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Boeing's Dreamliner struggles despite tech superiority

As airlines wait impatiently for the next-gen, fuel-efficient plane, Boeing today replaces Dreamliner's leader with the head of the highly successful 777 program.

The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner takes off on its initial flight in 2009. After years of delays, the Dreamliner program is still seen as struggling, and today, its leader was replaced by the head of the 777 program. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

A management swap at the top of Boeing's much-hyped 787 Dreamliner program is shining a spotlight on the airline industry's frustration at the slow pace of deliveries of the fuel-efficient and technically advanced plane.

Today, Boeing said that it's shuffling the leadership of the Dreamliner and 777 programs, with Larry Loftis, formerly vice president and general manager of the 777 program, moving into the Dreamliner program's top position. At the same time, Scott Fancher, formerly the VP and GM of the 787 program, is now taking over the 777 efforts.

While Boeing neither characterized the switch nor provided any reasoning behind it--and said it would have no further comment on the moves--some industry observers feel the aviation giant wants new blood at the helm of the Dreamliner program, given its long history of delays and production problems.

Originally planned for an early 2008 initial customer delivery, the first Dreamliner--a plane that features innovative use of composite materials--was finally handed over to launch by customer All Nippon Airways last September, and ANA is still the only carrier flying the new plane. By comparison, the 777 is seen as a big winner for Boeing and the company has scheduled an event on March 2 to celebrate the delivery of the 1,000th 777.

Earlier this month, Boeing said it was slowing down work on the Dreamliner production line after what BusinessWeek reported was being called a "delamination" of the fuselage. Boeing said the slowdown would not delay production of the plane, which is expected to rise to about 10 a month by next year when a new assembly plant in South Carolina is fully online. The problem? Boeing has a backlog of as many as 850 Dreamliners on order, and after three years of delays attributed to everything from strikes to component shortages to onboard fires, its airliner customers are getting antsy.

"The 787 Dreamliner has been an absolute disaster for Boeing, and the 777 program has been a great success story," said Robert Herbst, an aviation industry consultant who runs Airlines "plan years in advance, with schedules [and] training programs, and when these airplanes come in three to four years late, and there are more delays because of production problems, it affects the airlines in [many] ways. So I would suspect there's great frustration in the airlines for the Dreamliner management."

Others agreed, noting that until Boeing is able to deliver the planes, it's facing financial troubles.

"Somebody has to take responsibility for what seems like endless delays," Richard Whittington, an analyst at Drexel Hamilton, told Business Week. "The company needs to start delivering better per-share earnings, and a lot of that means stopping the red ink on the 787 program."

But others think that Boeing wanted to bring Fancher's experience with composite materials to the 777 program, and in particular to a future model that could be known as the 777X.

Speaking to the Seattle Times, Scott Hamilton, an aviation consultant at Leeham Co., said that "The take in aviation circles has long suggested the 777X is going to have a composite wing and a composite wing box, and Scott has all that composite experience with the 787."

Hamilton also noted that although the 787 program has dealt with years of delays, "Fancher also inherited a mess. He's done what he could do with cleaning up that mess."

High-tech plane
Boeing's problems with the Dreamliner have been well-chronicled, and for good reason: airlines want the plane, and now. Why? Because the $185 million to $218 million aircraft was designed to provide airlines customers with up to 20 percent fuel savings over other passenger planes. That fuel efficiency comes largely from two factors.

First, the planes use engines from General Electric and Rolls-Royce that "represent a nearly a two-generation jump in technology for the middle of the market," the company says. And, the Dreamliner's fuselage and wings are being made from light-weight composite materials. All told, 50 percent of the materials used in a Dreamliner are composites.

Because of that, the plane is meant to fly at the same speed, Mach 0.85, as competing wide-bodies, meaning that airlines' cost-per-mile--a vital industry metric--should be lower with the Dreamliner than with other jets.

At the same time, the 787 also incorporates the industry's most advanced aviation technologies, including an onboard health monitoring system that lets the plane evaluate itself and proactively send automatic maintenance reports to an airline's computer systems on the ground.

Finally, by using a one-piece fuselage--which is possible because of the composite materials--the plane no longer requires 1,500 aluminum sheets and as many as 50,000 fasteners, Boeing says, factors that reduce cost and increase efficiency.

It's those cutting edge systems and efficiencies that led the Dreamliner to capture the imagination--and the orders--of a wide selection of airlines. And as fuel prices get higher and higher, those customers want their 787s.

"Every time you see the price of jet fuel spiking up," said Herbst, "there's more and more pressure on Boeing to get the Dreamliner out because it's so fuel efficient."

But the plane also has other high-tech elements that are thought to provide passengers with a better flying experience, such as being able to control the tint of individual windows, and the color and strength of overhead lighting. Boeing says studies show that passengers can arrive better rested with the use of changeable lighting, and airlines are excitedly awaiting the chance to sell tickets based on those factors.

Many delays
But the Dreamliner program almost seems cursed to suffer through one problem after another, each of which puts more pressure on airlines waiting for their fancy new planes.

In November 2010, the Dreamliner testing program was temporarily halted after an onboard electrical fire. And that was just the most prominent of three years of delays. Among the culprits over the years have been parts shortages, software integration issues, assembly problems, supply chain slowdowns, and even a machinists' strike.

Now, it appears that Boeing has taken steps to try to stanch the bleeding. While there's no way to be sure that the changes at the top of the Dreamliner and 777 programs are due to problems at the former and successes at the latter, there's evidence that the airlines are becoming restless with the aviation giant's 787 performance. According to Flightglobal, United-Continental has been in talks with Boeing about compensation for 787 delays, and there have been previous reports of similar talks between other airlines and Boeing.

If Boeing serves any masters, it's the airlines. And those customers may finally have had enough of watching their carefully scheduled plans go awry thanks to Boeing's struggles to get the Dreamliner program fully up to speed. And that's where Loftis, formerly the head of the 777 program, may be able to save the day.

The 777 "has been a great success story for Boeing in the long term, so whoever the management team is there, they've done really well," said Herbst. "It would have to be a positive for the Dreamliner to get the 777 management team."