Warning from a Former Inspector General

It may take up to two years before it makes sense for you to fly on one of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners. That’s what Mary F. Schiavo, former inspector general of the US Transportation Department, tells Bottom Line/Personal.

In January, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) told United to ground its six new 787s after a lithium-ion battery on a parked Japan Airlines 787 caught fire and a battery problem set off a smoke alarm on an All Nippon Airways 787, which then made an emergency landing.

Battery fires can very quickly become deadly for airline passengers. The FAA noted that the conditions causing the problems in January, if not corrected, “could result in damage to critical systems and structures.”

The technologically innovative 787 is the first commercial passenger jet to be powered in part by lithium-ion batteries—a type of battery prone to overheating when overcharged or rapidly discharged. These batteries can burn at very high temperatures, emit flammable gases or explode. Notably, Cessna once attempted to use lithium-ion batteries on a private jet, and it, too, experienced a fire in late 2011.

There are two reasons why it’s best to avoid Dreamliners for a while, even after they resume flights…

Safety. Getting to the root of the problem might be tricky. There’s no guarantee that it will be 100% solved when the 787s are back in service.

The lithium-ion batteries will not be the last technological issue this jet will experience. Already there have been unrelated issues involving fuel leaks and a cracked windshield, and the list of problems will only grow once the 787 is flying again. New jets go through a shakeout period, and the 787 is so cutting-edge new in many ways (including a body largely composed of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, which does not show cracks or fatigue as readily as traditional metal) that the odds of additional problems are particularly high.

Scheduling. These inevitable glitches and issues will cause delays, cancellations and perhaps even emergency landings—all of which will create major headaches for travelers.

Still, based on Boeing’s history with new aircraft introductions, it’s probable that 18 to 24 months from now travelers will be able to fly on the 787 without major safety or scheduling concerns. The 787 likely isn’t a bad plane, just a new and highly complex one going through unavoidable growing pains. Boeing experienced similar problems when it introduced its 777 in the mid-1990s but worked out the bugs in about 18 to 24 months.

It’s worth noting that the FAA did not withdraw the 787’s Airworthiness Certificate when it grounded the jet…it merely issued a directive stating that the plane should not be used for commercial flights until this battery issue was fixed to the FAA’s satisfaction.

In the meantime, airline passengers should be aware that they have no legal right to decline to fly on a particular type of jet. If you buy a ticket on a 777 but the airline later substitutes a 787, you can’t insist on switching planes.

Right now, United is the only US airline with 787s. Foreign airlines include Air India, Qatar Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Chile’s LAN Airlines and LOT Polish Airlines in addition to the Japanese airlines.