(TOKYO, JAPAN) Here I sit at the Park Hyatt, Tokyo (the Lost in Translation hotel) watching the morning sun hit Mt Fuji, and watching the headlines and emails about the FAA’s grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner spew forth from my laptop.
As you may know from previous posts, I flew to Tokyo last Saturday aboard one of the first Dreamliner flights to depart San Jose International airport. While there were operational issues with the aircraft at that time, passengers I spoke with felt confident about flying the brand new 158-passenger bird across the Pacific. Our 10-hour flight to Tokyo was delightful and without incident.
I was traveling with a group of travel media, and during our interviews with ANA executives on Tuesday, we were assured that these were “teething issues” that fell within the band of normalcy for any new aircraft. They were still very excited about the aircraft with plans to buy several more.
While new at San Jose, ANA has been flying the 787 for a year and a half, with rave reviews from passengers, pilots and the media in general. We had heard US Transportation secretary Ray LaHood state a few days earlier that he’d feel confident flying on a 787.
Then, on Wednesday morning here in Tokyo, we heard that a Dreamliner had made an emergency landing at an airport in western Japan, and that all passengers had been evacuated. Apparently, an indicator light told pilots that there was a battery issue, and that there was an unusual odor in the cockpit. After that incident, ANA immediately grounded its fleet of 17 Dreamliners and launched an investigation into the cause. At that time in the US, the FAA said that it was looking into the incident.
Half of our media group had reservations to fly out of Tokyo bound for San Jose on the 787 on Wednesday afternoon. However, thanks to the slower winter travel season and quick action on the part of ANA staff, there was enough room on Wednesday’s ANA flight to San Francisco to accommodate the group and they all got home safely. I was glad I had already booked my return trip to SFO on an ANA Boeing 777 (instead of the 787 into SJC) for later this week.
Last night, I pondered what all this meant as I sat having a meal in the Park Hyatt’s New York Grill & Bar, thinking about Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation drinking Suntory whiskey, listening to a “Sausalito”-like chanteuse croon while the Tokyo skyline twinkled 52 stories below.
I had a great night’s sleep (almost no jet lag on this trip…maybe due to the 787’s new cabin pressurization … or the Park Hyatt’s comfy beds?) and awoke to another bombshell: The US Federal Aviation Administration had grounded the 787 until it could determine the cause of the incident.
With sketchy information and investigations underway, it’s too early to conclude that the aircraft is fundamentally flawed. But the recent rash of incidents and media hype around them are certain to cause concern…
Here’s a list of what is swirling around in my head about this now. Conclusions will come later….
>First, I’m grateful to be safe and sound in a nice hotel in Tokyo, and not stuck at an airport due to a flight cancellation. I’m glad to have the chance to ride on the 787… and equally glad I have a reservation to get back to San Francisco an ANA 777.
>It’s tough to speculate on what this means for ANA’s new 787 flights between Tokyo and San Jose. The 158-passenger Dreamliner is perfect for a “long, thin” route like Tokyo-San Jose. I think it’s unlikely that ANA will substitute another aircraft on the route—such as a Boeing 777 or 767 because they are simply too big—there is not enough demand in the South Bay to keep a 200-300 seat aircraft full. (American Airlines used to have a 777 on the route, but discontinued the flight in 2006.) So if the grounding of the 787 is short term, the outlook for the route should be okay… is it’s a long-term affair, the future of the route is cloudy.
>ANA is handling cancellations on a day-to-day basis– for example, I’ve just learned that Friday’s flight between Tokyo and San Jose has been canceled, but no decision has been made for Saturday’s flight. On ANA alone, Dreamliner cancellations affect the plans of 4,800 passengers per day, according to a spokesperson.
>The impact of the controversy is likely felt most acutely here in Japan– ANA has a fleet of 17 Dreamliners, most of which are used for domestic flying, so re-accommodating passengers is causing some pain. Japan Airlines has grounded seven 787s. In addition, the lithium ion batteries in question are made in Japan. It’s difficult to watch all this come down on the gentle, polite Japanese who feel deeply embarrassed and apologetic about the whole affair.
>The current FAA grounding will affect flights on United’s 6 Dreamliners, however, none of them now fly into the Bay Area, so the local impact is minimal. United is the only US carrier now operating the plane.
>For perspective, I think it’s important to look at a similar incident regarding the giant Airbus A380 last year. If you recall, serious structural and mechanical issues (cracks in wings and an engine fire) forced Australian authorities to ground the plane until remedies were in place. The grounding was temporary, and the A380 was quickly back in the skies. Hopefully, engineers will be able to find a similar fix for the Dreamliner’s lithium-ion batteries, which seem to be the cause of the jet’s most severe problems at the moment.
>Even if the 787 gets back in the skies quickly, some business travelers will likely book away from 787 flights out of fear that future groundings or reliability issues could foul their travel plans.
>Regarding how the airlines might get this fixed, Hudson Crossing aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt told TravelSkills: “It’s possible the correction may be a multi-step process — a short-term ‘tactical’ fix followed by more in-depth corrections, which may be more complex. Short-term, we may see the FAA recommend airlines limit the types of routes where they operate the 787 — for example, flights that last no longer than a certain number of hours, flights that operate only over land (or close to it), or both. Longer term, the FAA may recommend adding a fire suppression system to the battery bays, replacing the lithium-ion batteries, or something else.”
>The big question remains: Is this plane truly safe to fly? At this point, no one really knows. It’s going to be interesting to watch this pan out.
I’m firmly in the “wait and see” category when it comes to the idea of booking flights on the 787 in the near future. What about you? How do you feel about the 787? Do you trust the airlines, manufacturers and government regulators to keep you safe? Please leave your comments below.