Spotlight: Boeing 787 Dreamliner – ‘Green’ plastic airliner takes off

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The long lines snaking from various points in Seattle on Sunday July 8 will not be chasing a new Apple iPhone, but a product that will arguably have a more profound impact on global communications.

The hubbub focuses on the roll-out of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the US group’s first new aircraft in a decade and a runaway sales success even before its first flight later this year and planned entry into service with All Nippon Airways in May 2008.

ANA executives did not have to camp outside Boeing’s Chicago headquarters to place an order. Early sales were sluggish before a surge in demand for the $200m aircraft – now sold out until 2014 – helped the US aerospace and defence group claw back the market leadership it had lost to Airbus over the past five years.

The Dreamliner’s revolutionary construction, using high-technology plastic rather than aluminium, also highlights the tougher economic and political realities facing a global aviation industry under the cosh from high fuel prices and tougher environmental scrutiny.

While airlines are responsible for just 2-3 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, rapid industry growth spurred by low-cost airlines worldwide and Asia’s emergence as the largest travel market has made it a target. “It’s still a big number: we’ve got to do better,” said Jim McNerney, Boeing chairman and chief executive, in a recent interview with the Financial Times.

The first of three planned 787 models can carry 250 passengers for 8,200 miles and is 20 per cent more fuel-efficient than its predecessors while pumping out fewer greenhouse gases, leading it to be touted as the first “green” commercial aircraft.

Sunday’s official roll-out will in fact see the first aircraft rolled into a hangar at Boeing’s sprawling Everett Field plant outside Seattle to a waiting crowd of employees, airline executives and dignitaries.

The city’s dry-ice manufacturers are already rubbing their hands at the thought of fuelling the extravaganza, although Boeing has eschewed the A-list musical stars often employed for such events.

Gravel-voiced TV anchor Tom Brokaw will add his portentous tones to MC the proceedings, which will be broadcast around the world, while the 50,000-seater home of the Seattle Seahawks football team has also been booked for a live broadcast for Boeing employees.

The glitz highlights that this is, above all, a product launch. Comparisons are already being made between Boeing’s reworking of the aircraft manufacturing playbook and Apple’s approach to consumer electronics. The iconic technology group may lead design, marketing and support of its products, but the manufacturing is almost entirely outsourced.

Boeing has adopted a similar approach with the 787, attracting risk-sharing partners from Japan, Italy and elsewhere in the US to bear the huge cost of development and manufacture.

Most of the 787 will in fact be made far from the Everett facility, which will in effect snap together the parts in a move that has left some observers wringing their hands over potential skill losses and the long-term impact of technology transfer. While Boeing and Airbus have enjoyed a virtual duopoly on large aircraft manufacturing for 20 years, Russia, Japan and China may launch aircraft makers of their own.

Boeing’s risk-sharing and manufacturing approach is made possible by the switch to carbon-fibre reinforced plastic for large parts such as the fuselage and wings. The material creates a structure that is light and strong, cutting flying costs and avoiding the maintenance expenses associated with corrosion. The plastic pieces are built in huge sections, baked in an oven, and shipped from partner plants for final assembly in Everett.

Mindful of the problems that beset the huge Airbus A380, Boeing has pumped extra staff and resources into solving teething problems such as a lack of rivets and the need to squeeze some of the first sections together after the first ones arrived slightly askew.

Ironically, Airbus and Boeing co-operated in the early 1990s on an ultra-large aircraft to fly between congested air hubs. But Boeing believed passengers, particularly high-paying business travellers, wanted more point-to-point services.

Its first design – the Sonic Cruiser – flew faster than existing aircraft, though still at subsonic speeds. But airlines wanted something that was cheaper to run, allowing them to connect more dots on the global business map.

The result was the Dreamliner, with all its hyped environmental benefits and passenger comforts. The plastic fuselage allows bigger windows and the cabin can be more pressurised with higher humidity, removing part of the dry-mouthed effect on long flights.

Boeing’s challenge is now to deliver on its plan to manufacture up to 100 787s a year.

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