Boeing updates its commercial jet catalog on the fly

EVERETT — The Boeing Co. is confident that its overhaul of its commercial jetliner catalog will keep its airplanes in demand — and its factories busy — for decades to come.

But making those changes in offices and on shop floors in Everett, Renton and South Carolina won’t always be easy.

Boeing, for example, plans to add the 737 Max to current 737 NG final assembly in Renton while also increasing the plant’s production rate to 47 from 42.

“In some ways it’s like changing tires on a car that’s moving 60 miles an hour down the road,” said Keith Leverkuhn, a Boeing vice president and general manager of the 737 Max program.

The need to have the Max and NG models assembled at the same pace is influencing design of the Max, he said.

“We have to make sure that as the designs are being considered we’re thinking about every control code in the factory: How many more minutes is it going to take to build this part? How many minutes less is it going to take to build this part?” Leverkuhn said.

The Chicago-based company plans to start building the Max next year, with the first flight slated for 2016 and the first delivery in the third quarter of 2017.

Work crews will be trained to move from one model to the other, he said.

Increasing production will mean at least a “nominal increase” in the Renton workforce, Leverkuhn said.

The Max is meant to secure the narrow-body jetliner market for Boeing, which already has 1,939 firm orders for the airplane. The company also has 1,860 orders for NG models.

Development of the 787-9, the second iteration in the Dreamliner family, is coming along smoothly.

“There have been no significant issues” and no surprises, said Capt. Randy Neville, chief test pilot for the 787 program.

That is a welcome change from the 787-8, which was dogged with problems during development and after it entered service three and a half years behind schedule.

The 787-9 model is 50,000 pounds heavier than the earlier model, but the two feel the same in flight, Neville said, sitting in the flight deck of a 787-9 flight test plane at Boeing Field in Seattle.

Metal racks stacked with test instruments and displays filled the mid-section of the airplane, which is slated to be delivered to Air New Zealand after testing is finished.

Flight tests should wrap up in the next two months, followed by delivery of the first 787-9, three to four weeks ahead of schedule, said Mark Jenks, vice president of 787-9 development.

The 787-9 is 20 feet longer than the 787-8, and can hold 280 passengers, an increase of 38. The newer model also had extensive design changes and improvements, some of which were fed back into the earlier model. For example, the 787-9 flight deck window housing is now used on both models. The change cut a few hundred pounds off the 787-8’s weight.

The 787-8 was a huge technological leap forward. Making that leap “was going to be difficult,” Jenks said.

But “in retrospect, clearly there were mistakes we made, things we could have done better. And it didn’t have to be, it didn’t necessarily have to be as hard as it was,” he said.

The next model in the family, the 787-10, is “a simple stretch” of the 787-9, and development should go smoothly, he said.

Airlines have responded well to the 787, using them to open new long and thin routes between cities such as London and Austin, Texas. The 18 airlines using the 787-8 have carried nearly 15 million passengers on more than 88,000 flights, said Jim Haas, Boeing’s director of product marketing.

Passengers have responded well to the airplane, too. Its features include larger windows, higher ceilings and a cabin atmosphere with greater air pressure and more humidity.

As much as possible, Boeing plans to replicate 787 passengers’ experience on the new 777X, expected to enter service in 2020, said Bob Feldmann, vice president and general manager of the 777X program.

A substantial amount of early design work is already finished, and wind tunnel tests of wing components have gone well, with results meeting or beating expectations, he said.

The flight deck is being designed so pilots can easily switch from the 787 and 777-300ER, which is already in production, with just a few days of training.

The airliner’s massive wings will be made by baking carbon-fiber composite material in giant autoclaves at Boeing’s Everett plant at Paine Field.

The first autoclave is already under construction, Feldmann said.

While the company is studying new automated production processes for the 777X, “it’s going to take a lot of people in Puget Sound” to design and build the plane, he said.But morale among Boeing’s workforce has taken a beating in recent months. In April, the company announced it will move more than 1,000 engineering jobs out of Washington, with others expected in the future.

And the aerospace giant agreed to build the 777X only after members of the Machinists union approved a concession-laden contract in January.

The company also agreed to build the 737 MAX in Renton after the union agreed to drop labor complaints filed with the federal government.

Boeing’s penny-pinching attitude toward its workforce has some aerospace industry analysts scratching their heads.

The company has a “tremendously powerful product lineup, and then they add risk” by alienating employees, said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace industry expert with the Fairfax, Va.-based Teal Group.

“Their research and product development strategy is built for the long run, but their workforce and supply chain strategy is built on maximizing returns in the next two quarters,” he said.

That came to a head with 787 deliveries running more than three years behind schedule.

The Dreamliner “should have conquered the market,” but those missteps allowed Airbus Group NV, Boeing’s chief competitor, to hang on in the mid-size widebody jetliner market, he said.

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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