LONDON – Back in May 2020, I wrote my 747th article on the Boeing 747 program, featuring its history and more.

Now, around two months later, I have today hit my 787th article. This time with the history of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.

Early concept of the 7E7. Photo: Seattle PI

A Change in Direction Needed

Following a tepid interest in the Boeing 747X and the September 11 attacks reducing the intrigue in its planned Sonic Cruiser, the change in direction needed was towards more efficient aircraft.

January 2003 came about, and Boeing unveiled its product that was an alternative to what it had achieved in the past.

Dubbed the 7E7 initially, it would adopt similar technology to that of the Sonic Cruiser but with emphasis placed on a much smaller midsize twin-jet, moving away from the idea of the hub-and-spoke airports to more point-to-point operations.

The other solid foundation to this program was, as former Boeing Chairman and CEO James McNerney said, the development of the plane “for less than 40% of what the 777 had cost to develop 13 years earlier, and build each plane out of the gate for less than 60% of the 777’s unit costs in 2003”.

In July 2003, a naming competition was unveiled by the manufacturer and the winning title of Dreamliner was then adopted.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A One-piece Fuselage

Less than a year later, All Nippon Airways (NH) placed a firm order for 50 aircraft with deliveries originally due to begin in 2008, making it the launch customer of the type.

Thereafter, the production of the testbed aircraft began, marking a first in the industry for the fuselage of being just a one-piece composite instead of multiple aluminium sheets which often increase the weight of the aircraft.

By 2007, Boeing announced that the aircraft was ready for a first flight in August, with the aircraft rolling out in July (more on that tomorrow).

However, what was dubbed as a fantastic start for the manufacturer, featuring 677 orders at this point, a series of delays were announced.

Photo: Business Insider

Here Comes The Delays…

September 2007 featured the first three-month delay due to a shortage of fasteners and incomplete software.

A month later, an additional three months was added onto delays to the first flight as well as a six-month delay to deliveries due to supply chain problems, lack of documentation from suppliers and flight guidance software delays.

This ultimately resulted in the sacking of Mike Bair, the 787 program lead at the time.

By January 2008, another three months’ worth of delays was announced, citing a lack of progress on work.

By April 2008, yet another delay was announced, which moved the maiden flight to the fourth quarter of that year as well as delaying deliveries to 3Q09.

And once more, testing got delayed in December 2008 until the second quarter of 2009, with carriers such as Air India (AI) and United Airlines (UA) beginning compensation proceedings over this.

A series of delays then followed until December 2009 when the aircraft conducted its first maiden flight, which lasted around three hours.

Onwards to Deliveries

The flight test campaign of the 787 lasted for around two years until 2011, when deliveries were allowed to begin.

Production rates were initially increased from two to 10 units per month in the Everett and Charleston factories.

By September 2011, the first 787 to launch customer ANA was unveiled and delivered.

A much crazier fact regarding this was the highest bidder in Japan paid $34,000 for one seat on its introductory flights between Tokyo Narita to Hong Kong.

By January 2012, the aircraft was conducting long-haul international operations to Frankfurt.

From there, the -9 and the -10 variants were eventually put out to testing and entered into service by the end of this last decade.

Photo: Business Insider

A Costly Project

It is understood that the total cost of the program is at US$32bn.

This meant that by 2013, the program was to be profitable after it sold 1,100 aircraft.

However, such cost of producing the aircraft exceeded the purchase price by the end of that year, meaning the margin of error had jumped by 200 units.

787 First Flight Takeoff K64825-01

Trouble Ahead

By 2018, production costs had reduced from US$27.6bn to $23.5bn due to better efficiency rates but was still not enough even if it was producing 14 units per month.

April 2019 also saw The New York Times report significant quality issues on the production line in the South Carolina assembly site.

On top of that, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, production rates are being reduced from 14 down to 12 per month and could possibly be further trimmed to 10 by the end of this year.

Success at the end of the Tunnel?

As of information from May 2020, the manufacturer has around 538 units left to deliver out of the 1,510 that have been ordered thus far.

As mentioned in the earlier section, the 1,300 units needed to produce a profit looks forever exceeded, which is good news for Boeing.

Even in the wake of the 737MAX crisis, it now has to ensure that it can keep production rates as high while keeping production costs as low as possible, which will be the big challenge in itself.

A Good Response to The Market

And I say a challenge, not because of the way Boeing may have behaved, but because of the climate it is in at the moment, which obviously cannot be changed at the drop of a hat.

Either way, as a personal opinion, I do love the way the 787 was produced in the end.

Irrespective of its faults the company may have had, Boeing did well to respond to a market that had considerably evolved, and maybe even pushed further the view that the Airbus A380 was made at the completely wrong time.