Qatar CEO Says 787 Grounding Muted Chicago Debut

The grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner has had a "serious impact" on Qatar Airways and has limited new flights to Chicago O'Hare International Airport, the airline's CEO said in Chicago on Thursday.

"We were supposed to come here daily, but now we are coming only three times a week due to the aircraft shortage," CEO Akbar Al Baker said.

Qatar always planned to use Boeing 777-300 Extended Range aircraft on the route from Chicago to Doha, Qatar. But because its 787 Dreamliners are grounded due to overheating problems with its onboard batteries, Qatar Airways has had to downsize its plans for Chicago and use those 777 planes elsewhere.

"Our plans for expansion were severely disrupted," Al Baker said. "We had to reschedule several expansion plans."

Still, Al Baker said he is "confident the 787 will fly soon," and that Chicago-based Boeing has resolved "all the teething problems." He said Boeing is already placing its engineers in Doha to make battery fixes.

Qatar Airways, which has 55 Dreamliners on order from Boeing along with other plane models, expects compensation from the aircraft maker. "I would not be honest if I [told] you that we will not take any compensation from Boeing. We will," he said, declining to talk about how much that compensation would be.

The Federal Aviation Administration grounded Dreamliners in mid-January after battery overheating incidents on two different Japanese airlines, one in Boston and the other in Japan. Though it didn't find the root cause of the battery problems, Boeing has proposed and tested a multifaceted fix and is awaiting FAA approval to begin implementing modifications on 50 Dreamliners around the world and get them flying again.

Because of the grounding, Chicago-based United Airlines is not using the 787 on a flight between O'Hare and Houston. United so far has six Dreamliners. And LOT Polish airlines is not operating a flight from O'Hare to Warsaw.

Qatar Airways will at first offer O'Hare flights on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. On June 15, it plans to make the Chicago-Doha route daily. Its first flight from Doha landed at O'Hare on Wednesday. The airline has been operating twice-weekly cargo flights between Chicago and Doha since August 2010.

Al Baker said Qatar hopes to attract both leisure and business fliers. "Chicago was chosen because it is a major gateway into the Middle East, a major business center and home to many Fortune 500 companies," he said.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement the Qatar service will generate more than $200 million in "annual economic impact" and will connect Chicago to destinations in India, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. "New international air service creates additional economic opportunities, increases tourism to our city and strengthens Chicago's cultural and business connection to the world," he said.

Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Rosemarie S. Andolino said Qatar's "outstanding reputation for excellence in customer product and service will be a great fit" at O'Hare.

gkarp@tribune.com

 

 

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