Orders in Hand, Boeing Prepares to Build Dreamliner

A computer-generated image depicts Boeing's planned 787 Dreamliner.
A computer-generated image depicts Boeing's planned 787 Dreamliner. (Boeing)
By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 1, 2006

SEATTLE -- Boeing's 787 Dreamliner exists largely in the minds and computers of its engineers. But that hasn't tempered the excitement of airline executives eager to get their hands on the plane. Built with high-tech materials, the aircraft promises superb fuel efficiency, a quieter ride and more room for passengers.

Boeing executives also are riding high on the Dreamliner. Not long ago, the company was plagued by business missteps and high-profile scandals and had surrendered its dominance to European rival Airbus. Today, thanks to the Dreamliner, Boeing is flexing new muscle on the global stage. In just over two years, the company has sold 432 Dreamliners, helping improve its chances to sell more planes than Airbus for the first time since 2000.

Now Boeing has to turn its high hopes into reality. In coming months, the company will begin assembling the plane at a factory about 30 miles north of here. The risks of failure are immense, a fact acknowledged by top Boeing executives as they look toward the Dreamliner's first flight in August and the first delivery to customers in 2008.

"Every time we do a new airplane we essentially bet the company to some extent," said Scott E. Carson, head of Boeing's commercial airplane division. "When you are placing that kind of bet, you want to get it right. You have to get right."

In a nod to the globalized economy, Boeing is taking a novel step for the company and allowing outside contractors -- many of them overseas -- to design and build 70 percent of the Dreamliner. The wings will come from Japan. Huge parts of the aircraft's body will arrive from Italy. Britain will deliver engines, and China will contribute rudders. France is producing the landing gear.

The new process reverses the standard outsourcing ratio; Boeing normally builds most of each plane itself. The company says its system not only slashes its costs but also allows the contractors to share profit.

"This program is probably the most complicated thing that [Boeing] commercial airplanes has ever done," said Michael B. Bair, general manager of the 787 program.

Managing any project on such a scale is a daunting challenge. Airbus has stumbled badly in its attempts to build a massively complicated super-jumbo jet, the A380. Airbus, part of the aerospace company European Aeronautic Defence and Space, farmed out production of the A380 to satisfy its partners. But production problems and delays in the plane's development have cut profit and led to the departure of several executives. Airbus has delayed delivery of the 550-seat aircraft by two years, scaring off some potential buyers.

On Nov. 7, FedEx canceled an order for 10 freighter versions of the A380. Instead, FedEx ordered 15 of Boeing's 777 freighters.

Boeing executives say they are working hard to head off any potential problems with the Dreamliner, which will cost an estimated $8 billion to develop.

In October, Boeing said it would spend a total of $500 million more this year and next to reduce the Dreamliner's weight. The plane, which will seat 210 to 330 passengers will be made of composite materials on a scale never before attempted on a commercial aircraft. The lightweight composites and other new aerodynamic features will account for about half of the plane's fuel savings, and the other half will come from more efficient engines, Boeing says. The plane is being promoted as using about 20 percent less fuel than the Boeing 767, which the Dreamliner will replace on may routes.

"From a commercial airplane structure point of view, this is going from cloth and wood to aluminum," Bair said.

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