EVERETT – Ten years ago today, Boeing rolled out the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in a flashy rollout ceremony at its plant in Everett, Washington. More than 30,000 Boeing and supplier employees participated in the event either in person (15,000) or via two-way satellite from various locations around the world. According to numbers from Boeing’s PR team, more than 100 million people viewed or live streamed portions of Boeing’s rollout, which at the time represented a record for a corporate web broadcast.
Painted in a sharp-looking Boeing paint scheme, the first Dreamliner (a 787-8 variant) to roll out of the hangar was registered as N787BA. Thousands of adoring fans took and posed for pictures with the plane, thought to usher in a new era of medium and long-haul air travel. There was only one problem.
The event was a farce.
In fact, the jet that Boeing rolled out on July 8, 2007, bore little resemblance to the more than 560 Dreamliners flying with airlines today. Instead, the Dreamliner was little more than a fuselage with no major systems installed and most parts attached with temporary non-aerospace fasteners. Frankly, it was almost closer to a 1:1 diecast aircraft model than a real, functioning airplane.
The 787’s development process is a well-worn story at this point. Initially planned for entry into service (EIS) in May 2008, the 787 eventually suffered eight separate delays between 2007 and 2011. The reasons were various, as supply chain problems, a machinist’s strike, weight problems, design issues, gaps in the horizontal stabilizer, and even a blowout in the Trent 1000 all took their toll. In the end, Boeing delivered the 787 three years and three months late to All Nippon Airways (ANA) in October of 2011.
Even after EIS, things weren’t exactly rosy. The first set of 787s were substantially overweight (by several tons), and the poor-performing engines underperformed their targets for specific fuel consumption (SFC or fuel burn). On top of that, Boeing had to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to early Dreamliner customers because of performance guarantees it had signed for the plane. And in 2013, a year and change after EIS, the 787 was grounded for more than three months worldwide after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an airworthiness directive. The culprit was the 787’s lithium-ion batteries, which had too much inherent risk of inflammation.
All told, at the end of this hellacious development process, the 787 has cost Boeing $32 billion, of which close to $28 billion were unplanned deferred costs. As a point of comparison, adjusted for inflation the 777 had less than $4 billion of the same costs. At this point, a couple billion of the deferred production cost has been wiped off the books by 787 deliveries in 2016 and 2017 after Boeing turned the corner to cash flow positivity. Even so, Boeing must recoup ~$22 billion across another 730 deliveries (against the current accounting block of 1,300 frames), amounting to a required profit of close to $30 million per frame. That is an unrealistic figure for Boeing to achieve, and so perhaps the most successful twin-aisle airplane in history (at least at this stage of its life cycle) may not be profitable until more than 1,400 deliveries have occurred, as Boeing will have to extend the accounting block yet again.
A transformational jet
At the same time, it would be remiss not to mention that each new 787 that rolls off the lines at Charleston and Everett today more or less fulfills the promise and dream of the program when it was launched in the early 2000s. The 787-8 and 787-9 are the most fuel efficient and economically efficient jets of their size, and both types have enabled dozens of new routes to be launched that would not have been otherwise.
It would be a stretch to call any of these routes truly point to point in the classic definition of that term, as most airlines still fly the 787 from hubs or focus cities. But the Dreamliner has enabled airlines to fly longer and thinner routes from hubs to spokes all around the world. Several carriers have used the Dreamliner in this vein, including notably Air Canada.
Air Canada’s Dreamliner have enabled it to make a comeback in India after years of struggle, adding service from Toronto to Delhi and Mumbai, and Vancouver to Delhi. The 787-9 also enabled the launch of Vancouver – Brisbane and Vancouver – Taipei, with more new routes likely on tap as Air Canada takes delivery of eight more 787-9s.
Even previous basket case Air India has found something resembling success (or as close as Air India can get to success) with the Dreamliner, using the type to heavily expand its long-haul flying and in particular build India’s first truly viable connecting hub at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport. New routes enabled by the Dreamliner at Air India include Ahmedabad – London Heathrow – Newark, Delhi to Birmingham, Copenhagen, Madrid, Milan-Malpensa, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Rome, Shanghai, Stockholm Arlanda, Sydney-Melbourne (triangle route), and Vienna. Ethiopian Airlines is a more successful developing world carrier that has used its Dreamliners in a similar manner to grow its Addis Ababa hub.
Initial customers ANA and Japan Airlines used the 787 to expand to Europe and secondary destinations in the US like San Diego, San Jose, and Boston. British Airways used it similarly, including to serve London Heathrow – Austin, London Heathrow – San Jose (CA), and London Heathrow – Santiago. Hainan Airlines, locked out of tier one routes from China to the US, has aped a similar strategy on routes like Beijing to Boston, Calgary, Chicago O’Hare, Las Vegas, Manchester, San Jose, and Seattle, as well as Chongqing to Los Angeles and New York JFK amongst others.
This isn’t even considering the most innovative use of the 787-9 to date, which has seen the type join the ranks of the Boeing 777-200LR, Airbus A340-500, Boeing 777-8X, Airbus A380, and A350-900ULR as an ultra-long-haul (ULH jet). The first carrier to use the 787-9 for ULH was United Airlines on San Francisco – Singapore, and the experiment was so successful that United is expanding to Los Angeles – Singapore. Meanwhile, Qantas has gone a step further and plans to use the 787-9 to operate the world’s second-longest flight (Perth – London Heathrow nonstop at 9,010 miles). If the 787-9 continues to find use as a ULH plane, it will end up being even more transformational than Boeing’s most optimistic projections.
In the end, a decade removed from a rollout that belied the very real problems under the hood, Boeing’s Dreamliner has met and exceeded the expectations placed on it.
Photos Courtesy of Boeing