July 10, 2017, © Leeham Co.: Saturday was the 10th anniversary of the roll-out of the Boeing 787. The date was 7/8/07, nicely coincided for the airplane’s name.
The event was an extravaganza never seen in commercial aviation, surpassing even that of the Boeing 707 in 1954.
Technology, of course, had a lot to do with the hyper-event 10 years ago. There was no Internet in 1954, no cable news networks, no laser light shows, etc.
There were also no orders for the 707 in 1954, compared with the hundreds for the 787 in 2007.
The 787 has broken all kinds of records.
The 787 in 10 years has 1,223 net orders. This is a record unmatched by any widebody aircraft.
It took the 747 47 years to reach 1,552 orders. The 767 now has 1,204 orders after 35 years. The 777 has 1,911 orders after 23 years.
Boeing’s design also was intended to set new standards for passenger experience. The airplane has bigger windows, the ability to have the cabin pressure to 6,000 ft instead of 8,000 ft (making for a more pleasant flight), higher humidity (doing away or at least reducing the “dry” feeling) and eight abreast passenger comfort in coach.
All this was due to the use of composites instead of metal for the fuselage.
Greedy airlines, of course, did away with the eight abreast in coach, choosing nine instead—but this wasn’t Boeing’s fault.
Boeing also designed the airplane to be the most fuel efficient aircraft produced up until that time. In fact, the original pre-production designation of the aircraft was 7E7 (for efficient) instead of the previously used 7X7 (for experimental).
An entirely new production and industrial model was adopted for the 787 as well, all intended to reduce development and production cost. Poor execution, however, set other records.
Record delays (for Boeing) were set. By the time the airplane entered service, it was nearly four years late. Previously the longest delay Boeing experience with a jet airliner was four months (the 747-400, for software issues).
Record cost overruns were set. Instead of being the most cost-efficient production ever done, Boeing racked up $30bn in cost overruns plus penalties to customers for late airplanes.
Record production problems emerged. Boeing had to buy the entire Charleston (SC) facilities from the Alenia and Vought because of poor production and quality control issues. Wing-to-body join issues from its Japanese partner caused delays.
The early block 787-8s failed to hit advertised performance goals because they were overweight due to the need for design fixes and rework. The last of these is finally going to be delivered, to a VIP customer, this year—six years after the aircraft entered service and six years after the “Terrible Teens” were built.
The 787 also became the first American jetliner since the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 to be grounded, in 1979, after two fires related to the lithium-ion batteries caused major scares.
Boeing still hasn’t recovered its costs for the 787 program and many believe it never will. But once the company got past those early block airplanes, production smoothed out and the in-service performance met or exceeded contract promises to the customers.
The 787-8 remains a production anomaly but the 787-9/10 are about 95% common. The -9 is the most widely purchased model and the -10 is in testing, for delivery next year.
The 787 legacy is mixed.
The airplane was supposed to enter service in May 2008. After that, Boeing planned to design a clean-sheet replacement for the 737, followed by a replacement for the 777.
Instead, we have the 737 MAX and the 777X.
The MAX is, by any standard, a success, but its design limitations became obvious during the development of the MAX and more recently the MAX 10.
The 777X’s success remains a question. Its customer base is very narrow and nearly three quarters of the aircraft were sold to three Middle East airlines which are now feeling the effect of over-expansion, bad decisions, local political rivalries, international terrorism, weakening traffic and US government policies. Deferrals already have been made by Emirates Airline. Lufthansa Airlines, one of the few non-Middle East customers, is talking about deferrals. Cathay Pacific Airways, another of the non-Mid East customers, is having financial difficulties.
Only Japan’s ANA, among 777X customers, is without challenges.
But technology from the 787 was applied to the 747-8, the MAX and the 777X. It will be applied to the 797 Middle of the Market airplane, assuming Boeing proceeds with it. The technology will certainly find its way into the 737 replacement, when this eventually comes next decade.
As an executive of SPEEA, the engineers’ union, once told me, perhaps the entire 787 program should be considered one massive R&D project for the future airplanes.
Regardless of whether the 787 ever recovers its costs, the true legacy is the technology for the other airplane programs.