Biggest 787 Dreamliner Takes Flight in Lift for Boeing Cash Plan

  • Planemaker relying on 787-10 to reap gains from composite jet
  • Jet is U.S. company’s first to be built only in South Carolina

The new Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner lifts off from the runway during it's first flight ceremony at Charleston International Airport in North Charleston, S.C., on Friday, March 31, 2017.

Photographer: Mic Smith Photography LLC/AP

Boeing Co.’s newest and largest 787 Dreamliner took wing Friday, dipping and soaring for almost five hours above South Carolina during its first flight.

The plane’s drama-free performance brought relief to Boeing officials after delays marred the first Dreamliner’s debut in 2011. The 787-10 even took off nearly 30 minutes earlier than scheduled, at around 9:37 a.m. local time, as if to accentuate the improved development.

Stiffer headwinds may lie ahead as the carbon-composite jetliner enters the market next year. The 787-10 figures significantly in Boeing’s efforts to wipe away $27.3 billion in production losses lingering from the Dreamliner program’s rocky beginning. But sales have slowed for larger twin-engine aircraft that ply international routes as cheaper fuel and a glut of similarly sized used Boeing 777s and Airbus Group SE A330s sap demand.

The maiden voyage is “a big, big milestone for us and our customers,” Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg said on a company webcast of the event. “We’re bringing innovation to the marketplace.”

Boeing’s most technically advanced jetliner is no stranger to the spotlight. The plane made its public debut last month serving as the backdrop for President Donald Trump’s address at Boeing’s North Charleston factory. The aircraft is the third Dreamliner model, an aircraft family boasting hulls made of spun-carbon fiber and cabin-humidity levels that lessen jet lag. It’s the first Boeing plane to be manufactured outside of the Seattle area.

Friday’s flight went according to plan as the pilots worked through a check list and positioned the aircraft for photographs taken by a chase plane. “We had a great plan, we had a great team, we had a great jet and we went out and flew it,” Captain Tim Berg said after the flight.

Jet Debuts

It was the third initial flight in a busy week of commercial-jet debuts. The A319neo, the smallest of Airbus’s upgraded single-aisle jets, also took wing for the first time Friday. Brazilian planemaker Embraer SA celebrated the first flight of its E195-E2 on Wednesday.

The 787-10 is the first of three aircraft that Boeing is readying in South Carolina for flight-testing. If the planes perform as expected, the Chicago-based manufacturer will gain a direct competitor to the sleek Airbus A350-900, which is made of carbon-composite panels.

“It starts to step on the very crisp, clean new competitor that Airbus has out,” said George Ferguson, senior air transport analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.

The new Dreamliner stretches 224 feet (68 meters), eight feet longer than its European rival, and its cabin capacity of 330 travelers is designed to carry five more people than the Airbus plane. But the A350 has a longer range and has outsold the 787-10, garnering 602 sales to 149 for the Boeing aircraft.

While Airbus had the benefit of launching its jet years earlier, the European planemaker has struggled to speed production amid supplier shortages. The 787-10 won a key campaign with Singapore Airlines last month and could pad its order book further if its market entry next year proceeds as smoothly as initial production, Ferguson said.

Cash Need

Boeing is counting on the 787-10 to mirror the drama-free development of the 737 Max and 787-9, all products of a disciplined process it fashioned for new planes following the delay-plagued debut of the 787-8 nearly six years ago. The new jet is the most expensive Dreamliner yet, with a list price of $312.8 million, and its market entry should coincide with growing profits for the aircraft family.

The planemaker has just started to generate cash from its marquee jet after a decade, and will need to record an average profit of about $35 million per plane over the next 779 Dreamliners to avoid having to report an accounting loss for the program. Company executives insist they can get there by combining savings from suppliers with higher pricing on the 787-9 and 787-10 models, the Dreamliners with the greatest profit potential.

The variants share about 95 percent of the same design-and-build processes, honed after Boeing’s troubles delivering the initial 787-8 more than three years late in 2011. Doing so meant the newest 787 and its tooling felt familiar to Boeing mechanics in South Carolina.

“It’s almost anti-climactic because it just went so smoothly,” Mark Jenks, a Boeing vice president and general manager of the 787 program, said Friday. “This doesn’t happen a lot of times in a Boeing career. We have learned a lot across our development programs.”

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