Dreamliner grounding leaves airlines with uncertainties

The prospect of a prolonged grounding of Boeing's new 787 jet is posing a logistical and financial challenge for several airlines, which have already canceled more than 1,000 flights in the 10 days since the plane was grounded worldwide.

Aviation analysts said that the carriers faced even more uncertainty after investigators in the United States and Japan reported that they had not made much progress in figuring out why two planes experienced serious problems with their volatile lithium-ion batteries.

Without a clear understanding of what happened, all 50 of the 787s delivered to eight airlines over the last 14 months will remain grounded.

The airline with the most at stake, by far, is All Nippon Airways, which bought the first 787 and operates 17 of the planes. It has cancelled 459 flights since January 16, affecting more than 58,000 passengers. The airline has used substitute planes or rebooked many of those travellers. Japan Airlines also said on Friday that it had extended its cancellations to include its flights between Tokyo and Boston on February 2 and 3.

United Airlines, the only American carrier with 787s so far, has been able to maintain its flight schedule with substitute planes.

Most airline executives continue to support Boeing publicly. United's chairman, Jeffery A Smisek, said again this week that he thought the fuel-efficient 787 was "terrific" and added that he believed Boeing would come up with a fix soon.

The US National Transportation Safety Board chairwoman, Deborah A P Hersman, said repeatedly at a news conference on Thursday that a fire should never break out on a plane, as one did on a 787 parked at Logan International Airport in Boston on January 7.

Hersman's statements underscored the gravity of the potential hazards for travellers.

Still, the airlines have few attractive alternatives in the long run and little choice but to wait for Boeing to fix the planes. Thanks to its carbon composite structure and new electrical features, the 787 promises significant savings for airlines that are desperate for ways to cut their fuel bills.

As a result, Boeing has not faced any major defection from the airlines, which have around 800 787s on order. United has six of the planes now and two more scheduled for delivery later this year.

"History teaches us that all new aircraft have issues, and the 787 is no different. We continue to have confidence in the aircraft and in Boeing's ability to fix the issues," said Smisek.

But there have been some dissonant voices. Officials with Poland's national carrier, LOT, have said they will seek monetary compensation from Boeing.

Other operators of 787s are Air India, Ethiopian Airlines, LAN Airlines of Chile and Qatar Airways.

The battery problems have already created buzz on online forums. One comment, on the Cranky Flier blog, noted: "Let somebody else play the guinea pig for a while first. When commercial airlines manage to operate 787 flights on a daily basis for a month or two without significant mishap, then I'll consider it safe."

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