Page last updated at 18:27 GMT, Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Boeing hopes 787 flight marks end of troubles

By Jorn Madslien
Business reporter, BBC News

Boeing 787 Dreamliner during testing
Boeing has already secured orders for 840 of its 787 Dreamliners

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner has taken off at last, some 30 months behind schedule.

This aircraft promises the world - or at least a swift way of getting around it.

The Dreamliner, which is powered by Rolls-Royce engines designed in the UK, is built for flights of some 8,200 nautical miles (9,400 miles; 15,200km).

We should be under no illusion that the first flight means everything is fine
Saj Ahmad, aerospace analyst, Gerson Lehrman Group

It is an unprecedented range for a passenger plane that claims to be 20% more fuel-efficient and 60% less noisy than the model it replaces, according to Boeing UK president Sir Roger Bone.

"It marks the beginning of a new generation of aircraft," he told the BBC in an interview.

Great expectations

Boeing 787 Dreamliner
8,200 nautical miles range
20% more fuel-efficient
60% less noise
$140bn order book
30 months delayed

The potential performance of this light-weight, carbon-composite aircraft has been sold to some 55 airlines and aircraft leasing companies, which have placed $140bn (£86bn) worth of orders for 840 aircraft.

"That's a record level of orders that any new aircraft has ever received before it has actually flown," BGC Partners transport analyst Howard Wheeldon told the BBC World Service.

And judging by how investors have greeted the news of the aircraft's maiden flight, it seems likely that Boeing's order book will grow even fatter.

The aerospace giant's share price has surged from $48 to more than $55 during the last month-and-a-half ahead of the first flight. Analysts think it could soon exceed $60.

"We think this will have a positive impact on investor sentiment for the stock, and for the wider aerospace sector," predicts Rob Stallard, an analyst at Macquarie Securities.

"For Boeing to finally get the 787 into the air is a step in the right direction for the programme, following a catalogue of errors and disappointments."

Trust and credibility

But a test-flight is neither proof that the aircraft can deliver what Boeing says it can, nor an indication of when deliveries to customers will start, cautions Saj Ahmad, aerospace analyst at Gerson Lehrman Group Council Member.

British Airways plane
Globally, commercial airlines will lose something like $11bn this year
Sir Roger Bone, UK president, Boeing

"We should be under no illusion that the first flight means everything is fine," he says.

"This is just the start of the hard work Boeing must complete to regain trust and credibility."

The Dreamliner programme is already delayed by about two-and-a-half years. Analysts attribute much of the company's $1.6bn net loss during the July to September quarter to the Dreamliner delays.

In addition, the delay has resulted in some 70 orders being cancelled during an economic downturn that has hammered airlines across the world.

"Our customers have suffered a lot during this period of recession," says Sir Roger. "Globally, commercial airlines will lose something like $11bn this year, so clearly it's tough."

Ambitious schedule

Airbus A350 XWB model
The Airbus A350 order book is filling up

The Dreamliner delays have also enabled arch-rival Airbus to unveil a competing carbon-composite aircraft, the A350.

The plane has been well received, according to Airbus chief John Leahy, who has just landed a $6bn order for 25 A350-900 XWB wide-bodied planes from United Airlines.

Mr Leahy believes the market for aircraft is recovering, pointing out that while airlines were postponing or cancelling aircraft orders ahead of the Paris air show in June, they are now happy to sign on the dotted line.

Renewed appetite for new aircraft makes it crucial for Boeing's Dreamliner to prove its worth. The company has outlined a pretty ambitious schedule that should culminate in All Nippon Airways taking delivery of the first 787 before the end of 2010.

'More time needed'

Before deliveries take place, a flight test programme must be carried out and the plane must gain federal certification.

Boeing 787 Dreamliner
It will be tough for two to three years, but we're absolutely confident that with the backlog of orders we have, in the medium to longer term we have a success story
Sir Roger Bone, UK president, Boeing

Boeing insists six 787s will fly in a test programme that should be completed in just nine months. Aerospace analysts, such as Richard Aboulafia from research firm Teal Group, insist at least 12 months will be needed.

"This is a new aircraft and a new way of building aircraft," says Mr Aboulafia, pointing to how the plane has been built using materials that have never before been used to build aircraft, that the plane is packed with unproven technology, and how the manufacturing process has relied heavily on sub-contractors in a way never done before by Boeing.

"Twelve months is the best-case scenario," Mr Aboulafia says. "More time is desirable."

Long-term success

Boeing acknowledges that the Dreamliner project is well behind schedule and executives are careful not to rule out the possibility of further complications in the months ahead.

"We did hit problems along the way that we hadn't expected," Sir Roger agrees.

"But the important thing is we've addressed those and we've got them right, and I think our customers respect us for the way in which we've gone through those processes."

Airlines realise that the long-term outlook for the industry is great in terms of growth in passenger numbers, and to service them they will need planes that meet future emission and noise regulation targets, Boeing believes.

"In this business, you'll have to think in long-term cycles of 20-25 years," Sir Roger observes.

"It will be tough for two to three years, but we're absolutely confident that with the backlog of orders we have, in the medium to longer term we have a success story."

Boeing share graph

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