Will Boeing's 787 really fly this year?

Boeing (BA) announced that it expects to test fly its Dreamliner 787 by the end of 2009. But the 787 -- which has generated 850 orders and a $154 billion backlog -- was supposed to start flying two years ago and it's been delayed five times already. At the Paris Air Show in mid-June 2009, Boeing told the public that the 787 would fly by the end of that month -- only to announce an indefinite delay at the end of June.

So is Boeing's latest deadline going to be the real thing or just another head fake? If you believe the stock market, the 787 will indeed fly this year -- Boeing stock spiked 8.5 percent yesterday. Boeing is taking a $2.5 billion non-cash charge because airlines are balking at purchasing its first six test aircraft.

And based on announced problems -- structural weakness where the wing and fuselage join and fuselage wrinkling -- not to mention possible problems with the 787's Environmental Control System (ECS) and Electrical System (ES) -- I can understand airline reluctance.

But Boeing's CEO, Jim McNerney, is confident. He told the Wall Street Journal, "We have a high degree of confidence in the fix and the time it will take. [The new testing and production schedule includes] some cushion . . . against the possibility of unknowns."

But interviews with sources familiar with the 787 program are not confident that Boeing really has the problem licked. They describe very rigorous testing of five aircraft, with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials keeping close tabs. One source claims that the FAA establishes the requirements for certification and suggests that Boeing will have a tough time satisfying them.

And that plan is very rigorous. As he told me, "The plan Boeing has is to use multiple test platforms, I believe it is five airplanes for flight test, and fly aircraft around the clock seven days a week. Yes, they will have to fly the aircraft at all altitudes in all conditions of flight, including such wonderful conditions such as icing, rain, snow, ice, etc."

And that's not all. My source says that Boeing will "have to test the aircraft under specific test parameters and conditions at a great variety of altitudes within the design envelope. All the tests are supervised by FAA personnel and there are FAA pilots assigned to the test program. It's not like the FDA or other government agencies that allow companies to be 'honest,' the FAA guards their own hen house, and they have very big teeth!"

Based on this source's information about the ECS, the 787 is not likely to pass. As he told me, "It will not be able to fly above 12,000 feet unless everyone is on oxygen. So it would only be able to perform very few successful tests."

But another source believes that Boeing will not even be bringing in the FAA for 2009's flight tests. He sees a sequence of tests in which Boeing tries to get its test pilots comfortable with the aircraft before bringing in the FAA. And the other source is not comfortable with the ES.

As he said, "If the ES is not safe the test pilots won't fly. If it has known bugs but they are safe to fly with the pilots and engineers will fly and adjust their tests around those as required. Once the bugs are resolved Boeing will test the electrical first, ensure it passes all required tests and then they invite FAA along after that to certify that functionality."

Will the 787 fly this year? To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of 787 is.

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

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