Boeing Co. is betting that its 787 Dreamliner will shrink the world for travellers by allowing airlines to fly directly to overseas markets that are currently underserved.
The Dreamliner, which completed its first test flight Tuesday near the assembly complex at Everett, Wash., is being touted as a "game changer" because it's a smaller, more fuel-efficient jet capable of travelling the longer distances traditionally flown by larger planes.
In staking its reputation on the 787, Chicago-based Boeing is also hoping the jet, which is slated to enter commercial service in late 2010, will help revive the airline industry, which has been battered by recession and a sharp downturn in business travel. The International Air Transport Association forecasts that global carriers will lose $11-billion (U.S.) this year and suffer another $5.6-billion in losses next year.
One thing that would help ease the airlines' financial woes is a revival of long-haul traffic, especially in higher-margin business class. The two main Dreamliner models, which will seat between 210 and 290 passengers, are designed for global routes that would otherwise be deemed too small to profitably service year-round.
"Boeing sees the future of aviation not as a bigger plane like the Airbus A380," the massive double-decker plane that seats between 500 and 825 passengers, depending on the configuration of the cabins, said McGill University business professor Karl Moore said. "Boeing's vision is that the 787 is the plane for thinner routes."
Air Canada has placed 37 orders for the Dreamliner, making it the fourth-largest customer for the 787s. The Montreal-based carrier expects to receive its first 787 Dreamliner by late 2013, or a delay of nearly four years from its original delivery time.
One example of how the Dreamliner could change airlines' schedules: Air Canada is looking at adding service between Vancouver and Guangzhou, China, perhaps in 2011. To do so initially, the airline could deploy 349-seat Boeing 777s. But the smaller Boeing 787 would offer more flexibility in scheduling, providing a greater choice of flight times, such as daily service instead of three times a week, industry experts say.
As well, with 787s, Air Canada would have more year-round options for increasing flight frequencies for its Toronto-Shanghai and Toronto-Beijing routes.
With about 850 orders for the aircraft from more than 50 customers, Boeing had said it would deliver the first Dreamliner to All Nippon Airways Co. Ltd. of Japan in May, 2008. But repeated delays forced the rescheduling to late 2010.
Drew Magill, director of commercial airplane marketing at Boeing, said in a recent interview that the company has learned from problems with suppliers. "There has been more integration of the suppliers," he said. "This is a good model and we are going to go forward with it. We're learning how to make it work."
Asked about the black eye Boeing sustained from the 787's production delays, he replied: "It has been very difficult for us to not be able to meet our commitments on that airplane."
Until now, Boeing's European rival Airbus has been the leader in the use of composite materials. The 787 changes that, vaulting Boeing into first place with its unprecedented use of composites. The shift is a profound one for a company known for its mastery of traditional aluminum aircraft design and construction, demanding changes in everything from engineering software to assembly line equipment.
As much as 50 per cent of the 787's primary structure, including the fuselage and wings, are made of composite materials - more than four times as much as recent models like the 777. Composites can yield substantial weight and drag reductions. The wings and fuselage structure of previous jetliners are based on construction techniques that reach back to the time before the Second World War - metal frames covered with sheet aluminum held in place with rivets set in drilled holes. The difference between the 787 and its predecessors can be illustrated by a simple observation: There are only 10,000 drilled holes in the entire aircraft, compared with one million in a Boeing 747.
The 787's complex, worldwide supply chain is seen as the way of the future for aviation manufacturers, but has produced major headaches and delays for Boeing on the 787 project. Major components for the 787 are built by more than 50 suppliers, 28 of them outside the United States.
With files from Bertrand Marotte