Farnborough Air Show

Boeing hopes for happy end to 787 schedule nightmare

 - July 12, 2008, 7:35 AM

More than a year after predicting at last year’s Paris Airshow that the new 787 twin-aisle twinjet would fly within three months, Boeing is no closer to achieving that important milestone. After three acknowledged delays, Boeing now expects the airplane to fly in the fourth quarter of this year.

The U.S. manufacturer also appears to have provided more time for flight testing and certification before first delivery. Originally expected to take no more than seven months (from late August 2007 to May 2008), a particularly ambitious timeframe given the major changes Boeing made to its conventional aircraft development process, the schedule now allows up to a year–potentially from October 1 until September 30, 2009–to achieve airworthiness approval.

The company has learned from experience, both recently from the time required to prepare the 787 for flight and historically from ambitious acceleration of 737 production rates that left suppliers scrambling to keep up. “I want to avoid picking a [first-flight] date,” said vice president and 787 program general manager Pat Shanahan last week. “[It is] not because we don’t have a date, but because we might find something [between now and then]–and so we have left a window.”

Last year, Boeing aimed to fly the aircraft by the end of August or within a month. Now, Shanahan does not volunteer the period of time. “There is enough uncertainty with the technology, but the window will be enough.” (One stepping stone to be completed was first running of the 787’s hydraulic systems, which was scheduled to take place before the show opened this week.)

The program general manager underlines a cautious approach, however pressing initial customers such as Japan’s All Nippon Airways might be: “We have been burned when picking dates. We are highly confident, [but] if the technology is not ready or safe the aircraft will not fly.  Our flight-test professionals will decide when we fly, [but we know] we have to work real hard to get there.”

Tipping the Scales
Apart from dates, another area in which Shanahan is circumspect is the weight of new airliner, whose composites construction is expected to make it lighter than comparable aluminum-alloy structures. Asked about reports that the 787 is overweight, Shanahan said: “I’ll steer away from numbers until we put the aircraft on the scale. By the end of the year, we will know a lot. We have a series of [targets] to reduce weight on the first aircraft, and more [on subsequent machines].” But he acknowledged the substance of reports and said Boeing was working to understand the extent of the situation: “We’re further away than I want to be and we’re working to get there–we have world-class engineers and they’re good at estimating.”

Shanahan is keen to correct any misunderstandings about the need to modify the 787’s center wing box, a normal part of initial aircraft development: “When people talk about a redesign, they assume there’s been a [total] makeover [from scratch].
We’ve had customers here, and they ask to see the wing box and what we’ve done to strengthen it, and then ask ‘Is that all?’ Anything [we alter] is regarded as a ‘design change,’ but if we add [only] a fastener that is not a major redesign. [This was] essentially a strengthening of the structure: we needed to add some stiffeners to strengthen the bulkhead.”

Delivery Delays and Slow Sales
Of course, that led Boeing into a vicious circle that could aggravate program delays: “Every time we add [something], it is harder [to reduce overall weight]. We have to [incorporate] the change in the production design. It is a complex analysis that takes time to do correctly because [the wing box] is a critical area. [That is the] nature of change and it can be a pacer for the assembly process.”

Shanahan also put into perspective references to negotiations with customers about delivery delays: “Negotiating sounds like a contractual arrangement; we have talked, not negotiated. There’s no sense in negotiating when there’s nothing to deliver before 2015. Obviously if [delivery is] next year, then discussions are more focused, more representative of the time consideration.”

Asked about a perceived slow down in 787 sales, the program manager suggested the lull related to delivery lead time. “We’re not selling aircraft for delivery in near-term years,” he said. “The strategy is longer term rather than short term.”

Not that he will be easily drawn on that subject. “We’ll deliver about 25 aircraft in 2009,” he said. “I won’t talk about deliveries in 2010.” Has the program provided an opportunity to incorporate improvements earlier? “When you slow down [production], you can incorporate changes and we’ve been able to do that at earlier line numbers–but not earlier in time,” he said.

The extended gestation period for the baseline, 237-passenger 787-8 model has had the positive effect of giving Boeing more time in which to consider subsequent variants, although Shanahan again showed caution in addressing potential developments. “First we have to fly the [787-8], certificate it, and get the first one delivered. Then we can think about the [stretched, 280-seat] -9. The first should be delivered in 2012.

“I spend a lot of time on the -9, there are a lot of things we’re having to incorporate or integrate in a more holistic way [than was possible previously]. We’re working vigorously with our partners. We’re learning a lot, progressing very fast. When things don’t go right people want to point the finger. I’m impressed by how quickly our partners learn.”

So, what about the status of the 787-10, which will incorporate a second further stretch? “We’re still doing a lot of configuration studies and ‘trades.’ We are not committed to a size or range for the aircraft. We need to fly the [short-range] -3 to know what we can do with the -10.”

Most recently, the Boeing executive has dealt with a delay in completion of a fuselage assembly for the fourth 787. The component was damaged during manufacture by an Alenia Composite contractor, working for partner Global Aeronautica in Charleston, South Carolina, who mistakenly fitted butt-headed fasteners in countersunk holes.

The aircraft remained in Charleston as of July 8. Shanahan has seen the damage caused by the mechanic, who was immediately fired, that could have resulted in delamination of the composites plies. It involved an area to which access was difficult with the appropriate repair kit materials and necessitated removal of local structure. The damage extended over about 12 inches in the left-hand side of the upper deck.

Although apparently unrelated, a 24-hour work stoppage immediately followed, while a thorough check of the assembly area for debris and misplaced tools was carried out, along with refresher training for operatives. “In the first instance, the shutdown was unacceptable, but secondly you accept that such things happen. We found debris. It was not representative of a system problem, but it was not routine,” Shanahan admitted.

Nevertheless, events underlined the need for proper training and procedures to be followed, Shanahan added. “We must streamline [the process] quickly. It has had a significant impact.”

Despite significant previous experience with such materials on the larger 777 twinjet, the official said Boeing is working hard to meet customer requirements: “Advanced composites technology is not as straightforward as people think. We must strike a balance between being 100-percent certain and taking risk so that we can deliver airplanes [at a time] when oil is $150 a barrel.”