Boeing said yesterday that it would delay the first test flight of the 787 Dreamliner by about three months, the first significant setback to the development of the fastest-selling commercial aircraft in history.
The company said that it did not expect the delay to postpone delivery of the first plane to All Nippon Airways of Japan in May. But it will be a significant compression of the program for testing and safety certification, Boeing said.
"This adds pressure and some increased risk," Mike Bair, general manager of the 787 program, acknowledged during a conference call from Seattle. But he stressed that the company placed the highest importance on meeting its delivery deadlines. Forty-eight customers have ordered a combined 707 planes -- worth more than $100 billion at list prices.
Investors shuddered initially at the news, which evoked fears of a crisis similar to the one that hit the Airbus A380 super-jumbo plane last year. Troubles linked to the design and installation of the A380's electrical wiring snowballed into a devastating two-year delay in deliveries, saddling the company with heavy financial losses.
Speculation about a 787 flight-test delay has been mounting for months. At the Paris Air Show in June, Scott Carson, chief executive of Boeing's commercial aircraft division, indicated that the company expected to have the first 787 flying by the end of September -- already a month later than a previous August target. At the time, Boeing attributed the delay to a global shortage of fasteners that hold the plane's huge fuselage, wing and tail sections together.
Bair said yesterday that in addition to the fastener shortage, the company and its production partners had run into unanticipated snags involving production of certain specialized parts for the plane as well as the programming of its flight-control software.
He described every new aircraft development program as a "voyage of discovery" that often involves hiccups that cannot be anticipated even by state-of-the-art computer modeling software and logistics experts.
"We underestimated the complexity" of the production process, Bair said. "We didn't simulate missing thousands of fasteners, so we were surprised by that. It wasn't something that was on our radar screen."
The delay announced yesterday leaves the company six months to test and certify the six planes in the testing program.
"It was already a very aggressive flight-test program," said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group, an aerospace consulting firm in Virginia. "Now it's an extremely aggressive one."