The Boeing 787 Dreamliner

From dream to reality


Delivery of the first 787 to Japanese carrier ANA ends a 40-month delay and a production nightmare that has bedevilled the airframer since even before the 787’s original May 2008 delivery date. The troubles began in mid-2007, when ZA001 – the company’s flight test workhorse – arrived in pieces at its Everett, Washington, US factory.

From an uprooted olive grove to a fastener shortage, supplier disruptions and a fire during a flight test, the 787’s headlines seemed to mark two steps back for every step forward for years.

The Dreamliner – as it was dubbed in June 2003 – came to life when Boeing abandoned the Sonic Cruiser’s higher, faster, further performance in 2002, in favour of “super efficient”. It would seek a faster, better, cheaper business model after its 777.

The now fully-amortised and hugely profitable 300- to 400-seater was believed to have been too expensive and too slow to return its investment to shareholders. With the notable exception of Concorde’s Mach 2.0 experiment, commercial air travel has been cruising between 30,000 and 40,000ft (9,150m-12,200m) for over a half century, poking along in the skies between M0.75 and M0.85 since the first Comets, 707s and DC-8s came into use.

The basic swept wing, podded under-wing engine configuration of Boeing’s 707 has served as the basis for all of almost all of the airframer’s new aircraft.

In fact, in its market segment, the 787 is the direct descendant of the 707 – which was replaced by the 767 in the early 1980s.

The 787 is 70% more fuel efficient than the company’s first 1950s-era four-engine Pratt & Whitney JT3D-powered 707s.

Jetliners exist as mature technology in a mature market, and each successive 20% improvement in fuel efficiency yields a smaller lever to pull for a new design, as explained by Oxford and MIT academic Dr Theodore Piepenbrock. Gone are the cost leaps achieved by cutting crew from three to two and four engines down to two. Piepenbrock’s work posits that “faster, better, cheaper” – incremental change and process optimisation – creates more successful outcomes than “higher, faster, further” – when each leap forward is more risky and expensive than the previous undertaking.

While faster, better, cheaper was Boeing’s goal, the airframer was determined to push its global manufacturing, composite materials and electric systems higher, faster and further than they had ever performed before.

However, Boeing has already failed to realise two of its three aims. More than three and a half years after it was first promised, faster has disappeared. It remains the company’s intention to deliver 10 787s per month by the end of 2013 – a goal it may achieve, though four years later than first planned. The delays and supplier acquisitions have created billions in cost overruns that have eroded the mantra of cheaper – as a profit may not be realised until 1,000 are sold, according to estimates from analysis and survey firm Bernstein Research. Boeing’s backlog for the twinjet stands at 821 aircraft.

However, the first 787’s 27 September departure from Everett for Tokyo should at least allow one key question to be answered: is the 787 better than anything Boeing has built before?

New aircraft always face teething problems – the 747-100’s troubled Pratt & Whitney JT9D engines stymied its first service. These events mark the early years of new types – but each soon becomes a profit generating machine.

Never has an aircraft been so comprehensively marketed as better: better fuel efficiency from Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 and General Electric GEnx engines, better cabin experience for passengers with larger windows, bigger storage bins and higher pressure and humidity, better maintenance intervals and a better flying aircraft for pilots.

The 787 should get its first live trial on 26 October – its maiden passenger service, connecting Tokyo’s Narita airport with Hong Kong on a special charter.

Breaking, analysing and commentating on the latest program and order news.

Breaking, analysing and commentating on the latest programme and order news.

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