787 Dreamliner Could Mean Big Things For Africa's 'Air Wars'

Boeing's 787 Dreamliner was supposed to be a game changing new aircraft, but battery problems grounded the fleet, costing Boeing an estimated $600 million. Now the Federal Aviation Administration has approved a fix to the battery issue, and the first Dreamliner will return to the skies this weekend in Africa. Ethiopian Airlines is relaunching the "continent's first" Dreamliner in its effort to distinguish itself in the increasingly competitive, increasingly crowded African aerospace market.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The Dreamliner is coming back. FAA regulators have approved a fix for the Boeing Dreamliner 787, which was grounded around the world out of safety concerns. The first redesigned plane could retake to the skies as soon as this weekend out of Ethiopia. NPR's Gregory Warner explains what the world's most modern aircraft means to the cradle of humanity.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: You know a sector is hot when it gets its own trade magazine. Alan Peaford is the British editor in chief of the new African Aerospace.

ALAN PEAFORD: The magazine because the continent is now at the right time for an indigenous industry. There is a real industry rather than things being held together by tape and sealing wax.

WARNER: But he says that that reputation of cabins held together by tape and sealing wax still clings to the African carriers, even to Ethiopian Airlines, with its top safety record. So he says in buying the Dreamliner from Boeing, Ethiopian wasn't just going in for the latest model of aircraft.

PEAFORD: Ethiopian is sending an incredibly clear message to say we are up there with all of the major players.

WARNER: That message is painted right there on the nose for all to see: Africa's first Dreamliner. Zemedeneh Negatu, a managing partner with Ernst & Young in Ethiopia, is a strategic advisor to the airline.

ZEMEDENEH NEGATU: If you've flown the Dreamliner, as I've done many times, the interior of the aircraft is amazing. The windows are amazing.

WARNER: And the lighter frame, he says, is the most fuel-efficient in the world. But Zemedeneh, who is Ethiopian, admits it wasn't purely a business decision.

NEGATU: It also shows the renaissance of Ethiopia, economically speaking, you know. I mean, when I see it landing at Dulles Airport and waving that tail, Ethiopian flag, on it. I mean, even for me as a professional, it excites me.

PETER SIMANI: An airline is a symbol of that African country. It is your identity out there.

WARNER: Peter Simani practices aviation law in Kenya. He says in Africa, airlines are the economic ambassadors.

SIMANI: It carries your flag. It's your pride and joy.

WARNER: That pride took a hit this January. A pair of Dreamliners, one in Japan, one in Boston, suffered battery problems. One resulted in a fire. Dreamliners around the world were grounded. And as Boeing scrambled for a solution, Ethiopian Airlines struggled to cover its expanded routes.

But last week, regulators at the FAA finally approved a new battery design. Ethiopian Airlines made plans to relaunch its fleet, maybe as soon as this Saturday. Japan said today it will follow. But Alan Peaford from African Aerospace magazine says that in an industry where the huge airlines are just getting huger, African airlines may need to collaborate more, instead of just competing with each other.

There are still African countries that you cannot fly between without having to connect, say, in Paris.

PEAFORD: The African nations don't seem very good at talking with each other to allow flying rights. So, consequently, foreign carriers are taking advantage of this.

WARNER: Peter Simani, the aviation lawyer, indulges in maybe what you'd call an aviation economics fantasy. Imagine the four biggest airlines in Africa - that's Ethiopia, Kenya, Egypt and South Africa - joining forces.

SIMANI: You can imagine what you can share. You can share aircraft, you can share services. You've got a huge pool you can share, routes you can share, everything. Just having those four airlines, between themselves, you know, South African Airways is the pride of South Africa. Kenya Airways is the pride of Kenya. And Ethiopian Airways, you see.

WARNER: So is pride also sometimes an obstacle?

SIMANI: I think so. I think in this case, we have to think with our heads, not with our hearts.

(LAUGHTER)

WARNER: He says it's not just airlines. There are a lot of industries where Africa could swing more weight if it played as a continent instead of 54 countries. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.

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