Boeing tanker win boosts 767 commercial line

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The win on 24 February by Boeing for its KC-767 Next Gen tanker provides a crucial boost to the commercial airplane at a time when the backlog is just 49, evenly split between passenger and freighters. This amounts to a two and a half year production run at the current rate of one per month, increasing to two per month by year-end.

The US Air Force contract for 179 tankers, now called the KC-46A, extends the 767 production line into the 2030 decade. The first of the test KC-46As are to be delivered by 2015 and 18 are to be delivered by 2017. The USAF currently requires 15 per year when full production begins.

A key component to winning the tanker contract was the re-creation of the 767 production line into lean manufacturing from the line that had been in place since inception of the programme and the first delivery in 1982. The new lean line, which became operational in January, reduces production costs by 20%, offset somewhat by routine cost increases in parts and labour. The new line has a production capacity of five per month.

Jim Albaugh, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO, told employees when the 1,000th 767 rolled out of the Everett (WA) factory in February that he expected Boeing will produce another 1,000 commercial 767s. While this may have been hyperbole in advance of what was expected to be a loss in the tanker competition, Albaugh was sending the message that the 767 should be around for some time to come.

The passenger version has been stumbling along, boosted by the delays in the 787 programme. But with the KC-46A contract now in hand-and presuming no protest is filed by loser EADS North America or it is rejected if one is-Boeing may be willing to invest in upgrading the 767 to make it an inexpensive alternative for interim lift or airlines that aren't able to afford the 787.

After-market winglets provide a fuel burn reduction of about 3.5%; these could become standard. With Pratt & Whitney providing the power plant for the KC-46A, a Program Improvement Package could shave another percent or two. Aerodynamic improvements could knock off another percent, giving the 767 a major boost. A new sky interior would spiff up the aircraft nicely.

The lower cost of the Lean production line and technical systems upgrades from the tanker could combine to create a 767 Next Generation that might well extend the life of the commercial airliner well beyond the current two and a half year backlog.