Bjorn’s Corner: The Challenges of Airliner Development. Part 1. Introduction

By Bjorn Fehrm, Henry Tam, and Andrew Telesca

April 30, 2021, ©. Leeham News: After our hydrogen series, we now start a series around the Challenges of Airliner Development.

We have more aeronautical projects in development than ever, fueled by the transformation to new, more sustainable technology and new forms of flight, like Urban Air Mobility and Drones based on electrical propulsion.

Many of these projects underestimate what it takes to ready a certified air vehicle. We describe what’s involved in a series of Corners.

Figure 1. A typical aero development CFD graphic. Source: Boeing.

What’s involved in developing a commercial aeronautical device?

Aeronautical development projects have one thing in common: they all go over cost and time estimates, with very few exceptions.

It doesn’t matter if it’s new, inexperienced entrepreneurs or experienced large airliner OEMs. One thing is for sure. It takes longer and costs more. Examples from the latter:

  •         The classic Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It was estimated to take 5 years and cost Boeing $5.5bn. It took nine years and cost four times as much.
  •         The previous Boeing development, the 777, while keeping the time plan, cost Boeing twice the estimated cost to get it to market.
  •         Airbus is no exception; its A350 project took two years longer than planned and cost more. So did the A380.

We could look at the upstarts, where the delays and busted cost estimates are of an even larger scale.

The team

To uncover why even experienced teams have these difficulties, we will take the help of a pair of experienced development and certification managers:

  •         Henry Tam, a former Head of Program at an aircraft OEM that was developing a transport category aircraft.  He has experience in developing regional, business, and military aircraft.
  •         Andrew Telesca, a former Head of Certification for an OEM that was developing a transport category aircraft.  He has experience in developing single-aisle, widebody, and regional aircraft.
The development cycle

We will structure the series in the main blocks that are recognizable when getting a new aircraft project to market. While a UAM or Drone can have a slightly different development cycle, one can distinguish the same phases in most aeronautical projects that develop commercially certified vehicles.

Here the phases and their names. Other names are used, depending on project and OEM, but these are the common names:

  1. Conceptual Design
  2. Preparation for Launch
  3. Aircraft Detailed Design
  4. Prototype Manufacturing
  5. Production Preparation
  6. Testing and Certification
  7. Entry Into Service and Production
  8. Fleet Support

We shall note, while these are the main phases, there are overlaps between phases.

Before we get into the different phases, we will spend the next Corner discussing why aeronautical certification plays such a crucial part in commercial aeronautical projects.


53 Comments on “Bjorn’s Corner: The Challenges of Airliner Development. Part 1. Introduction

  1. My experience is that it takes decades of research and testing to get the technology to build from. The standards like Standard Practices Manuals takes time to develop and qualify all required materials, tools and processes besides what is commercially available. SpaceX I think got lots of help from Nasa to speed up its design rules and practices besides being filled with skilled people. New commercial aircrafts and UAM companies will not get the same help developing all the required knowledge to certify and keep its customers flying while giving dividends to its investors.

  2. Hi Bjorn, looking forward to this series.
    Just curious, will you explore what the OEM’s do for decisions on engines and what specifically they, the engine manufacturers do to meet the design…. we used to joke at Boeing that the airplane is designed around the engine. Much truth to this saying.
    The other critical component is the supplier selection and decisions around buy or build. That was a disaster for the 787 in many respects and still is for meeting schedules.
    Finally will you go into any detail what the impacts are from the regulatory side, such as how the OEM’s apply for and are granted exemptions to the cert rules? And IMHO, a serious safety flaw for regulatory. Thanks

  3. Replacing the A320 and B737 must be terrifying. What if the A220 wing or B787 fuselage tech turns out to be dead end and you’re stuck with it in an enormous program?
    This is an argument for breaking it up into 2 distinct programs.

    • The 787 barrel fuselage is a dead end. That was clear even before the current issues. However the process still works for panels and the tail cone section is still done as a complete barrel on a mandrel

      • Tailsection: Boeing had the lead from the A380. Same for the rear pressure bulkhead.
        Like some other stuff they advertised as firsts that were lifted from the competitor.
        Most other issued could be attributed to Dunning Kruger effects. The less you know the more certain …
        ergo: The 787 began as a cargo cult thing.

        • I don’t have time for claims of ‘fist’. Boeing flew composite tail pieces when Wein airlines was still flying – certified and in service on a few airplanes including one of Wein’s. Wein ceased flying in 1984.

          Not saying that was necessarily a first but a long time ago for sure.

          And there was the matter of the B-2 wing built by Boeing? That’s long ago, 1980s.

          • You mean the 6 B737s that had a composite horizontal tails in 1983…the same the year the A310 production had its whole vertical fin composite , followed by the A300-600.
            The British were first users of composites – they invented the concept in late 60s and tested it in parts for VC-10. They went big with the RB-211 composite front fan, which was unsuccessful, and led to Rolls bankruptcy.

          • Duke:

            What evidence do you have the barrel is a dead end?

            787 went one way, Airbus was totally unprepared and went with frame and skin.

            Both work and per Bjron pretty much equal end result.

    • @Grubbie,
      Why should it be ‘terrifying’? If a company hires the right engineering talent and mgmt skills and follow their program management practices as set up, it shouldn’t be terrifying, challenges along way with risks – yes.
      Problem is Boeing today is all about diversity and inclusion, they don’t care about skills and talent. And they don’t follow their program management protocol. They beat their suppliers just like Walmart does – so why do ya think they have their problems as they do?
      We don’t see this at Airbus. Another perfect example of ultimate risk and managing perfectly is Elon Musk’s SpaceX. They’re not terrified… and they deliver, on time!

      • Diversity and inclusion adds to pool of skills and talent. Boeing finally realized that. Airbus has been doing that for a long time and they are destroying Boeing now becausethose Diversity and inclusion has made AB a better company and for now they have better product. The old boys clubs BS is/was Boeing’s approach to everything.

        • You speculate.

          Many females in Boeing decades ago,

          indeed in the 1980s one was a sales person specializing in aircraft performance, she would visit with or without a general sales person depending on the need.

          Many females in production, perhaps most often in administrative functions, but in the late 60s doing backroom work such as wiring in the lotts of Renton.

          I was acquainted with an engineer and a contracts person on the 787 program. I

          n fact, a plant manager was female (Renton) and an engineering executive – Nicole Piasecki IIRC, a really sharp engineer I encountered when she was with Sikorsky and I was modifying helicopters.

          • You need to educate yourself on diversity and inclusion. Its not only women its, people of color, groups like LGBTQ, people with disabilities etc. Its not that this group were not qualified its that these groups were systematically not hired of because who they were. You not knowing this shows there is lots to be done.

          • And I don’t have any time for the deliberately divisive ‘persons of colour’ scam.

            The Puget sound area has many brown and black skinned people, some of them work in Boeing, some of them down the road at whatever the Tramco heavy aircraft maintenance operation is called today.

          • Fact-check:


            Females are approximately 24% of workforce, will never be 50% just as nursing will never be 50% male. (Heavy factory work only appeals to some females, it is good pay for those who are willing and able.)

            ‘Black’ 6.4%, which I take to include brown-skinned people of partial Black African genetic background. Last I heard, about 10% of the population of the Puget Sound area was ‘black’, I don’t know if there are many unemployables like the violent young black male culture in some US cities.

            I don’t know if Boeing busses people from the Central District to work sites, as Microsoft and Nintendo do to Redmond (for jobs like packaging, which gives work experience and perhaps some training for higher pay). Probably good work environment at M and N, and attractive places like Amazon are nearby in downtown Seattle as well as in southern suburbs for warehousing. There is good transit in the region, Renton is just over the ridge from the Central District on an arterial street name I forget. Boeing may still have good training inhouse, I don’t know if the IAM helps.

            Besides ‘Black’, about 25% other races, which makes sense given number of people of brown Asian and Mexican background in the region, some are newcomers and some are several generation Americans.

            So no big deal, except to Boeing bashers.

        • From Boeing’s diversity report:

          Black employees make up just 6.4% of Boeing’s U.S. workforce and 4.4% of its engineers. Women account for 23% of employees and 17% of engineers.

          The company wants to increase its Black representation by 20% in the U.S. by 2025, which would still leave the total number at less than 8% of the company’s workforce. At the current rate, it will take Black Americans 95 years to reach workforce parity in all levels of U.S. private industry, having 12% representation at every level of a company.

          The company also faces a recent lawsuit from its employee claiming being retaliated and subjected to a hostile work environment, as well as a supervisor who routinely assigned African-American workers to a building with undesirable and hazardous working conditions.

      • Diversity and inclusion adds to the pool of skill employees. AB has promoted Diversity and inclusion and they are a better company for it. For now AB products are doing better then Boeing. You have the same old mentality as old school Boeing and McDonnell Douglas boys club. SpaceX reports to Elon Musk its his money they are blowing up. Boeing investors would have problem if their money are spent recklessly. Most of Boeing suppliers like RTX, SAFRAN, GE, Honeywell are doing well. Those who bulid fuselage are suffering. Don’t get me wrong there are Boeing suppliers which are hurting but so does AB suppliers.

        • You can say that because folks that challenge your D&I mantra/assertion take a risk these days (how is that D&I). This stuff started in the US so I doubt Boeing is any different. The more of it there is the smaller western areas of excellence remain.

          • “This stuff started in the US so I doubt Boeing is any different.”

            Uh, what did? Brit financial people are not known for their generosity.

            You’re just blathering IMJ.

        • @Dukeofurl,
          Ok, good point about SpaceX. But Boeing has been building airplanes for over 100 years and they had some great programs, 727, original 737, 747 and 777 and yes the 787 to an extent…. look at the problems today. Boeing is mired in minutiae with PowerPoint rangers.
          I think Elon is the new Bill Boeing.

          • Your hindsight about the older designs probably didnt match the reality.
            And Boeing had major problems with build quality in the late 1980s, and the FAA stepped in with special inspections over ongoing quality issues. The production pause of 1997 was the result of the antiquated 1960s processes not catching up with the production tempo.

          • SpaceX has no issues with failures. And they seem to go the handyman approach :: fiddle, fiddle, fiddle.

            But that is not how you develop a series production transport aircraft.

            SpaceX’s approach would, if ever, be applied to tech readiness work. You then start your airliner work with qualified processes / techniques !

          • I am anti Boeing management myself.

        • And Musk failed often building cars.

          So many problems, so many upgrades that teams were visiting customer driveways because dealers were overloaded.

          Tesla batteries become bricks if you leave them largely discharged while on vacation for a couple of weeks, may or may not be partially recoverable. $$$$$

          Then take the autopilot – please. Couldn’t distinguish between a large rectangular freeway sign and a truck trailer that turned in front of it – fatal. Autopilot not good at figuring out if driver is awake, apparently no eye motion detector.

          Yeah, customers too. A pair of guys just killed themselves in their own neighbourhood, initial report is driver seat was empty.

        • Thankyou.

          The book ‘Fad Surfing in the Boardroom’ comes to mind. A mark of shallow people. (Just like many posters in this forum wit their political buzzwords.)

          Years ago I watched a supposedly instructional film on Total Quality Management, at one of the ‘Six Sigma’ companies. It dawned on me that their examples of success came from workers feeling free to tell bosses things – problems and ideas, not from the TQM6 hoopla.

          OTOH. TJ Rodgers’ book No Excuses Management comes to mind, he of Cypress Semiconductors. Quite open, for example at budget time askers for capital funds made their presentations in a meeting of everyone, so those turned down could understand why others were funded.

          • “It dawned on me that their examples of success came from workers feeling free to tell bosses things – problems and ideas, not from the TQM6 hoopla.”

            Yes, that’s indeed true of all quality systems that work. Deming emphasised one should blame the system not the people.

            One of the side effects of implementing a quality system is that they do impose this need for open communication and autonomy.

        • Apparently a private company doesn’t have the need to have FCF for shares buyback.

      • My experience says that the top engineering manager together (in the old day “The Project Engineer”) with the cheif engineers office with design rules and checklists has a huge influence on the final product. The regular staff and group leaders make a big difference on the quality, speed/cost of production, repairability but this does not really influence if it is a great basic aircraft/engine design or not. The make-up of this top engineering team should be of proven performance and learning from a few not so great designs but solving them and constantly being part of making better ones, like Roger Béteille at Airbus and several others.

        • Some time in the last decade one of the Boeing engineering executives did talk about his job. From what I remember, the ‘fine details’ he didnt have much say about as they were at a very high computer analysis level. His job was almost all about ‘meeting the time targets’ to have results for other groups.
          Todays decisions are most likely about ‘time and money’ not some whimsical great design thats waiting to be put together.

          • Money denied up front will be spent in quantum step increased amounts later on.
            Lecture material : “The mythical man month”.

          • The big decisions are made at the end of preliminary design before letting all the engineering, drafting, systems design, first hardware and testing it etc.. here is were the major part of the budget is spend and the prelimiary design refined. But if the preliminary design logic is wrong it can seldom be turned into a successful product no matter the size, bugdet and time allowed for the big line organisations doing their work. You need people like Kelly Johnson, Dutch Kindelberger, R. J. Mitchell and there likes to get it going on the right track from the beginning. There are several hundred of not so great aircrafts made over the years or obsolite when finished, Bristol Type 167 Brabazon …

        • An important aspect is 1 a strong sense of mentoring 2 ethics and morality and fairness. You want trust and mentoring not underlining and white anting. 3 A respect for the technical and financial people. 4 an elite. I once worked for an Australian company founded by mainly British. They had an elite group of managers and technical people we rereferred to as the golden circle. The most important thing about the golden circle was that it was possible to enter it through merit. The ‘project manager’ who built bridges, ships, cathedrals, railways used to be called ‘the clerk of works’ now clerk is a fairly low grade in the public service, a sign of the dilution of grand tittles. You can see that in the case of the 737 the commercial people dictated too much.

        • Leadership seemed good on the B767 program, experienced, seeking customer input, but dedicated to producing the product on time. (Thus rejecting requests for more special features.)

      • I suspect you can’t hire the right engineering talent. You have to foster it.

  4. One of the ‘missing steps’ in that 8 step program is a place to test fundamental technologies such hydrogen fuelled engines, hydrogen fuelling or other radical new technologies and materials that all need to be tested before the certification and testing stage. Another is new tools such as new forms of CAD and integration in the supply chain.

    • Developing a totally new aircraft AND hydrogen powered isnt going to happen at same time. Hydrogen planes and engines will be highly likely to be derivatives of existing planes and engines…when the infrastructure is there.
      Norway is very hypocritical about hydrogen when its still got active oil and gas fields

      • 16% of world oil production is used to manufacture petrochemicals rather than as fuel. That percentage is expected to increase to 20% in the next few years. The plastic housings for all those solar panels and the lightweight composites for all those modern vehicles don’t just fall out of the sky.

        The world will need every drop of its oil reserves. There’s nothing hypocritical about having oil and yet attempting to switch to H2 as an energy storage medium.

        • The technology of Direct Air Capture and PtL is probably better suited to making plastics than fuel. Most attempts at producing fischer-tropsch fuels from natural gas or coal end with the plant switching to producing chemicals rather than fuels because the margins are much higher and the quality of the product so good. We may end up sequesting CO2 as plastics, carbon fibres etc.

          • Unsure if ‘fischer-troepsch’ is as narrow a concept as you say.

            I read that a modified F-T process has been tested in Alberta, it adds NG to get diesel/kerosene out of the bottom of the barrel.

            (Kerosene being used as jet fuel, effectively light clean diesel as used in cold climates.)

    • Norway is forward-looking, has a trillion dollar SWF that’s smart enough to diversifies away from Big Oil. Unlike a country with a national debt that grew from $9 trillion to $27 trillion in last decade, reaching 110% GDP in this decade.

      • Forward looking you say … so leaving oil in the ground , ‘ASAP’ is coming soon. More benefits there than a little LH2 powered turbo prop for its internal routes.

        • Why not get as much money as possible while there is demand??
          Last couple decades’ war on drugs proves there’s supply when there’s demand!! What Americans good at is pointing finger at others, why not look into the mirror??

  5. It would have been a good idea to give full info on time frame and cost overruns for all 4 models mentioned. ( i.e. be more specific on the Airbus projects.)

    the 787 was sold on that “5years to EIS” promise. ( i.e. not an estimate )
    Interesting to note that not only a FUBARed project like the 787 causes a cost explosion but “lesser issues” like cable runs on the A380 also can incur astonishingly high outlay.

    • Indeed, A380 wire runs were a data system botch – mismatch of feedthrough holes between fuselage sections.

      My understanding is that Airbus had different versions of CATIA in different plants, against recommendations but in any case a questionable move.

  6. welcome subject.

    Keep in mind that leadership is key. Boeing botched 787 development:
    – some troubled suppliers were allowed to delay, such as Smiths Aerospace (Yakima and Cheltenham, some other divisions were much better)
    – some troubled managers
    – evasive senior managers
    – many people fooling themselves with fancy program management processes that failed (the military division tried to warn them, after its own fiasco)
    – trying to develop an engineering database tool at the same time as an airplane, said they’d never do that after an early program’s problems but there they were again.
    – lack of support form other departments, such as training (apparently it was not given adequate resources, so it fobbed off requests by saying programs are always late)

  7. Many companies run into trouble by not having deep enough pockets to handle delays.
    Eclipse Aviation did not, eventually additional financing was only available if the founder stepped aside. But that action was too little too late.
    In contrast, Cessna quietly worked away on the Mustang, only revealing it publicly when it was rolled out of a hanger for taxi testing. Moderately successful addition to Cessna’s line of small business jets, it and the Eclipse 500 were priced way above Vern Raeburn’s dreams. OTOH its little Skycatcher was too pricey, even with Communist Chinese manufacturing – a failure.
    Pratt and Whitney Canad worked quietly on an engine for the Mustang, which eventually was offered to Eclipse. PWC gets government help – at least for basic R&D, as Bombardier and Canadian Marconi have. But so does Boeing, sometimes via NASA.
    Bombardier got heavily into debt due delays in the C-Series airliner program, produced a good machine, then got trapped by Boeing’s devious complaint to trade authorities.
    For the 787, Boeing had pockets – today, not so much, we’ll see how much it recovers by the time it must invest heavily in a new program.

    Subsidies and special tax deals pop up of course, I goofed on one Canadian program – didn’t believe gummint would classify product development as R&D. One young person was able to develop a sports car, as if the world needed more designs that were not outstanding. (The program gave compamies a tax deal for investing in R&D in other companies, like the sports car one. Sports cars are like small airplanes and restaurants – everyone wants their own.))

  8. Hello Bjorn, Your timeline for 787 development is wrong. April 2004 to September 2011 give us 7 years 5 months. The A350xwb took from August 2006 to January 2015 for a total of 8 years 5 months. The hubris was Boeing trying to build the 787 in 4 or 5 years. With the 3 years delay they still did it one year better than Airbus.

    • Uh, Daveo, problem with 787 development length was mismanagememt of project.

      Understaffing, trying to develop a signals database while developing an airplane (which on the 777 program they said ‘never again’ yet there they were again in 2004).

      Not dealing effectively with troubled suppliers like Smiths Yakima/Cheltenham who played games to get more money – stupid stupid as that delayed their production cash flow.

    • Why so long for the A350XWB?

      Perhaps because they rejigged the program to be more useful to operators, such as widening the fuselage? So Boeing delays 777X, in a changed market for widebody airliners and perhaps more regulatory scrutiny and Boeing bashers pile on.

    • Yes, the A350XWB did take longer than the B787. But they have been more reliable in service. And, I suspect that the problems with the RR engines on the 787 was the rush to get them out in time. GE took much longer.

      • The A350 at hull 17 made massive changes to the build.

        The first ones were a learning program.

        Airbus was simply not prepared to deal with the 787 (well Boeing was not either)

        They had to build the tech to do it different and succeeded,. it all took time.

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