Boeing glides over Dreamliner crisis

The nightmare is almost over for Boeing's Dreamliner. Airlines have resumed flights of the new aircraft three months after the model was grounded globally following battery fires on two of the planes.

Toby Nicol: Boeing's reputation hasn't been significantly damaged by the Dreamliner grounding
Toby Nicol: Boeing's reputation hasn't been significantly damaged by the Dreamliner grounding

The grounding has been disastrous for Boeing, airlines operating the Dreamliner, passengers due to fly on the services and the industry's attempts to stem environmental criticism. So why do industry observers simply say we've seen it all before?

The Dreamliner was conceived in the late 1980s as a replacement for the Boeing 767. Its real benefit was the plastics-based fuselage, which Boeing estimated was 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than its predecessor. Fuel is the biggest single cost for most airlines, so a 20 per cent reduction gives a vast commercial benefit and explains why airlines were queuing up to place orders as early as 2004. Yet it rolled off the production line two years late; and 15 months later the global fleet was grounded.

Paradoxically, Boeing's reputation hasn't been significantly damaged by the global grounding and the company's PR team has handled the crisis well. It has been on the front foot with customers, made the right noises about compensation from the start and assisted all the authorities to get the planes back in the air again. It has helped that most launches of new aircraft types are late and over budget. Also, its major competitor, Airbus, couldn't put the boot in as its A380 was two years late to market and had its own engine problems.

Probably the biggest loser in this will be the industry's ability to respond to environmental criticism. The Dreamliner was the 'big thing' to counter concern about carbon emissions from aircraft. While the problems do not relate to its fuselage, the association with a grounded aircraft type will not have helped the reputation of composite-based aircraft.

The grounding of the Dreamliner gave Boeing its biggest PR challenge for a decade, but it passed the test well. In an industry frequently characterised by initial operational difficulties, the Dreamliner will join an inglorious list that includes the opening of Heathrow's Terminal 5, the A380 (engine problems) and the 737 (rudder problems).

Toby Nicol is comms director at World Travel & Tourism Council

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