787 Still Needs to Lose Weight

Boeing's budding star, the 787 Dreamliner, won't perform an encore of the recent performance by rival Airbus' overweight and overdue headliner, the superjumbo A380 jetliner, the 787's impresario predicted Monday.

"We're making good, steady progress," said Mike Bair, Boeing's vice president in charge of designing and building the revolutionary twin-engine jetliner.

The 787, now in its final design phase, on paper is still a bit overweight, about 5,000 pounds, but Bair predicted the weight problem will be solved before the plane hits the world stage in May 2008. That's when Boeing delivers its first production plane to All Nippon Airways.

Airbus earlier this year delayed the airline debut of the 555-passenger A380 by two years citing wiring and production problems. The world's largest passenger jet has also suffered weight and wing design problems during its early production stages. The delays are expected to cost Airbus billions of dollars in foregone profits and damages paid to customers for failure to meet delivery deadlines.

Bair, speaking with journalists in a conference call update, said Boeing's 787 design has several advantages over Airbus' A380. Those differences should keep the plane from reprising the A380's production problems.

Simpler 787 wiring. The inability of Airbus to coordinate the wiring design in different sections of the A380 made in different factories is a main reason the aircraft is behind schedule. The 787 has 60 miles of wiring versus the A380's 350 miles. The 787 will carry about half the number of passengers as the A380, which accounts for some of the difference in the wiring quantity. But the 787's design emphasizes simplicity and limits airline choices for different entertainment and flight instrumentation thus reducing the need for custom wiring designs. The 787 will use wireless connections for in-flight entertainment and some instrumentation systems and high capacity fiber optics to replace metallic wire.

Coordinated computer design systems. Airbus says part of its A380 assembly problems was incompatible design software among factories designing and building A380 subassemblies. Boeing and its suppliers are using the same kinds of software to design and build their parts of the Dreamliner. Boeing plans a "virtual assembly" of the 787 next month to see if the parts will all go together smoothly. Bair said the computer-simulated assembly operation will be something like a video game.

Meeting production deadlines. The 787's larger vendors are already producing major pieces of the largely composite airliner without unexpected difficulties. Fuji Heavy Industries has already built a sample wing which will soon undergo testing. Other large pieces of the plane including the fuselage and parts of the tail are already being built.

Research and development funds. Boeing has increased the 787 research and development budget for the plane to ensure the company has ample resources to deal with the overweight issue and other unexpected problems.

Bair said he's confident the weight problems can be licked using a combination of careful redesign of some parts that were overbuilt and by the substitution of lighter weight materials such as titanium of aluminum for some parts.

Even in its overweight state, said Bair, the 787 will likely meet or exceed performance promises made to airlines. Computer simulations have shown the plane will need less maintenance and fuel than Boeing had predicted. Those unexpected improvements will add two or three percentage point gains to the cost reductions Boeing had advertised, he said.

The plane is already the best preproduction seller in Boeing history, said Bair. The company has received firm orders for 432 of the planes and commitments for 23 more of the planes. That's more than twice as many as the Boeing 737 New Generation received before its introduction into airline service.

Boeing is surprised that the order pace for the new airliner hasn't slowed as much as the company thought it might this year. The company's 787 production lines are sold out through early 2013.

Despite the temptation to capture more sales by upping production line rates in the early years, Boeing has said it won't do so for at least two years after production begins in 2008 because it wants production to stabilize before trying to build more airplanes. The company will likely consider raising production rates in 2010, said Bair, to satisfy customer demand.

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