After finally taking delivery of its first 787 Dreamliner Thursday, Air India intends to fly the jet from North Charleston to New Delhi this afternoon and return this month to pick up two more, including the first assembled in South Carolina.
That’s according to Boeing’s top salesman for India, Dinesh Keskar, who spent much of this summer trying to bring the closely watched transactions to completion. Speaking from India Thursday, Keskar seemed eager to move forward.
“Charleston is nice, but you don’t want to stay there that long,” Keskar, senior vice president of Asia Pacific and India Sales for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said minutes before flying home to Seattle. “The excitement here is going to be amazing when the airplane comes here.”
Air India spokesmen have not responded to messages for months, including Thursday, but Boeing’s press release featured the perspective of the government-owned airline’s top executive.
“Today is a great day for Air India as the most technologically advanced and fuel efficient airplane in the world joins our fleet,” Rohit Nandan, Air India chairman and managing director, said in a statement. “The 787 will allow Air India to open new routes in a dynamic marketplace and provide the best in-flight experience for our passengers.”
The delivery of Air India’s first 787 had become so delayed and unpredictable that when it was finally announced Thursday morning, the news was as surprising as it was welcome.
“They finally did it, huh?” said Scott Hamilton of Issaquah, Wash.-based aviation consulting firm Leeham Co.
Hamilton compared the long-running delivery saga to the old film serial “The Perils of Pauline,” and said the delivery must be a relief for Boeing. He is less sure whether the plane will help return the troubled South Asian customer to profitability.
The 787 has the range and capability to allow Air India to fly routes to the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Australia, but it will begin in domestic service.
Air India ordered 27 of the fuel-efficient, twin-aisle airplanes in 2005 and had expected to take the first of them in 2008, but the 787 program got bogged down by numerous manufacturing setbacks.
Then there were months of negotiations between Boeing and the cash-strapped airline over compensation owed for those delays, plus the bureaucratic process in India.
The delivery was most recently scheduled for last week, but that timeframe came and went without explanation. Keskar wouldn’t go into detail about how the deal was finally done.
“They have their own processes and they went through that and they got all cleared and that’s what allowed the delivery,” he said.
The plane, which has 18 business-class seats and 238 economy-class seats, is the first to be delivered from Boeing’s local campus, but the jet was not made in South Carolina.
Known internally as LN 35, it was assembled in Everett, Wash., and flown to Charleston International Airport two months ago.
It sat on the flight line for much of the summer before rolling over to the inner curve of the South Aviation Avenue delivery center two weeks ago. It was back on the flight line earlier this week, but was once again parked next to the delivery center Thursday.
Air India is the fifth airline in the world to take delivery of a 787 Dreamliner. It was scheduled to be third after All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, but last month, Ethiopian Airlines and LAN Airlines took custody of their first 787s.
Boeing has now delivered at least 20 of the composite-bodied jets since starting the handovers a year ago this month. All previous deliveries had been from the airframer’s Everett, Wash., complex.
Four other Air India 787s are on the North Charleston flight line. Another made in Everett and the first S.C.-assembled plane are ready for pick-up; the second and third S.C. 787s still need to undergo test flights and be painted in Texas.
The second S.C.-built 787 suffered an engine failure on a pre-flight taxi test on July 28. The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate why that particular GEnx-1B engine’s drive shaft fractured.
The affected plane has been fitted with a new engine, and all the in-service planes powered by those engines are being inspected but continue to fly.
The Air India delivery situation had been a “thorn” for Boeing, according to Carter Leake, who covers aerospace and defense for BB&T Capital Markets, but the first delivery should be a salve.
“This is a big deal because you had the Qantas cancellation,” Leake said, referring to the Australian airline that recently called off its pending 787 order. “But if Air India had turned into a problem, you would have had a much bigger mess on your hands.”
“I’m glad to see that the logjam was broken,” Leake said, noting that India also has agreed to buy Boeing C-17 military transport planes.
Hamilton said whatever the final hold-up was, it’s thankfully past.
“What’s important now is that they’re finally delivering the airplanes. That’s the only thing that matters at this point,” Hamilton said. “I would hope that by now with the first one delivered that they could deliver them on a steady stream.”
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and follow him on Twitter at @kearney_brendan.