Thursday, March 21, 2013

Boeing Works to Redeem Dreamliner: Plane Maker Hopes to Persuade Potential Passengers That Troubled 787 Will Be Safe to Fly -WSJ

As Boeing Co. tests fixes to the batteries of its 787 Dreamliners, it now faces the challenge of persuading passengers that the jetliner will be safe to fly when it resumes commercial service.

The efforts include sending surveys to frequent fliers, aviation enthusiasts and others to gauge attitudes toward the Dreamliner.

But safety experts say part of the Chicago plane maker's evolving public relations strategy also involves playing down the severity of the burning lithium-ion battery incidents, which prompted the grounding of the 787 over nine weeks ago.

The moves point to a new chapter in the 787 drama. Tests of a redesigned lithium-ion battery system, begun this month, appear to be going well, and people familiar with the situation say a final U.S. government sign-off on the fixes could come as soon as the end of the month, even though investigators still don't know exactly what caused the batteries to overheat.

But the resumption of commercial flights as early as April puts pressure on Boeing and airlines that fly 787s to persuade the public that the fixes are sufficient, despite the continuing mystery about what caused the incidents.

"I don't think there's any question that we have an airplane that has gone through some challenges, and those challenges have been very public," Randy Tinseth, Boeing vice president of marketing, said in an interview last week. "What we have to do is make sure everyone involved that touches this airplane, in any way, really understands" the 787's benefits.

Boeing is testing fixes to its 787 batteries. Above,amodel of the redesigned battery shown in Tokyo Friday.

Spokesman Marc Birtel said that while Boeing is focused on the testing, marketing efforts for the Dreamliner are being "prepared to respond to the needs of our customers and their passengers" when the 787 returns to flight. Mr. Birtel said surveys have been "stepped up" in recent months and the results will remain confidential, though Boeing plans to share the fruits of its research to help Dreamliner customers craft their own marketing plans.

Boeing officials maintain that they are releasing factual data about battery behavior over the years and are on the same page with the National Transportation Safety Board, which has been leading the probe of 787 battery malfunctions. In a separate email statement, Boeing said it "recognizes the seriousness of the events, and that's been reflected in the actions and statements of the company, including in press briefings last week."

Part of the strategy appears to be Boeing's recent public statements on the nature of the battery incidents.

Aviation experts have traditionally placed smoke and fire events among the biggest aviation safety risks. Last month, safety board chairman Deborah Hersman said "the expectation in aviation is never to experience a fire aboard an aircraft."

From the beginning, Boeing has said any fire on an aircraft is a serious issue. But in two press briefings last week, senior Boeing managers provided different, less serious descriptions than Ms. Hersman in discussing the 787's battery problems. Mike Sinnett, the 787's chief engineer, told reporters that "in the last 10 years, there have been thousands upon thousands" of battery malfunctions on commercial planes, making such events a reality of airline operations, adding that "many of them have resulted in smoke and fire."

But Mr. Sinnett and other Boeing officials have emphasized that safe flight of the planes wasn't endangered because other safety systems kicked in as planned.

Ron Hinderberger, another veteran 787 engineer, said fallout from battery failures "happens on our airplanes week in and week out."

Some observers see a budding conflict. "They have decided to directly take on the NTSB," said Michael Barr, who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California. "Downplaying the initial hazard usually isn't a good approach," he added, "particularly if another 787 suffers" a battery problem.

Former airline pilot John Cox, a veteran accident investigator who now runs an air-safety consulting firm based in Washington, challenged Boeing's assessment. "I certainly wouldn't characterize the events that way," he said, adding "they were nowhere close to being routine."

Ray Valeika, former Delta Air Lines head of maintenance and engineering, said that over the course of his 35-year aviation career, he couldn't recall a single case of another aircraft battery catching fire on a jetliner operated by a major U.S. carrier.

Last week, Boeing Commercial Airplanes Chief Executive Ray Conner voiced his confidence in the Dreamliner's safety and pledged to be a passenger on the first commercial flight.

Boeing's surveys include postcard-size questionnaires passed out to tour groups visiting the company's jetliner factory in Everett, Wash., which includes the 787's final assembly line. They have also been sent to a network of thousands of enthusiasts who previously signed up to receive updates on the plane's development.

Boeing's survey questions include whether fliers agree more with the statement "I will go out of my way to fly the Dreamliner," or "I will actively avoid flying on the Dreamliner." The Web questionnaires ask for three words that come to mind in conjunction with the Dreamliner.

The company has also targeted curious Web users. When people search such terms as "Dreamliner Fire" or "787 batteries" on Google,  the top item they get is a sponsored link directing them to a page labeled "FAA Approves Boeing Plan." There, they can read details of Boeing's changes to the jet's lithium-ion batteries.

Hayes Roth, the chief marketing officer for brand consulting firm Landor Associates, said Boeing has a short public attention span working in its favor. "If Dreamliner has a worse problem, then you have a very different issue," he said, but the problems so far have been "a topical always ends. It's not interesting forever."

Boeing's strategy is gaining traction among many industry officials. James May, former chief executive of the major industry group representing large U.S. passenger and cargo carriers, expects passenger confidence to rebound quickly if the fixes work as well as expected. In the absence of another emergency, he said, within six months "the issue will die away" and concerns about the 787 will disappear "way in the back of people's minds."


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