To hear Mike Bair tell it, the biggest problem with the new 787 Dreamliner manufacturing schedule has been the olive trees.
The trees, that is, that Italian partner Alenia had to move before it could build its factory in Grottaglie, a city in southeast Italy.
"They sited it on a 300-year-old olive grove," the head of the Dreamliner program told journalists Monday in his quarterly conference call to update progress on the jet.
Late last year, Bair had publicly tagged Alenia as a laggard among the 787 partners. Monday, he reinstated the Italians in his good graces.
"They had to transplant all the olive trees," Bair said. "They were kind of in catch-up mode from the get-go on that. [Now] I'm feeling pretty good about where they are at."
With those trees out of the way, it's all systems go for the Dreamliner, according to Bair's update.
All the big composite plastic pieces of airplane No. 1 are out of the high-pressure curing ovens (or autoclaves) in Japan, Italy and Charleston, S.C., and are looking good.
And with orders for the 787 set to pass the 500 mark, Boeing is planning beyond the climactic rollout of the first airplane in July.
? The jet maker has ordered a fourth superfreighter the so-called Dreamlifter to transport 787 sections around the globe.
? By the second quarter of next year, when the jet is due to be certified to carry passengers by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulatory agencies around the world, some 30 to 40 all-but-completed 787s should be sitting on the tarmac at Paine Field, Bair said.
? And after a steady start in 2008 and 2009, he said, production will likely ramp up beyond the current plan.
In an apparent bid to convince skeptics Boeing will not falter as Airbus has done in the final stages of its new jet program, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Scott Carson joined Bair on the call.
"We are doing what we do best at Boeing, and that is use all of our intelligence, skills and resources to make sure that we deliver," said Carson.
Bair said the process of preparing for FAA passenger-certification tests is more advanced than at the same stage on previous new-airplane programs.
Because of the new material the jet is made from, Boeing anticipates having to prove, through ground tests and analysis, the airframe's survivability in certain crash conditions.
But despite "a lot of additional attention" on certifying the composite structure, the certification process should be "not a lot different" from previous jet-development programs, Bair said.
On the manufacturing side, about 100 engineers from here are deployed around the world helping Boeing's partners complete their work.
Bair reported that 75 percent of the systems hardware has shipped to the major partners, ready for installation in the airframe sections.
All those partners have produced the big airframe pieces for the first jet. At the former Boeing parts plant in Wichita, Kan., Spirit AeroSystems has already built five of the forward fuselage and nose sections.
The big sections produced so far measure up well, Bair reported, with the quality "actually better than we had anticipated."
Although the partners had built time into their schedules to repair expected defects in the big airframe parts, such as bubbles of air trapped in the plastic or delamination of the layers of tape from which the material is made, "we've had almost none," Bair said.
The manufacturing process is improving quickly with experience, Bair said.
The steps up the learning curve "have been far greater than any of us imagined," he said, "which bodes well for our ability to get more airplanes out of the fixed capital already in place."
Bair said a ramp-up in production is likely beyond 2009, once Boeing and its partners analyze the return on investment in the costly manufacturing equipment required: autoclaves, carbon fiber tape-laying machines and mandrels (the tools around which the single-piece plastic fuselage barrels are formed).
Boeing is already upping its own investment with the commissioning of a fourth modified 747 to add to its Dreamlifter superfreighter fleet. Two are flying and here in the Puget Sound region.
The first 787 wings, built in Japan, will arrive via Dreamlifter later this month.
As an extra insurance policy, Boeing has contracted with Russian heavy-lift air-cargo company Volga-Dnepr to provide an Antonov 124 when needed to back up the Dreamlifters.
Meanwhile, Boeing is hiring and training extra mechanics in Everett so as to be ready for last-minute issues.
"They are just waiting for parts to show up, so we can start the final-assembly process," said Bair.
The sales momentum of the new jet program continues unabated.
The firm-order tally stands at 490, and Bair said some major airlines have newly entered negotiations.
Instead of calming down, he said, sales activity may get "a little more frenzied."
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or
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