On the Economy
This flight unlikely to strike the usual chord here
Boeing's 787 is a sorely needed new product to compete against Airbus. It has been billed as a "game-changer," built largely from composites and thus lighter and more fuel-efficient. Made for point-to-point, long-distance flights, it's ideal for a growing Asia.
Special to The Seattle Times
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Building the Dreamliner
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Talton | This flight unlikely to strike the usual chord here
Boeing's bold bet
Dreamliner is key for Boeing
Gallery | Evolution of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner
Graphic | Drama of flight tests
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A look inside one new 787 factory
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Dreamliner nose shows the face of future plane factories
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"This is a composite guy's dream"
When lightning strikes
Raw Video | Dreamliner pre-flight tests
Video | Boeing 787 ready for its closeup
Animation | Boeing 787 in one minute
Video | Gates narrates the 787 takes shape
Video | Inside Boeing's Everett 787 Dreamliner plant
Video | Dreamliner 2 rolls out of its hanger
Video | Extended: Dreamliner 2 rolls out of its hanger
Video | Dreamliner 1 engine start
Video | Dreamliner 1 Engine start and APU testing
Video | South Carolina reaction
Dreamliner news stories:
Boeing to duplicate Puget Sound work for 787
Fastener problems caused by Boeing engineers
Boeing buys half of South Carolina 787 assembly plant
S.C. decision transforms Boeing's relationships
Boeing finds 787 pieces aren't quite a perfect fit
Many Dreamliner buyers face delivery delays
Boeing's Dreamliner is fastest-selling new jet
Dreamliner "bird test" prompts design tweak
7E7 team wants Everett; morale here was a factor
Boeing shops around for 7E7 building site
When the 787 Dreamliner makes its first flight, I wonder if people in the Puget Sound region will, for just a moment, soar as well, taking pride yet again in one of "our" airliners.
We inaugurated the era of easy, safe and comfortable air travel with the 707's first flight Dec. 20, 1957. The four-engine airplane took off from Renton Municipal Airport into nasty weather and soon landed at Boeing Field, then went up again on a second flight.
As the company noted, "With the 707, Boeing President William Allen and his leadership team had 'bet the company' on a vision that the future of commercial aviation was in jets."
That was our big jet, built here by our Boeing, a small company that employed a lot of people, as one former worker told me.
Now comes the 787 Dreamliner, perhaps the bearer of a new revolution: Assembled in Everett, soon ready to fly. Will we give a collective cheer that's a matter of the heart, and recognize the importance of the aerospace sector here? Or is that a legacy emotion?
As Boeing never tires of announcing, it is a global company — driven by fast-changing realities in the marketplace and the needs of its worldwide customers — answerable to its shareholders. The headquarters is long gone and manufacturing's long-term future here is in doubt. Boeing doesn't care what we think or feel. It is not Bill Boeing's company but John McDonnell's, run by protégés of Jack Welch.
As a corporate drama, it's the best show in America today. Boeing has much to prove and many questions to answer with a program that is more than two years behind schedule.
With the 777 a decade-and-a-half old, the 787 is a sorely needed new product to compete against Airbus. It has been billed as a "game-changer," built largely from composites and thus lighter and more fuel-efficient.
Made for point-to-point, long-distance flights, it's ideal for a growing Asia. And, unlike smaller planes on short runs, it wouldn't be a victim of competition from the high-speed rail being built and extended in advanced nations other than the United States.
Thus, even though the Dreamliner was planned before the financial panic, it would seem to be an airliner well-positioned for the higher energy costs and other discontinuities of the Great Disruption.
Other recession-related issues are less clear, including the financial state of airlines, the great-debt workout that must take place and the continued tremulous state of many national economies. Even so, Boeing counts 840 orders from 55 customers for the planes. If the Dreamliner moves ahead well now, the old enthusiasm of the program's early days might be relit, bringing in yet more business.
One potent question is whether Boeing has learned the right lessons from the repeated delays of the Dreamliner. The answer needs to be more than the narrative that the Machinist union's ill-advised strike of 2008 is the root of all trouble.
Like many companies involved in huge mergers, the absorption of McDonnell Douglas was hugely distracting to top executives, then it gradually changed the company. Boeing's design and engineering funds were starved for commercial airplanes even though that unit remains a vital center of the company and helps make it America's No. 1 exporter.
The new Boeing became a fairly run-of-the-mill transnational company in its outlook and governance: focused on hitting the short-term numbers, pleasing Wall Street and overseen by a board that gave chief executives a long leash to make decisions that would have sweeping consequences.
One of these was the Dreamliner, conceived as a revolutionary airplane. But to contain costs, it would be built with an untested global supply chain that has proved disastrous — especially at the Vought plant in North Charleston, S.C., now to be the site of a second 787 line and perhaps much more.
The result has been a case study in how not to do outsourcing. It has also called into question something unprecedented for Boeing: its technical competence and reputation as an engineering firm that produces world-class airplanes.
Has this penetrated the aura of the Welch protégés? For that matter, do they realize that Jack Welch happened to come along at a peculiar moment in history and his often-toxic teachings might not be timeless, much less suited to a company as unique as Boeing? The top brass's willingness to roll the dice again with the risky and potentially costly startup in North Charleston makes one wonder.
Failure or further delay of the 787 is unthinkable in its consequences. Once again, the company has been bet on a vision. At this moment, when years of airplanes still need to be made in the Puget Sound region, we can only hope it pays off.
First flight. It is a touchstone in what was once Jet City. With the Dreamliner, the whole world will be watching.
You may reach Jon Talton at email@example.com
About On the Economy
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.