United Dreamliner lands in Chicago

In a signal of confidence to the flying public that Boeing 787s are safe to fly, the CEOs of Boeing Co. and United Continental Holdings Inc. travelled from Houston to Chicago aboard a Dreamliner.

The flight, which touched down early and without incident, marked the return to service of United-owned Dreamliners after the Boeing plane was grounded for 100 days by aviation regulators worldwide because of overheating onboard batteries.

United Airlines has taken delivery of six Dreamliners and is the only US carrier to own the plane. United and Boeing are headquartered in Chicago.

"The CEO is on the plane, so it must be safe," surmised Steve Brill, a passenger on the flight.

Indeed, soon after United CEO Jeff Smisek exited the plane, he expressed support for the 787, which he has called the airline's "flagship" jet. "Boeing has done a really good job with the FAA" in developing a fix for the problem batteries, he said at Gate C20 at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

Also aboard the flight was the man responsible for the 787 aircraft program, Mike Sinnett, the Dreamliner's chief project engineer. He said the Dreamliner has more "get home" capability than any other aircraft and that the problematic batteries weren't even required for safe flight and landing.

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney also was on the flight.

The highly touted Dreamliner, whose fuselage and wings are made of composite material instead of metal, is lighter than traditional planes and 20 percent more fuel efficient, a big selling point for airlines, which can save money on fuel and use the modest-size planes on longer routes, connecting distant international cities with direct flights without jumbo jets.

In the cabin, Dreamliners offer passenger comforts, such as larger, dimmable windows and the ability to adjust cabin pressure and humidity.

But Boeing delivered the first Dreamliner more than three years late because of design and production delays. The plane's list price is US$207 million, although aircraft are often heavily discounted.

Despite devoting vast resources to the lithium-ion battery problem, Boeing never found a root cause and is still looking, Sinnett said.

But it developed a fix that involved encasing a redesigned power pack in a steel box.

It packed the battery with different insulation, heat-resistant material and spacers. It added drainage holes to remove moisture and a venting system to remove gases caused by overheating.

Boeing officials claim the fix is "comprehensive and permanent," and officials from the Federal Aviation Administration, which first grounded the planes, have said they believe Dreamliners retrofitted with the battery fix are now safe for flying.

Some foreign airlines have resumed commercial flights with fixed Dreamliners.

The apparent end to the Dreamliner battery saga doesn't mean 787s won't continue to have glitches, as all new plane models do. Before the 787 experienced battery overheating problems in January, there were reports of fuel leaks and other relatively minor mishaps.

Boeing officials have said the 787's teething problems were on par with those of the highly successful 777.

Despite worldwide attention to the battery problem and angst among some on Wall Street that the episode would financially harm Boeing, the company has said the costs were contained and the grounding won't affect 2013 profits.

It will deliver all 60 Dreamliners scheduled this year, officials have said.

Airlines around the world recently have amped up their comments about receiving potential compensation from Boeing because of the groundings.

McNerney has said Boeing is not contractually responsible to pay compensation but will work with customers individually, although officials won't place a value on that compensation. Industry experts have said the airlines are laying groundwork for negotiations about discounts on future aircraft purchases.

In January, the Federal Aviation Administration grounded 787s in the United States, and other countries followed, after overheating-battery incidents on two Japanese planes - one in Boston and one in Japan.

It was the first grounding since the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 had its airworthiness certificate suspended after a deadly crash in 1979 in Chicago.

United plans to fly its first international route with a Dreamliner on June 10 with a flight between Denver and Tokyo.

United expects to take delivery of two more 787s in the second half of this year.