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Delay of 787 Dreamliner disappoints airlines, parts suppliers, passengers

Delivery, once expected by May 2008, has been put off six times. The delay has caused airlines to postpone opening new routes, to keep older planes in the air longer and to buy other aircraft to fill the gap.

January 13, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • A Dreamliner jet prepares to take off for a test flight from Paine Field in Everett, Wash., last month. The planes had been grounded for more than six weeks after an electrical fire during a test flight over Texas in November.
A Dreamliner jet prepares to take off for a test flight from Paine Field in… (Kevin P. Casey, Bloomberg )

Nearly three years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, the 787 Dreamliner passenger jet has been a nonstop frustration for Boeing Co. — disappointing airlines, passengers and hundreds of unpaid parts suppliers.

Buyers worldwide, enticed by promises of the most advanced, fuel-stingy passenger jet ever made, have ordered 847 of the jets with a price tag of about $200 million each.

Once expected by May 2008, delivery has been delayed six times, and passenger-ready planes are now expected on the runway by fall. It will be the first new class of aircraft launched by the company since the 777 in 1995.

FOR THE RECORD:
Boeing Dreamliner: An article in the Jan. 13 Business section about delays affecting the delivery of Boeing's 787 Dreamliner passenger jet said that a typical 5,500-mile flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo on a 767 aircraft costs carriers an estimated $3,000 in fuel and that the Dreamliner would cut that cost by $600. In fact, the Tokyo trip would cost carriers an estimated $30,000 in fuel and the Dreamliner would save $6,000. —


The string of delays has caused airlines to put off opening new routes, to keep older planes in the air longer and to buy other aircraft to fill the gap. Passengers, eager for wider aisles, more legroom and faster flights, also must wait. And major part suppliers — many of them in Southern California — had agreed to pay upfront costs for things such as labor and tooling but now find the delays increasingly costly.

"The program has been a huge headache," said Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant in Issaquah, Wash. "It has been a mess for everybody involved."

Early problems intensified, and by 2007, the successive delays began. Boeing's share price began to drop, and since then the price has fallen more than 25%. By comparison, the Standard & Poor's index of 500 large company stocks fell about 14% during that time.

The company's continuing struggle to contain costs was to blame, experts said, including a massive $2.5-billion write-off the company incurred in the third quarter of 2009. "There is a huge cloud over the Boeing stock until the 787 enters the commercial market," said Peter Arment, an analyst with Gleacher & Co.

Boeing declined to comment on the Dreamliner's problems, but it said recently that another delay would be announced later this month. When the plane is delivered, the first one will go to Japan's All Nippon Airways.

Boeing is now more than a year into flight testing a fleet of six Dreamliners to earn the Federal Aviation Administration's official certification before the jets can be delivered to airlines. But in November, an electrical fire broke out on one of the test planes as it flew over Laredo, Texas, causing Boeing to halt flights for more than six weeks.

Although the commercial aircraft manufacturing industry is notoriously plagued by delay, the confluence of problems is unprecedented for Boeing, including faulty parts from suppliers, a labor strike and design flaws.

The design has proved difficult because it is the first large passenger jet to have more than half its structure made of a high-tech blend of lightweight composite material instead of aluminum. The new material is more durable and less prone to corrosion.

Boeing has promised airlines that the use of composites and a newly developed engine will result in a plane that burns 20% less fuel than jetliners of a similar size. A typical 5,500-mile flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo now costs carriers an estimated $3,000 for fuel on a similar-size 767 jet. A Dreamliner would cut that cost by $600.

And that's just for one flight. Throw in lower costs for maintenance and repairs, and airlines are looking at estimated savings of about $5.4 million a year per next-generation aircraft such as the Dreamliner, said Tom Captain, aerospace analyst with Deloitte.

Long-haul flights will also be speedier on the Dreamliner, Boeing has said. For example, the flight from L.A. to Tokyo, 14 hours on a 767, would be almost an hour shorter on a Dreamliner.

Passengers will see wider cabins, which translates to more legroom than in previous twin-aisle planes. The cabin is taller, with "vaulted" ceilings that are more than 1 foot higher than those in the 767. Instead of harsh white fluorescent lights, the Dreamliner has soft "blue-sky lighting."

The plane has bigger, drop-down overhead luggage bins and larger windows that by the touch of a button can adjust the light coming into the cabin — rather than by raising a solid window shade.

It was these sorts of selling points that persuaded Houston-based Continental Airlines to become the first U.S. carrier to order the 787 when Boeing first started taking orders six years ago, in 2005. The carrier expected its first Dreamliner in March 2009.

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