CHICAGO — Signaling confidence to the flying public that Boeing 787s are safe to fly, the CEOs of Boeing Co. and United Continental Holdings Inc. on Monday traveled from Houston to Chicago aboard a Dreamliner.
Monday's flight, which touched down early and without incident Monday afternoon, marked the return to service of United-owned Dreamliners after the Boeing plane model was grounded for 100 days by aviation regulators worldwide because of overheating onboard batteries.
United Airlines has taken delivery of six Dreamliners and is the only U.S. carrier to own the plane model. United and Boeing are headquartered in Chicago.
Steve and Olga Brill were passengers on Monday's flight, making their way home to Canada. They were unfamiliar with the 787 battery saga until they arrived at the gate in Houston and saw cameras and media attention.
Olga Brill said she enjoyed the flight, the plane's large windows and how clean the bathrooms were. But did she feel safe? "I was a little bit nervous in the beginning," she conceded.
"But the CEO is on the plane, so it must be safe," Steve Brill chimed in.
Indeed, soon after United CEO Jeff Smisek exited the plane, he expressed support for the 787, which he has called the airline's "flagship" jet. "We are thrilled to be flying it again," he said at Gate C20 at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. "Boeing has done a really good job with the FAA" in developing a fix for the problem batteries, he said.
Also aboard the flight was the man responsible for Boeing's 787 aircraft program, Mike Sinnett, the Dreamliner's chief project engineer. He said that he was confident in the Dreamliner's safety and noted that the problematic batteries weren't even required for safe flight and landing.
"I can tell you that the airplane has more get-home capability than any airplane that's been built before," he said. "There are significant layers of redundancy."
Boeing CEO Jim McNerney also was on the flight.
The highly touted Dreamliner, whose fuselage and wings are made of composite material instead of metal, is lighter than traditional planes and 20 percent more fuel-efficient. That's a big selling point for airlines, which can save money on fuel and use the modest-sized 787s instead of jumbo jets on long international routes.
In the cabin, Dreamliners offer passenger amenities, such as larger, dimmable windows and the ability to adjust cabin pressure and humidity to more comfortable levels than in metal planes.
Augustin Mason was a passenger on Monday's flight, on his way back home to Chicago after vacationing in Texas. He said he knew he was flying on a 787 but didn't know Monday's flight was going to be the media event it was. "It was a smooth flight," Mason said, adding that the cabin air seemed fresher than on other planes. "I felt refreshed coming off the plane, which is all in the hype. So they're marketing it well."
Despite its advantages, the Dreamliner has been scrutinized, especially after it was clear Boeing would deliver the first 787, which lists for $207 million, more than three years late because of design and production delays.
Then in January, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded 787s in the United States, and other countries followed, after overheating-battery incidents on two Japanese planes - one in Boston and one in Japan. It was the first grounding since the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 had its airworthiness certificate suspended after a deadly crash in 1979 in Chicago.
Boeing devoted vast resources to the lithium-ion battery problem but never found a root cause.
However, it developed a fix that involved encasing a redesigned power pack in a steel box. It packed the battery with different insulation, heat-resistant material and spacers. It added drainage holes to remove moisture and a venting system to remove gases caused by overheating. Boeing officials claim the fix is "comprehensive and permanent" and that the battery box wouldn't allow sufficient oxygen to catch fire.
"There are people who said, 'Well, all you did was build a box around it.' That's not the case," Sinnett said Monday. "We specifically designed it such that you can't burn what's in it."
FAA officials have said they believe Dreamliners retrofitted with the battery fix are now safe for flying. Four of United's planes have the new battery systems and the other two should be completed this week, Smisek said.
Several foreign airlines have resumed commercial flights with retrofitted Dreamliners.
The apparent end to the Dreamliner battery saga doesn't mean 787s won't continue to have glitches, as all new plane models do. Before the 787 experienced battery overheating problems in January, there were reports of fuel leaks and other relatively minor mishaps. Boeing officials have said such teething problems are common in new plane models and that the 787 is on par with the highly successful 777 at its same stage of development.
Despite worldwide attention to the battery problem and angst among some on Wall Street that the episode would financially harm Boeing, the company has said the costs were contained and the grounding won't affect 2013 profits. It will deliver all 60 Dreamliners scheduled this year, officials have said.
United, which expects to take delivery of two more 787s in the second half of this year, plans to fly its first international route with a Dreamliner on June 10 with a flight between Denver and Tokyo.
American Airlines, the second-largest airline in Chicago next to United, has also expressed support for the 787. The airline has 42 firm Dreamliner orders and options for 58 more. It is scheduled to take delivery of its first in late 2014.
While United's domestic flights with its Dreamliners are temporary, LOT Polish Airlines will fly the first regularly scheduled flight on a 787 between Chicago and Warsaw. LOT, which had its 787 parked at O'Hare during the grounding, plans to begin flying the route again June 5.