This skeptic doubts 787 is on right track

By TAKING STOCK By Tim Raetzloff | May 06, 2010
Boeing CEO James McNerney and Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO James Albaugh enthusiastically report the Boeing flight test program for the 787 is on schedule to complete the test program by mid-September.

But that buoyant enthusiasm just doesn't match the numbers.

Boeing says the 787 flight test program had logged 500 hours as of Friday April 16.
At 10:19 a.m. April 26, Boeing's report at said the total number of hours flown by 787 test aircraft has gone up to 509 hours of test flights completed. They completed 9 hours in 10 days.

The test program requires 2,400 hours of flight tests. At this pace the program will be done in 2015.
OK, so that's an exaggeration based on a bad week. In fact, it was the least productive week of testing since January.

A better comparison is to measure how much has been accomplished in the last two months. Boeing had announced that the 787 program had logged 200 hours by the end of February. In the eight weeks leading up to April 26, the test program has logged an additional 309 hours - an average of 5.5 hours testing a day.

This is better, but at this pace Boeing still will need 343 days of testing (until April 4, 2011) to complete the 2,400-hour test program.

To complete the test program by the target of Sept. 15, 2010, Boeing will need to test at a rate of 13 hours and 18 minutes a day - a number that seems unlikely in view of Boeing's track record so far.

 Boeing completed 200 hours of flight testing by the end of February with only two test planes for most of that time. Test plane ZA004 flew for the first time Feb. 24, but completed only three hours of testing in February.

The first two aircraft completed the bulk of the testing and averaged three hours of testing per day, a little over 1.5 hours per plane. (About 15 hours of testing were done in December 2009, the remaining 185 hours in January/February 2010.)

The fourth test aircraft, ZA003, joined the program March 14. There were a total of 309 hours of testing in the eight weeks of testing between Feb. 28 and April 25.

That is an average of 5.5 hours a day or less than 1.5 hours a day per aircraft. The aircraft utilization remained constant compared to what it was in January and February.

It is difficult to see how Boeing can increase aircraft utilization by 150 percent over what has been a near constant over four months of testing.

Boeing does have an out. It has only promised that the 787 will enter service in the fourth quarter of 2010. It's possible that a test program completed by Nov. 1 could still accomplish that goal.
This would add 6.5 weeks to the test schedule, or 46 days. The necessary flight hours to reach that goal would then be reduced to 10 hours a day, or 2.5 hours per aircraft.

This number may be attainable, but the number of test hours needs to increase soon to achieve it. Since Boeing posts the hours on its website, we can all see for ourselves.
I don't expect Boeing to succeed at even the delayed schedule.

I expect deliveries of the 787 will not occur until next year at the earliest.
Programs that start badly usually continue badly. As an example, look at the AirBus A380 program. The much-delayed A380 entered service in late 2007, but is still far behind on scheduled deliveries, delivering only 10 in 2009, compared to the intended 18.

I believe the 787 program is just such a program.
One former Boeing employee proudly told me how the 777 fuselage sections went together perfectly when the prototype was built 20 years ago. He also described how the 787 sections couldn't be forced together when it was first tried. The 777 program has been very successful. I doubt the 787 will be.
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(Tim Raetzloff operates Abarim Business Computers at Five Corners in Edmonds. He evaluates Puget Sound business activity for his newsletter, and his column appears regularly in the Beacon. In the interests of full disclosure he says, "Neither I nor Abarim have any interest or conflict with any company mentioned in this column.")

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