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Dreamliners may fly again, but not from Tokyo to Silicon Valley

Steve LeVine

Someone has leaked the intention of US authorities to lift a no-flight ban on Boeing 787 Dreamliners, the jet grounded in January after fire and smoke erupted from its lithium-ion battery packs. Bloomberg, New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times (last three paywall) are all quoting unnamed sources as saying the announcement could come as early as today.

But Boeing may lose one of the key original selling points of its twin-engine plane—its ability to fly between nearly any two points on the globe using less fuel than four-engine planes. The Seattle Times, the hometown newspaper to Boeing headquarters, reports that the planes may not be able to fly from Tokyo to Silicon Valley, a major route, for instance, or Tokyo to Boston. And there may be no direct flights from Auckland to Los Angeles. Boeing did not respond immediately to an email seeking comment.

Such limitations would affect All-Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines and Air New Zealand, all of whom have bought the 787s.

At question is the plane’s Extended Twin Operations certificate, known as ETOPS. Currently, only four-engine airliners can fly super-long routes up to five-and-a-half hours while more than an hour away from any airport, such as Honolulu’s. Twin-engine planes like the 787 are limited to three hours, which would preclude trans-Pacific routes. But Boeing had made part of its sales pitch that it expected to obtain clearance for the longer certification (Reuters was the first to report this possibility.). That feature—the longer flying time—made the 787 very attractive to the Asian airlines.

In an April 16 hearing in the US Senate, Federal Aviation Administration chief Michael Huerta said the ETOPS certification is under review. The review adds a second layer of trouble for Boeing just when it seemed to be in the clear.

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