Years late, Boeing's dream is finally realised

The Dreamliner first rolled out of the hangar in 2007. So why is it only now ready to fly? Simon Calder reports

The most unusual building in the vast Boeing complex at Everett, north of Seattle, resembles a chic interior-design studio.

Click HERE to download graphic: Boeing's Big Baby Flies The Nest (272.56kB)

The elegant curves of the Dreamliner Gallery embrace the ultimate pick-and-mix showroom. Customers for the world's most advanced airliner choose fixtures and fittings from economy-class seats and business-class bidets to coffee makers and the galley sink. Executives from the dozens of airlines with orders for the Boeing 787 have been flown here to make their selection. But so far none has seen their shiny new toys take to the skies.

Last night, Boeing officials were hoping that a ceremony at Everett marking Federal Aviation Administration approval of the new "Dreamliner" will signal a change in fortunes.

The first of 55 Boeing 787s for the launch customer, ANA of Japan, is due to land in Tokyo a month today. But Britain's airlines must wait for several years for theirs to arrive.

"Certification is a milestone that validates what we have promised the world," said Jim Albaugh, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes.

The aircraft represents the most radical innovation in aviation since the Boeing 747 entered service 41 years ago. So high is the 787's specification that, even with a score of cancellations this year, it has the biggest pre-launch order book of any wide-bodied jet. Airlines are hungry for the 20 per cent fuel saving compared with other "big twins", while environmentalists long for the new plane to replace old, thirsty and dirty aircraft.

"The Dreamliner promises to be much cheaper to fly than the aircraft it will replace," said Douglas McNeil, analyst with Charles Stanley Securities. "With $100 oil seemingly here to stay, that can't come quickly enough for the airline industry."

The biggest beneficiaries, though, should be the 250 or so passengers aboard each plane. For the first time, passenger comfort has been at the heart of the design. The windows are much larger than on current aircraft, and are fitted with "smart glass" that is designed to reduce glare and obviate the need for individual shutters.

Unlike present aircraft, which are pressurised to an altitude of 8,000 feet, the 787 is calibrated to 6,000 feet. This margin greatly reduces the debilitating effects of a long flight. Even though the first scheduled link is a Japanese domestic hop of just 340 miles, the 787's range of 8,800 miles will enable non-stop connections from London to previously hard-to-reach destinations such as Bali, Honolulu and the Chilean capital, Santiago. Shorter routes previously abandoned as uneconomic could re-appear: Anchorage, New Orleans, Durban in South Africa, the Peruvian capital Lima and Manila in the Philippines are obvious candidates.

When the British traveller might be able to step aboard such flights remains as hazy as a foggy day at Heathrow. New aircraft traditionally experience delivery delays, but none has experienced a succession of setbacks on the scale of the 787. The plane that was rolled out of the hangar at Everett with much ceremony on 8 July 2007 (7-8-7 according to the US style for dates) was far from ready for take-off. Some failings have been mechanical, such as gaps in the horizontal stabilizers and a surge in a Rolls-Royce engine on a test flight. Information technology has also posed problems, with delays in completing flight software and even fears that passengers using the on-board internet could hack into the flight systems. And even though the 787 uses far fewer fasteners – rivets and bolts – than current aircraft, shortages of these essential components has caused extra delays.

First Choice Airways ordered six of the jets for delivery in 2009. The airline has since been absorbed into Thomson, which declined to say when it might fly the plane. Virgin Atlantic had planned to be flying the 787 this summer, but is now anticipating the summer of 2014. British Airways, which chose its reservations phone number because it ends "787", has two dozen on order – but yesterday all it would say was: "We are in negotiations with Boeing over the delivery schedule."