Boeing's Dreamliner may finally take to air

Boeing officials say their long-awaited 787 Dreamliner will make its first flight in June.

No, really.

This time they mean it.

That's what it's come to for the giant aircraft maker. After four delays in developing the world's first commercial jet with a lightweight, all-composite fuselage, such pronouncements from Boeing executives are immediately questioned, even scoffed at by the aviation industry's cognoscenti.

But Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Scott Carson, whose latest assurance that the 787 will fly before the end of Junecame at a JPMorgan Chase investor's conference earlier this month, understands.

"The stumbles we have made have been embarrassing for us," he says. "They've been embarrassing for our customers, who are counting on us to have the right product available on time."

In addition to postponing the 787 Dreamliner that was first promised to take off in late 2006, Boeing has suffered delays in developing the latest version of its venerable 747, the 747-8. A 57-day strike last fall halted production of all its passenger jets and caused dozens of planes to be delivered late. There's good reason to be optimistic about the 787 Dreamliner, however. Even with 32 cancellations so far this year, Boeing has 846 firm orders for the 210- to 330-seat plane that promises big fuel efficiency and fuel cost savings over the midsize, wide-body jets it will replace. No plane has ever had even half as many orders on the books before its first flight.

Boeing has a lot riding on the 787, and the two-year-plus delay has damaged the company, analysts say.

Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group in Fairfax, Va., says the delays in the 787's development have cost Boeing dearly in its competition with Airbus, the European aircraft manufacturer that is the American company's chief rival across the globe.

Instead of surpassing Airbus, Boeing has seen its competitor inch ahead in the number of sales and deliveries — despite Airbus' own missteps. It was three years late in delivering the A380 superjumbo, has had false starts in launching the A350 that will compete with the 787, and has gotten bogged down in a costly financial and operational restructuring.

"There was a moment where Boeing could have scored an enormous strategic victory and put Airbus in the distance for decades," Aboulafia says. "But that moment has passed. Boeing still has an advantage now, just not the huge advantage they could have had."