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Could The 787 Dreamliner Break Boeing?

NB – added October 12th: Since this article was first written (9th Oct) JAL has had two 787 aircraft develop significant faults in flight necessitating a diversion from the original flight plan. It is now probable that the reliability issues which led to the dramatic change in JAL’s all Boeing procurement plans.

The BBC News article on this issue suggests that the ‘series of technical and safety problems‘ seems to be negating any benefit gained through Japan being part of the Boeing supply chain.

JAL are far from alone with these issues, Qatar Airlines have warned Boeing that without a significant improvement in build and design quality their future plans to buy the 787 were in jeopardy. Another 787 operator, Norwegian Air Shuttle CEO  Bjorn Kjos put it in rather stronger terms when he said “Dreamliner has proven to be more of a nightmare for airlines relying on this new craft”!

The news this week that in a market previously dominated by Boeing, Japanese Airlines has placed an order for 31 Airbus 350 aircraft  must be a significant commercial blow for Boeing.

This has not been a good year for Boeing – 2013 was supposed to see the first year of full production of their much-vaunted 787 ‘Dreamliner’ range of aircraft, but in February it started to unravel – when a mysterious glitch meant that fires were breaking out on the planes as they were flying (read our post of February 2013 about this).

And now one of their most loyal customers has started to move to Boeing’s arch-rival.  now  Why Japanese Airlines (JAL) have decided to make this unprecedented decision, initially worth over $9.5bn to Airbus, is open to conjecture. It is even more surprising considering that JAL already operate 11 Boeing 787s, the exact commercial competitor of Airbus’s A350.

JAL already runs 11 Boeing 787s (Image source: http://www.blogcdn.com)

The reasons for this shift are probably many and various …

The 787 was very late coming to market mainly due to poor management of the supply chain. This included a serious shortage of quality fasteners (essential in any aircraft) and incomplete software. The project  has also been beset by design and build issues mostly surrounding its novel use of lithium Ion batteries as an additional electricity supply to aircraft when on the ground.

That said, the 787 now seems to be a reliable and popular aircraft with many of Boeing’s customers – so perhaps there are other reasons behind the decision to buy Airbus? If JAL are happy to go through the not inconsiderable effort of retraining their specialist maintenance team to work on the European aircraft, there must be a solid reason.

It might be because JAL has found that the 787 is not delivering the cost savings in fuel as promised. The first A350 flew earlier this year and is due for delivery into service next year. It is quite possible that Airbus have been able to demonstrate that even at early this flight test stage it is a superior aircraft to its Boeing competitor.

The First Flight of the Airbus 350

If this is indeed the case, then Boeing have a serious problem. Already many months behind on their delivery schedule, many airlines could cancel their orders and buy Airbus instead.

The First Flight of the Boeing 787

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