ANALYSIS: ANA and JAL count the cost of 787 grounding

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It has been a busy start to 2013 for Japanese carriers All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL), all thanks to the Boeing 787s.

JAL was first hit when there was a battery explosion on board one of its 787-8s on 7 January, followed by a fuel leak the next day.

ANA then took over and experienced brake problems on one of its 787s, found cracks on another's cockpit windows, before finally having to perform an emergency landing with a third 787 because of a battery malfunction.

Apart from beleaguered airframer Boeing, it is probably safe to say that ANA and JAL - the first two carriers to receive and fly the aircraft type - have been the ones most affected by the indefinite grounding of the 787s.

The directive issued by the US Federal Aviation Administration, which was swiftly followed by regulators worldwide including Japan's transport ministry, means that ANA and JAL will have to ground a combined fleet of 24 787s.

These aircraft will have to remain on the ground until Boeing is able to show that the lithium-ion polymer batteries on board are safe.

The two Japanese carriers own about half of the 49 787s that Boeing has delivered - easily making them one of the biggest losers in this crisis.

How badly the carriers will be affected, will be determined by how long the aircraft remain grounded, say analysts. Every day the jets stay on the tarmac spells losses in millions of dollars for the airlines, they add.

"These two carriers, especially JAL, are just coming out of a nice patch, showing nice numbers in the last few quarters. This grounding will definitely put a dent on their bottom line," says Standard & Poor's analyst Shukor Yusof.

On 16 January alone, ANA cancelled 35 services, affecting a total of 5,900 passengers. JAL also had to cancel four services and redeploy aircraft on some other services. Further disruptions are expected now that the transport ministry has ordered the 787s to be grounded indefinitely.

The airlines have older, less fuel-efficient aircraft such as the Boeing 777s and 767s, which are compatible to fly 787 routes. The key now is for ANA and JAL to work quickly to redeploy these aircraft and minimise cancellations, says Sagar Shahane, aerospace and defence consultant at Frost & Sullivan.

The financial damage to the airlines are expected to be "quite manageable", unless the 787s have to undergo complete structural redesigns. Afterall, ANA and JAL survived a three-year delay in the 787 programme, say analysts.

Major redesign work will, however, affect the delivery schedule of aircraft on order, which could result in the carriers having to redeploy less efficient aircraft on routes to fill the gap, cutting into their profit margins. Both ANA and JAL have also made the 787s key to their growth strategies, and would rather avoid any delays to their incoming 787s.

ANA has 19 787-8s and 30 787-9s on order, while JAL has a further 18 787-8s and 20 787-9s in its orderbook.

In the long term, the problems that the 787s are facing could also affect their residual values. On the plus side, ANA and JAL can definitely use the recent spate of incidents as leverage against Boeing in negotiations for compensation, and to reprice their existing contracts, says Yusof.

What is most important now, however, is for the carriers to manage the situation effectively to restore customer confidence in their airlines and products.

"These teething problems are very much expected of new aircraft programmes. What has taken everyone by surprise is the quick succession of incidents and this definitely affects customer confidence," says Shahane.