MIAMI — Eleven years ago today, Boeing rolled out the 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 Public Relations team, more than 100 million people viewed or live streamed portions of the rollout, which at the time represented a record for 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.
Rewinding to January 2003, Boeing gave a development designation to what would be its brand new super-efficient and mid-sized aircraft, dubbed 7E7.
At the time, this was Boeing’s new commitment to developing a new airplane with a myriad of technological breakthroughs.
The ‘E’ letter within the 7E7 denominator represented the words “efficiency, economics, environmental performance, exceptional comfort and convenience, and e-enabled systems.”
The 7E7 catered for the 200-250 seat market, which would provide services at speeds similar to that of the Boeing 777 and 747, at unseen fuel efficiency and operational reliability.
The company opened up the program to customers in early 2004 for a target of entry into service (EIS) by 2008, although this took longer than expected.
The rollout of the fuselage occurred in July 2007 in Seattle, which was paving a further step for commercial service.
The jet that Boeing rolled out on July 8, 2007, bore little resemblance to the more than 560 Dreamliners flying with airlines today.
Instead, that Dreamliner was little more than a fuselage with no significant systems installed, and most parts attached with temporary non-aerospace fasteners.
The plane was almost closer to a 1:1 diecast aircraft model than a real, functioning airplane.
The Development Of An All-New Technology
The 787’s development process is a well-worn story. Initially planned for EIS in May 2008, the 787 eventually suffered eight separate delays between 2007 and 2011.
The 787 Program opened up its final assembly plant in Everett in 2007 and a second facility in Charleston in 2009.
December 15, 2009, came along and the first 787 Dreamliner made its debut test flight under the controls of Captains Mike Carriker and Randy Neville.
The aircraft was in the air for around 3 hours. It would be the start of a testing program which would take less than two years before the first Dreamliner went into service.
Delays, Hiccups, Headaches
The reasons for the program’s delays 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 Dreamliners were substantially overweight (by several tons), and the poor-performing engines underperformed their targets for specific fuel consumption figures (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.
In 2013, the second variant of the 787, the -9, took flight in September to begin the testing phase for that variant before gaining certification a few months later.
At the Paris Air Show 2013’s edition, Boeing launched the last—and largest—variant of the Dreamliner family, the 787-10.
This variant featured orders for 102 units from five different customers. The -10 achieved a firm configuration in April 2014, and the first delivery went to Singapore Airlines in 2018.
However, about 14 months after the Dreamliner’s EIS in 2014, the 787 was grounded for more than three months worldwide after the FAA issued an airworthiness directive. The culprit was the 787’s lithium-ion batteries, which had a too much inherent risk of inflammation.
The following months had the first 787-9 delivered to Air New Zealand in June 2014.
In between launches, deliveries, groundings, sales, and hiccups, at the end of the type’s development process, the 787 has cost Boeing $32 billion, of which close to $28 billion were unplanned deferred costs.
Where is the program today?
Today, after such a lengthy road of positive and negative news, Boeing might be able to claim victory over this ambitious program.
The 787-8 and 787-9 happen to be the most fuel-efficient and economically efficient jets of its size, and both types have enabled dozens of new routes to be launched that would not have been otherwise.
The Dreamliner has allowed airlines to fly longer and thinner routes from hubs to spokes all around the world.
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, San Jose (CA), and 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.
In 2011, the 787 earned records for completing the longest flight for an aircraft in its weight class, carrying 200,000-250,000kgs with a 10,336 nautical mile flight to Dhaka in Bangladesh.
Following a refueling stop, the aircraft continued to Seattle, completing the tests 42 hours and 26 minutes after its initial departure, scoring the fastest around-the-world trip for the same weight class.
In 2011-2013, The Dreamliner team was honored with a 2012 Aviation Week Laureate Award in Aeronautics/Propulsion.
In 2012, the program received the Hermes Awards for Innovation given by the European Institute for Create Strategies and Innovation.
In 2013, the program received its 1,000th customer order when Etihad Airways purchased 30 787-10 Dreamliners. With this, Boeing had achieved a sales milestone faster than any other wide-body aircraft in aviation history, eight years sooner than the 777.
In 2014, Boeing donated one of its original test aircraft to the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
ZA003 was part of the flight test and certification program which later circumnavigated the globe several times in 2011 and 2013 during a “Dream Tour” which attracted more than 68,000 visitors in 23 countries.
Past, Present, Future Problems
From 2013 to 2016, there had been around 13 incidents from different 787 customers.
The first instance came from All Nippon Airways when a battery problem evolved into a burning smell back in January 2013, forcing the aircraft to divert to Takamatsu in Japan.
Other issues followed from United Airlines, reporting problems with the wiring in the batteries, following a fuel leak.
An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 787 caught fire due to the ion-lithium batteries while on the stand at London-Heathrow Airport, causing significant damage to the plane’s fuselage.
However, the most significant problems that the Dreamliner program has faced is related to the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines, which suffered numerous in-flight shutdowns due to fan imbalances resulting from ice shedding.
This engine woe ultimately caused carriers such as Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand to ground its Dreamliners until Rolls-Royce came out with a solution. Today, however, many 787s around the world are still grounded.
As of May 2018, 691 Dreamliners are flying across the globe.
With 1,377 total orders, there is a backlog of around 686 Dreamliners, meaning that production of the aircraft will keep going for quite some time.
The program itself has experienced many hiccups along the way, such as delays to deliveries and the never-ending engine woes.
However, from the perspective of routes and reachability, the 787 has provided unseen connectivity between cities that other planes cannot provide efficiently and profitably.
The Dreamliner has opened the doors of point-to-point routes that planes like the 777 could not perform while turning in profits for the airlines.
A lot has been achieved in the past 11 years since the first fuselage parts were presented in Seattle. Since then, the plane has proven to be a game-changer.
If Rolls-Royce had not presented the terrible technical issues in its engines, the program would be at the cusp of reliable operability.
Today, with a tremendous backlog and the potential of seeing it increase at the upcoming Farnborough Air Show, things ahead are looking bright for the 787 Dreamliner program.