From the start, Dreamliner jet program was rushed
It was a tough sales job for Alan Mulally, then head of Boeing's commercial airplanes division and current CEO of Ford. The only way the board of directors would sign off on the Dreamliner was to spread the risk among a global chain of suppliers. In December 2003, they agreed to take on half of the estimated $10 billion development cost.
The plan backfired as production problems quickly surfaced.
"I saw total chaos. Boeing bit off more than it could chew," said Larry Caracciolo, an engineer who spent three years managing 787 supplier quality.
First, there were problems with the molding of the new plastics. Then parts made by different suppliers didn't fit properly. For instance, the nose-and-cockpit section was out of alignment with the rest of the plane, leaving a 0.3-inch gap.
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.
Fixes weren't easy, and cultures among the suppliers often clashed.
"It seemed like the Italians only worked three days a week. They were always on vacation. And the Japanese, they worked six days a week," said Jack Al-Kahwati, a former Boeing structural weight engineer.
Even simple conversations between Boeing employees and those from the suppliers working in-house in Everett weren't so simple. Because of government regulations controlling the export of defense-related technology, any talks with international suppliers had to take place in designated conference rooms. Each country had its own, separate space for conversations.
There were also deep fears, especially among veteran Boeing workers, that "we were giving up all of our trade secrets to the Japanese and that they would be our competition in 10 years," Al-Kahwati said.
As the project fell further behind schedule, pressure mounted. It became increasingly clear that delivery deadlines wouldn't be met.
Each success, no matter how small, was celebrated. The first delivery of a new part or the government certification of an engine would lead to a gathering in one of the engineering building atriums. Banners were hung and commemorative cards — like baseball cards — or coins were handed out.
Those working on the plane brought home a constant stream of trinkets: hats, Frisbees, 787 M&Ms, travel mugs, plane-shaped chocolates, laser pointers and lapel pins. Many of the items can now be found for sale on eBay.
"It kept you going because there was this underlying suspicion that we weren't going to hit these targets that they were setting," said Matt Henson, who spent five and a half years as an engineer on the project.
The world got its first glimpse of the Dreamliner on July 8, 2007. The date was chosen not because of some production milestone but for public relations value. It was, after all, 7/8/7.
Tom Brokaw served as the master of ceremonies at an event that drew 15,000 people. The crowd was in awe.
It was "beyond experiencing a rock star on stage," said 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. Parts of the fuselage were temporarily fastened together just for the event. Some savvy observers noted that bolt heads were sticking out from the aircraft's composite skin.
Boeing CEO Jim McNerney told the crowd that the plane would fly within two months.
Instead, the company soon announced the first of what would be many delays. It would be more than two years before the plane's first test flight.
To overcome production problems, Boeing replaced executives and bought several of the suppliers to gain greater control. Work continued at breakneck pace.
"We were competing against time. We were competing against the deadline of delivering the first airplane," said Roman Sherbak, who spent four years on the project.
Then 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 there were still plenty of glitches, including an onboard fire during a November 2010 test flight. Smoke had entered the cabin from an electronics panel in the rear of the plane. The fleet was grounded for six weeks. This month's safety problems appear unrelated.
Deliveries were pushed back yet again.
Passengers wouldn't first step aboard the plane until Oct. 26, 2011, three and a half years after Boeing first promised.
That first, four-hour journey — from Tokyo to Hong Kong — was more of a party than a flight. Passengers posed for photos as they climbed stairs into the jet. Alcohol flowed freely. Boeing executives were on hand, showing off the plane's new features. Everybody, it seemed, needed to use the bathroom if only to check out the bidet and giant window inside.
More airlines started to fly the plane. Each new route was met with celebration. Travelers shifted itineraries to catch a ride on the new plane.
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 shortly after it landed at Boston's Logan International Airport. Passengers had already left the plane, but it took firefighters 40 minutes to put out the blaze.
Problems also popped up on other planes. There were fuel and oil leaks, a cracked cockpit window and a computer glitch that erroneously indicated a brake problem.
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.
Each new aircraft comes with problems. The A380 had its own glitches, including an in-flight engine explosion that damaged fuel and hydraulic lines and the landing flaps. But the unique nature of the 787 worries regulators.
American and Japanese investigators have yet to determine the cause of the problems, and the longer the 787 stays grounded, the more money Boeing must pay airlines in penalties.
"It's been a very expensive process, and it's not going to let up anytime soon," said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. "At this point, the aircraft still looks very promising. I don't think anybody is talking about canceling orders but people are nervous about the schedule."
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.
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at smayerowitz(at)ap.org.
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