United pilots who were on track to fly the Boeing 787 are being returned to their previous aircraft while the grounding of the Dreamliner heads towards its sixth week. The APEX editor’s blog understands that pilots who had not completed 787 training were told they would return to fly their previous aircraft, Boeing 777, 767 and 737s among them. Those pilots who were flying the six Dreamliners for the brief months United operated them will collect a paycheck but remain on the ground, just like the aircraft.
“There were no small number of meetings for folks who were deciding ‘when do we hold and when do we fold each group of pilots,’” said one airline insider who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
According to Christen David, a spokeswoman for United, approximately 125 pilots have completed training. “All pilots that were qualified for line flying are being kept current and qualified in our simulator as allowed by the FAA,” she said. Asked how many pilots had only partially completed the process and how many would return to flying the aircraft on which they were previously qualified, David said, “We’re not disclosing our staffing plans.”
Pilot training decisions like this are extremely complicated because they must take into consideration what aircraft type the pilot is moving up from, and whether the person is training for a left or right seat position. Pilots now certified to fly the 787 cannot return to their previous aircraft assignments without undergoing transition training, a time-consuming and expensive proposition. United was flying internationally to Tokyo and Amsterdam when the fleet was grounded by a FAA airworthiness directive on 16 January. It has changed its schedule through 30 March with alternate aircraft, David said. “We will make further adjustments in the future as we gain more visibility on the question of when service will be restored.”
But the decision to stop the process of training Dreamliner pilots is an acknowledgement of what many in the industry are already suggesting; the aircraft could be on the ground for some time to come. The Dreamliner pilots who will remain qualified and current will be paid and presumably be ready to fly with little delay when the grounding is lifted.
While United has six Dreamliners, and might seem to be more affected by the grounding than airlines like Air India and Lot with one each, the 787 is a small part of United’s 700 aircraft fleet. On the other hand, the two Japanese carriers All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines together have half of the 50 Dreamliners that have been delivered.
If any airline had a lot riding on the novel new Boeing aircraft it was Norwegian. Just last week, photographs of the aircraft on the Everett production line were sent to executives in Oslo where last fall CEO Bjorn Kjos spoke of his high hopes for the fuel-efficient mid-size aircraft. It would be the “tool” he told me that opened low-cost, long-haul travel and allowed his fledgling carrier to take on what he called the SAS monopoly on flights from Scandinavia to the US.
There’s a “much lower cost to run it,” he said explaining that the Dreamliner would allow him to offer cheaper fares to the US and Asia. “Do the math and you know exactly what to do.”
Now, however, it appears unlikely that Norwegian’s Dreamliner will be flying when the Oslo and Stockholm routes to New York begin on 30 May. Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen, a spokesman for Norwegian said the carrier was looking at wet-leasing an aircraft in order to accommodate the passengers who had already purchased tickets.
“Sales have been great. We announced a week ago that Boeing had alerted us on a potential delay and we haven’t seen a decline in sales since that news,” said Sandaker-Nielsen. “We offered an opportunity to cancel with full refund or to switch to a later flight free of charge, so far we can see they haven’t taken that opportunity.”
Still, since the decision to begin flights to the US and to Bangkok was based entirely on the specific economics offered by the fuel-efficient 787, executives know there will be a considerable financial penalty for running the flight with an older aircraft. “Our primary concern is to have a backup plan since we do not know how long the delay is going to be,” said Sandaker-Nielson. He would not speculate on how much more it would cost the airline, but said in the future Norwegian would “Take that up with Boeing.” They will not be alone.