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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Questions Remain About Boeing 787 Schedule

Boeing’s latest delay in its 787 schedule involves pushing back first delivery to no earlier than July. The action leaves a string of questions about how the program’s protracted maturation is affecting the company’s long-term goals for dominating mid-sized international services.
First delivery to launch customer All Nippon Airways was expected in mid-February but will slide to sometime in the third quarter—probably later in the summer rather than sooner. Left unsaid by this latest reset is when production will hit a comfortable enough stride for customers to dust off the route and fleet expansion plans they have been forced to regularly revise since the initial delivery date was missed in May 2008. By Boeing’s count, it has moved delivery seven times; by Aviation Week’s count, this is the eighth delay.
Either way, the clock is at 87 months and counting to first delivery since the 787’s launch in April 2004. The Boeing 787 certification and delivery schedule has easily become the company’s longest on record. Its last new commercial airplane, the 777, was delivered 55 months from program initiation.
In announcing the schedule shift, the company says, “The new delivery date reflects the impact of an inflight incident during testing last November, and includes the time required to produce, install and test updated software and new electrical power distribution panels in the flight-test and production airplanes.” That incident prompted it to push back delivery from the last quarter of 2010 to first-quarter 2011.
A short in an electrical panel on test aircraft ZA002 caused last November’s inflight emergency. But a larger concern—failure of systems to respond as predicted—was what prompted Boeing to initiate a major review of their design and a lengthy rewrite of their software.
“This revised timeline for first delivery accommodates the work we believe remains to be done to complete testing and certification of the 787,” says Scott Fancher, vice president and general manager of the 787 program. “We’ve also restored some margin in the schedule to allow for any additional time that may be needed to complete certification activities.”
Besides verification of the airplane’s software and electrical systems’ performance, the other uncertainty in Boeing’s certification drive is the reliability of the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engine, which suffered a ground-test fire last August that resulted in one of the earlier delivery delays. The Trent also suffered a less serious, but annoying, engine surge in September that interrupted flight testing.
When the 777 entered service in 1995, it was the industry’s first transport certified with ETOPS (extended-range operational performance) in place. Achieving 180-min. ETOPS certification on the first airplane delivered was a long-sought breakthrough for marketing the capabilities of the big twin-engine jet, notably because so many of its customers planned long-haul Pacific routes.
Boeing wants to repeat this achievement on the 787. But its flight-test and design setbacks have raised doubts about whether the FAA will sign off on ETOPS so early in the program.
In December, John Hickey, the FAA’s deputy administrator for aviation safety, warned program executives during a visit to Seattle that the agency was not prepared to grant ETOPS in the airplane’s current state of readiness, according to the Seattle Times.
In response, a 787 official says, “We are working closely with the FAA on all aspects of the program. We have had some discussions related to ETOPS recently and that is typical at this stage . . . . We are confident we will work through any issues or concerns the FAA has in a cooperative and constructive manner.”
Last month, Boeing and Spirit AeroSystems settled a compensation fight over the added costs due to program delays that were endured by the Kansas-based supplier of the 787’s nose and forward fuselage. Boeing is still in negotiations regarding compensation for other major suppliers, including Fuji, Kawasaki and Mitsubishi, as it fights to keep the program on track.
The delays mean suppliers do not get the majority of the payments due them, since Boeing does not get the bulk of its payments until it delivers airplanes. These setbacks also mean airlines are forced to keep older airplanes, which are more costly to operate and maintain, in service longer than they expected.
Last week, an ANA spokeswoman put an upbeat interpretation on the Boeing announcement, saying it was welcome because it eases uncertainty.
But, she insisted, “We will be looking to Boeing for assurance that it can meet this latest delivery date. We will also be seeking a full schedule for delivery of all the 55 aircraft on order from ANA to allow us to prepare properly for the introduction of the new aircraft and plan our new route network and fleet expansion strategy.”
Last month, when Boeing was still officially promising delivery in the first quarter of 2010, All Nippon Chief Executive Shinichiro Ito told Aviation Week the carrier had undertaken “substantial measures” to plan for the possibility Boeing could not deliver anything in 2011. Those contingencies included postponing retirement of a few Airbus A320s and 767s and buying additional 767s as stop-gaps.
Its contingency plan will allow ANA to get through 2011, but not having deliveries in 2012 would be a “major headache,” Ito said.
Like ANA, Qantas Airways is happy that its long wait for word of when the first of its 50 aircraft will arrive is over. The airplanes were promised by mid-2012, but now will not arrive for 3-6 months beyond that, probably late in the year. Qantas will assign the first of them to its low-cost subsidiary, Jetstar. That will allow the Australian flag carrier to shift Airbus A330-200s from Jetstar to its own fleet to replace aging 767s.
Meanwhile, no news is good news for Air New Zealand, launch customer for the long-range 787-9 variant. It has heard of no further delays in the -9 program and anticipates its first airplane in late 2013.
Boeing says the delays that prompted the new schedule are not expected to materially affect its 2010 results, which will be reported on Jan. 26. Wall Street analysts are expected to grill Boeing CEO James McNerney on a host of questions related to the latest schedule change.

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