
“If they bring it down to two hours, that’s inconvenient, but still workable,” Hamilton said.
In that case, he said, Boeing would have to pay penalties to its customers for the shortfall in promised performance.
If it is reduced to just one hour, “that becomes problematic,” Hamilton said.
Shortening the ETOPS range could especially affect routing for airlines flying across the Pacific.
Three-hour ETOPS approval allows nonstop service from Seattle direct to Hawaii. Two-hour approval doesn’t get you there.
Air New Zealand, which expects its 787s early next year, couldn’t fly a straight shot from Auckland to Los Angeles without three-hour ETOPS approval.
Hamilton said he has no doubt that “eventually the airplane will meet all the design specifications and all the economic specifications.”
“The question is, what does ‘eventually’ mean,” said Hamilton.
In the meantime, any restriction on flying time will be “another black eye for the program.”
Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org