HOUSTON — More than one hundred days after the FAA grounded the 787, United Airlines flew their first post-grounding 787 flight from Houston to Chicago on May 20. More than 200 passengers, including executives from both Boeing and United, made history as they spent part of their day cruising at 41,000 feet and at a Mach speed of 0.85 on United flight 1 to mark the return of United’s Dreamliners.
On September 22, 2012, United Airlines quietly took delivery of their first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and, six days later, they ferried it to Houston, Texas where a large crowd of employees and local journalists joined to celebrate United’s dream come true.
However, United still had to receive certification from the FAA to fly passengers. It was a long five weeks for United as they conducted safety drills, practiced aircraft servicing, and flew several proving runs to Amsterdam, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, and Tokyo. United’s second 787 was delivered on October 31 which was several days late as Boeing experienced delays. United had to scrub several 787 flights due to the delay.
On November 4, United Airlines operated their inaugural 787 flight on an early morning flight from Houston to Chicago. Despite the early hour, aviation enthusiasts, United employees, and many members of the media were excited to make aviation history, and Jeff Smisek, President and CEO of United, was on-board to celebrate. The two hour flight flew by as passengers explored the brand-new aircraft, chatted with Smisek, and listened the quiet hum of the engines. After landing in Chicago, a ceremonial water cannon salute occurred followed by a short arrival ceremony, and, on the return flight to Houston, it became apparent that the Dreamliner dream become a reality for United. However, the reality turned into a headache one month later.
While en-route from Houston to Newark on December 4, a United Airlines Boeing 787 made an emergency landing in New Orleans as one of the six generators on the Dreamliner failed in-flight. The incident caught people’s attention, and some became concerned about the Dreamliner’s safety.
A JAL Boeing 787 battery caught fire in Boston on January 7, and the incident caught the world’s attention. Over the next week, every 787 issue, ranging from a fuel leak to United reporting improper battery wiring, was reported all over the world, and the FAA launched a review into the 787’s electrical systems on January 10. However, the Dreamliner caught the world’s attention, once again, when an ANA 787 suffered a battery issue and made an emergency landing in Japan on January 16.
Within a few hours of the ANA Dreamliner emergency landing, the Japanese government grounded both ANA’s and JAL’s 787 fleets for mandatory battery inspections. The FAA followed the Japanese government’s lead and grounded United’s six Dreamliners on January 16. Within a few hours after the FAA imposed the 787 grounding, other aviation government agencies followed, and all 50 delivered Dreamliners in the world were grounded.
The FAA’s grounding of the 787 marked the first time in more than three decades that an entire aircraft type was grounded in the United States. From June 6, 1979 to July 13, 1979, the FAA grounded and barred all McDonnell Douglas DC-10’s from U.S. airspace, after horrific accidents. However, the the FAA imposed the Dreamliner grounding after three emergency landings, and some in the aviation industry thought the grounding was an extreme measure.
The day after the FAA grounded the 787, Boeing proposed a fix to the FAA, but it was rejected. United planned to resume 787 flights in mid-February, but, as the investigation of the JAL and ANA 787 battery incidents continued, United pushed back the start date to early-May.
On February 2, The New York Times reported that United replaced 787 batteries on three of their six aircraft between September and December 2012, and safety experts said they were concerned. Boeing conducted their first 787 test flight a week later on February 9 to learn more about how the battery reacted in-flight in hopes of finding the exact cause. On March 25, Boeing conducted a test flight to test their solution to the battery problems, and, 11 days later, Boeing completed a 787 certification demonstration flight with the FAA on-board.
Finally on April 19, the FAA formally lifted the 787 grounding they imposed in mid-January. However, each of the 50 Dreamliners needed to receive the battery modifications in order to fly passengers. A dozen Boeing teams were dispatched to five continents to begin the battery modifications
Four of United’s Dreamliners were grounded at Houston Intercontinental, and I photographed them a few times during the grounding.
Four days after the FAA lifted the grounding, United ferried their 787, N27903, that was grounded in Los Angeles to Boeing’s Facility at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas to receive the battery modifications. All battery modifications, except one, were carried out at Boeing’s facility in San Antonio. The United 787 that was grounded in Tokyo, N20904, received its battery modification in Tokyo. The FAA estimates that the cost of the battery modification is approximately $464,763 per aircraft, and the modifications add approximately 184.8 pounds of weight.
Once N27903’s battery modification was complete, the aircraft was ferried to Houston on May 8 to prepare for training flights. On May 9, 10, 11, and 14, pilots conducted a round-trip 787 training flight from Houston to Austin with N27903. Only pilots were on-board the training flights. On May 16, pilots flew N27903 to Denver to continue training. According to United, all training flights went smoothly, and they expect to have all six Dreamliners back in revenue service by the end of the week.
On Monday, May 20, I arrived at Houston Intercontinental around 6:30AM for an early media tour of the 787 before departure. The other reporters were just as eager as I was to check out and fly on the Dreamliner. A fellow reporter, who covered the inaugural 787 flight on November 4, remarked that it seemed a little déjà vu, but today’s flight was even more significant.
Around 7:00AM, we headed to gate E7 to tour the 787. The gate area was deserted, except for a few who were setting up a stage and cookies. After a ramp safety briefing, we headed down to the ramp, and we were able to walk around the United 787, N27903, which would be flying United’s first post-grounding 787 passenger flight.
It seemed like the 787 was ready to fly passengers as the sun was casting a golden glow on the aircraft, and the 787 had a huge smile. I am pretty sure that passengers on other planes that taxied by were wondering what was going on as we walked around the aircraft taking pictures and videos. All of the journalists were excited to walk all around the 787 to capture unique footage or pictures.
After walking around the Dreamliner, we headed back to the gate area where passengers and other United employees started to arrive. I was able to meet some members of United’s social media team, and, shortly after, the crew of United flight 1, United’s CEO, Jeff Smisek, and Boeing’s CEO, Jim McNerney, all took the stage.
McNerney and Smisek made a few short remarks before boarding. Smisek started off by saying that he was excited to be on-board the flight. However, he turned his focus to United’s commitment to reliability and efficiency, and he was proud to remind us that United had its best on-time performance last quarter in more than a decade. He also mentioned that United is training 48,000 United employees as well as employees at Express partners to improve customer service. After reviewing the changes at United, Smisek said, “we are delighted to have the 787 back in service…I’ll tell you Jim, it is a very expensive sculpture to have on the ground. So, we are really delighted to have it up and flying.”
McNerney, Boeing’s CEO, said he was very excited to be on the flight. He turned to Smisek, and said, “Jeff, our relationship with you and your company means everything to us, and the fact that you and your people have embraced this game changing technology, says to the world that have succeeded in coming up with the airplane of the future. We are very sorry about the delay that was caused by some of the technology…but the promise of this airplane remains unchanged. We are absolutely confident in this airplane, and safety means everything to us.”
After both of their remarks, it was time to board! I was able to talk to a few passengers who were surprised that they would be taking part in aviation history on what they thought would be a “normal” flight to Chicago.
As we boarded, I noticed that the flight attendants were in the 787 spirit as they hung up a 787 poster in the galley, and, once on-board, it was obvious that the passengers were excited too. It did not seem that there were as many enthusiasts compared to the inaugural flight, but many were excited to step aboard the Dreamliner.
Shortly after boarding, I checked out the Dreamliner’s cockpit and met the pilots. Today’s flight would be under the command of Captain Niels Olufsen. The pilots were very excited and proud to fly the Dreamliner again. When asked what they like most about the Dreamliner, all three said they love having larger computer displays and a smooth ride.
At 11:00AM, the doors were shut, and we started to push back. Several members of the media and United employees lined the ramp area of gate E7 to send off the Dreamliner.
As we taxied by E20, another United 787 was parked by E20. United conducted one flight to Newark as flight 80. The flight was not expected on May 20, but United quietly upgraded the aircraft to a Dreamliner Saturday morning.
After a quick taxi to runway 15L, we were on our way.
Shortly after take off, service began promptly. However, Jeff Smisek made an announcement welcoming everybody aboard the 787 Dreamliner, and he mentioned that Jim McNerney was also on-board. It was a little turbulent after take off, but the Dreamliner handled the turbulence really well.
After a calzone for lunch in United First, I walked through the cabin and talked with a few United fans who booked flight UA1 to be on the first post-grounding 787. The aisles were crowded as the flight attendants tried to conduct beverage service while the media tried to conduct interviews. All of the executives from Boeing and United were kept busy with various members of the media, but most of the passengers remained in their seats.
Jeff Smisek and John Rainey, United’s CFO, were both very excited to be on today’s flight, and they both said they were happy to have the Dreamliner back in service.
All too soon, we started out descent into Chicago from 41,000 feet. It was a little bumpy as we began approach into Chicago, due to high winds, but the Dreamliner handled the light turbulence very well.
At 1:13PM, we touched down in Chicago, and we had a quick taxi to gate C20. There were a few employees and members of the media who meet us at the gate, and several passengers were interviewed about the flight. The ground and flight crew had just a little more than two hours to get the Dreamliner ready for its return flight to Houston as flight UA2.
Overall, it was a great flight. I was surprised that there were not as many Dreamliner/United fans that booked the flight to fly on the first post-grounding flight, but it was still fun nonetheless. The flight crew was awesome! They were very friendly, and they helped make the flight special.
I returned to Houston on the Dreamliner, and I could not help but reflect on the last four months. Boeing and United have each had their ups and downs through the battery saga, but United’s first post-grounding 787 flight was a major up for both Boeing and United. It was tough for United both operationally and financially as the grounding cost them approximately $11 million during the first quarter, and they had to delay the launch of their new Denver to Tokyo Naritia service. However, United is expecting to begin Denver to Tokyo Naritia service on June 10, and all six Dreamliners flying by the end of the week.
The Dreamliner grounding story is almost over as ANA, JAL, LAN, and LOT Polish Airlines will resume 787 service within the next two weeks. While it is not clear what caused the battery issue, Boeing will still be working to find the cause, and the pressure is on as more than 800 Dreamliners have yet to be delivered.