By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2007
In the 13 years since Boeing last introduced a new jetliner, it has slogged through one of the toughest stretches in its lengthy history, enduring corporate scandals, major production problems, executive turnover and even questions about whether it should abandon the commercial airplane business.
Tomorrow, the company will go a long way toward laying those doubts to rest when it rolls out the eagerly anticipated 787 Dreamliner.
Made mostly of high-tech composite materials, the wide-body 787 promises extra comfort for passengers and extra fuel efficiency for carriers. Boeing has already snapped up more than 640 orders for the jet from 45 customers worldwide, the most successful launch of a plane in civil aviation history, the company says.
Analysts caution, however, that many challenges remain for Boeing. While the glare of television lights and cameras tomorrow may dramatize the arrival of the 787, it still lacks much of the wiring and electronic devices needed to make it fly. Nobody knows for sure how it will handle in flight or how long it will take federal regulators to certify that it is safe to operate. Analysts warn that regulators may spend extra time scouring the plane and data supplied by Boeing because no commercial jet has been built so extensively out of composites instead of traditional aluminum.
Boeing chose tomorrow for the rollout because of the date's symbolism: 7/8/07. The plane is scheduled to make its first flight in late August or September. Boeing representatives said they expect an on-time delivery of the first 787 to All Nippon Airways in May.
The manufacturer, which relied heavily on a worldwide network of contractors to build the high-tech jet, will hold a global party tomorrow to celebrate its rollout from an assembly plant in Everett, Wash. Boeing is scheduled to begin broadcasting the festivities live at 6:30 p.m. EDT on its Web site and on satellite television providers like Dish Network and DirecTV.
Excitement about the rollout has filled Internet bulletin boards and forums. An enterprising airplane enthusiast even snapped some photographs of the 787 as it was being rolled about midnight one day last month from one hangar to another to be painted. He posted them on Airliners.net, a popular aviation bulletin board. They are the first photos of the finished plane to be published. The pictures then appeared on the front page of a Seattle newspaper.
"The 787 is the talk of the town, aviation-wise," said the photographer, Charles Conklin, who said he took his pictures from a nearby parking lot and plans on returning to areas near the Boeing plant to watch the ceremonies tomorrow.
The brightly colored 787 that emerges will not look much different than other aircraft, but its looks are deceiving. Boeing says the plane represents the latest in technology and in efforts to cut down on fuel consumption and make the passenger experience more enjoyable. Composite materials, made of carbon fibers and used in the fuselage, will allow the plane to have bigger windows and better air quality and pressure, perhaps cutting down on passengers' jet lag. It will also have interior lights that are more soothing to the eyes.
The plane promises to be 20 percent more fuel efficient than the one it will replace, the 767. Boeing says the fuel efficiency stems from both the composite materials and better engines. The plane will seat 210 to 330 passengers, depending on the model, which will allow airlines to better target medium-size cities and avoid congested hubs.
"It's about having the right airplane at the right time with the right capabilities," said Randy Tinseth, vice president of marketing for Boeing, explaining the plane's sales record.
The 787s list for $146 million to $200 million.
Boeing is using a new production model to build the jet, relying on outside contractors to build much of the plane. The parts are flown in super-jumbo jets to the plant in Everett for final assembly.
Outside analysts say the 787, which cost an estimated $8 billion to develop, has helped Boeing regain its dominance in the commercial airplane market, perhaps for another decade. With the help of the Dreamliner, Boeing surpassed Airbus, its European rival, in sales last year for the first time since 2000.
While Airbus is busy trying to develop its A350 XWB -- designed to compete with the 787 and its big brother, the 777 -- Boeing will have the cash and resources to create a narrow-body jet to replace its ubiquitous 737 or the wide-body 777. Airbus will be struggling to keep up, particularly as it continues to deal with high-profile production problems that have delayed the delivery of its super-jumbo A380 by two years, analysts said.
"Boeing is in the driver's seat," said Scott Hamilton, an analyst who covers the aerospace industry. "Not only did it obviously put to rest those rumors a few years ago that Boeing was going to go out of the commercial airplane business, this sledge-hammers that to death."
Boeing is still trying to overcome several production hurdles. Last year, it began allocating extra teams of engineers and millions of dollars to deal with problems with its suppliers and at its home base. It must overcome a shortage of some parts, particularly the super-strong titanium fasteners that hold the plane together. During assembly, two fuselage sections did not fit properly. Boeing officials played down those issues in interviews, saying they were happy with how the plane came out.
Meanwhile, the shadow of Airbus's A380 production fiasco looms over the 787 project. If the 787 is delivered more than two months late, analysts and journalists are likely to pounce.
"At this stage of the program, they are still learning to manage the supply chain, but there are no red flags so far," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group. "But we just don't know how the aircraft will perform when it enters service."