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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.

The plan backfired as production problems quickly surfaced.

"I saw total chaos. Boeing bit off more than it could chew," said Larry Caracciolo, an engineer who spent three years managing 787 supplier quality.

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.

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

Each success, no matter how small, was celebrated. The first delivery of a new part or the government certification of an engine would lead to a gathering in one of the engineering building atriums.

The world got its first glimpse of the Dreamliner on July 8, 2007. The date was chosen not because of some production milestone but for public relations value. It was, after all, 7/8/7.

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney told the crowd that 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.

To overcome production problems, Boeing replaced executives and bought several of the suppliers to gain greater control. Work continued at breakneck pace.

Then on a cold, overcast morning in December 2009, it all came together.

A crowd gathered at Paine Field, the airport adjacent to Boeing's factory. The Dreamliner climbed deftly into the sky for a three-hour test flight.

But there were still plenty of glitches, including an onboard fire during a November 2010 test flight. The fleet was grounded for six weeks.

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 first promised.

That first, four-hour journey — from Tokyo to Hong Kong — was more of a party than a flight. Passengers posed for photos as they climbed stairs into the jet.

More airlines started to fly the plane. Each new route was met with celebration. Travelers shifted itineraries to catch a ride on the new plane.

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, all the progress came to a jarring halt.

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