Lead Story: Boeing prepares for 787, 747-8 deliveries

Boeing Commercial Airplane has been celebrating significant milestones in its latest Model 787 and 747-8 programmes despite having to tighten up its forecast for 2011 output. Ian Goold reports. A reduction in the number of Boeing 787 and 747 deliveries expected by the end of this year (down from 25-40 to 25-30) have prompted the US manufacturer to reduce its overall estimate for 2011 shipments to 485-495 commercial aircraft. Nevertheless, Boeing is approaching the end of the its third quarter on a high, with the handover of the first 787 to Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) expected on 26 September, coinciding with the start of deliveries the initial four 747-8F cargo aircraft to Europe's Cargolux and Asian operator Cathay Pacific Cargo. Just over 600 days after the 787's maiden flight, systems function and reliability (F&R) testing was completed in mid-August, clearing the way for formal joint US and European certification by the end of the month (see news story, page 7). Enhanced engine performance is already planned for the 787 with development of a Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 "Package B" upgrade and a General Electric GEnx "performance improvement package" (PIP1) under way.

30th Aug 2011


 Manufacturers

 Boeing prepares for 787, 747-8 deliveries


 Boeing Commercial Airplane has been celebrating significant milestones in its latest Model 787 and 747-8 programmes despite having to tighten up its forecast for 2011 output. Ian Goold reports.

A reduction in the number of Boeing 787 and 747 deliveries expected by the end of this year (down from 25-40 to 25-30) have prompted the US manufacturer to reduce its overall estimate for 2011 shipments to 485-495 commercial aircraft.

Nevertheless, Boeing is approaching the end of the its third quarter on a high, with the handover of the first 787 to Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA) expected on 26 September, coinciding with the start of deliveries the initial four 747-8F cargo aircraft to Europe's Cargolux and Asian operator Cathay Pacific Cargo.

Just over 600 days after the 787's maiden flight, systems function and reliability (F&R) testing was completed in mid-August, clearing the way for formal joint US and European certification by the end of the month (see news story, page 7). Enhanced engine performance is already planned for the 787 with development of a Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 "Package B" upgrade and a General Electric GEnx "performance improvement package" (PIP1) under way.

 Entry into service

The delivery of ANA's first 787 will be followed about four weeks later by the aircraft's first formal revenue service – an international charter flight from Tokyo’s Narita airport to Hong Kong. The operator also plans to follow this with two domestic 60-minute “excursion” services from Narita to permit select ANA customers to experience the new aircraft, whose innovative features are intended to offer travellers increased comfort.

Indian flag carrier Air India is reported to be expecting four 787s by the end of 2011, followed early next year by US airline United Continental, which is scheduled to become the first North American operator when it receives the first of 50 aircraft on order. In August, United reported that its first aircraft was under assembly.

In the Arab market, Gulf operator Qatar Airways is due to receive the region's first 787 in the second quarter of 2012, according to Jeff Johnson, Boeing’s president for the Middle East and North Africa region. The carrier has ordered 30 of the twinjets and taken the same number of options. These aircraft will be followed by deliveries to Royal Jordanian Airlines and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways.

The 787 programme has been famously plagued by delays, service entry having been officially re-scheduled seven times from its original target date of May 2008. Late last year, Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker said the airline might cancel its order if there were further postponements.

Reports in Australia suggest Qantas is concerned that deliveries have slipped from late 2012 into the following year. Senior executives have said that 787s, going first to subsidiary Jetstar, could begin to arrive in the first quarter of 2013.

During August, Boeing's backlog fell to 821 aircraft when an unidentified 787 customer cancelled an order for six machines. Various reports have suggest that US operator Delta Air Lines, Bahrain-based Gulf Air or a European carrier was the customer who made the cancellation.

It also emerged in August that Arab operator Oman Air was discussing compensation for delayed 787 deliveries, the airline having contracted to lease six aircraft from Kuwaiti lessor Alafco for delivery starting in 2012; the first delivery is now reported to be expected after June 2014. Royal Jordanian Chief Executive Hussein Dabbas has attributed “huge” losses to the programme's delay.

As Asian Aviation went to press, Boeing had yet to confirm the schedule for subsequent early deliveries to customers. Many aircraft have been partially assembled and await completion for various reasons. The reasons for the delays that have affected the programme include: hold-ups in delivery of parts and sub-assemblies from worldwide suppliers; provision of incomplete "work packages", rushed through in attempts to meet ambitious production schedules; a fire aboard a test aircraft; a damaging strike at Boeing; and structural design weaknesses that required repairs.

 Clearing bottleneck

A large part of next year is expected to be devoted by Boeing to clearing this manufacturing bottleneck. At the beginning of 2011's second half, the value of inventory held up was put at US$16.2 billion. Recently, there have been up to 35 unfinished 787s parked around the Everett factory near Seattle and elsewhere, including some awaiting completion at San Antonio, Texas.

While working to overcome these snags, Boeing must manage a steady increase in production to meet its current schedules. According to New York analyst Bernstein Research, Boeing could need as long as nine months more than previously expected to achieve its planned output target of ten aircraft a month, which it hopes to achieve before the end of 2013.

“We assume a slower production [rate increase] than Boeing's plan: ten per month reached [only] in late 2014,” Bernstein says. J P Morgan aerospace analyst Joe Nadol also forecasts that Boeing will not reach its output target until 2014, meaning there would be 105 deliveries that year, rather than the 120 suggested by Boeing.

Bernstein researchers even go so far as to question when the programme could break even: “It appears unlikely that Boeing will deliver a positive gross margin over an initial accounting block of 1,000 airplanes.”

But the research firm acknowledges that myriad considerations are involved and that the manufacturer is more optimistic in its own assumptions. Boeing has stated that it does not expect to lose money on the first 1,000 machines.

During mid-2011, Boeing's new South Carolina final assembly line has been receiving major structural sections for 787 Number 46, the first to be put together at the North Charleston plant. On 22 August, the Section 47/48 rear fuselage arrived from the nearby, former Vought Aircraft Industries plant to join the wings, centre and forward fuselage sections with the empennage structures that have accumulated since late June. The centre fuselage of Aircraft 46 was used to test new tooling on the third of Charleston's structural-join and systems-integration "pulse" lines, where Aircraft 57 is thought to be the next 787 for final assembly.

On the way to its ten per month production target, Boeing is hoping in September to accelerate monthly assembly rates from two to 2.5. The assembly line at Everett was stopped for more than four weeks from 11 July – the fifth such "hold" since April 2010 – as the manufacturer introduced design changes and finished outstanding work on sub-assemblies not completed by suppliers.

Assembly resumed with the delivery of the Section 41 forward fuselage for Aircraft 45, the first for United Continental. The new 2.5 per month build rate is expected to run up to the end of this year.

 

 Main challenges

Boeing Commercial Airplane chief executive Jim Albaugh says the three main challenges to increasing production are introducing flight-test driven design changes, making sure suppliers can keep up, and ensuring the skill of workers at North Charleston, which includes some new to the industry. Boeing has been transferring workers from its (former McDonnell Douglas) plant at Long Beach (California) and Florida's Space Shuttle Orbiter Processing Facility.

Albaugh points out that a steep learning curve is involved because of the much higher proportion of carbon-fibre reinforced plastic components in the 787 structure, compared with earlier designs which have been mostly made of aluminium alloy.

Still, this challenge has not dampened interest among workers aspiring to work for Boeing in South Carolina. When the state-sponsored ‘ReadySC’ industry training programme opened for applications in mid-August, the website was inundated with enquiries and the deadline had to be quickly extended to accommodate demand. More than 3,800 people applied against a requirement for 1,000 qualified workers.

In a previous ReadySC recruitment drive in late 2009, about 10,000 people applied, yielding a pool of acceptable potential hires that has since been used up. Boeing is perceived to offer workers compensation above the regional average. There are about 5,000 Boeing employees and contractors at North Charleston, including workers at two existing factories. The manufacturer has been hiring about 20 people a month for the new third plant housing 787 assembly, which is expected to employ 3,800 workers.

Separately, Boeing expected to deliver its first 747-8 – the first of 78 freighter variants ordered by 12 customers – in early-to-mid September, following formal US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and European Aviation safety Agency (EASA) airworthiness approval issued on 19 August.

The timing of the handover has been driven by the first flight of the machine (MSN RC502), which Luxembourg-based launch customer Cargolux was expecting at the end of August. A second Cargolux 747-8F should be handed over later in September, with Asian operator Cathay Pacific Cargo receiving its own first pair – out of ten ordered – during September, while Atlas Air receives its first aircraft in October.

Powered by four General Electric GEnx-2B67 engines, the 442,000kg (975,000lb) maximum take-off weight 747-8F has logged more than 3,400 hours of flight time in the 18 months since its maiden flight on 8 February last year. The aircraft features a fuselage stretch of 5.6m (18ft 4in) compared with the current 747-400F, giving carriers 16 percent more revenue capacity – equivalent to four additional main-deck cargo pallets and three belly pallets.

 

Intercontinental certification

Certification evaluations of the 747-8 Intercontinental passenger variant were continuing in late August as Boeing tested stability and control, and aerodynamic flutter. Airflow balancing tests through the 467-seat cabin have been completed, with Boeing expecting certification and delivery of an initial corporate variant by the end of 2011.

That first aircraft, for which testing began in March, will be completed as a Boeing Business Jet. German carrier Lufthansa is scheduled to receive the first airline example of the type early next year.

Meanwhile, the manufacturer has been awaiting an imminent International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) announcement on the wake-separation requirements that will be applied to the 747-8. Hoping to retain the 747-400's 4nm (7.4km) required separation, Boeing has filed vortex information to ICAO, saying that evaluation results have been "in line with [expectations]".

 


 

Asian Aviation at a glance