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Dreamliner schedule has no room for error

Wed., Sept. 12, 2007, midnight

CHICAGO — If the first 787 Dreamliners are to be delivered to customers on time next year, Boeing Co. will have to pull off the most aggressive flight-testing program in its history — and pray that no new problems arise.

Boeing is in a bind because of production foul-ups, discovered in August, that caused it to announce last week that it is delaying the maiden flight of the new jet from late summer to late fall.

Those are “growing pains” that are to be expected for an aircraft that involves new materials — composites make up more than 50 percent of the 787 — and new production processes, James McNerney Jr., the company’s chairman and chief executive, said Tuesday at a conference sponsored by investment bank Morgan Stanley.

Chicago-based Boeing has from the beginning planned to devote just five to six months testing the new aircraft to meet Federal Aviation Administration certification standards, McNerney said. That’s about half the amount of time Boeing has spent flight-testing other recent aircraft models, and analysts are skeptical the aerospace company can meet its deadline of delivering the 787 to launch customer All Nippon Airways in May.

“It’s an aggressive plan, but it has substance to it,” McNerney said. “We had some margin, which is now gone. The FAA has looked at this plan and supports it. … Is there room for major glitches at this stage? The answer is no.”

Boeing spent nearly 11 months testing the stretch version of its popular 737 jet, which was delivered to launch customer Lion Air this year, and 11 months testing the first 777s during the 1990s.

But it’s not accurate to compare other aircraft models to the Dreamliner, which already has been subjected to intense testing that is designed to shorten the certification process, McNerney said.

“Every program is different,” he said.

Still, analysts think it likelier that the process will take longer than Boeing envisions. The “problem is this is on paper, and Murphy’s law is apt to exert itself,” wrote Heidi Wood, an analyst.


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