Patience with 787 Delays Running Thin

 - June 29, 2009, 4:41 AM

The wellspring of goodwill among customers for the chronically delayed Boeing 787 drained a bit more this past week, when the company announced yet another program delay likely to force its certification target date beyond next year’s first quarter. This time, the delay to first flight had nothing to do with so-called traveled work or kinks in the supply chain, but rather a failure of computer models to accurately predict the level of stress certain areas along the side-of-body sections of the aircraft would encounter.

Although the problem first became apparent more than a month ago, during wing-bending tests on the full-scale static test article, the company chose to wait until June 23 to reveal the need for metallic reinforcements to strengthen areas of unexpected stress along the upper wing-to-body joint. Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Scott Carson said the company hoped that it could fly the airplane while it worked on a solution, but that it didn’t reach the conclusion that it couldn’t perform productive flight tests until late during the third week of this month.

By that time the Paris Air Show had just drawn to a close, allowing Boeing to avoid an embarrassing public relations debacle while it stood on the aerospace industry’s grandest stage. Nevertheless, one 787 customer, in particular–Qatar Airways’ chief executive Akbar Al Baker–felt no compunction against publicly berating Boeing for what he characterized as the manufacturer’s lack of professionalism, even before this latest delay. “Unfortunately, Boeing is not run by commercial people,” said Al Baker in Paris during the airshow. “Boeing is run by bean counters and lawyers. We have some serious issues with them, and if they do not play ball with us they will be in for a serious surprise.”

Thankfully, for Boeing, its other customers have shown more diplomacy. But until the manufacturer sets a new target for first flight–and actually achieves the feat–it runs an increasing risk of real damage to its credibility. That, beyond the late delivery penalties it will have to pay, the company can least afford.