Small aircraft-shaped icons edge slowly across a large map of the world, watched intently by half a dozen people hunched over banks of smaller screens packed with streaming data.
Located in a small room, deep in Boeing’s commercial offices in the leafy suburbs of Everett in Washington, on the US west coast, this is the nerve-centre monitoring the plane maker’s most high-tech aircraft to date: the 787 Dreamliner.
Supplying up-to-the-second information on the health of 787s around the world, the Operations Control Center – as it is known – has been the scene of frantic action in the past few months. Several aircraft have been hit by technical glitches that have infuriated airline bosses and inconvenienced passengers. They followed aviation regulators ordering a three-month grounding of the long-haul jetliner this year because of battery meltdowns.
Sporting a tie with 787 wingtips on it, Mike Fleming, the vice president of 787 services and support, is the man in charge of the aircraft maker’s response to any glitches. Messages to his BlackBerry phone from 787 onboard computers alert him to any problems when he is outside the control room.
“As soon as any information is generated on the airplane’s maintenance system it streams down to the ground and we get it instantaneously,” he says.
Recent issues include a Dreamliner headed to Tokyo being diverted back to San Diego on Wednesday because of a possible problem with the aircraft’s deicing system.
Airline officials told local media the pilot received an error message for the system and made the decision to go back to San Diego so repairs could be made.
Other problems emerged late last month when the budget airline Norwegian Air Shuttle grounded one of its long-haul 787s and demanded Boeing repair the plane after it suffered repeated breakdowns. The same day, a 787 operated by Poland’s Lot airline was forced to land unexpectedly in Iceland because of a problem with the jet’s identification system.
Boeing sent personnel and parts to both aircraft to fix the issues.
The incidents provided a reality check for Boeing after euphoria in the wake of the first successful test flight recently of the 787-9, the plane’s latest incarnation.
Like the 787’s 55 other buyers, they were attracted by the razzmatazz surrounding one of the world’s most talked about aircraft. Offering 20 per cent less fuel burn than similar sized aircraft and a range in the same league as bigger jets, the 787 was seen as a saviour for cash-squeezed airlines.
Etihad is the biggest customer of the 787-9, which offers a longer range and a greater passenger capacity than the 8 version. Etihad’s 41 orders are due to start arriving from late next year, while airberlin, which Etihad owns a 29.2 per cent stake in, is taking 15 787s.
James Hogan, Etihad’s president and chief executive, has frequently given his backing to the 787, while opting to stand closer to the back of the order queue to avoid the risk of disruptions from any glitches.
“Etihad Airways is proud to have the largest airline fleet order in the world for the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, with 41 aircraft scheduled for delivery between 2014 and 2019,” Mr Hogan says.
“The commitment made by this order demonstrates the confidence we have in the aircraft and the impact it will have on our fleet capabilities.”
Akbar Al Baker, the chief executive of Qatar Airways, is another fan. Although his patience has at times worn thin. It has seven 787-8s already and a further 23 on order.
But the airline suffered in January when aviation authorities grounded the entire world fleet of 787s after batteries overheated on two jets within two weeks. The flight ban was removed in April when Boeing changed the battery system, which provides back-up power to the plane. Qatar reportedly briefly pulled a 787 out of service again in July because of a “minor issue”.
Mr Al Baker said in May the airline lost US$200 million in profits because of the three-month grounding but received compensation from Boeing for the delay.
In comments carried recently by Flightglobal, an online aviation news source, Mr Al Baker warned Boeing further hiccups affecting the 787 would weigh on the airline’s decision over taking up 30 additional purchase rights for the 787-9. Qatar’s alternative option is the A350, Airbus’ rival fuel-efficient jetliner. It already has 80 A350s on order – 42 of the 900 models and 38 1000 models.
The 787 is not the first aircraft to suffer from early glitches and is unlikely to be the last. The Airbus A380 superjumbo developed wing cracks that required redesign by the plane maker.
In addition, analysts say the successful test flights of the 9 version suggest Boeing may have ironed some of the kinks with the 8 model.
With a range of up to 8,500 nautical miles – 300 more than its predecessor – and able to carry up to 290 passengers, the 9 further pushes the envelope for mid-sized planes.
Etihad Airways had “essentially based its long-term future” alongside the 787-9, says Saj Ahmad, the chief analyst at StrategicAero Research.com, an aviation consultancy.
“Being able to carry more passengers over greater ranges while using less fuel and with more environmentally-friendly credentials, the 787-9 will allow the likes of Etihad and other customers inherent flexibility in how they deploy the airplane,” he says.
“We’ve seen how Ethiopian Airlines has directly attributed its profitability down to the 787, so it’s inevitable that the 787-9 will do the same for its customers too.”
Boeing has already got its eye on the 787’s next model, too. Launched at the Paris Airshow in June, the US maker received 102 provisional orders for the 787-10 worth nearly US$30 billion at list prices. It brings total sales for the 787 to about 1,450.