De-risking the future

This first appeared as the lead Comment in the 14 May issue of Flight International

Boeing’s board of directors has been busy in the past two years. Among its other duties, the board is charged with authorising its sales staff to present new products to customers. Years normally pass between such landmark events for an aerospace company, but not recently.

Since August 2011, Boeing’s 11 directors have flexed this authorising role three times, giving the go-ahead to the 737 Max, the 787-10X in November 2012 and, most recently, the 777X in late April. Including the 767-2C-derived KC-46A tanker, Boeing now has four major programmes in active development.

But this burst of development activity cannot last forever, and the proverbial door to launching developments, in fact, may already have slammed shut.

Further derivatives of the 777X may come before the board during the next decade, but no other new developments are foreseeable until Boeing begins work on a replacement for the 737 Max several years after the re-engined narrowbody makes its operational debut in 2017. Barring any surprise developments, Boeing’s product mix appears fully scoped for most of the next two decades.

The company is clearly ready to take a breather from new product development. The 10-year saga of the 787 – from missing fasteners to overheating batteries – has exhausted the company’s leadership. Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney now talks about harvesting hard-won lessons, not learning new ones. It is an understandable position, but carries its own kind of risk. Boeing’s next all-new aircraft – most likely a 737 replacement – may not appear for at least 15 years, or 25 years after the launch of the 787. An entire generation of Boeing engineers could pass into retirement before the next new aircraft enters service.

A similar gap was allowed to grow between the authority-to-offer milestone for the 777 in 1989 and that for the 787 in 2003. Indeed, McNerney himself has partly blamed that hiatus for the costly errors which delayed the 787 and for those that have continued to plague it.

McNerney also seems aware of the trap he has set for his successors. “Thirty years from now, will there be some new technology that we’ll all wrestle with? Probably,” McNerney said on 24 April. “Will there be enough people in Boeing that are here today that will remember the lessons learned from the 787? I hope so. I’m old. I’ll be on a beach somewhere then.”


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