Boeing confident new planes will emerge smoothly
Boeing executives voiced confidence in its series of new planes and dismissed the notion that engineers’ morale has been damaged by job transfers.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Boeing is moving swiftly ahead on the latest version of the 787, executives say, and they’re confident the company’s engineers will deliver on time the full series of new planes needed to win big against rival Airbus — the 787-9, 787-10, 737 MAX and 777X.
As the company showed journalists this week through one of the 787-9 test-flight airplanes, Boeing’s senior vice president for new airplane development, Scott Fancher, said lessons learned by the core engineering team in Everett have already made development of the 787-9 completely smooth, in contrast to the initial 787-8 model.
He said Boeing is now tightly focused on delivering the full lineup of new models on time and nurturing “the talent needed to carry through these developments over the next 10 years.”
Fancher dismissed the notion that because Boeing plans to transfer thousands of jobs out of state, morale is plunging among engineers in the Puget Sound region.
“Not particularly, no,” Fancher said. “Our design teams are fully engaged with the challenges they have in front of them.”
Boeing is setting up new engineering centers in Huntsville, Ala.; North Charleston, S.C.; and St. Louis, moving jobs from its existing centers here and in Southern California.
“This is a large corporation with a lot of talent,” Fancher said. “We’re looking forward to taking advantage of that talent at the entire company.”
Fancher and other top executives in the Commercial Airplanes unit said the 787 is now essentially over its troubles and outlined their new-airplane strategy for the coming decade.
The initial Dreamliner model — the 787-8, which seats 242 passengers — is now in service with 18 airlines and has racked up more than 88,000 flights carrying almost 15 million passengers, said Jim Haas, director of product marketing.
As Boeing planned, he said, the Dreamliner’s size and economics have allowed airlines to open new long, thin routes such as Houston to Lagos, Nigeria, or Austin, Texas, to London.
Reliability, which had been poor at the outset, is now improved so that 98 percent of flights depart on time.
That’s still short of the 99.5 percent reliability of the mature 777 jet, but Mark Jenks, vice president of 787 development, said Boeing is monitoring every flight in real time and working to nudge that figure upward.
“Despite all the difficulties and challenges, we’ve got the right airplane,” said Jenks.
Ed Petkus, chief project engineer for 787 derivative models, is responsible for flight tests of the 787-9, which is 20 feet longer than the 787-8 and seats 280 passengers.
The early 787 program was plagued by years of delays and then last year the jet was grounded for months after batteries overheated. But Petkus sees the future as bright.
“Clearly we do a lot of things differently (on the 787-9) because of those lessons learned,” said Petkus.
“But in the end, airlines love the airplane. And passengers love the airplane.”
He said airplane designers in Everett are upbeat about the 787 and the other new jets.
“There are so many opportunities here for the whole engineering team,” Petkus said.
The greatest excitement is around the 777X. Boeing committed to build the big widebody jet here, along with its giant composite wing, after the Machinists union agreed to a long-term deal and to replace their traditional pension with a 401(k)-style plan.
Bob Feldmann, vice president of the 777X program, couldn’t say precisely how many jobs that will secure. But he said Boeing made a major commitment to design and build the jet here.
“It’s going to take a lot of people in Puget Sound to do that,” Feldmann said.
The larger 777-9X model comes first and will seat slightly more than 400 passengers.
In Seattle, near Boeing Field, Mike Carriker, who was chief pilot on the original 787 and is now chief pilot on the 777X, is helping design the cockpit displays and flight controls on the new jet.
Boeing aims to make the cockpit so common between the 787 and the 777X that a pilot can transition from one to the other with just five days of training. And although the 777X will be much bigger and with a more massive wingspan, it needs to handle exactly like the current 777.
“The biggest job I have is to ... make it fly like today’s 777,” Carriker said.
Haas said the 114-foot composite wing, which will have a fold 11 feet from the tip so that it can fit at airport gates, will give the jet an unequaled aerodynamic efficiency.
Still, Boeing’s efficiency projections depend upon airlines squeezing in rows of seats 10-abreast.
Airbus has mounted a vigorous ad campaign arguing that its A350 passenger cabin — slightly narrower, but seating only nine abreast — will be more comfortable.
Haas conceded that the Airbus seats will be a half-inch wider but dismissed that as not significant. At the same time, he said Boeing is thinning the aluminum frames of the 777X fuselage to give a few extra inches of cabin width.
As a result, the 777X will have seats “a couple of tenths of an inch” wider than seats on a 10-abreast configuration on today’s 777, Haas said.
It seems likely Boeing’s promise of more revenue will win out over arguments about an extra half-inch of comfort. After all, it’s the airlines that buy airplanes, not the passengers.
With that expectation of market success, Boeing is proceeding to develop the plane and is preparing to construct large new fabrication and assembly buildings in Everett.
The duality of Boeing’s actions with regard to Washington state — pushing ahead to develop new airplanes here while at the same time sending some engineering work out of state — is further illustrated in details of the build plan for the single-aisle 737 MAX, which the state secured in 2011 after an earlier deal with the Machinists.
The MAX secures thousands of production jobs in Renton and design jobs all over the Puget Sound region.
But the design of the MAX nacelles, the pods that surround the engines, and the integration of the engine with the airframe are being done by a team of some 30 engineers based in South Carolina.
And though the advanced and distinctive split winglets on the MAX were designed and prototyped in Seattle, production of those winglets is being outsourced to GKN in the U.K. and to KAL in South Korea.
Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org