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June 23, 2009

Boeing's Dreamliner Debacle

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Currently battling paperweight status.
Photo: Katkreig on Flickr courtesy of Creative Commons

by Clive Irving

Boeing is facing the most embarrassing and costly debacle in its history. Today's announcement that the 787 Dreamliner's first flight has been postponed, due to the discovery of a structural flaw, is the latest in a series of poorly explained delays. The program is already two years late. In the company's history there has never been such a gulf between the brilliance of the concept behind an airliner and the ability of the company to deliver it.

Make no mistake, the 787 was--and probably will be--a game changer. Scores of airlines around the world have ordered it. Today all of them are wondering, what is the real problem?

It all seemed very different two years ago when the first 787 was rolled out with a great deal of hoopla. It turned out that that the 787 was a hollow shell. It looked every bit the sleek precursor of a new age of fuel-efficient, passenger-friendly machines it was cracked up to be. But, in truth, it had no moving parts at all, except its wheels.

It was a Potemkin Village of technology, camera-ready but a long way short of leaving the ground.

Since then, the repeated delays have all had one acknowledged cause: Building the entire airplane from composites, not metal. This was exacerbated by having to bring together many parts outsourced from many countries. If you set out to build a whole airplane in a way that has never been done before, glitches are bound to surface. But none of this implied that there was anything inherently risky that would make the 787 unsafe to fly.

So today's revelation, that there was "a need to reinforce an area within the side-of-body section" means, when translated, that there was a suspicion that part of the airframe would fail if the first 787 left the ground in that condition. There was more. Boeing said that it considered a temporary fix that would allow the 787 to fly as scheduled, but decided instead to "develop, design, test, and incorporate a permanent modification."

It may sound judicious, but it indicates a substantial new delay. "Develop" is not a word used lightly. Preceding "design" implies trial and error. Even more disingenuously, the announcement added: "Structural modifications like these are not uncommon in the development of new airplanes." Given the history of the 787, that's just hogwash.

The fundamental problem with the 787 has always been that Boeing was attempting to combine many streams of untried technical innovation into one design and, at the same time, setting wildly optimistic deadlines for completion.

Several years ago, I visited a well-concealed complex behind a furniture showroom in suburban Seattle. It contained a full-size mockup of the 787's cabin. Designers walked me through the concept. It was truly transforming--deep windows, airy spaces, and cleverly thought-through details.  This was truly the future of flying, as advertised.

But now Boeing is exposed as a victim of its own propaganda, forcing its engineers to meet goals that were never remotely realistic. One wonders how  Alan Mulally, the CEO of the Ford Motor Company, about this today. Mulally moved from Boeing to Ford a year before the rollout of the 787. I met Mulally when he was CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. He had had an impressive record and came across as a hard-driving visionary and great leader. There's a lot of Mulally in the 787s DNA. And if he had been running the 787 program, I would bet that it would be in a lot better shape today.

Further reading:

* Read The Daily Beast for more aviation expertise from Clive Irving, Condé Nast Traveler's senior consulting editor.

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