- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Boeing Co. has again delayed the first test flight of its long-awaited 787 jetliner in the latest setback for an aircraft that has bolstered the company’s order book and redefined the way it builds planes.

The Chicago-based aerospace giant said Tuesday it needs to reinforce small areas of the plane before conducting the test flight, which Boeing had insisted would occur before July.

Boeing said a revised schedule for the flight, as well as first deliveries to customers, will not be announced for several weeks.

The announcement comes as Boeing, the world’s second-largest commercial airplane maker, and European archrival Airbus SA grapple with slumping orders for their jets as the recession dampens demand for air travel and cargo services. Tight credit markets also have muted orders for new planes.

The test flight of the 787, a next-generation aircraft built for fuel efficiency with lightweight carbon-composite parts, originally was planned for late 2007. But Boeing postponed it repeatedly because of production glitches and a strike that forced the company to shut down its commercial aircraft factories for eight weeks last fall.

Deliveries of the long-range widebody, meanwhile, have been delayed four times already. Customers had expected to get the first of the new jets in the first quarter of 2010 - nearly two years behind schedule. The delays have cost Boeing credibility and billions of dollars in anticipated expenses and penalties.

Boeing said it discovered an area in the side-of-body section of the aircraft that requires reinforcement during recent tests on the first of the airplanes.

Scott Fancher, Boeing’s 787 program manager, said 18 areas measuring about 1 to 2 square inches near the place where each wing meets the fuselage need to be reinforced, for a total of 36 areas that need reinforcement.

“We are already moving toward a solution,” he said in a conference call.

During a test late last month that involved bending the 787’s wings, workers discovered greater-than-expected stress in the plane’s side-of-body structure, according to Pat Shanahan, vice president and general manager of airplane programs for Boeing’s commercial airplane division.

Preliminary analysis indicated Boeing could go ahead with the test flight, but “after further testing and analysis, which we finished late last week, our team concluded that a productive flight test program could not take place without structural reinforcement in limited areas,” he said.

“This is a structural reinforcement issue, not an issue of materials or workmanship,” Mr. Shanahan said. “Composites are the right choice for airplane structure.”

He added: “We will correct this situation and do so with both care and urgency.”

The 787 is the first commercial jet made mostly of light, sturdy carbon-fiber composites instead of aluminum. Large parts of the plane, such as the fuselage sections and wings, are made in a number of factories around the world and flown in a huge modified 747 to Boeing’s widebody plant in the Seattle area, where they are essentially snapped together.

The 787 production team will continue testing the airplane, performing tests such as low-speed taxiing, Boeing said. Work also will continue on five other test planes and other 787s in the production system, it said.

The 787 is Boeing’s first new aircraft since the 777, which was introduced more than a decade ago.

Boeing said its financial guidance will be updated to reflect any impact from the changes when the company issues its second-quarter 2009 earnings report in July.

Paul Nisbet, an analyst at JSA Research, said the announcement was “not good news,” and that Boeing had said in recent days at the Paris Air Show that the plane was ready to fly.

“I don’t think it means much overall, but it certainly is a disappointment short term,” he said.

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