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Problem 787 Dreamliner jets puts Boeing off course

NEW YORK — Until smoldering batteries forced regulators to ground Boeing Co.’s new 787 Dreamliner jets last week, the aircraft manufacturer was flying high, with soaring profits and a recently regained number one ranking in jet deliveries over Airbus.

But the grounding, prompted by a battery fire on one jet and the emergency landing of another, has knocked Boeing off course. Investors and government officials are paying close attention to see how big the issue becomes for the company, one of the nation’s biggest exporters.

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Company officials expect to find a solution quickly. But if the problems prove complicated, they could threaten Boeing’s plans to expand production — and the jobs that go with that.

“Boeing has a lot at stake, for its headlining airliner and for the company brand,’’ said Scott Hamilton, managing director at Leeham Co., an aviation consulting firm.

Hamilton said Boeing ‘‘will work its way through this.’’ But until more is known about the batteries, he said, ‘‘it’s impossible to draw conclusions about what went wrong . . . what the long-term damage to the 787 and to the Boeing brands will be.’’

In what would seem to be the worst possible outcome, Boeing might have to redesign its powerful new lithium-ion battery system or switch to older, safer models. Aviation experts said such changes could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and shave off some of the 20 percent savings in fuel costs the new jets have delivered.

Analysts say Boeing, with about $80 billion a year in sales, has the financial muscle to weather the problems. But the recent episodes are a reminder that manufacturing and testing mishaps delayed the new plane. And any lengthy new delay could tax the patience of airlines and investors, who thought the Chicago company had put the problems behind it. David E. Strauss, at UBS, said big investors were ‘‘cautiously optimistic.’’

Boeing, which has a giant military business, has about $11 billion in cash and can’t build other planes, like the 737 and 777, fast enough.

The 737 and 777 programs ‘‘are printing money,’’ said Richard L. Aboulafia, a Teal Group aviation analyst.

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