Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner made its debut Sunday, following a flurry of last-minute sales and a marketing blitz hosted by former news anchor Tom Brokaw.
Brokaw described the new jet as a "rock star," and it looked the part with its gleaming blue-and-white paint scheme as it was towed in front of the behemoth plant here where the Chicago-based company assembles its long-range aircraft.
As the plane came into view, the 15,787 customers, suppliers and Boeing employees in attendance jumped to their feet, many capturing the moment with digital cameras thrust above their heads.
"It's amazing that it came together," said John Butler, a Boeing employee who has worked on the plane for four years.
At a football stadium in Seattle, 25,000 Boeing workers and retirees watched the roll-in on giant screens, while millions of aviation enthusiasts tuned in worldwide via satellite or the Web.
Earlier, W. James McNerney Jr., Boeing's president and CEO, described the aerospace industry as ripe "for another fundamental change in air travel" that the 787 promises to bring by improving fuel efficiency and passenger comforts.
"Boeing has gathered the best ideas and brightest minds from around the world," McNerney said.
Boeing officials wasted no time putting the spotlight on the Dreamliner brand. They handed out Dreamliner bottled water to those attending the fete, and musicians played a specially composed Dreamliner theme to kick off the hour-long ceremony.
Given that brand-new airplanes come along only "every 15 years or so, you've got to get it right," said Michael Bair, vice president and general manager of the 787 program for Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
It was a lot of hoopla for a plane described by industry experts as evolutionary, rather than revolutionary.
The 787 boasts a composite fuselage, commonplace for high-end business jets but never before used for commercial airlines. It is designed to consume 20 percent less fuel than contemporary rivals, with added passenger comforts such as larger windows and greater humidity to counter jet lag.
Such advances in the 787, Boeing executives say, are more akin to those of the Boeing 777 rather than its 747 jumbo jet, which ushered in an era of transcontinental flying in the late 1960s. What's unusual is the way the Dreamliner has captured sales, as well as the public's fancy.
Long-range photos taken by a blogger of the jetliner's first trip to the Boeing paint shop near the Everett factory, made in the dead of night, quickly flashed around the world. And about 50 plane-spotters stared at the new jet from across a highway Sunday.
Much of the intense interest is a response to the series of snafus, revealed last year, that set back initial deliveries of Airbus' A380 superjumbo jet by two years, experts say.
Executives for the Dreamliner's launch customer, Japan's All Nippon Airways, said Sunday that they expect the aircraft to be delivered on time, starting in May.
ANA hopes to have the first plane in service in June, flying domestically initially and then making short international trips. One likely route: between Tokyo and Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics.
However, Boeing has advised ANA that the earlier jets among the 12 aircraft it is to take during 2008 and 2009 will be heavier than expected, potentially making them costlier to operate, executives said.
Boeing posted another 35 orders for the 787 in the 24 hours before its debut, bringing the total to 677 orders. Qantas Airways, an early customer, announced Friday that it will convert 20 options to purchase the 787 into firm orders.
Marketing executives project the Dreamliner eventually could capture 60 percent of the market for smaller, midsize jets over the next 20 years. Boeing projects that sales of such aircraft worldwide will top 3,000 planes with a total value of nearly $600 billion.
"It's a total slam dunk," Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst with Virginia-based Teal Group, said of the new plane. "The real question: Does it perform as advertised?"
Airbus' chief operating officer, John Leahy, is among the skeptics, noting that the European manufacturer plans to roll out only 65 to 70 of its new midsize jets, the A350 XWB, during the first 18 months of production. Boeing plans 112 of the new planes in the same amount of time, with its first delivery slated for May.
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The 787 Dreamliner seats 210 to 330 passengers and can be used on long-haul flights.
PROFIT AND COST
Boeing estimates the aircraft could generate $250 billion in sales, or more, over 20 years. Three models are priced at $146 million to $200 million.
1ST IN LINE
Launch customer is Japan's All Nippon Airways. The carrier plans to pack its aircraft with new features, including bidets.
The aircraft's first flight probably will occur in September. Boeing says the first 787 is on track for May delivery.
Source: Tribune staff reports
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