It might be the longest air travel delay in history. Yesterday, 10.27am on 15 December 2009, the Boeing 787 "Dreamliner" took off from the aircraft giant's factory at Paine Field in Everett, north of Seattle – two and a half years late.
On a grey morning, with hundreds of Boeing employees looking on, the aircraft gracefully began its first test flight, marking a moment in aviation history. The Dreamliner is the first commercial aircraft made of lightweight composite materials, with the potential to dramatically reduce the fuel costs of air travel. It could give Boeing a decisive lead in its never-ending rivalry with Europe's Airbus. It could mark the start of a recovery in the recession-battered airline industry. Those Boeing employees – and the chief executive, Jim McNerney, who also turned out to watch – certainly hope so. Because for months, it has looked like a bird that won't fly.
"It's important to stabilise this programme, and to send a message to the world that this is a real aircraft," says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at the research firm Teal Group, "because there are some understandable doubts in the back of people's minds. Beyond that, a lot of work is still ahead for Boeing.
"They must get the Federal Aviation Authority comfortable with the safety and durability of a plane like this, they have to ramp up production and there will inevitably be refinement of the design, too. But if the plane comes close to performing as advertised, it will be a huge earner."
Mr Aboulafia suggests a headline for an article on the test flight. "How about: 'It really is the future... this time... we think'?"
The people of the world made a great choice, Boeing's marketing boss gushed back in 2003, when the name of the plane was selected by internet poll. It was no to eLiner, the Stratoclimber and the Global Cruiser, thumbs up to the Dreamliner.
"The name demonstrates how the airplane's economics will enable more people around the world to fulfil their dreams of travelling to new places, experiencing new cultures and staying connected to one another," said Rob Pollack, vice-president of branding. "It reflects a new airplane that will fulfil the dreams of airlines and passengers with its efficient operations, enhanced cabin environment, and the ability to allow profitable connection to more cities without stopovers."
But in contrast to the dreamy sentiments, what lay in store was a gathering nightmare for Boeing. Senior executives would lose sleep, some would lose their jobs, and the company would lose billions of dollars as chaos reigned in the design and production process. It is four years since Alan Mulally, then head of Boeing's commercial aircraft division (and now chief executive at the Ford car company), attended a glitzy ceremony in Washington to unveil 60 orders from China, to declare that the Dreamliner would be numbered the 787 in honour of the Chinese belief in 8 as a lucky number, and to promise that the first deliveries could be used to ferry attendees to the Beijing Olympics. It was pie not even in the sky.
What went wrong? At the heart of the problem was Boeing's decision to outsource not just the manufacturing of parts – a commonplace in the industry – but also the design and some of the assembly of the aircraft to its most trusted suppliers. The idea was that the heavily unionised Boeing factory in Seattle would simply be the last stop, where the main parts of a largely prefabricated aircraft would be bolted together.
But with partners scattered across the world – including Vought in South Carolina and Alenia in Italy making different parts of the fuselage – Boeing executives found themselves too often out of the loop as problems mounted. What followed was a comedy of errors. Workers in Seattle found instructions coming to them in Italian that then needed to be translated. A shortage of bolts meant that, at its photographic debut for the world's press, the 787 was being held together by temporary fasteners. In the end, Boeing had to take over Vought's factory and send scores of managers to oversee other partners.
And then, finally, in June this year there was another blow: hangar-based tests simulating the stresses of flight revealed weaknesses where the wings attach to the fuselage, meaning emergency work to reinforce the body of the craft would be needed. In October, Boeing reported a quarterly loss as it took a $2.5bn charge to cover the delays, including the retooling of deals with suppliers and furious Dreamliner customers. Mr McNerney says the cost of the latest six-month delay "gets lost in the rounding" when compared with the profits it can make when the plane is flying.
But yesterday's take-off is just that – the start of the next leg of a journey that may, or may not, end with Dreamliner as one of the most bankable vehicles in Boeing's fleet. The company's chief test pilot, former Navy test pilot Mike Carriker, will put the aircraft through its paces along with a small team of colleagues over the next few months, to stress test the modifications that have been needed to the design and to learn more about fuel use and other issues with the aircraft.
"In order to get to a point where the plane can be certified by the FAA, the question is what kinds of structural reinforcement will be needed, and how much will that offset some of the weight savings advertised," Mr Aboulafia said. "They placed a level of trust in the design and integration responsibilities of their partners. It sounded great to executives: 'We can fire lots of engineers, give the money to shareholders, and I can go and buy a yacht.' Except it needed a greater degree of oversight and more in-house resources."
The test pilot, for one, is optimistic. "We have a plastic airplane," Mr Carriker told the Seattle Times yesterday. "It's the first time anybody in the industry has taken a large composite wing with a composite spar and gone whipping out. Obviously, we think we're OK, otherwise we wouldn't go fly. But the proof is still in the pudding."
The Dreamliner's promise is in the materials used in production. Instead of aluminium, the fuselage is made mainly of carbon fibre-reinforced plastic. That makes it much lighter, and potentially 20 per cent more fuel efficient on long-haul flights. Composite materials have long been used in military aircraft, but never before in a commercial plane. Airbus will not have its own composite rival, the A350, ready until 2013.
At a time when Airbus was heavily marketing the thunking great A380, nicknamed the super-jumbo, the Dreamliner appealed to airline executives' most pressing challenges: how to reduce fuel costs and to prepare for greater deregulation of air travel. The super-jumbo worked with the traditional hub-and-spoke operations of global airlines, ferrying more than 500 passengers on long-haul flights to transfer to smaller planes for onward journeys. The Dreamliner promised point-to-point travel in a smaller, lighter aircraft that would carry 290 to 330 passengers. After a slow start, orders ticked higher, first steadily and then in a torrent. Airlines had ordered more than 900 at the peak. Today, after some cancellations, there are still 840, worth about $140bn, plenty enough to make people worry about how quickly Boeing will be able to satisfy the demand.
"At one point there were questions about whether this was a viable aircraft, but the Dreamliner struck the sweet spot of the market – and Boeing was first," says Alex Hamilton, an aerospace analyst at Jesup & Lamont. "Everyone is forgetting what an engineering feat this is... some delays should always have been expected. From fuel efficiency, the materials involved and fact that the Dreamliner is only assembled, rather than built, in Seattle, for the unionisation of the industry, for the global economy, the implications are almost endless."