787 First Flight K64825-03

MIAMI — On October 26, 2016, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner will complete a tumultuous five years in service, marking an important milestone in 21st century aviation.

Launch carrier All Nippon Airways, which operated the first 787 passenger flight from Tokyo Narita to Hong Kong half a decade ago, now has 50 Dreamliners in its fleet, including 14 of the stretched 787-9s. With over 300 787s now plying the global skies, it’s good time to take a look back at the troubled history of the 787 and assess its current status as a program and product.

An Excellent Thesis

The Boeing 787 was born in the wake of the implosion of the Sonic Cruiser, a concept airliner pitched by Boeing in the early 2000s that would fly at a near-supersonic speed of Mach 0.98 (752 mph). The Sonic Cruiser was meant as Boeing’s spiritual successor to the Concorde (which was on its way to withdrawal from service. The concept studies reached an advanced stage and even won some interest from airlines in the United States.

But the Sonic Cruiser wasn’t much more economical or capable (other than in airspeed) than existing twinjet widebodies, and as air travel declined after 9/11, the program was cancelled. Boeing shifted its plans, and on January 29, 2003, Boeing announced alternative product dubbed the 7E7. The 7E7 utilized key Sonic Cruiser technologies, but flew at a more conventional speed of Mach 0.85 (652 mph).

On April 25, 2004, ANA kicked off the 787 program and bought 50 787s for delivery in late 2008, split between 30 short-range 787-3s for domestic routes and 20 787-8s for long-and-thin intercontinental routes. The 787 family was initially comprised of three models.

The short-distance 787-3 was designed specifically for the Japanese market and sat 290 passengers in a high-density two-class configuration. Boeing also saw a potential use in the burgeoning intra-Asia market, a niche that was eventually fulfilled by the Airbus A330-300, though the 787-9 will also fly its fair share of those missions.

The 787-8 was the base model of the family and a small long haul variant targeted to replace the 767-300ER and A330-200. It sat 240 passengers in a typical (or at least typical according to Boeing marketing materials) two-class configuration and was meant to be deployed on so-called “long and thin” routes. In launching the 787, Boeing constructed a thesis that the future of long haul travel was in smaller and smaller aircraft flying thinner and thinner routes. These routes were nominally described as point to point (p2p) routes, but truthfully were probably better categorized as hub-to-spoke or hub to medium-sized city missions. The 787-8, accordingly, was the centerpiece of Boeing’s strategy.

It would also be the first 787 variant to have its EIS, in late 2008, with the 787-3 to follow soon after given the relative paucity of design changes vis-a-vis the 787-8. Meanwhile, the stretched 787-9 featured the same wingspan as 787-8 but the fuselage was lengthened and strengthened, allowing the 787-9 to fly 280 passengers across an extra 400 nautical miles of range. It was initially planned for EIS in 2010.

A Technical Marvel

On a purely technical basis, the 787 was remarkably innovative. It was the first production airliner comprised primarily of composite carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) material as opposed to previous aluminum designs, allowing for a much lighter airframe.

Two new fuel efficient engine options, including the GE GEnx and Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 were also offered, helping the 787 achieve a 20% operating cost reduction versus the 767-300ER.

Other technical innovations included the bleedless electric architecture that used 35% less power from the engines, thereby boosting thrust and fuel economy. And the 787’s interior was a sea change over previous model featuring larger windows with smart glass that allowed passengers to adjust levels of sunlight and visibility, a quieter cabin, higher cabin air pressure, and programmable humidity.

But Boeing also took several risks with 787 program, expanding on the use of global subcontractors initiated with the 777 program to outsource much of the non-core and component assembly work. This approach was intended to make the assembly line lean, and reduce final assembly time to three days on the Everett Final Assembly Line as well as keep costs low on the program.

As with the 777, the 787 featured substantial Japanese participation including in the wing design. Other contractors such as as Korea Aerospace industries, Spirit AeroSystems, Saab, and TAL Manufacturing Solutions Limited also jointed the supply chain. These subcontractors immediately struggled with the aggressive timelines set by Boeing, and failed to meet deadlines and minimum quality standards. Quietly behind the scenes, the early days of the 787 were surprisingly troubled.

The Farcical Rollout and Compound Delays

Still by the time the 787 rolled out on July 8, 2007, it was a major commercial success. The performance promises made by Boeing were obviously appealing to airlines, and thanks to aggressive pricing by Boeing, the 787 was the best-selling widebody in aviation history by a clear margin. The rollout was celebrated with great fanfare in Seattle – it was a massive party meant as a PR coup for Boeing to re-assert its dominance over Airbus in the widebody space.

There was just one problem – the 787’s roll out was a farce. The first 787 had rolled off of the production line without major systems installed and its parts were attached with temporary non-aerospace fasteners that would have to be replaced. And it would soon become clear to journalists and others in the industry that something was seriously wrong.

Fittingly, the delays began soon after the event. Between September 2007 and November 2008, Boeing announced five separate delays that would cumulatively cost the company 21 months from the EIS of the Dreamliner. The reasons ranged from supply chain problems to a machinists’ strike, but the net takeaway was that 787 program was deeply flawed.

As part of this series of delays, the 787-9 EIS was delayed by two years to 2012 (2 years) and 787-3 was pushed back indefinitely. ANA and Japan Airlines, the two original 787-3 customers, eventually converted all of their orders to longer ranged 787 variants, and the 787-3 was canceled outright in December of 2010.

2009 wasn’t much better for the Dreamliner, as problems with parts and Boeing’s design issues caused initial 787s to roll off the production line overweight by 8%, or more than 20%. The production issues and weight trouble on these initial 787 models used for ground and flight testing were severe, and Boeing struggled for years to sell these so-called “Terrible Teens” to airlines down the line (launch customers refused to pay full price for these jets).

And at the 2009 Paris Air Show, Boeing pushed back the 787’s first flight again to the end of 2009. Belying he overall pattern, Boeing actually met that deadline. The 787 had a successful first flight on December 15, 2009 and flight testing proceeded relatively smoothly until June 2010 when gaps were discovered in the 787’s horizontal stabilizer.

Still, the flight testing program remained on track. Then, the 787’s engine situation fell apart, with the Trent 1000 literally suffering a blowout.

Thus the 787’s delivery to ANA was delayed again to early 2011 because of the Trent 1000’s issues. A Nov 9, 2010 electrical fire due to foreign object debris (FOD) caused even more delays, and in January 2011, the first 787 delivery was rescheduled to Q3 2011 for software and electrical updates. Delivery slipped a bit more to Q4, but finally the 787 made it to EIS with ANA on October 26, 2011.

In the second part of this story, Airways Senior Business Analyst Vinay Bhaskara takes a look at the future of the Boeing 787.

The Boeing 787 at Five (Part Two): The Future of the Dreamliner