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Dreamliner gets dose of reality

Thu., Sept. 6, 2007

SEATTLE — Flight testing on Boeing Co.’s new 787 jetliner has been delayed until mid-November or mid-December, months later than originally planned. But company executives insisted Wednesday they remain on track to deliver the first plane on time next spring.

Mike Bair, vice president and general manager of the 787 program, said it’s taking the company longer than anticipated to get the first plane ready because of complications with final assembly and finalizing flight-control software.

That’s pushed the start of test-flying well into the fall, he said. The company’s earlier forecast called for it to begin during a monthlong window beginning in late August.

While Bair said Boeing remains confident it can pull off an aggressive, condensed flight-test program in time to deliver the first plane to Japan’s All Nippon Airways on time next May, he did introduce a note of caution.

“The real issue is if we have some discovery in the flight-test program that causes us to have to go back and do some sort of redesign and rework of the airplane,” Bair said. “We’re rapidly running out of time … to be able to deal with anything big.”

In a conference call with analysts and reporters, Scott Carson, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, declined to discuss specific penalties the company might have to pay if any planes are delivered late. “A one- to three-month delay would have minimal financial implications for us in ‘08,” he said.

Wall Street took Boeing at its word, at least on Wednesday. The company’s shares fell only 8 cents to $95.84 on a day when the overall market took a dive on renewed housing and credit concerns.

Rival Airbus SAS’s A380 superjumbo has suffered about two years of delays, in large part because of wiring problems, which have wiped billions off its parent company’s profit forecasts for the coming years.

The midsized, long-haul 787 is the first large commercial jetliner being made mostly from composites, which Boeing has promised will make the plane more fuel efficient and cheaper to maintain because carbon fiber-reinforced plastics are lighter and more durable than aluminum.

To date, Boeing has won 706 orders for the 787. The plane is sold out through late 2013, and some airlines have signed up for delivery slots as late as 2015. Airbus has received only 154 firm orders and 100 non-binding commitments for its competing A350 aircraft, which is slated to come to market about five years after the 787.

J.B. Groh, an analyst with investment firm D.A. Davidson & Co., said he doesn’t think a delay in flight testing — or even a slight delay on delivering the 787 — will hurt Boeing substantially.

“The risk is that you don’t want people to cancel orders, and I certainly don’t see that happening if you have a three-month delay,” Groh said. “There’s not exactly a viable competitive product out there now that’s available in the same sort of time frame.”

Boeing unveiled its first 787 amid much fanfare in early July, but has spent the past several weeks working to get that plane ready for its maiden flight.

Boeing had large sections of the first aircraft delivered to the final assembly plant before they were stuffed with electrical wiring and other systems — work that will eventually be done by suppliers. Having that “travel work” handled by in-house mechanics has proved more complicated than the company expected, in some cases because Boeing has had to clear up errors in documents its suppliers have sent with their pieces of the plane, Bair said.

Boeing recently told several of its suppliers to reschedule some work and take on more of the systems installation so the company can streamline the final assembly process.

“Sorting through and understanding the facts and rescheduling the work accordingly has taken some extra time,” Bair said.

The company also hired new mechanics and made others available to do the final assembly work once those components arrive at the factory, Bair said.

Boeing has had to grapple with replacing thousands of temporary fasteners that hold the plane together with permanent ones — a time-consuming problem brought on because of an industrywide shortage of the tiny parts, some of which are unique to the 787.

Mechanics still have to remove and replace hundreds of temporary fasteners on the first plane, Bair said.

Boeing has done a lot of pre-flight testing on the 787 that has helped it find and fix problems it otherwise might not have discovered until the flight-test program was under way. Still, Bair said further surprises could cause setbacks.

The 787’s flight-test program will be much more condensed than that of Boeing’s last all-new jet, the 777, which went through about 11 months of flight testing before it entered commercial service in 1995.

To get the airplane certified on time, Bair said the company plans to fly six fight-test 787s at higher rates — about 120 hours a month — than it’s done with previous planes, which have flown about 70 to 80 hours a month. Two other planes will undergo static and fatigue tests on the ground.


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