New jets define Everett’s new era

  • Tue Dec 27th, 2011 10:51am

By John Wolcott SCBJ Freelance Writer

EVERETT — Snohomish County’s economy and employment levels will benefit for decades from the Boeing Co.’s launch of its new 787 Dreamliner into passenger service on Sept. 26, 2011.

The obvious reason is the 787’s roster of more than 800 orders from more than 50 airlines, work that could take a decade to deliver, even with a production ramp-up in Everett and help from Boeing’s new 787 production plant in Charleston, S.C.

But beyond that, the delivery of the first 787 to Japan’s All Nippon Airways represents much more than just another new airliner entering service. To see the real impact of the first 787 delivery, it’s important to look beyond the elation of the event.

It marks the beginning of a significant new era in worldwide aviation history, led by the Boeing Co., a era that will focus attention on Snohomish County, Everett, Paine Field and the Boeing production plant here.

The Everett plant, where some 30,000 workers are employed in three daily shifts, is at the heart of Boeing’s future.

In six production bays (the original plant built in the late 1960s to produce the first 747s had only three bays), Boeing is building improved models of its 747-8 jumbo jet, the venerable 767 that has gained a second life as the U.S. Air Force’s new aerial refueling tanker, the twin-engine 777 that dominates its wide-body market and the new high-tech 787 Dreamliner.

In the past year, it’s become clear that Boeing’s push-the-envelope engineering in developing the Dreamliner is already spreading to other Boeing models, boosting sales and raising the bar for competitors, including Airbus.

Having years of backlogged production on the books for four of the world’s most popular aircraft bodes well for the county’s economy as well as for Boeing, the Pacific Northwest and the nation’s export numbers.

Once all of the news about the 787’s three-year delivery delay and the new 747-8 freighter’s temporary delay in entering service fade into historical footnotes, those frustrating times will be no more remembered than when Airbus was years late with its A380 superjumbo. After many production delays and order cancellations, that super-sized passenger plane today is a common sight at the world’s major airports.

Like investing in the stock market, it pays to take a longer view of Boeing’s role in the world’s airline industry rather than reacting to each wave of good or bad news.

Elements of the 787’s design — its efficient and quiet engines, performance, noise suppression, passenger comfort and technology — are being packaged into a fresh generation of Boeing airliners that will make a major impact on the world’s aviation industry.

New 787 customers continue to show up as the plane nears its operational stage and many more orders are expected in coming years as Boeing develops 787 variants. One of the latest orders came in September for 25 787-9 Dreamliners for Air France-KLM Group, its first 787 purchase. It has options to buy 25 more.

Jim Albaugh, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, took that longer view, predicting that the delivery of the first 787 “begins a new chapter in aviation history.”

Although his view reflects the enthusiasm that might be expected of the head of the company, others agree.

Aviation industry analyst Scott Hamilton, a Boeing watchdog writing for AspireAviation.com, also believes the new 787 Dreamliner is “revolutionary,” even following “a bumpy ride in the 787’s production system. … Make no mistake, the delivery of the first 787 (is) a milestone in commercial aviation.”

“The 787 (is) the first composite airliner and the first to rely on electronics rather than air for many of its systems,” Hamilton wrote. “Boeing considers the composite structure to be the baseline for future airplanes. … The 787’s influence is already apparent in other products, including the 737.”

For instance, the 787’s new Sky Interior, which offers airline passengers a new level of environmental comfort, is available on the new 737 NG (Next Generation) jet built at Boeing’s Renton plant and in the new 747-8 Intercontinental passenger jet. The powerful, efficient GEnx engines designed for the 787 also were adapted to the 747-8, Hamilton wrote.

747 models push jumbo jet into its fifth decade

Since the 747 began carrying passengers on Jan. 22, 1970, Boeing has kept the plane a world leader in passenger and cargo deliveries by continually adding new technologies to 16 progressively improved models, including the 747-8F, which has entered service, and the 747-8 Intercontinental, expected to begin service early in 2012 with Lufthansa Airlines.

“There’s really no competitor to this airplane (in its market space),” Boeing spokesman Jim Proulx said. The 747-8 Intercontinental fulfills the passenger market need for a plane between the 777, which seats 365 in three classes on the 777-300ER, and the giant Airbus A380, which seats 525 passengers in three classes, he said.

The 747-8 is 240 feet, 2 inches long, which is 18 feet, 4 inches longer than the 747-400, and features a larger upper deck. Boeing has orders for 78 747-8Fs and 36 747-8 Intercontinentals.

Working in Boeing’s favor is its 100 percent market share in the jumbo freighter carrier market, a position secured after UPS and FedEx had to drop plans to buy the Airbus A380 after the company canceled plans to build a freighter version of its superjumbo.

Even the long-popular Boeing 777-300ER (Extended Range) is being studied as a possible 777-8X/9X model with a composite wing, a possible fuselage stretch and more economy seating capacity. That conceptual design may well become the second major evolution of the 777 family, with 15 percent better performance than today’s aircraft.

Larry Loftis, 777 program vice president and general manager, has told news media his division has “a whole range of different things (to look at for the next evolution) … We are committed to this airplane and … we are committed to maintaining the role and … the strength in the marketplace we have.”

As for the future of the 787 in its marketplace, Bernstein Research in New York looks past the challenges it sees ahead for Boeing ramping up 787 production to 10 per month by late 2013 and putting the 787-9 variant into service in late 2013. Bernstein Research predicts the 787 program will deliver a unit profit margin similar to “Boeing’s highly lucrative 777, of which the 777-300ER and 777F have become the cash cow of the company in terms of profitability.”

Hamilton, the aviation analyst, also wrote on AirInsight.com that “Boeing is already talking with GE about the prospect of a GEnx version for the 777 … and it could well be that a 787-style interior will eventually appear on the 777 as well.”

There is a seasoned quality to basic Boeing aircraft design that breeds later improvements over the years, as is the case for the 747. Since the first test model, dubbed “The City of Everett,” rolled out of the new Everett plant for its maiden flight on Feb. 9, 1969, the basic plane has evolved through five stages, from the 747-100 (which carried 366 passengers 5,300 miles) through the -200, -300 and -400 series (carrying 416 passengers 7,670 miles) to the 747-8 model that is designed to carry nearly 500 passengers, 20 tons of freight and 625 pieces of luggage 8,000 miles.

The 747-8 also has more powerful GE engines that are 30 percent quieter on takeoff compared to the 747-400 and aerodynamically improved composite wings that flex upward in flight to improve efficiency.

Currently, Boeing is in an enviable position in the world airliner and freighter markets.

Deliveries have started for the 787 Dreamliner, with the 747-8 freighter and 747-8 Intercontinental next in line. The improved 777 will create another expanding market. The 767, which is finishing its last deliveries as a passenger airliner, gains new life as America’s new military refueling tanker.

Despite the day-to-day, month-to-month thrills and spills in airliner market news, Boeing keeps its eye on the long-range picture, which also promises great rewards for Snohomish County.