Late And Over Budget, Boeing Delivers Dreamliner

Boeing will deliver to Japan's All Nippon Airlines the ceremonial keys to its first 787 jetliner Monday. The so-called Dreamliner is filled with technological innovations that should make flying more comfortable for passengers and more economical for airlines. But the 787 program is more than three years behind schedule and billions over budget, and many challenges remain.

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Japan is receiving a delayed delivery today: Boeing's first 787 jetliner. It was supposed to be ready three years ago for the Japanese airline, All Nippon. The jet is filled with technological innovations that should make flying more comfortable for passengers and more economical for airlines, now that it's available.

NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports on Boeing's progress and the challenges that remain.

WENDY KAUFMAN: The 787 has been plagued with quality problems and delays. But there's no question that today's airplane delivery represents a huge milestone for Boeing. The company's Scott Fancher heads the 787 program.

SCOTT FANCHER: Well, you know, the 707 opened an entire new age of commercial airline travel - the jet age. With the 787, we're taking the jet age into a new realm, a realm of high efficiency, a realm of - an experience for the traveling public like they've never seen before.

(SOUNDBITE OF JET ENGINE)

KAUFMAN: I'm walking up the stairs to the new 787 Dreamliner, and now I'm making my way down the aisle toward the rear of the aircraft and the coach seats.

Boeing touts the spaciousness of its new plane, and indeed, this one doesn't have the closed-in feeling of most wide-bodied aircraft. There are eight seats across, here. Most airlines plan to squeeze in one more. But Boeing's Blake Emery says the structural and design elements of the 787 should benefit all those who fly in it.

BLAKE EMERY: The ceiling has a sense of disappearing above your head. Now that's one of the things that creates a sense of spaciousness. Another thing that plays a really big role is the windows. They're so big. They're above the seatbacks of the airplane. Even in the middle, you can look out and see out a window. You can see above the seats. And you can even look out and see the horizon, even from the middle, and you just can't do that in airplanes today.

KAUFMAN: Boeing cites some unseen benefits, too. The plane will be pressurized to feel like 6,000 feet, not the typical 8,000. So the headaches, muscle aches, dryness and other discomforts of flying will be minimized. And the company says new technology will make the ride noticeably smoother.

Many of these improvements are possible because unlike every other commercial jet, which is made from aluminum, the 787 is made from carbon-fiber reinforced plastic, it's lighter and stronger than metal. But switching to a new material was a huge leap for Boeing. At the same time, in an effort to reduce costs and financial risks, the company outsourced design and manufacturing to an unprecedented degree. Things didn't go as planned.

SCOTT HAMILTON: They had all kinds of hubris on this.

KAUFMAN: That's Scott Hamilton, an aviation analyst at the Leeham Company.

HAMILTON: You know, they originally talked about delivering the first airplane in four years, and here we are now seven years into the program to the first delivery, and there are still challenges.

KAUFMAN: The list of those challenges is long. Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group is another industry analyst.

RICHARD ABOULAFIA: The initial production aircraft have issues with weight and range and economics, and they need to refine what they're building in line with what they had promised.

KAUFMAN: That's a 200-300 passenger plane that would be 20 percent more fuel efficient and would cost airlines less to maintain. Another challenge - and it's a huge one - is the rate at which Boeing can build the new jets. The company doesn't get paid until airline customers take delivery.

Right now, Boeing is building just two 787s a month in this giant factory in Everett, Washington. The company hopes that by late 2013, it will be building seven planes a month here, and three more in a brand new facility in South Carolina. But, says Aboulafia...

ABOULAFIA: I don't think there's any chance whatsoever of getting to that rate in that amount of time.

KAUFMAN: That's a pretty universal sentiment. Boeing has invested a staggering sum, the Seattle Times estimates $32 billion on this airplane program. That's far more than the company ever expected to spend. And while there are more than 800 orders on the books, it is not clear when or even if the 787 will be ever be profitable. Still, company officials insist they are happy with their investment. They believe the plane is a game-changer, one that will put Boeing on top in the world of commercial aviation, now and well into the future. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle

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