Dreamliner jet weighs Boeing with delays, costs

Jan 18 2011 - 11:18am

LOS ANGELES -- 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.

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 parts suppliers 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 percent. By comparison, the Standard & Poor's index of 500 large company stocks fell about 14 percent during that time.

The company's continuing struggle to contain costs was to blame, experts said, including a massive $2.5 billion write-off that 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 test flights on 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 percent 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 less on a Dreamliner.

Passengers will see wider cabins, which translates to more leg room 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 softer "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 started taking orders six years ago, in 2005. The carrier expected its first Dreamliner in March 2009.

Still waiting, Continental announced last month that it had to suspend opening up a route from Houston to Auckland, New Zealand. "We had initially announced plans to begin the service in November of 2011, and given the uncertainty surrounding the 787 delivery date, it was pushed to 2012," said Mary Clark, a Continental spokeswoman.

Frustrated with the setbacks, Dreamliner customers have canceled about 100 orders, and analysts estimate that Boeing has spent as much as $10 billion in cost overruns and in penalties paid to airlines for the delays. The exact cost is unknown; the company does not have to disclose it.

Also frustrated are the 787 parts suppliers from around the world. For example, the wings are made in Japan and center fuselage sections are made in Rome. There are about 50 suppliers in California alone.

Before the 787, Boeing designed and assembled the bulk of its planes at its facilities in Everett, Wash., near Seattle. Now, large components will arrive from distant suppliers pre-assembled and "snapped together" on Boeing's production floor in Everett.

Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with Teal Group Corp., said the delays have benefited Boeing's archrival Airbus, owned by European Aeronautic Defence & Space Co.

Australian carrier Qantas Airways and its subsidiary Jetstar Airways leased six Airbus A330 jets in 2009 when they had yet to receive any of the 50 Dreamliners they had ordered.

Despite the delays, the 787 is still seen as a must-have aircraft for carriers on long-haul flights, Aboulafia said. In addition to the fuel savings and added passenger comfort, its durability and lower maintenance requirements are a draw.

"It's a sweet spot in the market," he said. "But at this point, it's the only nice thing you can say."

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DREAMLINER AT A GLANCE:

--Cruising speed: 567 mph, 37 mph faster than the Boeing 767

--Top speed: 593 mph

--Price: About $200 million

--Seating: 210 to 290 passengers

--Dimensions: 8 feet, 2 inches high and 17 feet, 3 inches wide; 15 inches higher than the 767 and 2.5 feet wider

--Cabin features: More legroom, bigger overhead luggage bins

--Windows: Three inches larger, with buttons to dim outside light, replacing window shades

--Lights: Softer LED blue lighting instead of white fluorescent lights

--Air quality: New air-purifying system and increased humidity in the cabin

Source: Boeing

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(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

 

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