Sometime between now [August 2003] and the end of the year, a team of executives from Boeing’s commercial airplanes division in Seattle will fly to Chicago to present to the corporation’s board of directors their final plans for a new airplane that will change the way we fly, the way Boeing builds airplanes, and the way airlines operate in the 21st century. On that day, the board is expected to endorse that plan and formally authorize the program. If it does, no one will have played a bigger role in making that happen than Mike Bair, a 1978 graduate of Washington State University and senior vice president in charge of the development of the new 7E7 Dreamliner at Boeing Commercial Airplanes.
Boeing calls the plane the “Dreamliner,” because the name was the top choice of voters in a worldwide contest. But it could very well call it the Aviation Transformer.
Boeing plans to use new materials and processes to build the 7E7, which will carry aloft an array of new systems. It will fly farther than any other jet its size, and carry passengers more comfortably. And it will be assembled in an entirely new way, perhaps in a new factory far from the Red Barn, the boatshed on Lake Washington where Bill Boeing’s team put together the first wooden seaplanes more than 85 years ago.
Boeing says the 7E7 represents the future of aviation. Aerospace analysts say the 7E7 is key to the future of Boeing. Washington governor Gary Locke says the 7E7 is key to Puget Sound’s economic future. Critics say the 7E7 is nothing more than “a paper airplane” that will never get built.
As for Bair, he says he’s got “a great assignment.” Overseeing development of the 7E7 “has got to be one of the best jobs in the company.”
The 7E7 is the hardworking, plain-Jane sister of Boeing’s now-mothballed, delta-winged Sonic Cruiser. When the airline industry went into its tailspin after September 11, the market for premium-paying business passengers to fill the sexy, super-fast Sonic Cruiser evaporated. In December 2002, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief executive Alan Mulally announced that the Sonic Cruiser was out, and the 7E7 in.
The new plane fits into Boeing’s concept of the future for airlines, which is greatly different from that of its only competitor–Airbus, the European aerospace consortium.
Airbus planners look at the crowded world airline hubs, such as London’s Heathrow or Charles de Gaulle in Paris, and see there’s no more room to add additional flights. Therefore, if airlines are to grow, they’ll need larger planes to connect to other world hubs. This reasoning led to the development of Airbus’s 555-seat A380 superjumbo, which will eclipse Boeing’s 747 as the largest commercial airliner when it enters service in 2006.
Boeing executives counter with an aphorism: “People want to go where they want to go.” Instead of flying from Atlanta to New York on a domestic jet, then boarding a jumbo jet for a trans-oceanic flight to London, where another change of planes puts a passenger on a smaller plane for Frankfurt, Boeing believes people would rather fly from Atlanta to Frankfurt directly–or point-to-point.
Boeing pioneered the concept in the 1980s with the 767, a mid-sized jet with the range to link secondary cities across the Atlantic. The 7E7 is intended to replace the aging “Six-Seven” and its sister jet, the single-aisle 757.
The 7E7 will be a very different plane, from the ground up. To start with, it will be the first commercial jet made primarily from composites, rather than aluminum.
Composites are sheets of woven industrial-strength fibers covered in resin. When baked dry, they form a solid. Fiberglass is a common type. Boeing now uses more-advanced composites–bullet-proof Kevlar and ultra-strong graphites soaked in advanced polymers–for jet interiors and some exterior parts, like the tails of the long-range 777.
There are many advantages to composites, Bair says. They’re lighter. They don’t corrode or suffer metal fatigue. When manufacturing, it is easier to build up layers of composites rather than to mill down blocks of metal. The problem always has been their high price–up to four times as much as aluminum. However, recent advances in composites manufacturing are bringing those costs down dramatically. Given all the pluses, “It was real obvious to us that it was the right direction to be moving,” Bair says.
Using composites, he adds, will make flying more comfortable.
Consider also the air quality inside passenger jet cabins. The air is Hepa-filter scrubbed, yet people still leave jets after a long flight feeling sick. There are two main problems, Boeing engineers say. The air inside a jet cabin is very dry, and while the cabins are pressurized–humans couldn’t live at 39,000 feet without it–they’re not pressurized to ground level. The result is an environment similar to the top of an 8,000-foot high mountain in the desert–livable, but not comfortable.
Bair says that till now, Boeing could design systems that increase humidity, but that also would increase the condensation inside the plane, and thus corrosion. Boeing also could design planes with higher cabin air pressure, but that would mean adding heavy reinforcement. Using composites eliminates both restrictions, Bair says.
Using composites also will greatly change the way Boeing builds the 7E7. Boeing jets today are largely assembled by hand. At Boeing’s massive Everett factory, workers use 30-ton cranes to lift airplane sections into four-story steel “jigs,” which hold the pieces in place. Mechanics hand-drill holes in the aluminum sheets to bolt together millions of panels, stringers, subassemblies, and fasteners. Other mechanics string, by hand, miles of wires and cables. When Boeing’s at full production, assembly takes about three weeks.
Using composites changes that. Boeing and its partners will fabricate “monolithic” 7E7 parts delivered to the factory largely intact. Instead of putting together up to 3 million parts, Dreamliner mechanics will deal with fewer than 10,000. Instead of the 5,000 people or more who build the 747, Boeing will need as few as 800. Bair created a buzz this summer when he announced at a business group luncheon that the goal will be to assemble the new plane in three days.
Where those three days of work will take place is a topic of much interest.
“E” for Everett?
Boeing says the “E” in “7E7” stands for a number of the new plane’s attributes: efficient, environmentally friendly, even “e-enabled,” because it will be outfitted with Boeing’s new Connexion service–a type of Wi-Fi aerial broadband.
Boeing’s Puget Sound workers, on the other hand, hope that the “E” stands for “Everett.” Cynical wags, though, have determined the “E” is for “extortion.”
Boeing announced in May that it would hold a nationwide search for a final assembly site for the 7E7 project. That set off a mad scramble among development officials from California to New Jersey. More than 20 states are believed to have submitted proposals.
The news that Boeing would consider a new site jolted a region already rattled by the company’s move of its corporate headquarters to Chicago in 2001. Some Boeing watchers–even employees–say it’s a sign the company is fed up with Washington.
The state’s elected officials were shocked into action. Their fear, Gov. Locke says, was not that Boeing would disappear overnight. The company will continue to build 737s and 777s in Renton and Everett for years. But if the 7E7 goes, the next new Boeing plane is likely to follow it, and the state’s aerospace industry would slowly wither, the governor says.
To forestall that, the state legislature, meeting in what some called the “Boeing session,” adopted a five-cent-a-gallon gas tax for highways. After years of deadlock, they overhauled the unemployment and workers compensation systems. And Locke in the final hours pushed through a bundle of business tax incentives that would be worth $3.2 billion over t
he next 20 years to Boeing and other aerospace companies–if the 7E7 is built in Everett or, alternatively, in Moses Lake, Washington.
For a jet-builder like Bair, getting involved in these political processes was “different,” he says wryly. “I’ve never done that before.”
Bair says he came away “impressed . . . I don’t think any of us would have guessed they’d have done what they were able to do.”
Bair says the site search has its roots in the problems Boeing had getting permits to expand the Everett factory in the early ’90s, as it prepared to add the 777 assembly line. Under the terms of the then-new Growth Management Act, Boeing ended up paying the city of Everett $47 million in impact fees. At the same time, Bair says, Indiana was dangling $300 million to get United Airlines to build a maintenance base in Indianapolis. (United closed that facility last year in a cost-cutting move.)
In Everett, leaders say that the permit problems of the past are ancient history. The city and Port of Everett are working closely with state and federal officials to get approval for a $15.5 million pier for Boeing.
Bair says today’s site-selection process doesn’t mean Boeing is “looking for someone to give us a bunch of money.” In most industries, a nationwide search like this is standard operating procedure, he notes.
But Boeing’s corporate leaders have set some “aggressive” cost targets for the 7E7, he says. “We have to present a viable business plan to the board.”
So before Bair and Mulally fire up that Powerpoint in Chicago, “One of our responsibilities is to make sure we’ve looked at every possibility.”
Dreamliner–or paper airplane?
The fact that Bair’s bosses have yet to commit to the 7E7 has some questioning whether it will ever fly. Skeptics note that the now-shelved Sonic Cruiser itself was a replacement for the proposed 747X, which also never got off the ground.
The Wall Street Journal last spring reported that key members of the Boeing board of directors would rather not invest in the new plane, and would instead prefer to emphasize more profitable defense-industry projects. Richard Aboulafia, a widely quoted industry analyst, describes the new jet as something of a do-or-die effort for Boeing’s commercial jet business. “With the 7E7, the market is there, and the technology is there,” he told his clients. “If Boeing doesn’t launch it, they are putting the world on notice that they will probably never again develop a new jetliner.”
Bair says he’s “very confident” that his team will get the go-ahead to build the 7E7. The company has pulled many of its most talented people off other assignments to work on it, he says. “That’s a good indication of how serious the company is.”
Calling the Dreamliner a make-or-break airplane for Boeing is an overstatement, he says. But there’s no question that it’s important.
Is it keeping him up at night? No, Bair says. But “it is humbling, very humbling. It’s very important to our company’s future.”
Bryan Corliss (’82 Comm.) writes about business and aerospace for The Herald in Everett.
Boeing’s 737 Dreamliner
What is it?
A proposed 210-passenger jet capable of flying about 8,000 miles—some 1,200 miles farther than comparable planes. Boeing also will design a 250-passenger model with a shorter range.
What’s different about it?
If built, it will be the first commercial jet built primarily of composites instead of aluminum. New engines and systems will make it 20 percent more fuel-efficient. New processes will mean final assembly in as few as three days. Boeing plans to make its suppliers full “risk-sharing partners,” who will spend their own money to design and build portions of the plane—and share in the profits accordingly. Boeing will offer a service package with the jet, akin to an auto dealer’s maintenance agreement.
Where will it be built?
Boeing is conducting a nationwide search. Local officials say they’re confident the new plane will be built in Everett, but about 50 other sites around the country have been proposed, including Moses Lake. Sites in Texas are rumored to be among the front-runners. Georgia, South Carolina, and California also appear strong.
What are the key dates?
Boeing’s board of directors will make a final decision by year’s end on whether to offer the 7E7 to customers. At that time, the company will announce where it wants to build the jet. After that, Boeing will try to line up customers, with the goal of launching the program in mid-2004. If all goes according to plan, first flight will be in 2007, and first delivery in 2008.