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United CEO Smisek says Boeing 787 Dreamliner is ‘terrific’

Updated: January 24, 2013 5:05PM



United Airlines officials voiced confidence Thursday in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, despite regulators grounding the airline’s six planes because of concerns about the lithium-ion batteries on board.

Jeff Smisek, chairman, president, and CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc., said the sophisticated plane is “terrific” and “spectacular” and that customers will return once investigators determine what caused a battery fire Jan. 7 and a smoldering battery Jan. 16 aboard other airlines’ version of the plane.

He gave no estimate for when the planes would return to the sky during a conference call about the company’s quarterly earnings.

“The aircraft is a terrific aircraft,” Smisek said. “I have no doubt customers will flock back to the airplane once we get it back up again.”

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are investigating battery problems that grounded the fleet of 50 Dreamliners worldwide on Jan. 16

NTSB investigators plan a news conference Thursday afternoon to update the investigation, after X-raying, CT scanning and disassembling the battery from a Japan Airlines flight that caught fire at Boston’s Logan airport on Jan. 7.

“Safety is obviously very important,” Smisek said. “I’m confident in the regulatory authorities and Boeing working together to determine the cause of the battery issues and the fix for it.”

United got six of the planes in 2012 and plans to get another two in the second half of 2013, Smisek said. He denied any problems with pilots seeking additional safety assurances, even if FAA approves the planes for flight again.

“There is no distinction between us and our pilots with respect to safety,” Smisek said. “History teaches us that all new aircraft have issues and the 787 is no different. We continue to have confidence in the aircraft and in Boeing’s ability to fix the issues, just as they have done on every other new aircraft model they have produced.”

Smisek said it’s just a matter of time to solve the problems

“It’s a terrific airplane,” Smisek said. “Ask anyone who’s flown that airplane. It’s spectacular.”

Investigators have also been visiting the battery maker, GS Yuasa, in Japan. An All Nippon Airways 787 made an emergency landing Jan. 16 in Japan after pilots smelled something burning and got cockpit warnings about the battery.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Wednesday that it’s uncertain when investigators will complete their examination of the plane and its batteries, and the Dreamliner would be cleared to fly again.

“We need to let them finish their work,” LaHood said of technical experts. “They’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Even before the FAA grounded the Dreamliner, the agency had ordered a thorough review of the plane because of other problems, including fuel leaks.

“If we see a problem, we will take action,” Huerta said. “The technical experts need to do their job and identify causes, and we will take appropriate action to remediate them.”

Boeing, which is working with investigators to find the problem, has halted deliveries of the planes with nearly 850 on order. Airlines have canceled flights into mid-February while waiting for a remedy.

Batteries in the Boston and Japan planes hadn’t exceeded their designed 32 volts, according to investigators. But battery experts said the batteries can overheat from flaws in manufacturing or in charging.

NTSB investigators visited charger manufacturer Securaplane Technologies in Arizona on Tuesday with plans for testing the charger, wiring and circuit board from the Boston plane.



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