Following November's Boeing 787 in-flight fire, emergency landing, and subsequent temporary grounding, Boeing has developed a temporary modification for its six test aircraft, which now have resumed test flying. But the manufacturer has also confirmed a seventh delay to the troubled programme, as Ian Goold reports.
28th Feb 2011
Boeing restored its entire fleet of 787 ‘Dreamliner’ test aircraft to flight status in February with the return of airframe ZA003 to the programme. The fleet had been grounded since November after an in-flight fire aboard ZA002.
However, a shadow was cast over this good news as the manufacturer announced its latest – seventh – delay to the aircraft’s delivery schedule as a result of the fire.
By the time flight-testing restarted, the aircraft had completed more than 2,500 hours in the air, with an estimated 300 hours still required to complete US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification.
The test fleet now incorporates a "temporary fix" aimed at resolving the electrical problem that caused the fire and consequent emergency landing in Texas, which led to all the aircraft being grounded for six weeks. Boeing is preparing a permanent modification that will allow the resumption of extended-range twin-engine operational performance standard (ETOPS) flights over water.
"The FAA and [Boeing] have a common view about what needs to be done," said Boeing Chief Executive Officer Jim McNerney when reporting the manufacturer's 2010 fourth-quarter results in January.
Beyond the six-strong test fleet, Boeing plans to introduce two additional 787s to try to recover some of the time lost in the development programme. They will principally perform long-range route-proving flights, simulating airline services and introducing airport ground-handlers to 787 loading, maintenance, refuelling, and servicing procedures.
Aircraft ZA005 has been carrying out high-temperature and high-altitude performance tests, flying to Aguadilla’s Rafael Hernandez International Airport (formerly Ramey Air Force Base) in Puerto Rico in late January for operations from its 11,700ft sea-level runway, the Caribbean's longest. From there, it flew to El Alto in La Paz, Bolivia – the world’s highest major commercial airport at 13,325ft altitude – before making the first visit by a 787 to Houston, home of customer Continental Airlines, on its way back to Seattle.
The manufacturer is now seeking some windy weather in which to check the 787's crosswind airfield performance. Boeing flew the aircraft in strong winds during tests in Iceland last year, but the highest crosswind the aircraft has yet encountered has been 28 knots.
"We haven't found the 'big wind' yet," said the manufacturer’s Chief Test Pilot Frank Santoni. Speaking to the Royal Aeronautical Society in London in February, he added: "We're looking for [a cross-wind of] something around 50 knots."
Santoni highlighted similarities between the 787 and its larger 777 predecessor, on whose fly-by-wire control laws the 787 system is based. "It's remarkable how similar [they] are; we use the 777's laws, then add features to make it more efficient and take weight out of the aircraft."
He challenges 777 pilots to identify different flight characteristics on the new aircraft, claiming that 90 percent of normal procedures are the same.
The grounding of the test fleet forced Boeing to move its target date for certification – including launch customer All Nippon Airways’ (ANA) requirement of ETOPS approval for long-range services – from February to the third quarter of 2011. ETOPS qualification testing requirements have changed since Boeing obtained such clearance for the 777 more than 15 years ago.
"It used to be cycle-based [but] now it is fault-based, condition-based," said McNerney, adding that Boeing has built extra time into the programme to achieve approval. "The question is exactly what data is applicable to each test point at the FAA. We've a little wiggle-room… Could it be a couple of weeks less or a couple of weeks more? That's all encompassed in the margin as we go through this different ETOPS testing regime."
The question mark arises from Boeing's need to redesign power-distribution control software following the in-flight fire on ZA002. The fire was sparked by a short circuit in an electrical panel, but the failure of systems to respond as predicted spurred Boeing to carry out a major review and rewrite of the software.
Deputy FAA Administrator (Aviation Safety) John Hickey reportedly told programme officials in December that ETOPS approval could not be given in the 787’s state of readiness at that time.
“We are confident we will work through any [ETOPS] issues or concerns the FAA has in a cooperative and constructive manner,” the manufacturer said.
The new, third-quarter 2011 delivery schedule includes time to test updated software and new electrical-power distribution panels. Before returning to flight, four modified aircraft were extensively ground-tested. The revised timetable was not expected to hurt Boeing's 2010 financial results, on which guidance was reported in late January, when the manufacturer also discussed initial 787 deliveries. The company expects to deliver up to 20 aircraft to ANA and other undisclosed customers during 2011.
Air India expects to receive its first aircraft this year, on a date that was scheduled to be announced at the Aero India show in Bangalore in the second week of February. In late January, McNerney said he was "pretty close" to knowing which 787s would be available for delivery, with 10-22 airframes understood to need significant rework before handover.
Early delivery candidates are thought to include Rolls-Royce Trent 1000-powered 787s number seven, eight, and nine, which would go to ANA, and General Electric GEnx-1B-powered airframe number 23, which would go to Japan Airlines (JAL).
At a likely 87 months from the programme’s April 2004 launch to first delivery, the 787 certification and delivery schedule is easily Boeing's longest ever – by comparison, the 777 required 55 months from initiation to first delivery.
ANA welcomed the latest delivery schedule announcement, but sought assurance that Boeing could meet the target date.
"We will be seeking a full schedule for all 55 aircraft on order to allow us to plan our route network and fleet-expansion strategy,” ANA said. The Japanese carrier had prepared for delays by postponing the retirement of some Airbus A320s and Boeing 767s and considering purchase of additional 767s as a stop-gap.
After a long wait for information about deliveries, Australia's Qantas Airways has been told its previously promised mid-2012 date will not be met, with the first of 50 aircraft now expected to arrive up to six months later. Initial Qantas 787s will go to the company’s Jetstar low-cost subsidiary, replacing Airbus A330-200s, which will go to the parent airline to substitute for its ageing 767s.
Boeing has assured Air India that it will receive "proper settlement” in compensation for delayed delivery of its 787s. The Asian operator has been seeking a reported US$850 million settlement. Its 27 aircraft were originally expected to arrive at monthly intervals from September 2008 and 18 should have been delivered by March 2011.
Last December, the manufacturer agreed to pay compensation to nose and forward-fuselage supplier Spirit AeroSystems, covering additional costs arising from programme delays. At that time, Boeing was understood to be negotiating settlements with Japanese major 787 partners Fuji, Kawasaki, and Mitsubishi.
Another supplier feeling the pinch is Goodrich, which says that prospective increased revenue from aircraft replacement parts will be almost balanced by a likely decrease in income derived from lower production rates of new 787 parts.
It remains unclear how successful Boeing will be in establishing series production and delivery to the extent that customers will be able confidently to confirm their fleet-expansion and route-development plans for 787 services without fear of further delays.
Early in February, BCA president Jim Albaugh suggested that demand for the 787 might require assembly of as many as 15 airframes a month, higher than previously expected and meaning that a temporary "surge" line set up at Everett next year could become permanent. Albaugh concedes that such a production escalation would require an “investment on the part of the supply chain”.
For his part, McNerney wants to avoid any repeat of the production problems that arose when Boeing over-accelerated 737 final-assembly rates in the 1990s, which led to the dismissal of BCA Chief Executive Ron Woodard: “We’re mindful of the supply chain, and we don’t want to relive the experiences of 1997.”
Boeing had hoped to be assembling almost three 787s per month by the end of 2010, but output has settled at about two a month. Current plans cover the assembly of ten 787s monthly by the end of 2013, with the Everett "surge" line intended for use until a second line is established at North Charleston in South Carolina in mid-2011.
A deciding factor in any decision to accelerate output will be the capacity of 787 partners. “It's more of a supply-chain issue than a final-assembly issue,” Albaugh said.
McNerney says the planned rate is achievable but will not be reached until later than originally envisaged because of the 787-8's delayed service entry. “We had a very conservative view and a significant amount of margin in our production ramp-up plans, and a lot of that has now been eaten up by the latest delay. Everything slid to the right.”
Boeing seems to have made a lot of progress towards eliminating the volume of fabrication remaining to be done when large 787 airframe elements arrive from partners. By February, the US manufacturer had embarked upon final assembly of the 31st 787, and was catching up on completion of so-called "travelled work" on structures and sub-assemblies coming from suppliers.
"We are now through a lot of the issues that caused some of the backed-up work," said McNerney, noting that, in February, about 20-25 airframes required significant reworking following delivery. Even so, he said new 787s have been arriving in a "very, very high" state of completion.
According to Boeing chief financial officer James Bell, the 787 remains in the black when measured against accounting points covering a number of aircraft it declines to quantify publicly. Still, he acknowledges that the repeated delays have put pressure on programme's profitability.