Boeing is finally telling some of its customers not to expect the 787s they have ordered to be delivered as scheduled. While for a few, that notice is a disaster, and although most airlines are facing serious disruptions, some are quietly relieved that they will not have to take the aircraft just yet.

Norwegian Air Shuttle was the first airline to confirm it has been alerted by Boeing. Deliveries of its first two aircraft, previously scheduled for April and June, are likely to be affected. The carrier says Boeing has not announced a new delivery date or given written confirmation of potential delay.

Boeing's customer warning is only the latest sign that the manufacturer now recognizes what others have been predicting for some time: The 787 grounding is likely going to be a matter of several, if not many, months, rather than a short-term issue that can be resolved quickly. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has indicated that it will take weeks to identify the root causes of thermal runaway in a lithium-ion-battery on a Japan Airlines aircraft in January that led to the grounding of the 50-strong 787 fleet.

In addition to Norwegian, several other carriers are due to receive their first 787s in the next several months, including British Airways, TUIfly, China Southern Airlines, Air China and Aeromexico. And besides these, there are a number of operators that have been looking at growing their fleets—such as United Airlines, Qatar Airways, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines, Air India, LOT Polish Airlines and LAN. Boeing planned to deliver more than 60 aircraft this year and was about to raise the monthly production rate to 10 from five by year-end. Analysts including Ed Greenslet of The Airline Monitor are starting to revise their delivery forecasts downward. Greenslet tentatively expects 50 787s to be delivered this year, “but even that might prove to be high,” he notes.

Just one Dreamliner has been delivered this year, to Air India on Jan. 3. Unlike Norwegian, the other affected carriers have made no public comment about the impact on their operations, but that should not lead Boeing to believe all its customers are patiently waiting. Because the grounding is linked to fundamental aircraft safety, no airline wants to be caught publicly demanding a quick return to routine 787 flight operations before the root cause of the battery problems has been determined and sorted out.

In the meantime, some carriers are expressing support for Boeing. While Emirates President Tim Clark says “things will get worse before they get better” for the aircraft maker, he also believes that “in the end, they will get it right.” To Clark, there is also a more fundamental dimension to the battery defects, which Greenslet describes as “the largest product disaster in the history of the Boeing company.” Clark stresses that “it is vital that innovation continues to take place in an industry which relies on technology.”

But Clark's support and other carriers' silence do not mean that huge disruptions are not already occurring. Airlines such as Qatar Airways that have based the launch of new routes on 787 arrivals must revise their plans because they are lacking aircraft. Qatar could be forced to significantly curtail network growth if deliveries are extensively delayed.

Similarly, a crucial part of Norwegian's future business model hinges on the availability of the 787. It is now a European low-fare airline, but it planned to open its first long-haul services to New York and Bangkok in the summer using the 787. It is considering leasing another aircraft type for three months in order not to have to cancel the launch of the new operation. “As one of Boeing's biggest customers in Europe, we expect that the aircraft manufacturer will do everything in its power to get the aircraft ready for delivery as soon as possible,” Norwegian CEO Bjorn Kjos says.

Thus, lessors and short-term aircraft, crew, maintenance and insurance (ACMI) providers might benefit from the grounding of the 787. If Boeing does not find a quick fix for its battery problem, customers with parked 787s will have to start looking for replacement capacity as the busy summer schedule nears. The situation will be most pressing for operators that have proportionally larger 787 fleets, although some seem to be compensating for the grounding relatively well. All Nippon Airways (ANA), the largest operator to date with 17 aircraft, is trying to improve productivity of its remaining fleet, particularly Boeing 767s and 777s, to limit the capacity shortfall.

For those that do not have enough aircraft themselves, the most sought replacement aircraft will likely be smaller widebodies, such as Airbus A330-200s and Boeing 767-300ERs.

There is some excess capacity on the market for the moment and airlines should have no trouble finding replacement aircraft for short-term requirements. But, as Greenslet puts it, the question could be: “What lift may be available at any price?”

Many 767-300ERs are aging and airlines are phasing them out. It is very likely that the lessors to whom the aircraft are returned have not yet locked in a new lease. They will be happy to extend the leases and put themselves in a “comfortable” position, an industry insider points out.

“A sustained grounding and halt of new deliveries of 787 aircraft would support certain used aircraft values and rentals, especially for A330-200s and 767-300ERs,” says Amentum Capital CEO Martin Bouzaima. “Airlines with 787 orders would seek to delay redeliveries of legacy aircraft, leading to an excess demand relative to what the market had priced in as of January. The effect is likely to be short-term only, but it is all a function of how long it takes Boeing and its suppliers to fix the technical issue.”

Bert von Leeuwen, managing director of aviation research at DVB Bank, believes airlines will look at extending existing widebody leases, primarily for 767s, A330s and 777s, that would otherwise have been terminated. He argues that this should have an impact on lease rates with demand rising, and the effect could be felt most on the A330 fleet, half of which is controlled by lessors.

Greenslet argues that the most difficult issue for Boeing will be “to assure airlines and passengers that whatever is done to fix the problem does, in fact, fix it.” He notes that it is “not hard to imagine that all the assurances in the world may not, for a long time, overcome the concerns that users of the airplane have about its safety. That, more than the costs of the fix, of delayed deliveries and of compensation to airlines, may be the greatest consequence of, and threat to, the 787 program from this. And it is what may, in the end, force Boeing to change to a different battery.”

John Mowry, vice president at ICF SH&E, expects “an increase in demand for other medium twin-aisle aircraft” generated by a need to replace the grounded aircraft and find alternatives for those that will not be delivered on schedule.

Airlines will continue to operate their current aircraft longer and postpone planned retirement to the extent possible, Mowry argues. Many carriers that lease alternative medium twin-aisle aircraft will seek to extend their existing leases. “In addition to these fleet-management techniques, airlines can also delay new route launches or reduce route frequencies,” he says.

Mowry anticipates “a modest lift in dry-lease rates for alternative medium twin-aisle aircraft particularly for short- to medium-term lease extensions,” but he does not expect to see a material effect on aircraft values. And not all lessors will benefit to the same extent. “Most benefits will accrue to larger lessors with significant inventory flexibility in current lease-extension negotiations, and those lessors with speculative orders yet to place,” he notes.

For their part, airlines are tight-lipped about the consequences of the 787 groundings, despite the very real impact on operations. But a consultant describes the operational effect as “an enormous problem” touching on a wide range of elements such as schedules, seat capacity, crew rosters and securing replacement aircraft. Airlines also have to address onboard service concerns and undeliverable customer expectations.

International Airlines Group CEO Willie Walsh says he has been briefed by Boeing on what might happen next. “There are some changes to the systems that I know they are going to introduce, but I can't disclose too much of it because I have been given information on a confidential basis,” he says. Walsh expects “some redesign” of the battery system which would take “a couple of months.”

IAG subsidiary British Airways has 24 787s on firm order, eight of them 787-8s and 16 787-9s. The airline has expected its first 787-8 in May and a total of four are due this year.

American Airlines, United, Air Canada, Qantas Airways and others say they have not been formally notified yet of delivery delays for their 787s. Some, like American, are not due to receive their aircraft until the end of 2014.

For other carriers, the persisting Dreamliner problems are a godsend. Gulf Air, for instance, used the past 787 delivery delays to cancel part of its order without penalty, and the troubled Bahraini airline might follow suit to further reduce it 787 commitment as it tries to survive.

U.K. carrier Thomson Airways was expected to receive its first 787 at the end of February, four by May and another four by May 2015. The airline, which is part of the integrated tourism conglomerate TUI Travel, had planned to put the aircraft in commercial operations as of May 1 on long-haul flights from London Gatwick Airport, Manchester, East Midlands and Glasgow to Sanford, Fla., and Cancun, Mexico.

Thomson Airways is now implementing contingency plans, in case the aircraft do not arrive by the end of March. It has a fleet of 48 aircraft, including 19 757-200s and 10 767-300ERs, according to the Aviation Week Fleet Intelligence Network database. “Once we have more information from Boeing regarding delivery dates, we'll be able to look at which 767s we have available to use in our fleet,” the airline tells Aviation Week.

TUI Travel has 13 787s on order for its carriers in addition to Thomson: TUIfly Nordic, Arkefly and Jetairfly.

Ethiopian Airways was the first African airline to deploy the 787. It was operating its four 787s in alternation with its 777-200LR on routes to Johannesburg; Washington; Toronto; Frankfurt; Beijing; Lusaka, Zambia; and Harare, Zimbabwe. Ethiopian anticipated receiving its fifth 787 in March. The remaining five were scheduled to be phased in 2014.

For Chinese customers, the 787's current woes just add to another. Completed 787s for China Southern Airlines and Hainan Airlines—three each as of December—have been sitting idle, awaiting a type certificate that the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) was not expected to issue until March.

The Chinese were ready to issue the type certificate some years ago but, because of the 787's development delays, the results of its preparatory work expired before the aircraft could go into service, industry sources say. The grounding can only further delay CAAC approval of an aircraft that has considerable value in China for opening long, thin routes across the Pacific, to Europe and, supporting an emerging trend, to Africa.