WSJ | Boeing Moves to Speed 787 Deliveries

The average Boeing Co. jetliner gets a few test flights after it leaves production before being delivered. But for each new 787 Dreamliner, Boeing has conducted as many as eight test flights—a time-consuming and expensive process for the already much-delayed jet.

Now Boeing is starting to make progress at compressing that test-flight procedure, hoping to speed deliveries. Production and design problems left the Dreamliner program more than three years behind schedule, and the extra test flights have created a bottleneck for customers eager to get their planes.

Boeing jets such as the 737 and 777 typically get flown once or twice after rolling off the production line and once more by the airline before starting commercial flights.

“It should be just like the 737,” said Pat Shanahan, Boeing’s senior vice president of airplane production. “It rolls out [of the factory], take it for a spin, let the customer have a flight, then go.”

A new Dreamliner delivered last week to Ethiopian Airlines required just three test flights, including one by the carrier. Replicating that process is crucial to Boeing’s quest to deliver between 35 and 42 Dreamliners this year, having handed over just 13 so far.

As is typical with new aircraft, the Dreamliner still has its share of bugs, such as producing erroneous software messages and components that have failed prematurely. Tweaking each new plane to solve problems created the need for the additional test flights. In time, Boeing hopes to solve the problems permanently or at least be able to make fixes without having to test the plane in flight each time.

“We’re having to refly the airplane just because we’re getting familiar with its behavior and characteristics,” Mr. Shanahan said. Boeing declined to say how many test flights it has conducted, which were determined by tracking independent reports on flights.

Each test flight uses thousands of gallons of fuel and ties up mechanics and other staff, driving up costs as Boeing looks to deliver more than $23.5 billion in Dreamliners crowded into nearly every available corner of its facility here near Seattle.

Ethiopian is just the third airline to receive a Dreamliner, but as many as seven more new customers are lined up to take delivery this year, according to Boeing production personnel. Each customer creates a challenge with its own choice of seating arrangement and entertainment system. Additionally, Boeing has had to store dozens of aircraft in various stages of completion, awaiting newer components, including some that failed as a result of the long delay.

Boeing lists the price of the Dreamliner, the first commercial jetliner to be made mostly from carbon-fiber composites, at $206.8 million. But discounts of at least 50% are common in the industry, and the early customers slated to get their jets placed their orders when the list price was lower.

“You need to see the [delivery] pace pick up here fairly significantly in the next few months,” said Ken Herbert, senior vice president of equity research for Imperial Capital, who projected that the company would hit the lower end of its Dreamliner delivery forecast for this year.

All Nippon Airways Co. last September received the first Dreamliner, and this was year joined by Japan Airlines Co. Both Japanese carriers, Ethiopian Airlines, Air India Ltd., Qatar Airways QCSC, Lot Polish Airlines SA, Hainan Airlines Co., China Southern Airlines Co., United Continental Holdings Inc. and Lan Airlines, a unit of the Latam Airlines Group SA, expect to receive Dreamliners by year-end, some within weeks.

Photo Credit: Jon Ostrower/The Wall Street Journal.

August 20, 2012
Wall Street Journal | Boeing Moves to Speed 787 Deliveries

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