Rumbling down the runway at New York’s JFK Airport, American Airlines pilot Bill Elder points the nose of the Boeing 787 skyward and takes off for Denver.
Elder roars over the Atlantic, then banks sharply to the left, back over Queens and then Manhattan. But he is flying too low and triggers a ground-proximity warning as the Empire State Building appears off to the left.
Not to worry. The scene is unfolding in a flight simulator at American’s training center in Fort Worth. Elder, American’s fleet training manager, is demonstrating the warning systems that mimic those in an airliner.
American will take delivery of its first 787, which Boeing calls the Dreamliner, in November. Passenger flights begin early next year. In the next few months, dozens of American pilots will sit in the same simulator and learn the nuances of the controls before they can fly the real plane.
The 787 could be American’s most important new plane since the Boeing 777 in 1999. With its improved fuel efficiency and long range, the 787 could boost the airline’s profit by making many international routes more economical.
But the plane has a turbulent record. Production was delayed for two years, and the entire worldwide fleet of 50 was grounded last year after batteries overheated in two planes. Regulators allowed the jets to fly again after Boeing crafted a fix that included encasing the batteries in steel boxes to contain any fires.
The Dreamliner is the first big passenger jet to use lithium-ion batteries to power key systems. Last week, U.S. safety officials said that the Federal Aviation Administration relied too much on Boeing for technical expertise and might not have adequately tested the batteries for hazards due to short-circuiting. Experts believe that lithium-ion batteries can short-circuit without warning, the investigators said.
American Airlines Group declined to make an executive available for comment. In a statement to The Associated Press, the airline said it was “in constant dialogue with Boeing and we look forward to adding the 787 to our fleet.” American’s former CEO and current chairman, Tom Horton, similarly stood by Boeing last year.
American will become just the second U.S. airline, after United, to fly the 787. Worldwide, about 140 are flying today, and Boeing says it has orders for nearly 900 more.
American has ordered 42 Dreamliners but hasn’t yet said which routes they will fly. Spokesman Casey Norton said the plane will be tested on domestic routes before going into international service — the same strategy used by United Airlines.
Richard Aboulafia, a prominent aviation consultant, said the Dreamliner will be crucial for American as it competes with United and Delta to attract premium passengers on international routes. He suggests that American will fly it to Asia, the Middle East and secondary cities in Europe.
“It is absolutely the plane you want to fly point-to-point internationally,” he said, “and it’s at its best at longer ranges” where the fuel efficiency pays off most.
American won’t say how much it will pay for the planes. The base model lists for $211.8 million on Boeing’s website, but airlines routinely get deep discounts.
Depending on their experience, American pilots will spend anywhere from 10 days to nearly a month in the simulator before graduating to practice flights with the real plane. Then come passenger trips, when they will be accompanied by an instructor called a check airman.
Jim Dees, American’s training program chief for the 787 — he and Elder are the only American pilots who have flown a Dreamliner — said the simulator allows pilots to practice during emergencies and bad weather that wouldn’t be safe in a real plane. They can pick from nearly two dozen airports for takeoffs and landings, including over-water approaches at San Francisco or mountainous terrain around Salt Lake City.