Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Up in the Air, at Last

Finally, today, more than 2 years late, Boeing Co. pilots flew the company's B787 Dreamliner on its first test flight. It lasted only three hours and the aircraft didn't travel far from Boeing airfields near Seattle, but, hey, it's a start. The composite material, lightweight, fuel-efficient jetliner, which Boeing touts as an aviation game-changer, is aloft at last.

In 2007, when Boeing unveiled the aircraft on the ground, it was metaphorically held together with string and glue, and had to be disassembled after visiting dignitaries, potential customers and others cast their eyes on the prototype and rebuilt. Boeing took orders for more than 800 of the new planes, but repeated delays in production - initial delivery, set for early 2008, has been postponed five times - caused some airlines to cancel or curtail their orders. Of course, the recession has prompted airlines to cut back broadly on aircraft orders, not just for the 787.

But the plane can fly. There was no question it would fly eventually; the only question was when. Launch customer All Nippon Airways, the Japanese carrier, ordered more than 50 B787s and planed to use its first-user advantage to fly them to the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The delays cost ANA that marketing coup, but the airline has presumably saved a bundle of yen on refunds, on top of the discounts off list prices it originally negotiated as the launch customer.

ANA now expects to take the first deliveries of the 787 toward the end of 2010. In a statement Tuesday, the company gamely tried to sound encouraged, and encouraging:

"We would like to convey our sincere congratulations and are delighted to hear this awaited news of the success of the first flight. We will keep on taking all possible measures to ensure our preparation in receiving the new aircraft.''

And hope it actually gets there next year. ANA has been through the wringer waiting.

As it is, Boeing - which outsourced many parts and processes to international contractors - has taken a hit to its reputation for efficiency. But then, so has arch-rival Airbus, whose own composite, fuel-efficient plane, the A350, has also been beset with delays and is several years away from taking to the sky.

Breakthroughs - "game-changers'' is the current business buzz-word - are tricky things, and are fatal to corporate hubris.

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