Boeing South Carolina is a month away from its scheduled first delivery, and after all the questions about the young plant’s ability to produce a plane, perhaps the biggest remaining doubt is its first customer, Air India.
The South Asian national carrier has struggled for years with profitability and integrating its workforce.
A $5.8 billion government bailout approved last month seemed to assure its future operations, including the 27 Dreamliners it ordered in 2005. But this month, hundreds of its pilots went on strike, protesting wages and the Dreamliner training plan.
Now in its fourth week, the work stoppage has led to canceled flights, fired pilots, court actions and further financial problems.
Speaking Tuesday, India’s civil aviation minister injected new uncertainty into the airline’s South-Carolina-related plans. Ajit Singh reportedly said Air India will not accept any of its Dreamliners until it comes to terms with Boeing on the compensation owed for the three-year delay in delivering the hyped twin-aisle jets.
According to published reports dating back to February, Air India has been seeking up to $1 billion in set-offs. In March, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh scoffed at reports that Boeing had agreed to pay half that demand.
Dinesh Keskar, Boeing’s senior vice president of sales for Asia Pacific and India, declined to discuss the compensation issue or the strike on Tuesday.
He also couldn’t provide a firm date for the first Air India Dreamliner to be delivered from Everett, Wash. But he said he is in regular contact with the airline, and Boeing is in the “final stages” of handing over the jet.
“All I can tell you is the airplane is ready for delivery,” he said.
“I would not put a date right now because the date needs to come from the government,” he said. “The Indian government will tell the airline, and the airline will tell us.”
Keskar said an Air India delegation going to Washington was to include Singh and the head of Air India, but now it will be “much lower level” and “watered-down.” The group’s stop through Charleston on its way back to India, which had been scheduled for today, has been called off entirely.
But, Keskar said, “I don’t see any impact on the delivery from Charleston toward the end of next month.”
Air India spokesmen have not responded to emails since Friday.
A Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman has declined to talk about Air India and the effect its troubles could have on the plan to hand over the first locally made 787 at the end of June.
The first South-Carolina-built plane flew for the first time a week ago. It must next travel to Texas to be painted, then return to North Charleston for further testing before it can be delivered to Air India.
The next three Dreamliners in the North Charleston final assembly building also are intended for Air India.
In the days after the strike began, Saj Ahmad, a London-based aerospace analyst, said the government bailout meant Air India was guaranteed to take the planes being built for it. Writing Tuesday, Ahmad called Air India “a farce” and seemed much less certain about how the delivery drama will shake out.
“As long as the quagmire at Air India lasts, the less likelihood there is of them taking delivery. After all, how long can Boeing wait to conduct its first SC-787 delivery?” Ahmad wrote in an email, noting the public relations implications for both airframer and airline.
“As to when the Air India-South Carolina delivery 787 actually happens is anyone’s guess.”