Why Is the 787 Dreamliner Such a Hassle for Norwegian Air?

Another week, another problem for Norwegian Air Shuttle‘s Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

In what is becoming routine for the Scandinavian discount airline, passengers sat through a lengthy delay after one of its 787s suffered a fuel leak in Bangkok on Sunday. A passenger’s photo of the plane spewing jet fuel while taxiing circulated widely online. The airplane has returned to Sweden for repairs.

“Boeing’s maintenance team is now working on the aircraft in Stockholm,” Norwegian spokesman Lasse Sandaker-Nielsen wrote today in an e-mail. The latest leak comes almost one year after Japan Air Lines reported a similar issue on one of its 787s, which it removed from service pending repairs.

Norwegian has suffered regular maintenance issues with its three 787s, from the brakes to cockpit sensors to hydraulic pumps. Following several harsh comments about the 787′s problems last autumn, Norwegian has softened its public statements about the airplane and has been working with Boeing to improve its fleet’s reliability.

“We share in Norwegian’s disappointment in the airplane’s recent performance and we are addressing that as expeditiously as possible,” Boeing spokesman Marc Birtel wrote today in an e-mail, adding that Norwegian’s 787 performance remains in line with most other operators of the plane, despite the disruptions. “While we’re seeing more customer-by-customer variation than we’d like, we’re making good progress at reducing those reliability issues,” he said.

The 787 is the cornerstone of Norwegian’s plans to become a low-fare, long-haul behemoth for leisure travelers in Asia and North America. Last fall, Boeing dispatched a team of 15 technicians to Stockholm to inspect and repair the airline’s 787s.

Veteran airline observers consider Norwegian’s frequent 787 troubles puzzling, given that the airline is using the airplane for the type of trip for which it was designed: frequent long-haul flying. ”It could be that since the 787 is the core of their operation, any issues are far higher profile than on the small 787 fleet at other carriers,” airline analyst Robert Mann wrote in an e-mail. Norwegian “is also in the position that its entire new, low-fare, long-haul business model is based on the 787 and any disruption to its very small fleet has an out-sized effect than it would on United, which has a lot of long-haul airplanes to cover for a 787 issue, or even ANA or Japan Airlines,” says Scott Hamilton, an analyst with Leeham & Co.

When United, the only U.S. 787 operator, took its first 787 in 2012, Boeing “embedded” several 787 personnel with the airline’s operations staff in Houston, says spokeswoman Mary Ryan. United performs the routine maintenance on its eight 787s, which operate “just as normally as the other aircraft in the fleet,” she says. That type of on-site support is common for a major buyer with a new program; United is purchasing 65 of the planes, ANA buying 66, and Japan Airlines taking nearly four dozen. Norwegian is awaiting the delivery of seven additional 787s through 2016, including two of Boeing’s larger 787-9 models.

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