Long-delayed 787 wins FAA approval to enter service
FAA certification of the 787 clears the way for Boeing to deliver the first jet to All Nippon Airways of Japan in September, three years and four months later than originally planned.
Seattle Times aerospace reporter
Key datesDecember 2002: Boeing drops "Sonic Cruiser" concept for new, more fuel-efficient jet.
December 2003: Boeing board decides to build 787 in Everett.
April 2004: Boeing commits to 787 launch.
July 2004: Japan's All Nippon Airways (ANA) becomes the 787's first buyer with a 50-plane order.
December 2009: 787 flies for first time.
August 2011: FAA certifies 787 for passenger service.
The Federal Aviation Administration on Friday certified Boeing's 787 Dreamliner to carry passengers, ending more than 20 months of flight testing and analysis.
The move clears the way for Boeing to deliver the first jet to All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan on Sept. 25, three years and four months later than originally planned.
"Despite the fact that this airplane might be a little late, this will be an airplane that changes the game," Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Jim Albaugh said at a Friday morning ceremony in Everett marking the FAA certification. He said he thinks customers will forgive Boeing for the delay once they receive the planes.
Boeing employees in blue polo shirts carried flags bearing the logos of the 787's 50-plus airline customers and sat on folding chairs at Paine Field to watch the ceremony. Behind them were two "Dreamlifters," which are modified 747s that carry 787 parts around the world.
A test 787 stood behind a small stage where the FAA officially handed Boeing officials their certification. The word "experimental" was painted above its door.
Another 787 bearing ANA's name flew over the ceremony as it began.
First delivery is only the beginning of a challenging period for Boeing as it attempts to ramp up production from two Dreamliners a month to 10 a month over the next two years.
Even as new 787s roll out, hundreds of mechanics and engineers in Everett will remain sidetracked from ongoing production as they slowly rework approximately 40 Dreamliners assembled earlier, but still in need of major modification before turning the keys over to customers.
Program chief Scott Fancher this month reiterated a previous estimate that the process of methodically working through all those jets parked at Paine Field will take about two years.
Boeing has not specified how many 787s it will deliver by the end of 2011. Earlier this year, it had indicated it might deliver between 12 and 20; the number is now expected to be considerably less than a dozen.
Wall Street analysts have estimated that the 787's delays and technical issues have swelled development costs to somewhere between $12 billion and $18 billion on top of the $5 billion Boeing originally budgeted.
Still, the FAA's formal thumbs-up — which was accompanied by certification from the European Aviation Safety Agency — is a relief. Even a few jets being delivered will free up space on the Everett flight line and allow Boeing to begin to see tangible progress.
Like every aspect of the 787 program, the flight-testing and certification process has been extended by unexpected obstacles.
The most serious was an in-flight electrical fire last November. Smoke and flames in the passenger-cabin area forced an emergency landing.
Analysis of the incident, later blamed on debris in an electrical-control panel, led to software changes in the electrical system and minor hardware changes in the panel. That added a six-month delay to the program.
Because the 787 has lots of new technology, the FAA laid down a series of "special conditions" requiring Boeing to demonstrate in each case that the plane is at least as safe as previous aircraft.
The outer skin of the airplane and much of the structure underneath are made from carbon-fiber-reinforced composite plastic, not aluminum.
In addition, many of the vital systems of the airplane are powered by electrical generators rather than by compressed air diverted from the engines, which is the norm on previous jets.
The change of structural material prompted the FAA to require that Boeing prove, among other things, that the airplane is safe in a lightning strike; that the 787's fuselage will protect passengers from the impact of a crash landing as well as a metal fuselage would; and that the fuel-holding wings can withstand a post-crash fire as long as metal wings.
Because of the heavy reliance on electric power, Boeing was also required to show "that the airplane is capable of continued safe flight and landing with all normal sources of ... electrical power inoperative."
By issuing the plane's certificate, the FAA has declared itself satisfied on all these points and affirmed that the Dreamliner is safe and ready to carry passengers.
"Our job is to embrace their innovations, but also to make sure it's safe," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who attended Boeing's ceremony Friday.
FAA officials flew about a quarter of the 4,700 test hours flown by six 787s. Altogether, the FAA logged more than 200,000 hours researching and testing the new plane, Babbitt said.
Long flights OK'd, too
Along with this general certification, the FAA also approved the twin-engine 787 to travel up to three hours away from the nearest airport — allowing it to fly across the Atlantic or Pacific oceans.
This part of the certification is known as ETOPS, which originally stood for "extended-range twin-engine operations," though in 2007 the agency redefined the regulations to apply to airplanes with any number of engines.
Boeing's 777 was the first airliner to be granted three-hour ETOPS approval immediately, without the previously required one-year track record of reliable flying.
To get the same "out of the box" rating for the Dreamliner, Boeing conducted ultra-long-distance flight tests on Dreamliner No. 9 this summer. The longest endurance flight, an indirect route from Guam to Everett on July 27, lasted 18 hours.
On the ETOPS flights, the pilots deliberately switched off multiple systems and shut down one engine to prove that the plane could still safely reach a distant airport.
Boeing expects early next year to extend the 787's ETOPS certification from 3 to 5.5 hours. Mohan Pandey, who directed Boeing's efforts on ETOPS regulations until his retirement last year, said this will allow the 787 to fly between virtually any two cities on earth.
During flight tests, Dreamliner No. 9 flew several times on just one engine for more than 5.5 hours. So the planned extension of ETOPS will require no further test flights, only a software change to accommodate a new low-fuel indicator regulation.
Boeing spokeswoman Lori Gunter said none of the early customers need this extra-range approval before next year. First customer ANA will fly its initial Dreamliners on short-haul domestic routes within Japan, starting Nov. 1. Its first 787 flight will be a charter on Oct. 26.
With the certification milestone passed, Boeing's focus shifts from proving the plane airworthy and safe to simply producing it reliably at a faster rate and getting it into service at airlines around the world.
To get to 10 jets a month by the end of 2013, Boeing has to increase the production rate in Everett to seven per month and begin rolling out three Dreamliners per month in Charleston, S.C.
The company's stock rose $1.70 to $62.80 a share Friday.
Information from Seattle Times reporter Melissa Allison, attending Friday's ceremony, is included in this report.
Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or firstname.lastname@example.org