Anticipation mounts for new 787 delivery dates as airlines eye contingencies

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Airlines and aircraft lessors worldwide are anxiously awaiting word from Boeing on when they can expect to receive delivery of their initial 787s, following the airframer's decision to delay first flight of the twinjet and push back initial deliveries from late 2008 to early 2009.

Receiving delivery information in a timely fashion now is critical, as it will allow carriers to assess and implement further contingency plans to address the latest slip, including aircraft deferrals and short-term leases.

Boeing says it expects to complete an assessment for new delivery schedules by the end of the first quarter. However, the manufacturer has already made clear it does not expect to deliver the planned 109 aircraft in 2009.

Shifting fleet plans in the face of the 787's slip is an all-too-familiar scenario for some carriers. Boeing in October 2007 opted to delay initial 787 deliveries by six months. At that time, about 15 airlines were affected by the shift in delivery of between 30 and 35 787s from 2008 to 2009. Chinese carriers, which were counting on receiving 787s in advance of the summer Olympic Games in Beijing, were forced to implement alternative measures to address the delay. Air China, for example, had planned to return two Boeing 767-300ERs on lease from International Lease Finance (ILFC) in the May/June 2008 timeframe, but requested and received an extension to the lease.

"Even though we had tentatively placed those aircraft [767s] with another airline, we have been able to work with Air China to allow them to keep those aircraft for an additional three to five months to get them through the Olympics," says ILFC president John Plueger. "Other lessors are doing the same."

ILFC's first 787 deliveries are scheduled for 2010 the company is slated to take 10 for the year. When the first delay was announced, ILFC was advised by Boeing that the lessor's schedule would not be impacted. As a matter of prudence, however, ILFC advised customers to take alternative steps for deliveries in the first half of 2010, says Plueger.

In light of the latest delay, however, "we don't know now" when to expect first deliveries, he says. "Those [787s] that are coming in the first half of the year [2010], I would not be surprised if they were impacted," he says, noting that it is possible that the entire batch of 10 could be impacted.

He adds: "I think you have to look at the circumstances for this aircraft. There is so much more subcontractor supplier scheduling that is impacting this programme I actually think it is very truly difficult for Boeing to be able to make a really accurate assessment."

Plueger points out that production and certification of the 787 is coming at a time when the entire aerospace supply "has reached its maximum point of elasticity".

"I think that is somewhat compounding difficulties with delays on the 787," he adds.

Among the first airlines to publicly express their disappointment with the latest delay are SkyTeam members Continental Airlines and Northwest Airlines, which had hoped to deploy 787s on new flights to China next year. Continental says this will "make for a tough summer" in 2009, and that the airline is now mulling the use of other aircraft on planned New York Newark-Shanghai service. "As we get information on the extent of the delay, we'll make the appropriate adjustments to enable us to continue to develop our international network," says Continental chairman and chief executive Larry Kellner.

Northwest Airlines, the North American launch customer for the 787, says: "We are very disappointed by Boeing's announcement but we're hopeful that Boeing will address the problems with the 787 production expeditiously and be in a position to provide us with a reliable delivery schedule." Northwest is looking at the possibility of operating proposed Detroit-Shanghai flights with Boeing 747-400s.

Air Canada, meanwhile, says that "based on information provided by Boeing at this time, we continue to expect our first delivery of the 787 in 2010". The Canadian operator has a total 37 787s on order with the manufacturer.