Boeing's 787 Dreamliner: A legacy of delays

The latest schedule calls for delivery of the first 787 Dreamliner in the third quarter of 2011. But that date is far behind the original, following setback after setback.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
Boeing on Tuesday said it has scheduled the first delivery of its much-anticipation 787 Dreamliner for the third quarter of 2011. But that comes only after three years of delays. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

There were probably smiles and handshakes in the executive suites at Boeing yesterday, as the aviation giant announced that it has scheduled delivery of the first 787 Dreamliner to an airline customer for the third quarter of 2011.

But that announcement--which comes in the wake of a November halt to the 11-month-old Dreamliner test flight program after an on-board electrical fire in a control panel--belies the fact that the much-anticipated, next-generation Boeing plane, which costs between $185 million and $218 million depending on the configuration, is now guaranteed to be at least three years behind the schedule the company promised at the jet's star-studded official unveiling in 2008.

Boeing's 787 faces sky full of competition (photos)

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"Our revised first delivery date incorporates our best assessment of the factors driving our schedule," Boeing spokesperson Lori Gunter told CNET yesterday.

"While we resumed certification flights yesterday with an interim package of software and hardware changes now in place on four [test] airplanes, the return to full test activities will take place gradually over the next few weeks," Gunter elaborated. "The replacement electrical power panels and final software changes will be installed and tested over the next several months, which will then clear the way for function and reliability testing, typically the final phase of testing to be done. We've also added some schedule margin beyond that to allow for any additional time that may be needed to complete certification activities."

Back in 2007, on July 8, 2007--07/08/07--Boeing rolled out the Dreamliner before a crowd of thousands, touting its design attributes, including its highly fuel-efficient body, powerful engines, and world-changing interior, and said it had already taken 677 pre-orders, making it the first plane to pass the 500 mark for orders ahead of first delivery. At the time, the company said it would put the first Dreamliner in the air by September of that year, and that the first passengers would be flying the new plane by May of 2008.

And then, not long after the unveiling, things started to unravel.

The problems began in September 2007 when Boeing postponed the Dreamliner's first flight until at least October of that year because of "ongoing challenges with out-of-sequence production work, including parts shortages, and remaining software and systems integration activities."

Then, in October 2007, Boeing again announced a slowdown in the program. At the time, the company said that it was putting off initial deliveries of the Dreamliner for at least six months "due to continued challenges completing assembly of the first airplanes."

Next, in January 2008, Boeing again delayed the first flight and initial delivery because of supply chain problems. This time, the first flight was said to be expected by the end of the second quarter of 2008, and the first delivery in early 2009.

Behind the scenes of Boeing's Dreamliner project (photos)

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"The fundamental design and technologies of the 787 remain sound," Scott Carson, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a release at the time. "However, we continue to be challenged by start-up issues in our factory and in our extended global supply-chain."

In the release, Boeing said that "while solid progress has been made on the assembly of Airplane number 1, the rate at which jobs are being completed has not improved sufficiently to maintain the current schedule." Among other problems, Boeing blamed suppliers for not finishing work that was necessary to complete assembly of the first Dreamliner.

In April 2008, Boeing again delayed the program, once again pointing the finger at its supply-chain. "While significant progress has been made assembling Airplane number 1," Boeing said in a statement at the time, "first flight is being rescheduled due to slower than expected completion of work that traveled from supplier facilities into Boeing's final assembly line, unanticipated rework, and the addition of margin into the testing schedule. The new delivery schedule is based on a more conservative production plan developed with the 787 partner team."

Strike and its aftermath
The next major delay in the Dreamliner program came largely as a result of a 57-day machinists strike. The strike, which ended on November 1, 2008, according to Reuters, forced Boeing to delay the plane's first flight and first delivery yet again, this time until well into 2009.

And then, just a month later, Boeing again announced delays, blaming them on supply shortages due to the strike, as well as problems with assembly. "The new schedule reflects the impact of disruption caused by the recent Machinists' strike along with the requirement to replace certain fasteners in early production airplanes," Boeing said at the time.

The problems continued to mount after that, and not all were due to the strike. In June of 2009, Boeing once again announced a delay in the first flight and the first delivery, this time "due to a need to reinforce an area within the side-of-body section of the aircraft," it said. "The need was identified during the recent regularly scheduled tests on the full-scale static test airplane. Preliminary analysis indicated that flight test could proceed...as planned. However, after further testing and consideration of possible modified flight test plans, the decision was made...that first flight should instead be postponed until productive flight testing could occur."

On December 15, 2009, the first Dreamliner finally took air, lifting off from Payne Field in Everett, Wash., in front of a crowd of thousands of Boeing employees, fans, and journalists.

But that didn't mean Boeing's problems with the Dreamliner were done.

In August 2010, National Aviation Co. of India, the Indian-state-owned company that runs Air India, announced it was demanding compensation of $840 million from Boeing for delays in the 787 program. The company said the delays were hampering its growth plans, according to Bloomberg.

Boeing said at the time that it was negotiating with carriers over costs related to the delays.

And then, of course, the program was grounded once again in November thanks to the electrical fire in the control panel aboard one of the test planes.

Still, Boeing maintains that despite the delays, and some obvious disappointment on the part of carriers, it has not lost any sales due to the slow progress of the program. "Most of the order cancellations we have seen are directly attributable to the current economic situation," Gunter told CNET.

It's hard to say if three years of continuous delays like those seen in the Dreamliner program are unprecedented. Gunter said that the delays are "certainly not typical" in the aviation industry. But she suggested that the problems could be attributable to the Dreamliner program being the company's first all-new plane in more than 15 years, and that despite the problems, the 787 "has advanced just about every facet of an airplane from the business model to the materials to the design concepts."

Now, with the first flight having happened more than a year ago, and the first delivery scheduled for the third quarter of this year, things would seem to finally be going Boeing's way. Of course, any longtime observer of the program would be forgiven for being a tad wary of betting on that delivery date.

Boeing seems to be confident about it, notwithstanding a little wiggle room.

"This schedule is based on a thorough assessment of the response to the [electrical fire] incident and our path going forward," Gunter told CNET. "That said, we are still in the testing phase of the program, and there is the potential that we could find something. Our schedule has a reasonable amount of risk to handle such a situation, but it would be inaccurate and disingenuous to not acknowledge the potential. The priority is to ensure the safely and reliability of the airplane. Schedule will always be secondary to that priority. Our customers understand and share our commitment to this priority."