Boeing’s (NYSE:BA) 787-9 took its maiden flight less than two months ago, but nearly a year remains before the aircraft carries its first commercial passengers. The stretched 787 Dreamliner will make its first regularly scheduled passenger flight in October 2014, flying from Auckland, New Zealand to Perth on Australia’s West Coast. Air New Zealand (ANZFF.PK) will be the aircraft’s launch customer, announcing the 787-9’s first flight as part of its preparations to receive the first aircraft of its 10-plane order next year.
“The airplane just did exactly as we expected,” Randy Neville, chief Boeing 787 test pilot, said after guiding the latest iteration of the company’s Dreamliner jet through the Washington skies for its first flight on September 17. “There were no surprises,” he said at later news conference. “This is a beautiful machine,” added Ray Conner, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, on the company’s webcast shortly after takeoff. “It’s going to be the backbone of the 787 fleet.”
At 206 feet, Boeing’s 787-9 is 29 feet longer than its predecessor, it holds 40 more passengers than the 250-seat 787-8, and it has a greater range of 8,000 to 8,500 nautical miles. Like earlier versions of the plane, the “Dash Nine,” as it is known within Boeing, requires 20 percent less fuel and has 20 percent fewer emissions than other planes its size. It was “about as close to a flawless first flight as I could have imagined,” added Mark Jenks, vice president of 787 development, during the subsequent press conference.
The successfully completed flight was an important moment for Boeing. It gave the jet manufacturer a rare celebratory moment in a year that has been darkened by a series of mechanical malfunctions. While many industry experts have chalked up those problems to typical “teething problems” of the new passenger plane, the rash of minor mechanical issues have forced Boeing to fight to rebuild trust in the wide-body plane.
After two battery meltdowns in January, regulators forced a four-month, worldwide grounding of the 787 Dreamliner — the first such global grounding in 30 years. Boeing engineers and other industry experts redesigned the system so that the battery cells would be separated and insulated, which put the plane back in the sky in April. But more technical issues followed.
A jet operated by United Continental (NYSE:UAL) was forced to make an emergency landing in Houston; an Ethiopian Airlines 787 caught fire at Heathrow Airport because of a faulty emergency beacon; a faulty fuel pump indicator and an oil level indicator caused United flights to be diverted last summer; and, Norwegian Air Shuttle, the third-largest budget airline in Europe, was forced to rely on Boeing rival Airbus when problems with an electrical system, a hydraulic pump, and a brake indicator kept its fleet of 787s grounded.
Some of the mechanical malfunctions the 787 jets have experienced were rooted in the very innovations that made the plane unique. The Dreamliner’s computer and electrical systems, like the plane’s batteries, depend on technologies that have not been used before in jets. Solid-state components are a key part of the plane’s powerful electrical and computer systems that Boeing used in place of many traditional mechanical parts and wiring to make the Dreamliner lighter and burn less fuel.
While the Dash Nine is in many ways the same plane under its carbon-fiber fuselage that the 787-8 was, the problems the smaller 787-8 suffered forced Boeing engineers to rethink how those innovative elements were designed and built. Building on that 787-8 experience, Boeing brought more of the manufacturing process back in-house after outsourcing it for previous models, a move the company hopes will ensure the new plane meets customer expectations. Confidence in the Dreamliner appears to be the rule, not the exception, in the airline industry.
One of the Dreamliner’s key selling points, which has likely earned it much favor from airline executives, is that it consumes approximately 20 percent less fuel than other aircraft of the same size. Fuel is an enormous share of costs for airlines, and fuel costs have increased dramatically recently. The success of the Dreamliner is critical for the company moving forward. Airline traffic is still growing in pretty much every corner of the world, but it is expected to grow most quickly in Asia, which means that is where most new demand will originate.
As air travel is expected soars over the next several decades, airlines are already looking to revitalize their fleets, and many are looking to Boeing’s 787. Despite the production problems and technical issues, Boeing’s new 787 family of jets has collected about 930 orders to date and more than 82 orders so far this year. In 2013, the largest order of 42 planes came from American Airlines, while Singapore Airlines has the second largest order for 30 787s. Of all orders to date, about 40 percent were made for the Dash Nine.
The plane’s second test flight took place Thursday — flying from Paine Field in Everett and landing more than four hours later at Seattle’s Boeing Field. Meant to test key systems as well as avionics and other aspects of airplane performance, the flight was deemed a success.
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