Boeing rolls out first 787-9, plans test flights soon

The Boeing Co. is edging closer to flying the larger version of the Dreamliner for the first time.

The company recently rolled the first completed 787-9 from the factory to the flight line in Everett. Boeing says it plans to fly the new Dreamliner by the end of this summer. Boeing has two more 787-9s in final assembly.

With that first flight, Boeing kicks off flight testing needed to gain airworthiness certification from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Having already received certification for the 787-8, which is similar to the new Dreamliner, Boeing won’t have to go through as much testing on the 787-9.

“This is a minor variant, not a major one,” said Scott Hamilton, an analyst for Issaquah-based Leeham Co. The 787-9 flight test program “is not something that should be particularly challenging.”

Boeing is giving itself roughly nine months to complete flight testing and deliver the first 787-9 to Air New Zealand in mid-2014. Hamilton called Boeing’s timeline to first delivery “prudent” given the history of unpredictable, unknown issues popping up.

The Chicago-based jet maker delivered the first 787-8 in September 2011, more than three years behind schedule. Delays on the 787-8 pushed back design and production of the first 787-9, originally scheduled for delivery in 2010.

“The last thing Boeing wants to do is promise delivery and not make it,” Hamilton said.

Boeing and the Dreamliner program already are under scrutiny after the 787-8 experienced problems in commercial service earlier this year. The FAA grounded the 787-8 for three months while Boeing redesigned the jet’s lithium-ion battery system. Malfunctioning emergency locator beacons on the 787, found after an Ethiopian Airlines Dreamliner caught fire in July, increased attention on the 787 program.

Boeing executives were upbeat about the Dreamliner program during the company’s earnings report last month. Jim McNerney, Boeing’s CEO, reaffirmed the company’s goal of reaching a 787 production pace of 10 jets monthly by the end of the year even with the introduction of 787-9 production. The company assembles 787s in Everett and at its facility in North Charleston, S.C.

“The factory will be operating at 10 a month” by the end of the year, McNerney said.

The new 787-9 is 20 feet longer than the original Dreamliner, the 787-8. The latest Dreamliner will fly 300 nautical miles farther and carry 40 passengers more than the 787-8, which seats 210 to 250 passengers.

The 787-9 isn’t the largest Dreamliner family member. In June, Boeing launched the 787-10, which seats 300 to 330 passengers. Delivery of that aircraft is pegged for 2018.

As of Tuesday, Boeing had delivered 81 787-8s to 14 customers, according to the company’s website. Boeing had received orders for 931 Dreamliners at the end of July. Although the 787-8 leads in orders, the larger Dreamliners likely will win more orders as delivery slots open up.

Greg Smith, Boeing’s chief financial officer, acknowledged last month the company is seeing pressure to increase production above 10 jets monthly.

That pressure “is led by demand for -9s and -10s,” Smith said.

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