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From start, Dreamliner jet program was rushed

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By The Associated Press
Saturday, Jan. 26, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

NEW YORK — The 787 Dreamliner was born in a moment of desperation.

It was 2003 and Boeing — the company that defined modern air travel — had just lost its title as the world's largest plane manufacturer to European rival Airbus. Its CEO had resigned in a Defense-contract scandal. And its stock had plunged to the lowest price in a decade.

Two years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, financially troubled airlines were reluctant to buy new planes. Boeing needed something revolutionary to win back customers.

Salvation had a code name: Yellowstone.

It was a plane that promised to be lighter and more technologically advanced than any other. Half of it would be built with new plastics instead of aluminum. The cabin would be more comfortable for passengers, and airlines could cut their fuel bills by 20 percent.

But once production started, the gap between vision and reality quickly widened. The jet that was eventually dubbed the Dreamliner became plagued with manufacturing delays, cost overruns and sinking worker morale.

In interviews with The Associated Press, a dozen former Boeing engineers, designers and managers recounted the pressure to meet tight deadlines. Adding to the chaos was the company's never-before-tried plan to build a plane from parts made around the globe.

The former workers still stand behind the jetliner — and are proud to have worked on it. But many question whether the rush contributed to a series of problems that led the Federal Aviation Administration last week to take the extraordinary step of grounding the 787. Other countries did the same.

Even before a single bolt was tightened, the Dreamliner was different. Because executives didn't want to risk all of the billions of dollars necessary to build a commercial aircraft, they came up with a novel, but precarious, solution.

A global network of suppliers would develop, and then build, most of the parts in locations as far away as Germany, Japan and Sweden. Boeing's employees would manufacture just 35 percent of the plane before assembling the final aircraft at its plant outside Seattle.

The decision haunts Boeing to this day.

The FAA's order to stop flying the Dreamliner occurred after a battery fire broke out aboard a Japan Airlines 787 shortly after it landed in Boston. Then, a 787 flown by Japan's All Nippon Airways was forced to land when pilots detected a burning smell.

Both Japanese airlines grounded their Dreamliners, and the FAA followed suit. It was the first time the FAA had grounded a whole fleet of planes since 1979, when it ordered the DC-10 out of the sky after a series of fatal crashes.

Inspectors have focused on the plane's lithium-ion batteries and its complicated electrical system, which were developed by subcontractors in Japan, France, Arizona and North Carolina.

Boeing declined to comment about the past but said its engineers are working around the clock to fix the recent problems.

For decades, Boeing has been responsible for the biggest advances in aviation. The jet age started in 1958 with a Pan American flight between New York and Paris that took just eight and a half hours aboard the new Boeing 707.

In 1970, Boeing ushered in the era of the jumbo jet with the 747. The giant plane, with its distinctive bulbous upper deck, made global air travel affordable.

By the start of the 21st century, change was much more incremental. Consolidation had left the world with two main commercial jet manufacturers: Boeing and Airbus.

Boeing executives initially had not considered government-backed Airbus a serious competitor. But in 2003, the unthinkable happened. Boeing delivered just 281 new jets. Airbus produced 305, becoming for the first time the world's biggest plane manufacturer.

American jobs — and pride — were at stake.

And that wasn't all. Airbus was starting to develop its own new jet: the A380, the world's largest commercial plane, capable of carrying up to 853 passengers, or the equivalent of at least five Boeing 737s.

“They were scaring everybody,” said Bryan Dressler, who spent 12 years as a Boeing designer. “People here in Seattle have been through the booms and busts of Boeing so many times, even the slightest smack of a downturn makes people very edgy.”

It had been 13 years since Boeing started development of a new plane, the 777. The company had recently scrapped two other major projects: a larger version of the 747 and the Sonic Cruiser, a plane that would fly close to the speed of sound.

A development team with a knack for assigning new planes code names based on national parks had just the thing: Project Yellowstone.

The plane — eventually rechristened the Dreamliner after a naming contest — was unlike anything else previously proposed.

Before a single aircraft was built, the plane was an instant hit, becoming the fastest-selling new jet in history. Advance orders were placed for more than 800 planes. Boeing seemed to be on its way back.

This was no longer the trailblazing, risk-taking Boeing of a generation earlier. The company had acquired rival McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Many McDonnell Douglas executives held leadership positions in the new company. The joke was that McDonnell Douglas used Boeing's money to buy Boeing.

The 707 and 747 were blockbuster bets that nearly ruined the company before paying off. McDonnell Douglas executives didn't have the same appetite for gambling.

So the only way the board of directors would sign off on the Dreamliner was to spread the risk among a global chain of suppliers. In December 2003, they agreed to take on half of the estimated $10 billion development cost.

The plan backfired as production problems quickly surfaced.

First, there were problems with the molding of the new plastics. Then parts made by different suppliers didn't fit properly. For instance, the nose-and-cockpit section was out of alignment with the rest of the plane, leaving a 0.3-inch gap.

By giving up control of its supply chain, Boeing had lost the ability to oversee each step of production. Problems sometimes weren't discovered until the parts came together at its Everett, Wash., plant.

Fixes weren't easy, and cultures among the suppliers often clashed.

“It seemed like the Italians only worked three days a week. They were always on vacation. And the Japanese, they worked six days a week,” said Jack Al-Kahwati, a former Boeing structural weight engineer.

There also were deep fears, especially among veteran Boeing workers, that “we were giving up all of our trade secrets to the Japanese and that they would be our competition in 10 years,” Al-Kahwati said.

As the project fell further behind schedule, pressure mounted. It became increasingly clear that delivery deadlines wouldn't be met.

The world got its first glimpse of the Dreamliner on July 8, 2007. But like so much of show business, the plane was just a prop. It lacked most flight controls. Parts of the fuselage were temporarily fastened together just for the event. Some observers noted that bolt heads were sticking out from the aircraft's composite skin.

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney told the crowd the plane would fly within two months.

Instead, the company soon announced the first of what would be many delays. It would be more than two years before the plane's first test flight — in December 2009.

But there were still plenty of glitches, and deliveries were pushed back yet again.

Passengers wouldn't first step aboard the plane until Oct. 26, 2011, three and a half years after Boeing promised.

More airlines started to fly the plane, and each new route was met with celebration.

Boeing had hoped by the end of 2013 to double production of the Dreamliner to 10 planes a month. There are 799 unfilled orders for the plane, which carries a $206.8 million list price, although airlines often negotiate deep discounts.

Then, this month, the progress came to a jarring halt.

American and Japanese investigators have yet to determine the cause of the problems, and the longer the 787 stays grounded, the more money Boeing must pay airlines in penalties.

As investigators try to figure out the cause of the plane's latest problems, the world finds itself in a familiar position with the Dreamliner: waiting.

 

 
 


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