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Boeing’s 787 woes test company’s reputation

Boeing's new-model 787 is receiving plenty of attention lately - but it's not at all the kind of buzz the aircraft maker had been hoping for with an aircraft that carries such high hopes it was dubbed the "Dreamliner."

“Welcome to the age of social media, Boeing,” quipped Michel Merluzeau, managing partner with G2 Solutions and a longtime aviation analyst.

The FAA on Wednesday ordered that all new model 787 planes operating in the United States temporarily cease operations until the FAA is sure that the batteries used in the new airplane are safe. Although the FAA commonly issues airworthiness directives to deal with specific problems, experts say it's rare that the agency takes the extra step of ordering airplanes to stop operating pending a check.

“This is really a very unusual step,” Merluzeau said.

The action came after two serious issues involving the airplanes’ batteries raised concerns about fires inside the aircraft. It also follows a series of other mishaps in the past few months that earlier had prompted a broader FAA review of the aircraft model. No one has been hurt in the incidents.

Aviation experts maintain that brand-new airplane models like the 787 are bound to have some growing pains, and most still believe the airplane will be a success in the long-term. But some say that the images of firefighters surrounding the aircraft and passengers bouncing off emergency slides are bound to raise alarm bells with some flyers.

“The aviation community recognizes that Boeing will eventually fix the 787 and anticipate it to be a fine airplane, eventually,” Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant with Leeham and Co., said in an e-mail Thursday. “The flying public won't be so forgiving in the near-term.”

Even among the aviation community, some say that there could eventually be a limit to how long customers and industry watchers will be forgiving.

“Boeing is kind of running out of (opportunities) to argue that this is a normal teething issue,” Merluzeau said.

Analysts said the company could likely overcome the current threats to the airplane model's reputation if it can address the issues quickly. That's because most flyers don't pay attention to what airplane they are getting on, as long as they are getting a good price for their ticket.

"You're either afraid of flying or you're not - that's basically what it comes down to," said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis with Teal Group.

Slideshow: Take a look inside the Boeing 787 'Dreamliner'

Nevertheless, Aboulafia said that Boeing had likely hoped at this time to be raising excitement and buzz around being the first to fly the 787, rather than responding to FAA directives. Boeing also has touted the 787 as a superior passenger experience because of bigger windows, better lighting and a more humid cabin.

"This is a kind of buzz wave that manufacturers like to catch upfront," Aboulafia said.

The 787, which entered service in the fall of 2011, is groundbreaking because it is made largely of light composite materials instead of aluminum, and it relies largely on electric systems instead of hydraulics.

Boeing delivered the first 787 more than three years late, in part because of difficulties working with a vast web of suppliers who designed and built key components for the new aircraft. Hamilton, of Leeham, said the distraction of the 787’s woes also have kept the aircraft maker from moving forward with other new airplane designs as quickly as many would like. That could be competitive problem for them down the road.Aviation experts say the 787’s systems mark major technological advancements for aviation, but using such a large number of new technologies also is risky.

Boeing has received 848 orders for the 787. It has delivered 49 of the aircraft, according to the aircraft maker’s website.

United Airlines is the only U.S. carrier that is currently operating the 787. The carrier said in a statement Wednesday that it was working with the FAA and Boeing toward restoring service and would accommodate customers on other airplanes in the interim.

Boeing Chief Executive Jim McNerney said in a statement Wednesday that the company was working around the clock to address the issues.

"We are confident the 787 is safe and we stand behind its overall integrity,” McNerney said in the statement.