Boeing has a lot to prove with 787 flight tests

/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Now the real test begins.

Tuesday's long-delayed maiden flight of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner jet was the starting gun for the most challenging and complex flight test program in the company's 93-year history. The big question now is how well can Boeing's best hope for the future perform.

The nine-month flight test program got off to a good start with pilots Mike Carriker and Randy Neville reporting no glitches during their three-hour flight over Washington state. But overall performance won't be known until all six test planes are put through the rigors around the clock and around the globe over the next 200 days.

The company must now prove to federal aviation regulators, airline customers, shareholders and the flying public that its new high-tech wonder can live up to its high expectations, including achieving 20 percent better fuel efficiency and producing fewer emissions than similar-sized planes on the market.

While the program has been plagued by delays, if the flight test program goes smoothly the jet could enter commercial service late next year.

Few people are more anxious about the test flights than Mitsuo Morimoto, vice president of All Nippon Airways, the Japanese carrier that will be the first to receive the 787, now scheduled for the fourth quarter of 2010. He was clearly relieved and impressed by the plane's in-air debut.

“After watching the flight and hearing the pilots, I feel confident Boeing will be able to deliver our airplane on time,'' he told msnbc.com through an interpreter. “This flight is a step to go forward.''

The Dreamliner's maiden flight was supposed to have happened in September 2007 and All Nippon was to have taken delivery of its first 787 — the No. 7 airplane — in May 2008.

Morimoto said his airline has supplemented its fleet with Boeing 767s while it waits for the Dreamliners, which will come in long-haul and midrange varieties, capable of carrying from 210 to 330 passengers. He said the airline has been working closely with Boeing but declined to reveal how much the company has paid the airline in late-delivery penalty fees.

Analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., said a successful first flight is no guarantee the 787 program will continue without flaws. “I hate to be the guy with a bucket of cold water here but this does not necessarily mean the end of delays.''

While flight test programs — typically critical paths between airplane production and delivery —are good indicators of an airplane's success, Boeing is under added pressure with the Dreamliner because the program is two years behind schedule and has been riddled with costly and embarrassing production snafus, parts shortages and supply chain bottlenecks.

Boeing has postponed its first flight five times since the 787 — the first all-new jetliner of the 21st century — was unveiled in a high-profile rollout ceremony July 8, 2007.

Shortly after the 2007 rollout, Boeing quickly and quietly moved Airplane No. 1 back into the factory for rework. Since then, the company has been trying to navigate its way through the uncharted territory of introducing a new airplane built in a revolutionary new way with new technology.

The plane not only relies on overseas suppliers for many of its key components but also is the first passenger model built primarily of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, known as composite, rather than metal parts.

The most recent delay came in June — just days before the airplane was to make its first flight — when workers discovered a structural flaw in the wing.

“They should have seen the huge learning curve that went into this airplane,'' Aboulafia says. “This was supposed to be a fantastic plane out of the box. ... Now it's a question of when will it get there.”

The 787 was Boeing's first major attempt at giving overseas suppliers and partners far-ranging responsibility for designing and building the wings, fuselage and other critical components to be shipped to Boeing for final assembly in Washington state. The approach hasn't worked out as planned. Many of the 787 components were delivered unfinished or lacking parts, contributing to the delays.

As a result, Boeing's reputation has been tarnished and key airline customers are dubious about the 787s performance and weight.

As the first flight took off outside Boeing's huge Everett, Wash., manufacturing plant near Seattle, there were thousands of  onlookers, many of whom were in awe of the airplane, pumping their fists and even shedding tears of excitement. But others said they remained skeptical, concerned Boeing has been overly ambitious, trying to do too much in too little time.

Boeing hopes to rebuild its credibility with a successful 787 flight test program and approval by  the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It's been a long, hard road,'' Boeing Vice President Pat Shanahan acknowledged to reporters after Tuesday's flight. “How you choose your scheduling is a big deal. There's a long list of lessons learned here.''

With the test flight program in full swing, he said Airplane No. 1 will most likely fly again next week and airplane No. 2 will follow shortly after that.

Despite order cancellations and concerns over past production snafus, analysts and airline customers believe the 787 is still a game-changer for Boeing. If successful, the revolutionary manufacturing and assembly processes being used on the 787 will be mimicked by succeeding airplanes.

The 787 is Boeing's first all-new commercial jetliner since the twin-engine 777 rolled out 15 years ago. Despite some cancellations, it remains the fastest-selling new airplane in aviation history with 840 orders from 57 customers worldwide.