NEW YORK — The 787 Dreamliner was born in desperation.
It was 2003 and Boeing — the company that defined modern air travel — had just lost its title as the world's largest plane manufacturer to European rival Airbus. Its CEO had resigned in a defense-contract scandal. And its stock had plunged to the lowest price in a decade.
Boeing needed something revolutionary to win back customers.
Salvation had a code name: Yellowstone.
It was a plane that promised to be lighter and more technologically advanced than any other. Half of it would be built with new plastics instead of aluminum. The cabin would be more comfortable for passengers, and airlines could cut their fuel bills by 20 percent.
But once production started, the gap between vision and reality quickly widened. The jet that was eventually dubbed the Dreamliner became plagued with manufacturing delays, cost overruns and sinking worker morale.
In interviews with The Associated Press, a dozen former Boeing engineers, designers and managers recounted the pressure to meet tight deadlines.
The former Boeing workers still stand behind the jetliner — and are proud to have worked on it. But many question whether the rush contributed to a series of problems that led the Federal Aviation Administration last week to take the extraordinary step of grounding the 787. Other countries did the same.
The plane — eventually christened the Dreamliner after a naming contest — was unlike anything else previously proposed.
Half of its structure would be made of plastics reinforced with carbon fiber, a composite material that is both lighter and stronger than aluminum. In another first, the plane would rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to start its auxiliary power unit, which provides power on the ground or if the main engines quit.
While other planes divert hot air from the engines through internal ducts to power some functions, the 787 uses electricity. Getting rid of that air-duct system is one thing that makes it more fuel efficient.
There were also benefits for passengers. The plane's extra strength allowed for larger windows and a more comfortable cabin pressure. Because composites can't corrode like aluminum, the humidity in the cabin could be as much as 16 percent, double that of a typical aircraft. That meant fewer dry throats and stuffy noses.
Before a single aircraft was built, the plane was an instant hit. Advance orders were placed for more than 800 planes.
But there were problems with the molding of the new plastics. Then parts made by different suppliers didn't fit properly.
By giving up control of its supply chain, Boeing had lost the ability to oversee each step of production. Problems sometimes weren't discovered until the parts came together at its Everett, Wash., plant.
As the project fell further behind schedule, pressure mounted. It became increasingly clear that delivery deadlines wouldn't be met.
The world got its first glimpse of the Dreamliner on July 8, 2007.
It was “beyond experiencing a rock star on stage,” said Bryan Dressler, a former Boeing designer. “This thing is so sexy, between the paint job and the lines and the fact that it's here now and you can touch it.”
But like so much of show business, the plane was just a prop. It lacked most flight controls.
On a cold, overcast morning in December 2009, it all came together.
A crowd gathered at Paine Field, the airport adjacent to Boeing's factory. The Dreamliner climbed deftly into the sky for a three-hour test flight.
But passengers wouldn't first step aboard the plane until Oct. 26, 2011, three and a half years after Boeing first promised.
Boeing had hoped by the end of 2013 to double production of the Dreamliner to 10 planes a month. There are 799 unfilled orders for the plane, which carries a $206.8 million list price, although airlines often negotiate deep discounts.
Then, this month, all the progress came to a jarring halt.
First, a battery ignited on a Japan Airlines 787 after it landed at Boston's Logan International Airport.
Then a 787 flown by Japan's All Nippon Airways made an emergency landing after pilots learned of battery problems and detected a burning smell. Both Japanese airlines grounded their Dreamliner fleets. The FAA, which just days earlier insisted that the plane was safe, did the same for U.S. planes.
As investigators try to figure out the cause of the plane's latest problems the world finds itself in a familiar position with the Dreamliner: waiting.