Boeing’s 787 won’t fly until November or December

SEATTLE — Boeing Co. will not begin to test-fly its new 787 jetliner until mid-November or mid-December, months later than originally planned, because it’s taking longer than anticipated to get the first plane ready, the company said Wednesday.

Boeing initially aimed to begin flight testing within a monthlong window beginning in late August, but early last month acknowledged first flight might not happen until October.

On Wednesday, Scott Carson, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said the first flight will be pushed well into the fall because of delays in completing assembly of the first plane and in finalizing flight-control software.

Even so, Carson and Mike Bair, vice president and general manager of the 787 program, insisted the company has contingency plans in place to keep the 787 on track to be delivered to its first customer, Japan’s All Nippon Airways, next May.

In a conference call with analysts and reporters, Carson declined to discuss possible penalties Boeing might have to pay if any planes are delivered late, but said, “A one- to three-month delay would have minimal financial implications for us in ‘08.”

Rival Airbus SAS’s A380 superjumbo has suffered about two years of delays, in large part because of wiring problems, which have wiped billions off its parent company’s profit forecasts for the coming years.

The midsized, long-haul 787 is the first large commercial jetliner being made mostly from composites, which Boeing has promised will make the plane more fuel efficient and cheaper to maintain because carbon fiber-reinforced plastics are lighter and more durable than aluminum.

Boeing unveiled its first 787 amid much fanfare in early July, but has spent the past several weeks working to get that plane ready for its maiden flight.

Boeing had large sections of the first aircraft delivered to the final assembly plant before they were stuffed with electrical wiring and other systems — work that will eventually be done by suppliers. Having that “travel work” handled by in-house mechanics has proved more complicated than the company expected, in some cases because Boeing has had to clear up errors in documents its suppliers have sent with their pieces of the plane, Bair said.

Boeing recently told several of its suppliers to reschedule some work and take on more of the systems installation so the company can streamline the final assembly process.

“Sorting through and understanding the facts and rescheduling the work accordingly has taken some extra time,” Bair said.

The company also hired new mechanics and made others available to do the final assembly work once those components arrive to the factory, Bair said.

Boeing has had to grapple with replacing thousands of temporary fasteners that hold the plane together with permanent ones — a time-consuming problem brought on because of an industrywide shortage of the tiny parts, some of which are unique to the 787.

Mechanics still have to remove and replace hundreds of temporary fasteners on the first plane, Bair said.

Boeing has done a lot of pre-flight testing on the 787 that has helped it find and fix problems it normally hasn’t discovered until the flight-test program is under way. Still, Bair said surprises could cause setbacks.

“The real issue is if we have some discovery in the flight test program that causes us to have to go back and do some sort of redesign and rework of the airplane — we’re rapidly running out of time … to be able to deal with anything big,” Bair said.

The 787’s flight-test program will be much more condensed than that of Boeing’s last all-new jet, the 777, which went through about 11 months of flight testing before airlines first started flying it in 1995.

To get the airplane certified on time, Bair said the company plans to fly six fight-test 787s at higher rates — about 120 hours a month — than it’s done with previous planes, which have flown about 70 to 80 hours a month. Two other planes will undergo static and fatigue tests on the ground.

J.B. Groh, an analyst with investment firm D.A. Davidson &Co., said he doesn’t think a delay in flight testing — or even a slight delay on delivering the 787 — will hurt Boeing substantially.

“The risk is that you don’t want people to cancel orders, and I certainly don’t see that happening if you have a three-month delay,” Groh said. “There’s not exactly a viable competitive product out there now that’s available in the same sort of time frame.”

Airbus’ A350 XWB, a slightly larger long-haul plane that will compete with the 787, is scheduled to enter commercial service in 2013.

To date, Boeing has won 706 orders for the 787. Airbus has won 154 orders and 100 non-binding commitments for the A350.

Shares of Boeing rose $1.63, or 1.7 percent, to $97.55 in midday trading Wednesday.

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