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Boeing bets 787 has right stuff

Analysts say composite materials used to make the new plane will be revolutionary. A festive rollout is planned.

July 06, 2007|Peter Pae | Times Staff Writer

With the fanfare of a royal wedding and Tom Brokaw serving as the emcee, Boeing Co. will lift the veil Sunday on its first new passenger jet in more than a decade, ushering in what some analysts believe will be a new era in air travel.

More than 15,000 dignitaries and airline executives have been invited to the rollout of the 787 Dreamliner at Boeing's massive Everett, Wash., plant, and an estimated 50,000 current and retired employees of the aircraft maker will watch on large screens at Qwest Field, home of the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks.

Boeing executives hope that the extravagant rollout will befit a plane that could be a game changer in aviation, much the way the nation's first passenger jet, Boeing's 707, redefined travel in the 1960s, analysts said. The date of the rollout was chosen because it is the same as the model designation for the aircraft.

"It will be revolutionary," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp. "It will represent a major technological shift in the way a plane is made and in the way it operates."

The 707 changed aviation by enabling airlines to fly to far-flung destinations more quickly than propeller-driven planes. It allowed carriers to begin offering economy seating, making air travel more affordable.

The Dreamliner is groundbreaking for a different reason: It's the first large passenger jet to have more than half of its structure made of composite materials (carbon fibers meshed together with epoxy) instead of aluminum sheets.

If the design works as planned, analysts say, composites will revolutionize aircraft as dramatically as the industry's shift from wood to metal 80 years ago.

Chicago-based Boeing has promised airlines that the use of composites and a newly developed engine will result in the 787 burning 20% less fuel than jetliners of a similar size.

The plane will seat about 250 passengers, depending on the cabin configuration, and will require less maintenance because it has fewer parts and will incur less corrosion. Boeing says the 787 will save airlines about 30% in maintenance expenses.

The plane won't start flying passengers until May, but it already has become the hottest-selling passenger jet ever and probably will be a substantial revenue producer for Boeing for an extended period.

This comes on top of strong sales of its existing line of airliners. Boeing reported a net income for the first quarter of $877 million, up from $692 million a year earlier.

Shares of Boeing rose 71 cents Thursday to $98.36. They have gained 10.7% this year, compared with 7.6% for the Standard & Poors 500 index.

Japan's All Nippon Airways has ordered 50 Dreamliners and will be the first to begin flying it next year. Calling it "epoch making," ANA executives say the 787 will allow the carrier to expand its international network in Europe and the U.S. With its extended range, airlines will be able to fly more direct, nonstop flights with the 787 without having to stop over at hub airports.

Boeing has orders for more than 600 of the 787s from more than 35 airlines and is sold out until 2014. With such demand, it has raised the list price for the plane from the initial $125 million four years ago to about $150 million, or by about 20%.

The 787 probably also will be the basis for Boeing's future aircraft development and production, analysts said. Instead of Boeing workers fastening parts together and wiring the plane in Everett, the bulk of the large components will arrive preassembled at the Everett factory.

The entire wing and major sections of the fuselage will have been assembled elsewhere in such places as Japan and Italy and then shipped to the U.S. Everett workers will take three days, compared with a month under the traditional process, to "snap" the major sections together, much like the way a prefabricated house is constructed.

"The 787 represents an entirely new way of producing planes," said Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant in Issaquah, Wash.

Boeing has 6,000 suppliers in California, many of them in the Southland. It is also the largest private employer in Southern California, with 31,000 workers.

The company still faces a few big hurdles with the 787.

In haste to make the Sunday rollout, the first test flights won't happen until a month later than originally scheduled. Basic parts, such as fasteners, are running short and major sections have arrived incomplete, leaving more work to be done by Boeing employees in Everett.

But Boeing executives insist that the first plane will be delivered to ANA on time. To avoid delays that have plagued the A380 being developed by its archrival Airbus, Boeing has take unusual steps, including temporarily transferring engineers that typically work on military projects to the 787 program.

The super-jumbo A380 is nearly two years behind schedule and has led to the ouster of top Airbus executives and a major restructuring of the Toulouse, France-based aircraft maker.

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