Boeing's Headache or Miracle: Dreamliner 787

Photo: Boeing halted 787 production at its Italian subcontractor

Boeing once promised fliers that its new 787 Dreamliner would link small cities around the world, making it efficient for airlines to provide non-stop service from, say, Oklahoma City to Istanbul.

But that dream is now looking more and more like that: just a dream.

The turbulent ride to get the Dreamliner in the air hit another bump last week when Boeing confirmed it has halted production of new fuselages at a plant in Italy while it redesigns part of the plane.

It's the latest setback for a project that is now more than two years behind schedule and has become a repeated public-relations nightmare for the Chicago-based company. Boeing's stock fell 3.75 percent Friday.

The company said this problem would not further delay the project but provided little reassurance that the plane would soon be flying.

"It's a continuation of a bad situation," independent airline analyst Robert Mann said. "They've been relying on assurances after assurances from Boeing and now it appears the aircraft has further production issues. We're reaching a point where not only airlines, but consumers, are starting to question the program."

That said, when the 787 does finally fly, it could dramatically change air travel forever.

The 787 will be the first jetliner with composite-material primary structures. The main material will be graphite combined with a toughened epoxy resin. The wing will also use TiGr, a titanium/graphite composite. It will be a lighter, smaller twin-aisle airplane that could make it cost-effective for airlines to serve smaller markets directly, especially given further international airline deregulation.

Will the Plane Ever Fly?

Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Teal Group Corp. of Fairfax, Va., said he doesn't expect Boeing to lose orders from airlines "because there isn't really another plane to compete with the 787."

"Everyone knows that if this thing works, it's what they want," he said.

The question is: Will the plane actually fly.

"We don't know what type of design work needs to be done to make this work," Aboulafia added. "This is the first time anybody has done anything like this in the jetliner business."

Lori Gunter, a Boeing spokeswoman, insisted that the latest design problem is minuscule but being fixed to stay within Boeing's "exacting" standards. The 29 fuselages already built -- the main cabin of an aircraft -- will be fixed with "a very simple patch on the outside of the airplane," she said.

No new fuselages will be built until Boeing slightly redesigns the fuselage by one-one-thousandth of an inch.

"The short story on this is that it has no impact on schedule or cost," Gunter said. "This is fairly typical of a brand new program."

The 787 is having more production problems than Boeing's last new jet, the 777, which first flew in 1995. But this jet has so many new parts and designs that such delays are expected, Gunter said. The Dreamliner is also being built at various contractors around the globe, which was initially hailed by Boeing as a cost-saving measure but has turned into a logistical nightmare.

She added that thanks to the Internet, more of these problems are coming to the public's attention.

The latest problem was first reported on the FlightBlogger Web site.

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