Boeing 787 flights could be delayed

Boeing 787 delivery may slip because of inspections and instrument changes on the flight test aircraft, the head of the program said Thursday.

By , Associated Press

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    FILE - In this photo taken on Dec. 15, 2009, a chase plane flies beside a Boeing 787 airplane as the 787 takes off on its first flight at Paine Field in Everett, Wash.

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The first delivery of Boeing's new 787 jetliner may slip into early 2011 because of inspections and instrument changes on the flight test aircraft, the head of the program said Thursday.

Scott Fancher, general manager of the program for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, told reporters in a teleconference that Boeing still intends to deliver its first 787 to Japan's ANA by the end of the year. He said that "as a cautionary note," Boeing is warning that the delivery might be extended a few weeks into 2011.

If so, it would be another in a long series of delays on the 787 program, many due to problems with components built by suppliers around the globe that ship huge sections of the plane to be assembled at Boeing's Everett, Washington, plant. Boeing, which has orders for 863 of the twin-aisle jets, originally planned to deliver the first 787 in 2008.

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Fancher said the planned changes in data-gathering instrumentation on the flight test planes took longer than expected. That and the need for additional inspections "stacked up" and reduced the time margin built into the testing schedule. He said Boeing has a "laser focus" on completing the tests and getting the first plane delivered in December.

Boeing has not specified when it expected the 787 testing program to end. While it aims for the first deliveries at the end of the year, testing on some components will continue beyond that.

Boeing's 787 customers are aware of the possible delay. "We're constantly in communication with our customers on where we are in flight tests and being as transparent as we can," Fancher said.

For the second time this year, Boeing is asking 787 suppliers to hold up sending aircraft sections to Everett. The pause, expected toward the end of summer, is primarily due to airlines changing delivery schedules, but will allow suppliers to correct parts shortages and other supply chain problems, Fancher said. He declined to say how long the pause might last.

"It's just an opportunity to catch your breath a little bit, get the supply chain where it needs to be," Fancher said.

In late April, Boeing asked suppliers to hold back sections for 24 manufacturing days so they could complete needed work at their sites. That helped Boeing avoid catch-up work that would hamper final assembly.

Boeing recently halted flight tests on the first 787s after finding some of them had improperly installed parts in the horizontal stabilizer, a smaller wing on the aircraft's tail. The problem has been corrected on all five flight-test planes now flying, and the fix is going into production jets where necessary, Fancher said.

Boeing plans to fly a test 787 to next week's Farnborough International Airshow in the U.K. for its international debut.

Fancher stressed that the issues affecting the test schedule do not involve the design of the airplane and that Boeing is pleased with its performance. But "we've seen some inspections with quality issues that have taken longer than planned," he said, including the horizontal stabilizer inspections.

The changes in the extensive sensors and data-gathering instruments are needed as the planes progress to different phases of tests and don't involve standard flight instruments or systems aboard planes, Fancher said.

He declined to go into detail about the reasons for the possible delay or to give an exact time, other than it would be weeks rather than months.

Aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group said the possible delay is no surprise.

"It was inevitable. Yet again they set an aggressive schedule for us that they really couldn't meet," he said.

However, he said the delay is balanced by positive news for the 787 in recent weeks, including Qantas accelerating delivery of its first 787s into the first half of 2012. And Russia is reportedly pressing Boeing to deliver 787s to state-run Aeroflot in time for the 2014 Olympics.

"You're seeing all sorts of international endorsements, and signs of technical progress," Aboulafia said.

Fancher spoke shortly after Boeing released its 2010 Current Market Outlook, which forecasts that the global airline industry will need 30,900 new jets worth $3.6 trillion between now and 2029.

Boeing shares fell 87 cents to $63.88 in afternoon trading.

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