Boeing Decides on 787 Fix, but Still Can’t Commit to Timetable

 - July 22, 2009, 8:34 AM

Boeing has identified a remedy to the 787 Dreamliner’s wing-to-side-of-body stress problem the company revealed last month, but engineers haven’t yet decided on an approach to implementing the plan, chairman, president and CEO Jim McNerney said this morning during the company’s second-quarter earnings call.

As a result, almost a full month after the company announced that it had to again postpone first flight of the 787 Dreamliner due to a need to reinforce areas within the side-of-body sections of the aircraft, McNerney still wouldn’t pinpoint a probable time frame for first flight, last targeted for the end of the second quarter. He would say only that the company would unveil a new plan for first flight and certification schedules later this quarter.

McNerney downplayed concerns about the extent of the design challenge, insisting that the solution won’t require a redesign of the wing or other drastic engineering revamp. “Along with chief technology officer John Tracy, I have been in frequent contact with the BCA team and reviewed the program in detail last week,” said McNerney. “I can tell you the team is making solid progress toward resolving this issue.”

McNerney added that the company has duplicated in its analytical models the problem discovered during static testing, when a wing-bending exercise revealed 18 one- to two-square-inch stress points on each side of the airplane, where multiple materials, including titanium, composites and aluminum, reside.

“We have identified a technical solution chosen from a number of options,” said McNerney. “From an engineering standpoint, the fix design is straightforward and involves a relatively small number of parts applied to the areas that need reinforcement. There is nothing we have learned to lead us to believe that this is anything but a local issue that can be addressed with a local fix.”

According to the Boeing chief executive, the 787 team remains in the process of evaluating alternatives for implementing the solution, “taking into account a variety of factors, including accessibility of the physical area requiring modification.
“We are approaching this effort with an abundance of caution to ensure that no collateral issues are created by the installation process we select,” McNerney stressed. “Once an implementation approach is determined, an aircraft modification and testing plan will follow.”

Despite the latest setback, the company continues to make progress with the 787 certification program, stressed McNerney; for example, it has completed gauntlet testing and taxi testing to speeds of up to 130 knots on the first test airplane. The second 787, ZA002, has moved to the flight line and completed engine runs. ZA003 and ZA004 have completed power-on, and the team is assembling major sections of the seventh airplane, slated to serve as the first customer example.

McNerney didn’t deny that the company displayed a misplaced optimism in the days leading up to the last first-flight postponement. However, he refused to agree with the characterization that bad news doesn’t travel freely within the company, leading to a failure by the company to predict the problem and communicate its effect on first flight earlier.

“The story here is a tough program, not that news doesn’t travel around our company,” insisted McNerney. “Pretty late in the game we sounded confident because we were. It’s just that one of the latter tests we did just before flight turned up wrong. And we found out about it right away, so this is not an issue of information flow…the story here is the comprehensiveness of our testing because we’ve got to get this airplane right.”

McNerney’s comments came as the company announced that revenues for the first six months of 2009 rose 2 percent, to $33.7 billion. Earnings for the first half declined to $2.27 per share, including a $0.38 first-quarter impact from reductions to future twin-aisle production rates and delivery price escalation forecasts. Earnings guidance remained unchanged, at between $4.70 and $5.00 per share, although the company said it will reissue guidance once it finalizes its 787 schedule plans.