Yet another 787 delay puts Boeing's credibility at risk

Boeingba calls its much-anticipated new 787 the Dreamliner, but the hot-selling, revolutionary jet looks more like a public relations nightmare after Tuesday's decision to delay the first flight for the fifth time.

The company's shares fell 6.5% to $43.87 Tuesday after Boeing said a design weakness discovered recently will force an indefinite delay of the first flight while engineers evaluate and test possible fixes.

The stock had been rising for most of the past month as investors bid up the price, encouraged by top Boeing executives' repeated vows that the plane would fly by next Tuesday, the last day of the second quarter.

Those expectations were dashed on a conference call Tuesday morning when Scott Carson, head of Boeing's Commercial Airplanes division, told analysts and reporters that a problem first noticed in ground testing last month proved to be a bigger issue than initially thought.

"We're all anxious to see this airplane fly," Carson said. But, "It's important that it flies when it's ready to fly."

That's a big turnaround from Carson's assertion a week earlier at the Paris Air Show that he was certain the 787 could fly before July 1 but that Boeing decided not to rush its ground-testing program just so the Dreamliner could put in an appearance at the prestigious biennial air show.

Carson isn't the only Boeing executive who had pumped up expectations. Boeing CEO James McNerney vowed publicly early this year that the 787 would fly before the end of the second quarter and repeated that vow as recently as last month.

This new delay in the 787 program reinforces a perception that Boeing's management either is unrealistic in setting ambitious production goals or is incapable of meeting those goals as it tries to develop a plane that could change the economics of air travel more than any plane since the introduction of commercial jets in the late 1950s. In cutting by 20% the amount of fuel needed to fly international routes — and emissions by a corresponding amount — the 787 could reduce airline operating costs and, in theory, the prices passengers pay.

But creating such a breakthrough aircraft has proved to be a bigger challenge than Boeing officials expected, and that's damaging the company's reputation and credibility. Not only is Boeing creating a plane in which half of its structural weight comes from composite materials instead of conventional aluminum, it is attempting to radically change the way planes are made.

Conventional planes are built on an assembly line, where pieces supplied by subcontractors are attached using hundreds of thousands of rivets. With the 787, Boeing has turned subcontractors into "risk-sharing partners" that assemble large sections of the plane or components all over the world. Those big sections are then shipped to Boeing's final assembly line in Everett, Wash., where they are pieced together using a new technique that requires fewer than 10,000 holes to be drilled into the plane, compared with hundreds of thousands in other models. Eventually, once workers get the hang of it, Boeing officials say, the final assembly of pieces built elsewhere should take just three days.

The first timetable

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