With the fanfare of a royal wedding and Tom Brokaw serving as the emcee, Boeing Co. will lift the veil Sunday on its first new passenger jet in more than a decade, ushering in what some analysts believe will be a new era in air travel.
More than 15,000 dignitaries and airline executives have been invited to the rollout of the 787 Dreamliner at Boeing's massive Everett, Wash., plant, and an estimated 50,000 current and retired employees of the aircraft maker will watch on large screens at Qwest Field, home of the National Football League's Seattle Seahawks.
Boeing executives hope that the extravagant rollout will befit a plane that could be a game changer in aviation, much the way the nation's first passenger jet, Boeing's 707, redefined travel in the 1960s, analysts said. The date of the rollout was chosen because it is the same as the model designation for the aircraft.
"It will be revolutionary," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst for aerospace research firm Teal Group Corp. "It will represent a major technological shift in the way a plane is made and in the way it operates."
The 707 changed aviation by enabling airlines to fly to far-flung destinations more quickly than propeller-driven planes. It allowed carriers to begin offering economy seating, making air travel more affordable.
The Dreamliner is groundbreaking for a different reason: It's the first large passenger jet to have more than half of its structure made of composite materials (carbon fibers meshed together with epoxy) instead of aluminum sheets.
If the design works as planned, analysts say, composites will revolutionize aircraft as dramatically as the industry's shift from wood to metal 80 years ago.
Chicago-based Boeing has promised airlines that the use of composites and a newly developed engine will result in the 787 burning 20% less fuel than jetliners of a similar size.
The plane will seat about 250 passengers, depending on the cabin configuration, and will require less maintenance because it has fewer parts and will incur less corrosion. Boeing says the 787 will save airlines about 30% in maintenance expenses.
The plane won't start flying passengers until May, but it already has become the hottest-selling passenger jet ever and probably will be a substantial revenue producer for Boeing for an extended period.
This comes on top of strong sales of its existing line of airliners. Boeing reported a net income for the first quarter of $877 million, up from $692 million a year earlier.
Shares of Boeing rose 71 cents Thursday to $98.36. They have gained 10.7% this year, compared with 7.6% for the Standard & Poors 500 index.
Japan's All Nippon Airways has ordered 50 Dreamliners and will be the first to begin flying it next year. Calling it "epoch making," ANA executives say the 787 will allow the carrier to expand its international network in Europe and the U.S. With its extended range, airlines will be able to fly more direct, nonstop flights with the 787 without having to stop over at hub airports.
Boeing has orders for more than 600 of the 787s from more than 35 airlines and is sold out until 2014. With such demand, it has raised the list price for the plane from the initial $125 million four years ago to about $150 million, or by about 20%.
The 787 probably also will be the basis for Boeing's future aircraft development and production, analysts said. Instead of Boeing workers fastening parts together and wiring the plane in Everett, the bulk of the large components will arrive preassembled at the Everett factory.
The entire wing and major sections of the fuselage will have been assembled elsewhere in such places as Japan and Italy and then shipped to the U.S. Everett workers will take three days, compared with a month under the traditional process, to "snap" the major sections together, much like the way a prefabricated house is constructed.
"The 787 represents an entirely new way of producing planes," said Scott Hamilton, an aviation industry consultant in Issaquah, Wash.
Boeing has 6,000 suppliers in California, many of them in the Southland. It is also the largest private employer in Southern California, with 31,000 workers.
The company still faces a few big hurdles with the 787.
In haste to make the Sunday rollout, the first test flights won't happen until a month later than originally scheduled. Basic parts, such as fasteners, are running short and major sections have arrived incomplete, leaving more work to be done by Boeing employees in Everett.
But Boeing executives insist that the first plane will be delivered to ANA on time. To avoid delays that have plagued the A380 being developed by its archrival Airbus, Boeing has take unusual steps, including temporarily transferring engineers that typically work on military projects to the 787 program.
The super-jumbo A380 is nearly two years behind schedule and has led to the ouster of top Airbus executives and a major restructuring of the Toulouse, France-based aircraft maker.
Although the 787 is expected to save airlines a lot of money and redefine aircraft manufacturing, less certain is its effect for passengers.
Passengers will notice that the windows and the overhead bins are larger. The air in the cabin should be healthier and feel better because the composite hull will allow the airplane to be pressurized to an equivalent of about 6,000 feet above sea level compared with about 8,000 feet for today's jetliners. At the lower pressurized height, passengers should be able to breathe in slightly more oxygen.
But basic creature comforts such as wider seats and more legroom will depend on the airlines and how they want to configure the cabin. The plane's first customer, ANA, hasn't revealed how the seating will be designed but has plans to install bidets in the 787 restrooms.
"It's a great plane for airlines," Hamilton said. "It has the potential to be a great plane for passengers, but it will all depend on what the airlines want to do."
* The aircraft's use of lightweight composites will be unprecedented -- about 50% of the primary structure by weight versus 12% for the last all-new Boeing, the 777.
* Its lighter weight and all-new engines are expected to make the plane 20% more fuel-efficient than similarly sized planes.
* As composite materials do not corrode, moisture in cabin air can be much higher than in today's planes, promising a more pleasant flying experience.
* The 787-8 Dreamliner will seat about 250 people.
* The aircraft will fly at Mach 0.85, about 570 mph at typical cruise altitudes, similar to a 747 jumbo jet.
* The first version of the plane, the 787-8, will have a range of 7,650 to 8,200 nautical miles.
* The 787-8 is 186 feet long and has a wingspan of 197 feet.
Sources: Reuters, Boeing
These are some key dates in the history of Boeing and airline travel:
1910: William E. Boeing buys a shipyard in Seattle, which later becomes his first airplane factory.
1917: Boeing changes the name of Pacific Aero Products to Boeing Airplane Co. and manufactures seaplanes for the Navy.
1933: Boeing develops the propeller-powered Model 247, the first modern passenger airliner.
1938: The first flight of Boeing's Model 307 Stratoliner, the first high-altitude commercial plane. It has a pressurized cabin and four propeller-driven engines.
1952: The commercial jet age is launched with the introduction of the British-designed de Havilland Comet.
1954: Boeing's 707 prototype makes its maiden flight, establishing the basic configuration for jet-powered airliners.
1958: Pan American World Airways starts transatlantic 707 service between New York and Paris, revolutionizing intercontinental travel.
1964: Boeing's tri-jet 727 enters service.
1968: Boeing's 737 enters service. It goes on to become the standard workhorse for domestic and regional airlines, with more than 7,000 planes manufactured, the most for any jetliner model.
1970: Boeing's 747 jumbo jet enters service. Early versions of the first wide-body plane can carry more than 500 people and are twice the size of the 707.
1982: The twin-aisle 767 enters service. Boeing's twin-engine jet is designed to carry 200 to 300 passengers. The 767 is expected to gradually be replaced by the new 787 Dreamliner.
1983: Boeing's short-to-medium-range, single-aisle 757 enters service.
1995: Boeing's twin-engine 777 jumbo enters service, filling a niche between the 767 and the 747.
1997: Boeing acquires rival McDonnell Douglas. McDonnell's 100-seat MD-95 is renamed the Boeing 717.
1998: Airlines begin taking delivery of Boeing's next-generation 737, an updated version of the popular single-aisle plane.
2003: Boeing's board approves the 7E7, which becomes the 787.
2004: The initial order for the 787 -- 50 aircraft -- is placed by Japan's All Nippon Airways.
2006: Major assembly commences on the 787.
2007: The rollout of the 787 is scheduled for Sunday, with testing to begin in August or September.
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