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Boeing's Dreamliner Returns To U.S. Skies After Grounding


Boeing's 787 jetliners are returning to the skies. Four months ago, the entire fleet was grounded following serious battery problems on two jets, but the batteries have now been redesigned. Planes have been retrofitted, and airlines are beginning to put them back into service. Today, United Airlines, the only U.S. carrier flying the 787, put two of them back into service. NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

WENDY KAUFMAN, BYLINE: The 787 is designed for long trips, but the first United flight since the grounding was just a short one from Houston to Chicago. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney was among those getting ready to board.

JIM MCNERNEY: We could not be more excited to be here today. The promise of this airplane remains unchanged. And even more importantly, we are confident in the safety of this airplane.

KAUFMAN: For Boeing and for the airlines, getting the 787 back into service is a big deal, says travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt of the consulting firm Hudson Crossing.

HENRY HARTEVELDT: This is an airplane that will help United and other airlines open new routes. It can fly almost anywhere nonstop on the planet, which will open up more nonstop long-haul travel. That's very important, especially for the business traveler, and it will help the airlines ultimately make more money.

KAUFMAN: At the time of the grounding back in January, Boeing had delivered 50 787s worldwide. And the company says that as of yesterday, the new battery system had been installed on 42 of them. All the jets are likely to be back in service next month. Will passengers be willing to fly the jet? Brady Stevens, who had flown the 787 twice before the grounding, had no hesitation taking it today.

BRADY STEVENS: No, not really. I have confidence that Boeing can get everything straightened out, so no worries.

KAUFMAN: But there's no denying that the battery problems blemished Boeing's reputation. Keep in mind, the first 787 was delivered about four years late. The research and development costs originally projected to be in the $5 billion dollar range soared to an estimated $20 billion or so. The battery problems will add to that with costs related to the investigation, the redesign and the retrofit. In addition, industry analyst Richard Aboulafia says there will be compensation for the airlines that couldn't fly their planes.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: We don't know much about particulars because, of course, all the agreements are proprietary, and a lot of the legal stuff is yet to come. We're talking hundreds of millions, though, which sounds like a lot, but given the broader company's finances, it's not that big a deal.

KAUFMAN: After all, Boeing's revenue last year was more than $80 billion. Boeing currently has some 800 orders for the 787 on its books. The company has resumed deliveries of its flagship jet and says it will be able to supply airlines with all the jets slated for delivery this year. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wendy Kaufman