Saturday, August 29, 2009


Hubris, thy name is Boeing ... and Airbus.

The world's two giant aircraft-makers - embracing globalization but stretched to the limit by it - are still struggling to make what they proudly term "game-changing'' new airplanes and deliver them to customer airlines. The latest delay came in June, when Chicago-based Boeing Co. announced there would be yet another delay - the fifth since 2007 - in delivery of its B787 Dreamliner, a long-range airplane made of carbon-composite materials that airlines are counting on to generate less pollution and burn less fuel than do their current fleets. Now, Boeing says its first test flight of the 787 won't take place till the end of this year, with the first deliveries in late 2010 - two and a half years late.

Delays play havoc with the business plans of airlines and put off the day when the traveling public can start to reap the benefits of flying in relatively clean and quiet jetliners.

Toulouse-based Airbus, for its part, is two years behind schedule on its superjumbo A380, due primarily to problems in the extensive electrical wiring needed for the plane. The A380 has been flying for nearly two years but only three airlines are using it, as orders stack up, awaiting faster production by Airbus, a European consortium dominated by the French and Germans with some input from the British and Spanish.

I flew on the first scheduled commercial flight of an Airbus A380, traveling from Singapore to Sydney on Singapore Airlines flight 380. The date was Oct. 25, 2007, and the ride was spectacular - not least because of the movie-premiere-like party going on throughout the seven-hour flight, but also because of the astonishingly quiet performance of the enormous, double-decker plane. Since then, Emirates and Qantas have started flying the A380, too, though both are still waiting for most of the planes they ordered, as is Singapore Air.

The Dreamliner, too, promises to be a fine new airplane, though aviation industry pundits are understandably skeptical about the manufacturer's grand claims for it. "There was a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of the chatter on the street was "Will this aircraft ever fly?'' Alex Hamilton, an analyst with Jesup and Lamont Securities, told after the latest Boeing explanation and apologia.

That's a bit silly. With billions in research and development committed to the 787 and Boeing's prestige on on the line, the aircraft will fly. The question isn't if but when.

In the meantime, imagine being All Nippon Airways, the launch customer for the 787 and buyer of 55 of the aircraft. ANA was expecting to take its first planes in May 2008 and fly them to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. That plan was dashed.

In Tokyo last year, I interviewed several ANA executives. When the question of the Dreamliner came up, the vexation in their faces was apparent. When I asked if they would seek financial compensation from Boeing for lost business, they said they just might. No one has commented on how much such compensation that could be.

Last week - following a Boeing announcement that it is making headway on resolving a problem left unsolved by an Italian contractor in afixing the wings to the body of the 787 - ANA issued this statement:

"We understand the need to make the best and safest aircraft possible and appreciate that delays due to engineering issues of the current nature must be solved in order to move forward and achieve this. However, as launch customer and future operator of the 787, the length of this further delay is a source of great dismay, not to say frustration.''

Some of Boeing's current difficulties come from overpromising, some from the increasingly globalized nature of manufacturing, with its extended supply chains, worldwide outsourcing and many subcontractors - some relatively unknown to Boeing and Airbus.

Despite their struggles in managing far-flung contract manufacturers, Boeing has said it is looking into starting a second production line for the 787 Dreamliner. If final assembly takes place outside Boeing plants in the state of Washington, that would be a first for Boeing.

Meanwhile, airlines and air travelers alike wait, and wait, to fly the sky of the future.

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