For a few, high-profile hours on Sunday, Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner captured the world’s attention as it was unveiled during a multimedia extravaganza. Like a newly crowned beauty queen, the revolutionary commercial jet basked in the global spotlight, giving millions of people a peek at aviation’s future.
But as soon as the sun set on Dreamfest '07, assembly workers rolled the airplane back into Boeing’s massive aircraft factory and rolled up their sleeves for 24/7 rework. What the world didn’t see under the plane’s shiny new paint job, were the 1,000 temporary fasteners that need to be replaced, its half-empty belly that still needs to be stuffed with 60 miles of wiring or the avionics systems that still need to be installed and tested.
While most new airplanes are rarely ready to fly when they are first “rolled out,” the 787 rework illustrates the tremendous pressure Boeing is under to get its airplane ready for first flight in late August, certification test flights this fall and commercial service in May 2008 with All Nippon Airways of Japan.
Boeing executives insist the 787 program is on schedule, despite persistent weight issues and early manufacturing snafus. “We have no intentions to be late into service,’’ Boeing 787 chief Mike Bair told reporters Friday during a “rollout” briefing in Seattle.
The stakes have never been higher for Boeing, which has pushed the envelope many times in its 91-year history. The 787 is a $10 billion gamble to reinforce the company’s standing as the world’s most innovative and successful builder of commercial airplanes.
Boeing claims to be holding a winning hand. And with more than $110 billion worth of airline endorsements, it’s hard for giddy executives to maintain a poker face.
On Saturday, Germany’s Air Berlin made a $4 billion order for 25 Dreamliners. As of today, 787 has already racked up a record 677 orders from 47 airlines, making it the biggest selling new commercial jet in history – and it hasn’t even flown yet. The plane, which sells for between $146 million to $200 million, is sold out until 2014.
Despite the unprecedented enthusiasm, Boeing is far from cashing in on the 787. Executives, who just hours ago were popping the champagne, are now working around the clock to turn their Dreamliner into a flying reality – and do it under rigorous and tight deadlines.
“It’s a painful process but we have to go through it,’’ says Bair, 787 vice president and general manager, of the aggressive flight test program that will use six test airplanes. “We know we are going to find issues. You always have challenges when you have a program this complicated going together in what is really kind of record time.”
The TV cameras might be turned off, but the 787 is now under the microscope of federal aviation regulators, anxious airline customers, shareholders and the flying public. Boeing still needs to prove to the world that the new, mostly plastic airplane can fly higher, faster, farther and less expensive than its aluminum predecessors and competitors.
Much of Boeing’s success lies in its more than 50 suppliers and partners that are working 24 hours a day at 135 sites on four continents to design and build 787 parts.
Boeing has rewritten aviation history with the 787. Just about every aspect of the plane is new, including the way it is designed and built to the material used to build it. For the 787, Boeing is leading a team of international partners who are shouldering production and design work – including its long-coveted wings and fuselage – in addition to sharing in the financial risk.
It’s the company’s first all-new commercial jetliner since the twin-engine 777 rolled out in 1994 and is Boeing’s first passenger airplane built primarily of man-made carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, known as composite.
Because composites are lightweight and don’t corrode or fatigue the way metal does, Boeing says the 787 will use 20 percent less fuel and will be 30 percent less expensive to maintain.
Jeff Hawk, Boeing’s director of certification for the 787, told reporters that the 787 is 65 percent more fuel efficient than the 707, which ushered in the jet age in the 1950s.
Those claims have caught the attention of cash-strapped airlines worldwide.
“This is a technology-breaking aircraft,’’ Qantas CEO Geoff Dixon, in Seattle for the 787 rollout, said during Friday’s media briefing.
Other airline executives, including the CEOs of Air India and Shanghai Airlines, told reporters they chose the 787 because it is a mid-size airplane that offers “big-jet ranges” and flexibility in route planning.
Those words are golden to Boeing, which lost a lot of credibility in the aerospace industry just a few years ago when it decided against developing a super-jumbo jet to counter Airbus Industrie’s double-decker A380.
Unlike Airbus’ view of future air travel, Boeing set its sights on a smaller, mid-size, “point-to-point” airplane that could fly direct, non-stop flights between more cities throughout the world.
For Boeing executives, it came down to a choice: speed or efficiency. They had to decide whether to build the Sonic Cruiser that flew non-stop to more city pairs 20 percent faster than any other airplane, or an airplane that flew non-stop to more places with 20 percent less fuel burn than any other airplane. The decision, announced in 2003, was the 7E7 (E for efficiency), which was later renamed 787 Dreamliner.
“This airplane is very much the son of the Sonic Cruiser,’’ Bair said during the media briefing. “We took all the technology of the Sonic Cruiser and put it into the 787.’’
Today, analysts who were speculating that Boeing’s commercial aircraft days were numbered are saying the company placed the right bet in the 787.
“It has essentially turned around the fortunes of the company,’’ says Forecast International analyst Ray Jaworowski.