Boeing 787 test flight by year end? Not bloody likely

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With Monday afternoon's news that Scott Carson has been replaced as head of its division that makes the aicraft, why should you care whether Boeing (BA) can test its 787 Dreamliner? If you're a Boeing investor, your net worth could take a nasty hit if the 787 can't make it to cruising altitude: the 787 accounts for a $154 billion backlog, almost half of Boeing's total. And if you fly, you'll want to be sure all the creature comforts I described in You Can't Order Change don't come with the risk of falling out of the sky.

That's why the latest information I received from a source who spent two years consulting to Boeing is important. This source contacted an insider at Boeing's Commercial Aviation Services unit who confirms that Boeing is flying six test aircraft, three of which have no commercial value, since nobody would buy them -- which resulted in last week's $2.5 billion charge.

The big news? The source believes that -- contrary to Boeing's statement last week -- the 787 will not achieve its first flight this year. "First flight likelihood is after the first of the year," my source tells me, "unless they plan on flying the airplane for publicity reasons -- but it won't have much test value."

And since different customers want different engine manufacturers for the 787, Boeing intends to test engines from two makers: "Four of the test airplanes are Rolls-Royce engines," my source says, "and two are General Electric" (GE). Boeing, my source says, has yet to decide many important details of its test-flight plan. "There still is no commitment on aircraft, flight test, or number of aircraft in the test," my source says. "There are six test aircraft, but the actual number flying and when has not been determined."

One other problem: the wiring on the test aircraft is not up to the standards for flying the 787 commercially -- but there's been no decision on how to rewire it. "They may do some rewiring of the first six airplanes to bring them up to the latest Block Point release" -- a technical standard found on the first commercial 787 airplane, my source says.

Finally, problems with the environmental control system are apparently getting worse: "To add on to what your electrical source said," my contact tells me, "they are still having problems that are getting worse, not better," with the ECS, the "ram fan" (which handles cooling and pressurization), and "loadshed and loadshare" (the component that moves electricity from one system to another, permitting critical functions to occur).

If my source is right, look for a delay or cancellation of a 787 test flight by year-end. And it would not surprise me a bit if the decision to replace Carson with the head of Boeing's defense business, Jim Albaugh, is the price Carson paid for two years of 787 schedule delays.

Peter Cohan is amanagement consultant, Babson professor and author of eight books, includingYou Can't Order Change. Follow him on Twitter. He owns GE shares and has no financial interest in the other securities mentioned.

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