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OPINION: Boeing must heed 787 lessons for NMA success

Boeing's annual report for 2004 – the year the 787 programme was launched – reads like a time capsule of a very different company. That year the manufacturer reported a "strong" net cash flow of $3.5 billion. Operating margin had "improved" significantly compared with 2003, rising to 3.8% of operating revenue.

By those metrics, it is difficult to recognise the company that became one of Wall Street's favourite stocks in 2017, when Boeing generated a staggering $13.3 billion of operating cash flow and, perhaps even more impressively, achieved an 11% operating margin.

Since scoring All Nippon Airways' launch deal for 50 aircraft in April 2004, Boeing had by 28 February won firm orders for a total of 1,294 787s. Airlines have taken delivery of 655, so 639 remain in the backlog. Boeing is building 787s at a rate of 12 per month, which will increase to 14 per month next year.

Boeing's annual report in 2004 predicted that the 787 would inspire airlines to launch services to destinations that would have seemed economically absurd or physically impossible with previous-generation airliners. That forecast has held up well over the 787's 14-year history, with more than 170 new routes opened and still nearly half the order backlog yet to enter service.

But other details have changed too. The 787-10, set for delivery to Singapore Airlines on 26 March, was not among the three members of the 787 family unveiled in 2004. The 787-3, offering 289 seats and a range of 3,500nm (6,480km), was dropped by 2008, leaving a hole in the product line-up that Boeing is still trying to fill with its New Mid-market Airplane (NMA).

In retrospect, other details written about the 787 strategy in the 2004 report have acquired tragic overtones. It tells of risk-sharing agreements signed with 787 suppliers that will "enhance our internal development capabilities and offset a substantial portion of the financial risk".

That leads to perhaps the most important legacy of the 787 programme: the painful lessons Boeing hopes to avoid re-learning on the proposed NMA. Those include an over-extended supply chain, an overly ambitious leap into new structural and electrical technologies, and a lack of discipline and rigour during design.

About $28.5 billion in debt remains on Boeing's balance sheet for 787-related development costs. The Dreamliner proved Boeing could design an aircraft that airlines want to buy. The NMA will determine if Boeing can still deliver an aircraft that will make it a profit.

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