NO matter what the capricious spring weather, tomorrow will be viewed as the Boeing Company's day in the sun.
About 100,000 people, including Boeing workers, customers, and suppliers, are expected to attend one of 15 hourly ``rollout'' ceremonies for the company's 777 jetliner.
It will be a celebration of Boeing's unprecedented use of teamwork and technology in developing its newest aircraft. The roughly 300-seat ``triple 7'' boasts a four-fifths share of all new orders for planes in its market since 1990, when Boeing's directors approved building the plane.
But behind the scenes, workers are still pushing to turn the promise into reality. Like other jets with only two engines on board, the plane must win approval from the United States Federal Aviation Administration and Europe's Joint Aviation Authorities (JAA) to do cross-ocean flights.
``It is crucial to the long-term market success of the airplane,'' says Ron Woodard, president of Boeing's commercial-jet division. The company expects to be certified for extended twin-jet operations, ETOPS, after a year of flight testing when the plane's first commercial flights begin. That approval would be unusually quick.
``Even if approval isn't instant, it will be rapid,'' predicts Paul Nisbet, an industry analyst with JSA Research in Newport, R.I. But political considerations could cause Europe's JAA to delay approval for the plane to venture more than three hours from any landing site. Europe's Airbus Industrie consortium is Boeing's main competitor, and Boeing has recently expanded its market-share lead over Airbus.
Airbus was irked when Boeing and McDonnell Douglas, another United States-based jetmaker, recently won a roughly $6 billion order from Saudi Arabia. The deal came after direct lobbying by President Clinton.
Aiding the effort for rapid ETOPS certification are Boeing's new testing labs in Seattle, which will have completed more than a year of testing on various 777 systems before the first actual flight test occurs in June.
``It's a major, major effort,'' says Brian Johnson, a flight-test analyst of hydraulic and electronic systems.
For in-the-air tests, the plane will be loaded with monitoring equipment where passengers would ordinarily sit. Barrels of water will be moved around the cabin to test how the jet handles with its center of gravity in different locations. Customers can choose engines developed for the plane by any of the world's three big suppliers - General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, and Rolls Royce. Each type of engine undergoes separate tests.
Two test planes will remain on the ground: one to undergo abnormal stresses and another to simulate years of wear and tear.
Development of the 777 marks several new steps for Boeing:
* ``Design build'' teams were formed to develop the plane, with representatives from various functions such as engineering, production, and procurement. Customers such as United Airlines were also involved from the start to offer advice. ``At the peak we had 230 of these design-build teams operating,'' says Boeing spokeswoman Barbara Murphy.
* Computers reduced the need for building costly mock-ups of parts and helped engineers catch misalignments. The ``paperless'' design process also reinforced teamwork, allowing engineering and production people to work concurrently.
* The airplane is Boeing's first fly-by-wire jet, in which mechanical connections from cockpit to rudders and wing flaps are replaced by electrical connections. Airbus already has fly-by-wire planes.
* Positions of seats, galleys, and lavatories can be reconfigured in 72 hours, versus two weeks for other Boeing jets. An airline that wants to offer three classes of seats instead of two can save a lot of money by making the switch with little downtime for the plane.
Market conditions are tough now, with US airlines ordering few planes after four years of widespread red ink and European carriers also in trouble. But Boeing sees the long-term outlook as promising, with 5 percent annual growth in air traffic worldwide.
Still, the 777's roughly $4 billion development costs were so high that profits will come only after about six or seven years of deliveries, Mr. Nisbet says. The base price for a 777 is $115 million. In the last four years, 147 of the jets have been ordered.
Boeing is considering a stretch version of the plane to seat 400.