EVERETT, Wash.--At long last, Boeing has handed off what may be the most important commercial airplane in its history, the 787 Dreamliner.
Heralded for years as the biggest technological leap forward in aviation in decades, the Dreamliner has represented both Boeing's greatest promise--an all-new energy-efficient plane made from composite materials--and the biggest thorn in its side.
Despite being beset by myriad delays, the Dreamliner has engendered passionate excitement and interest, and this morning, Boeing finally reached a milestone it, and the world, has been awaiting for at least three years: the delivery of the first 787 to its launch customer, Japan's All Nippon Airways (ANA).
The 787 is said to offer Boeing airline customers up to 20 percent fuel savings over other passenger jets, largely because about half of its primary structure, including its fuselage and wings, are made from composite materials. Yet it travels at the same speed, Mach 0.85, as other wide-body planes. And it incorporates the latest aviation technologies including an on-board health-monitoring system that enables the Dreamliner to monitor itself and automatically send in maintenance reports to ground-based computer systems.
In a rain-soaked celebration at its giant production facility here, about 30 minutes north of Seattle, Boeing lauded its employees, partners, and most of all, ANA, for their patience and perseverance in making today's event a reality more than three years after it was initially expected.
"This is truly the first all-new airplane of the 21st century," said Jim Albaugh, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. "Thanks for your faith in us, your faith in Boeing....We could not have had a better launch [customer] than ANA."
Albaugh didn't ignore the Dreamliner program's past problems. "It was not always a smooth journey," Albaugh said. "I think you all know that....There were times along the way...where it would have been easy to give up, to be discouraged, but you never did."
On July 8, 2007 (7/8/07), Boeing first unveiled the Dreamliner before a crowd of thousands much like that at today's event, touting the plane's design attributes, including its highly fuel-efficient body, powerful engines, and world-changing interior, and said then that it had already taken 677 preorders, making it the first plane to pass the 500 mark for orders ahead of first delivery. But at the time, the company said the first Dreamliner would fly by September of that year, and that the first passengers would be flying by May 2008. It would take Boeing until December 15, 2009, to get the plane into the sky. And only now, with ANA having at last received its first 787, will paying passengers be able to climb aboard.
Legacy of problems
The Dreamliner program's problems began in September 2007, when Boeing postponed the first flight for a month due to "ongoing challenges with out-of-sequence production work, including parts shortages, and remaining software and systems integration activities." Then, just a month later, the aviation giant said it would slow down the program, for at least six months, "due to continued challenges completing assembly of the first airplanes." A few months later, the first flight was again pushed back because of a series of supply chain problems.
The delays didn't end there. Next up was a 57-day machinists strike, which ended in November 2008 but which also caused new supply shortages. There were new problems with assembly. And then in June 2009, Boeing announced a new set of delays "due to a need to reinforce an area within the side-of-body section of the aircraft," it said at the time.
Even after the Dreamliner's first flight in December 2009, there were still fresh issues to contend with. In August 2010, India's National Aviation Co., which operates Air India, said it was demanding $840 million in compensation from Boeing because of the delays. For its part, Boeing said then that it was involved in negotiations with various carriers over delay-oriented costs.
And then, in November 2010, came the most high-profile complication of all--an on-board electrical fire in a control panel.
Through it all, aviation enthusiasts throughout the world continued to demonstrate their eagerness to see the Dreamliner in action. Boeing talks of crowds of thousands of people that would gather any time it flew the plane into a new airport, which it did over and over around the world during its lengthy test program.
And there's little doubt that worldwide interest in the new plane has stayed high, perhaps best evidenced by the throng of reporters who have turned up for each program milestone along the way.
And now, with the hand-off to ANA under its belt, Boeing can rightly feel like its commitment to the Dreamliner may well have paid off.
At the ceremony today, Albaugh joked with ANA president and CEO Shinichiro Ito about the delivery of the plane. "When you buy a car, you get a key," Albaugh said to Ito on stage in front of thousands of employees, partners, and press. "When you buy an airplane, you get a really big key."
For his part, Ito seemed happy at the day's development. "Today, we have the honor to be part of aviation history," the ANA CEO said through an interpreter. "We will now carefully and lovingly fly [the Dreamliner] back to Japan...I cannot wait for the day when the skies of the world are filled with 787s."
Boeing executives could be forgiven for engaging in a bit of hyperbole, given the importance to the company of the Dreamliner handover. For example, Patrick Shanahan, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice president and general manager of airplane programs, compared today's milestone with the first assent of Mount Everest and NASA's first Apollo missions. And Jim McNerney, Boeing's president and CEO, called the development of the Dreamliner a once-in-a-decade--if not a generation--or even a once-in-a-lifetime achievement of human ingenuity."