Analysis: Concerns of 787 delay build as Boeing studies fire

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Boeing is racing to get its long-delayed 787 Dreamliner in the hands of its first customer, but an electrical fire and emergency landing of a test flight this week has made headwinds stronger.

The incident on Tuesday casts doubt on Boeing’s ability to make first delivery of the light-weight carbon-composite aircraft — already nearly three years behind schedule — by the middle of the first quarter of 2011. Many aviation experts had already questioned that timetable after recent snags in the supply chain disrupted testing. But the electrical problem that filled the main cabin with smoke two days ago was unexpected. Several analysts rushed to predict another delay.
“This doesn’t fall under the heading of a production problem or a predictable hiccup. This is something they really need to investigate that’s unexpected,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president at aviation consultancy Teal Group. “It’s not going to be a show-stopper, but it’s going to be a major hassle.”

Aboulafia said 787 customers are confident the plane will ultimately be successful, but the delivery schedule and production rate remain in question. Boeing shares have fallen about 5 percent from the market close on Tuesday. Boeing halted test flights for the Dreamliner, but said it would continue ground testing. The world’s second-largest commercial aircraft maker after Airbus (EAD.PA) said on Wednesday it was too soon to tell if the incident would force a delay to the delivery schedule.
“We cannot determine the impact of this event on the overall program schedule until we have worked our way through the data,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration was also investigating. Boeing has said the plane lost primary electrical power because of an onboard electrical fire, which sent smoke into the cabin on the plane’s final approach to Laredo, Texas.

The company said a power control panel in the electronics bay at the back of the plane will need to be replaced and other repairs may be necessary. The company is now analyzing flight data as it tries to discover the cause of the fire. The aircraft, dubbed ZA002, has made 179 flights and clocked nearly 560 hours in the air. The six planes in the airborne testing program have logged nearly 2,400 hours of flight.

Cai von Rumohr, an analyst at Cowen and Co, said that, as long as the nature of the electrical problem on the flight remains unknown, doubts will cloud the delivery schedule. “Because the longer it takes them (to determine a cause), presumably the more complicated the situation is,” he said. “An electric power system is very complex system.”

A substantial redesign of any electrical system on the plane could have repercussions throughout the program, he said. “Then we would expect the schedule will see another slip,” von Rumohr said. “So you get nasty things happening with the supply chain.”



In August, Boeing pushed back delivery of its first 787 by several weeks because of a delay in the availability of a Rolls-Royce Plc (RR.L) engine needed for the final phases of flight testing. In late October, Boeing said it would tell suppliers to halt deliveries of sections for its 787 Dreamliner for two weeks because of delays at Alenia, a unit of Italian defense and aerospace company Finmeccanica SpA. Alenia makes a key part for the tail of the plane.