Ten years later, is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner still more of a dream than a nightmare? (2023)

(CNN)-Virgin Atlantic founder Richard Branson once said, "If your dreams don't scare you, they're too small." He wasn't referring to the Boeing 787 Dreamliner that his airline operates, but that's easily true.

On October 26, the Dreamliner celebrates its tenth anniversary. Branding the 787 as a Dreamliner wasn't just marketing parlance. The 787, then as now, is one of those groundbreaking aircraft that only comes around once in a generation.

It takes its place among legendary earth-shrinking modes of transportation like the Douglas DC-3, the first modern airliner; the Boeing 707, the first successful airliner; The Boeing 747, the first wide-body jumbo jet that brought long-distance travel to the masses; and the Concorde SST. Nicknamed the "Moonshots", this elite group employs cutting-edge exotic technology, many times before it is finished. Their paradigm shift project would influence all the new aircraft that came after them. But that would have a price.

When the first of the first 50,787 was delivered to launch customer ANA in September 2011seattle timesreported that development costs exceeded $32 billion. Boeing would break even with more than 1,000 units sold, but that would take another decade. The first aircraft was launched in a lavish ceremony on July 8, 2007 (7/8/7), but it was more of a model than an airworthy aircraft. It would be another two and a half years before the first 787 took off on December 15, 2009. It was scheduled to enter service in 2008, just before the Beijing Olympics. New airline programs are noticeably late, but the 787 was three and a half years late.

Ten years ago, that troubled pregnancy was put on hold for a historic flight. I was fortunate to be a passenger aboard ANA Flight 7871, the inaugural flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in passenger service, operating a special charter between Tokyo and Hong Kong. After nearly eight years of painstaking development, Boeing's engineering masterpiece was finally ready to take off for its first customers: airlines and passengers. Our flight manifest it was made up of the media, ANA staff and around 100 flight enthusiasts who competed in an auction for a coveted place in history. I followed many first flights, but only the Airbus A380 first flight managed to match the excitement.

Ten years later, is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner still more of a dream than a nightmare? (1)

Excitement aboard the Dreamliner's maiden flight.

chris sloan

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Under banners with the slogan ANA 787 "We Fly First", ANA and Boeing executives dressed in happy Japanese coats and performed a kagami-wari (sake barrel breaking) ceremony before the large crowd. Perhaps no one was more excited or excited about that day's arrival than Scott Fancher, the only Boeing representative on board and later vice president/general manager of the 787 program.

Without getting too geeky, it's worth sharing what made the recent arrival of aviation such a farewell to all airplanes before it. First, it was the world's first composite aircraft, resulting in a lighter, stronger and almost timeless airframe. Less weight means less fuel consumption. Important systems such as air conditioning and flight controls, previously powered exclusively by mechanical hydraulics, were now powered by electricity. The plane even sounded different, with the electric hum replacing the hydraulic hiss. Manufacturing was largely outsourced and this controversial joint financial risk was innovative and profitable. - but ultimately the Dreamliner's biggest weakness.

The 787 delivered great technology for the passenger experience in spades. The passengers on that flight were like real-time beta testers, excited about all the new features. LED ambient lighting programs bathe the booth in a full spectrum of colors, from tranquil aquamarines and bright reds to full Studio 54 disco mode. The windows are not only nearly 50% larger than those on previous aircraft, but are also individually electrically tinted with no privacy screens. Natural lighting and LEDs coordinate the passenger's circadian rhythm with the outside light and the final destination, combating jet lag on the long-haul flights for which the aircraft was designed.

Composite hulls do not rust and do not really age through pressurization and depressurization cycles. So instead of the 3-5% dry humidity of a traditional airplane altitude, the environment of a Dreamliner is closer to 25%. Also, the cabins are pressurized to 6,000 feet, as opposed to 8,000 feet in more mundane aircraft. These are not gimmicks, they reduce fatigue and increase dehydration and oxygen levels, which is especially important on longer flights.

A gust suppression system smooths out choppy air and improves over time as more real-world data is collected. We tested this turbulence mitigation system on that first flight, descending into cloudy Hong Kong skies. Even the bathrooms are high-tech, with touch-sensitive sinks and toilets.

Ten years later, is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner still more of a dream than a nightmare? (2)

Board the first flight in Tokyo.

chris sloan

set standards

After 4.5 hours in the air, we landed in the Hong Kong history books to a huge ramp party with lion dancing, drumming and a brigade of people surrounding the plane.

“The 787 sets standards. I don't think we even realized how much this would change expectations for commercial aircraft,” says Tom Sanderson, director of product marketing for the Boeing 787, who has been with the program almost since its inception.

Paradoxically, since that first flight, the 787 has been both a dream and a nightmare for its customers. It enabled more than 315 new point-to-point connections, transported more than 559 million passengers and operated more than 2.7 million passenger flights. Before Covid hit, the 787 was flying 1,900 routes around the world. Boeing's vision for smaller planes is the clear winner over the Airbus A380 superjumbo that Airbus discontinued in 2019.

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“The 787 did a remarkable job of getting people where they really wanted to go. Few people really want to go to Frankfurt, and most people who used to fly via Narita or Heathrow actually wanted to go somewhere else. That plane took them directly to where they wanted to go. "They wanted to go, which definitely helped increase international traffic," says Richard Aboulafia, Teal Group's vice president of analytics.

From an environmental standpoint, and compared to previous generation widebody aircraft, the Dreamliner avoided more than 85 billion pounds of CO2 emissions, achieved 20-25% better fuel efficiency, achieved 20-45% more cargo capacity and 60% less production reaches airport noise pollution. .

Ten years later, is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner still more of a dream than a nightmare? (3)

ANA's Shinichiro Ito and Boeing's Scott Faucher with their boarding passes for the first flight.

chris sloan

The 787 was a resounding sales success as the best-selling widebody aircraft ever, surpassing its competitors the Airbus A330neo and A350. As of August 2021, the 787 program accumulates 1,903 orders for its three variants, which carry up to 336 passengers with a range of up to 7,530 nautical miles, depending on cabin layout. It replaced thirsty older aviation stars like the 767 and first-generation Airbus A330s, while hastening the demise of early A380s, 747s, and 777-200s.

In just a decade, a staggering 1,006 Dreamliners were shipped between final assembly lines in Charleston, South Carolina, and Everett, Washington. The 787 was the first Boeing-designed aircraft built outside of Puget Sound, Washington, though it is now only assembled in South Carolina. With more than 80 clients since its launchtThe backlog is 428, adjusted to ASC 606 accounting standards.

“The airplane economy was what was needed after 9/11. The aircraft has proven its worth as one of the key aircraft deployed in the recovery of international traffic during the Covid pandemic," said Leeham Company analyst Scott Hamilton.

The Dreamliner was the most widely used widebody aircraft during the pandemic based on the percentage of its fleet that was in storage compared to its direct competitors. According to Boeing, compared to pre-pandemic levels (January 2020 vs. August 2021), nearly 90% of the 787s in operation have returned to regular service, more than any other type of commercial aircraft. Many 787 operators used their Dreamliners to carry cargo exclusively at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, earning much-needed revenue as demand for air cargo soared.

Ten years later, is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner still more of a dream than a nightmare? (4)

Chris Sloan inspects the cockpit during the launch event.

chris sloan

The dreams that nightmares are made of

Just over a year after the start of the works, in the first two weeks of January 2013,Two 787s experienced runaway thermal events with their lithium-ion batteries, one of which resulted in an electrical fire. One of the planes flying in Japan had to make an emergency landing. Fortunately, the other one had to leave Boston. No passengers were seriously injured, nor was the aircraft significantly damaged. The reputation of the new aircraft was damaged. The world's 50,787s operating in commercial service at the time were grounded for more than three and a half months. Once modifications were made to the battery cells, there have been no major failures since.

Supplier, supply chain, and manufacturing issues, particularly with the composite airframe, plagued the 787 in its early days of development, but surprisingly resurfaced years later. Embarrassing for a program so mature that it peaked at 14 planes a month rolling off two assembly lines.

Current 787 deliveries were largely halted last year due to quality control programs involving microscopic tolerances in fasteners connecting the fuselage tubes and additional issues with electrical systems and windshields. This resulted in around 100,787 undelivered having to be reworked. Billions of dollars of cash flow were drained from the company, turning the once-profitable unit-based program into a major waste of money once again. Once these undelivered planes are delayed, your customers can cancel them and significantly compensate them.

The problems of the 737 MAX and the 787 just fertilized each other. "Had the MAX crisis not happened, the disruption would have been short-lived, if ever," says Hamilton.

Hamilton believes the 787 program cost approximately $50 billion in program development, cost overruns and customer compensation. And what gets overlooked is the ripple effect in product development. “Had the 787 been delivered on time, Boeing would easily be 5 to 8 years ahead of Airbus. Boeing's detour through one crisis after another has given Airbus a commanding advantage in the heart of the narrow-body market."

Boeing's Sanderson does not defend the delays, but emphasizes that "every 787 in service and in our inventory is perfectly safe to fly." The planemaker sees a silver lining with lessons learned that will be applied to build even better 787s and new planes like the next-generation 777-9.

Ten years later, is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner still more of a dream than a nightmare? (5)

Souvenir of the maiden flight of the 787 Dreamliner.

chris sloan

dreaming of the future

Prospects for the future of the program are generally positive. Hamilton acknowledges that "the 787 is a good plane" and sees further improvements with new technology, such as new engines like those in previous Boeing programs.

Ironically, Aboulafia sees the biggest threat to the 787 in the fragmentation that fueled its success: “The biggest risk to future 787 orders is new, more capable single-aisle aircraft, particularly the A321 Neo. Just as the 787 helped destroy business, larger planes like the A380 are being championed by new, more powerful narrow-body jets for tighter routes."

Boeing's Sanderson is optimistic, arguing that the 787 is well positioned for new orders during the post-COVID-19 recovery as airlines return to growth and replace older aircraft over the next twenty years. “We still have decades of life on the show. The structural part of the airframe is not what will get it out of cheap service. There may be modifications and upgrades and things that we may not have considered on older metal airplanes that might make sense for the 787. We've never seen an all-plastic airplane reach the end of its economic life."

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