The airframe was made from carbon fiber, making it lighter. The aircraft was expected to cut fuel burn compared with the 767-300 by 20%. In addition it was bringing an era of electrically driven flight systems rather than using bleed air.
Looking back it was an amazing day – 677 back orders at roll out. The 787 was a real trail blazer. How is the program doing seven years on?
The initial interest in the aircraft was near magical. Orders piled up – Boeing proudly pointed out that it was the fastest ordered aircraft ever. With rising fuel costs, the 787’s promise was perfectly timed. The ext chart shows how the orders ran far ahead of Boeing’s ability to deliver the airplane. Boeing discovered issue after issue with the aircraft. Its supply chain struggled and this meant parts being delivered to Everett with a lot of unfinished (traveled) work. Delays were announced and the program seemed to slip. After a fourth delay, 787 deliveries were running 15 months late. Then came a fifth delay followed by a strike. It was a miserable time.
On December 15 2009, the 787 had its first flight. During flight tests more challenges emerged. A Rolls-Royce engine problem delayed launch customer ANA’s delivery further. Then came an electrical fire during a test flight. In July 2011 ANA started its flight tests and in October 2011 the 787 did its first commercial flight. Boeing meanwhile struggled to get 787s partially completed ready for delivery. Then came two battery fires on JAL and ANA aircraft. It was not an easy project, but Boeing worked through the issues. Difficult customers did not help – Air India went public with its compensation demands and had numerous challenges with its 787s. Bringing Indian government officials into the conversation did not tone down the invective either.
But as the chart shows, although only three aircraft were delivered in 2011, Boeing picked up the pace and delivered 46 in 2012 and 65 in 2013. Through June 2014 it had delivered 48 and it is possible Boeing could deliver close to 100 by year end. Boeing has managed to deploy lessons from the 787-8 project into the 787-9. The newer model has seen an uneventful flight test program. The newer model is also far more weight efficient at EIS than the 787-8 was.
The apprenticeship was tough. Boeing lost or moved some its most talented mangers as the 787 program evolved through its stages of overcoming a series of missteps.
Looking forward the chart below illustrates how 787 orders are playing out. After the first five years, in 2008, the 787-8 was the most popular model by far. By year end 2013, the newer models are starting to eclipse the 787-8. Boeing is starting to hit its stride now as the 787 program settles into a rhythm looking at 12 per month produced by 2016 with plans to grow this to 14. The last seven years have been a period of anxiety and frustration at Boeing. The promise of the 787 continues to make it attractive and airlines will be buying the aircraft for many years. The lessons Boeing learned from the ambitious 787 project will resonate for a long time.