Boeing shakes off tough year for 747-8

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Veteran Boeing programme executive Mohammed "Mo" Yahyavi inherited the 747-8 programme in February as development of the next-generation widebody was still emerging from a cloud of delays and cost overruns.

Coming only three months after Boeing chief executive Jim McNerney expressed "frustration" with 747-8 issues, leading to widespread doubts about Boeing's support for the programme, Yahyavi appeared to be facing a classic turnaround situation.

Perhaps surprisingly, Yahyavi, an Iranian-born and Italian navy-trained engineer, says he arrived at the 747-8 programme in February to find a fundamentally solid plan for development and production, and a strong staff already in place to carry it out.

747-8 (445) 
 © Boeing

"I saw a very strong, capable team in place," says Yahyavi. "This is a very important programme for the company and industry, so there has been a really good focus at the programme level, with all aspects of best practices in place.

"It came to me very quickly that I did not really need to change anything," he adds. "I believed I could follow this process already in placeand act like a cheerleader and get the team going."

Yahyavi's public confidence for the 747-8's existing plans and team marked a major mood reversal in the development programme.

After all, within the past 10 months, the 747-8 has endured two announced schedule delays, its second unexpected leadership change and a confidence crisis sparked by an equivocating remark by McNerney in January about Boeing's commitment to the programme.

After a four-year marketing effort, the 747-8 Intercontinental has attracted only a single firm deal from a passenger airline - 20 orders for Lufthansa - but a further seven have been sold to VIP customers.

Asked by an analyst in January whether Boeing could cancel the slow-selling 747-8I, McNerney replied: "We still see a viable business proposition here. Now, obviously, if we ever got to a point where we didn't, we'd have to work with our customers to come up with another answer."

Boeing's communications staff quickly followed up to clarify that the company remains solidly behind the 747-8I programme.

Since McNerney's remarks in January, the 747-8I design team has also continued to make progress. As of late May, the company had completed about one-third of the engineering design drawings required to start the building process.

UNWAVERING CONFIDENCE

Moreover, Yahyavi expresses an unwavering confidence for the future of the 747-8I, deliveries of which are not now expected until the third quarter of 2011, with initial aircraft being for VIP customers.

"We are fully, fully committed, dedicated and invested in this product," says Yahyavi. "Absolutely, there is no doubt in my mind. I have the full support of the company. I have no shortages as far as parts or resources are concerned. Everything is in place."

In early May, a Bloomberg reporter quoted Yahyavi confidently predicting that Boeing would sign a new order for 747-8Is in the near future. Asked about the comments a few weeks later, Yayhavi would only say he is "optimistic" about the possibility of new orders.

 boeing
 © Boeing

"We are engaged in very active discussions with several airlines about this airplane," he says, adding that the airlines want to "understand more" about the aircraft.

The market is also waiting to know more about the 747-8 Freighter, the first of the two variants scheduled to enter service. The first components of the aircraft began arriving in August at Boeing's final assembly plant in Everett, Washington. As the sections and parts began being delivered, Boeing realised its production system had failed to keep pace with design changes. The programme, then led by Ross Bogue, began a review of the production system which concluded that the delivery schedule was unrealistic.

In the midst of the production review, Boeing also faced a 57-day labour strike called on 6 September by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).

By mid-November, the workers had returned to the final assembly line. Boeing, however, was forced to announce a delay of up to nine months for the 747-8F, now scheduled for the third quarter of 2010. The 747-8I's first delivery slipped from late 2010 to the second quarter of 2011. In April, Boeing's decision to slow the delivery rate for 747-8Fs also meant the first 747-8I delivery would be delayed again to the third quarter of 2011.

Despite the production breakdowns, Yahyavi says the programme is still on track to achieve first flight by the end of the year. The programme has completed assembly of the 27.2m (89ft) forward fuselage section, including the upper deck. That section has also been moved from the final assembly installation tool for sealing and testing before starting the systems installation process.

"On the first airplane, we are almost about halfway to completion of assembly," Yahyavi says. All the major fuselage sections for aircraft 1 are at the Everett plant. The first aircraft's wing has also been completed, including the struts and pylons for the General Electric GEnx-2B engines.

Meanwhile, GE's 747-100 flying testbed, based in Victorville, California, is about halfway complete on certification tests for the aircraft's conventional bleed-air propulsion systems, says Yahyavi.

747-8f forward fuselage
 © Boeing

Further, the fuselage sections for aircraft 2 and 3, which comprise the flight-test fleet, are also in work on the final assembly line.

"We obviously want these airplanes to come together in a certain period of time so we can have a very efficient and quick flight test," says Yahyavi.

DELIVERY WINDOW

He also estimates that the time between first flight of the 747-8F and delivery to launch customer Cargolux will span 10-11 months. The scheduled delivery window for the third quarter of 2010 ends on 30 September, which means first flight must be before 30 November for Boeing to meet its current schedule.

At the same time, the status of the air cargo market has declined dramatically because of the ongoing global economic crisis. However, the worsening financial outlook for the 747-8F's customers has not yet translated into lost orders for Boeing.

"We have no cancellations on the freighter," Yahyavi points out. "All of our customers love the airplane - and they want to stay with the airplane."

In April, Boeing decided to slow production output for all its widebodies except the 787. That change allowed it to adjust its delivery schedule to align with the recent demands of its customers, including on the 747-8F line. "There is no doubt the freighter market is soft and we are working directly with every single customer to accommodate their plan and their schedule," he says.

On top of the slower output off the production line, Boeing has also received requests from 747-8F customers to defer some delivery slots, allowing some customers to move ahead, says Yayhavi.

SCHEDULED DELIVERY

However, the opportunity created by the deferrals will not lead to changes in the 747-8I schedule. Those customers - either Lufthansa or VIP configuration buyers - will not be able to receive any aircraft earlier than the current scheduled delivery in the third quarter of 2011, says Yayhavi. "That is not in our plan right now."

Boeing is also making progress on its weight reduction plan for the 747-8F. Last year, Bogue disclosed that the 747-8 exceeded its weight target by at least 1%. With the freighter design about 98-99% complete, Yahyavi says: "We have some weight challenges there, but it's not huge."

The programme is looking at all opportunities to remove weight from the aircraft, he adds, including the fuselage and propulsion system. As a sign of progress, the fourth aircraft in production beat the weight of its predecessor in final assembly.