Your Captain Speaking
Boeing 787 Dreamliner
In the late 1990s, the Boeing Company began to research possible replacements for their aging wide-body aircraft, namely the 747 and 767. Whatever design Boeing came up with would replace the “Queen of the Skies” needing its own auspicious nickname.
The Boeing-787 “Dreamliner” was announced to the world on January 29, 2003. The optimistic plan called for a revolutionary wide-body, twin-engine jet. The Dreamliner was designed to improve everything from profit margin to fuel efficiency to passenger comfort. A 20% increase in efficiency was expected over the 767 due to the combination of improved aerodynamics, more efficient engines, and lighter materials. The weight savings would come predominantly from the use of composite materials which make up 80% by volume and 50% of the weight of the plane.
Have you ever wondered why the wings of a 787 bend so much? It’s because the wing is constructed of carbon fiber that stretches more than conventional titanium and aluminum. Additionally, the wing’s high aspect ratio of 11, magnifies this effect. In flight you will feel less shaking due to turbulence and wind gusts, because the wing will dampen load changes more effectively.
The 787 Dreamliner wide-body, twin-engine design and capacity of 335 passengers, versus a four engine 500-plus seat 747 replacement was a huge risk and fundamental decision for Boeing as it involved ceding the large end of the commercial airliner market to the new A-380. The A-380, developed at the same time as the 787 is a double-deck, wide-body, four-engine super-jumbo airliner manufactured by European consortium, Airbus.
Boeing’s position was that the future of intercontinental air travel would be greatly enhanced by avoiding major hubs and moving to direct point-to-point route structures, a radical idea in 1990’s. This has proven to be the correct decision as the production of the A-380 Supper-Jumbo is now less than one-per month while 787 production rate is 14-units per month. By July 2017, 565 787’s have been delivered, versus 216 A-380’s. The Dreamliner will play an important role in shaping the structure of tomorrow’s air travel networks but not without its own set of troubles. Let’s say the “dream” has had plenty of nightmares. Another key decision in the development of the 787, a first and probably last for Boeing, was to outsource the manufacturing of virtually every component with Boeing doing the final assembly. Although it was supposed to enter service in May 2008, a wide range of obstacles, primarily supply chain issues and union strikes, resulting from out-sourcing, prevented the 787 from operating a revenue flight until October 26, 2011. The plane fell so far behind that airlines began to seek compensation from Boeing. Boeing went so far as to buy some of their suppliers and make concessions regarding the design’s weight to get final assembly going. When the planes finally did role off the line, they were 8% overweight which restricted their range by 15%.
The problems didn’t stop once the plane was airborne. A rash of fires caused by faulty wiring and lithium-ion batteries caused the FAA to ground the entire 787 fleet in January 2013. It was the first time the FAA grounded an airliner in over 30-years. The FAA reinstated the 787 in April 2013 but the plane already had a reputation of bad batteries and leaky fuel tanks. The NTSB later tried to ground a portion of the fleet due to GE engine failures.
It is estimated that by the end of this year, the 787 will have enabled 39 airlines to open 163 new routes (983 routes overall) with an average stage length of over 2,800 nautical miles. With a program cost of $32 billion and a development cost of at least $20 billion, the plane continues to be a fiscal loss for Boeing. At one point in 2013, it was estimated the 787 would be profitable after 1,100 units sold. Another estimate claims Boeing is losing $30-45 million per unit. The accumulated losses totaled almost $27 billion by May 2015. The company hoped to break-even per plane by the end of 2015 and make an average profit of more than $35 million per plane for the next 900 units. Independent models forecast a bleak financial outlook for the elegant aircraft.
It might not be a cash cow for Boeing, not yet anyway, but all is not lost for the already-iconic airliner. At least let’s hope so.
For those having an interest in the intrigue, inner-workings, politics and multi-billion-dollar “bet the company decisions” behind many modern commercial airliners, you may enjoy “The Sporty Game” by John Newhouse.