After a four-month grounding, United Airlines' Dreamliner 787s return to the air. These aircraft are supposed to be Boeing's salute to energy-efficient travel. According to Boeing's Web site, this midsize airplane can carry between 210 and 290 passengers over a distance of up to 8,500 nautical miles, depending on the size of the airplane.
The aircraft can carry passengers over international distances on 20 percent less fuel than what midsize aircraft typically use -- a fact that has received quite a bit of attention. The Web site boasts a nearly two-generation jump in technology as Rolls Royce and General Electric collaborated to advance the 787's engine technology.
These advancements in technology have made the 787 an item of great expectations, with 52 aircraft so far and a total book order of 890 planes. Last Monday marked the first flight of the 787, from Houston to Chicago.
United Airlines was happy to report the flight was uneventful.
The plan is to fly the airplanes over shorter distances in the United States, before eventually opening up the aircraft for international flights. These longer flights will demonstrate the fuel efficiency of the aircraft, and are the main reason these planes were brought into existence.
But let us remind you why these planes were grounded in the first place.
This past January marked the beginning of the 787's troubles. The National Transportation Safety Board reported that in Boston, Massachusetts, firefighters had to douse a fire in the cargo hold of a Dreamliner 787. Reportedly the fire was caused by battery problems while the plane was parked in Boston's Logan International Airport.
Just a few days after this first incident, AP reported that employees of Japan's All Nippon Airways smelled something burning while a 787 was in flight to Tokyo. A flight from Yamaguchi Ube airport in western Japan experienced battery problems, and sent in a cockpit warning. The aircraft was forced to make an emergency landing, and passengers escaped using inflatable slides. After the landing, it was reportedly discovered that battery liquid had leaked from the electrical room floor and actually got to the outside of the aircraft.
Throughout these incidents, Boeing has insisted the safety of passengers and crew members aboard Boeing aircraft is their highest priority, but will not issue a statement on these battery-related problems while the incidents are under investigation.
Of the 52 787s that exist, United Airlines has six -- the only 787s owned by airlines in the United States. While none of the issues in question occurred with a 787 that belonged to United, these incidents were enough to ground the 50 787s that existed at the time and put the aircraft under investigation to determine airworthiness.
"We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity," spokesperson for Boeing's 787 Program Lorie Gunter said, pulling from an official statement Boeing made concerning the 787 battery. "We are committed to assuring our customers and the traveling public of the 787's safety and returning the airplanes to service."
Boeing's Web site explains the 787 is the first to really draw on lithium-ion batteries, of which the airplane has two, one in the front and the other in the back. While it is unclear whether these batteries were the best choice, considering recent events, Boeing engineers call them "the right choice."
"It's very well known; it's where the industry is going," 787 Electrical Subsystems Lead Engineer Mehdy Bareketein said of the battery on the Boeing Web site. "It has lots of power -- lots of ability to do functions that other batteries couldn't."
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To combat these issues and make the 787 safer for passengers to fly in, some changes were made to the batteries to prevent any future leakage. Gunter revealed that Boeing has added several layers of additional safety features to the batteries, but didn't go into detail on what these improvements were. However, she did say the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approved the changes made to the battery, and following an Airworthiness Directive on April 26, the 787s were allowed to resume flights, after local authorities had approved the airplanes, of course.
"Boeing has been working with customers to install the approved modifications to return the fleet to service," Gunter said. "The bulk of fleet retrofits are already complete."
Deliveries of the 787 resumed in early May, and Boeing has already added two airplanes to its fleet. Gunter said Boeing hopes to deliver more than 60 787s to airlines during 2013.
"The 787 is a super-efficient airplane that brings superior comfort to passengers and unparalleled operating economics to the airlines," Gunter said. "We look forward to producing this airplane for generations and serving the needs of the global airline industry and travelers around the world."