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From the start, Dreamliner jet program rushed

By Scott Mayerowitz

Associated Press

Published: Friday, Jan. 25 2013 9:04 p.m. MST

A file photo from 2007 shows Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire as she watches a presentation from Boeing employees and friends, at Qwest Field, in Seattle.

Associated Press

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 Boeing 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 new 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 own 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 came after a battery fire aboard a 787 in Boston and another battery incident during a flight in Japan. 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 following 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.

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.

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.

"Employees knew this was going to be a game changer, and they were stoked that the company was taking the risk to do something big," said Michael Cook, who spent 17 years as a computer developer at Boeing.

It was a tough sales job for Alan Mulally, then head of Boeing's commercial airplanes division and current CEO of Ford. 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.

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