Delivery day is finally here, Charleston.
After a summer of delays and uncertainty, the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner built in South Carolina will be signed over to Air India this morning and will fly away Saturday afternoon, the plane maker announced Thursday.
The culmination of more than a year of “firsts” since the North Charleston final-assembly building opened last June, the milestone will be marked with a signing ceremony inside the campus delivery center, followed by a ribbon-cutting beside the red, white and gold jet outside.
Perhaps due to the serial postponements, it will not be accompanied by the sort of large-scale celebration that had been anticipated earlier this year.
Tim Deaton, the Boeing spokesman, said a small group of company officials and employees would be joined by a delegation from the Indian national carrier, but it was unclear if any local public officials would be there for the 8:30 a.m. start.
“It’ll be a low-key event,” Deaton said of the handover of Boeing’s first commercial airplane built outside Washington State since World War II. “We won’t have a lot of speeches and things like that.”
When the jet rolled out of the factory in late April, then-Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh said it would be delivered in June. Gov. Nikki Haley said that day that she would be back for the delivery, but as it turns out, she won’t, her spokesman confirmed Thursday.
Longtime observers of the 787 program have grown accustomed to such delays and changes of plan.
“I don’t think there’s been any single event ... that has not been late,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of The Teal Group in Virginia. He said whatever the target date, “just add a couple of months to it ... or a couple of years.”
Air India ordered 27 of the fuel-efficient, twin-aisle airplanes in 2005, and expected to start picking them up in 2008. The first deliveries seemed imminent in May, but it wasn’t until June that Air India and Boeing agreed to a compensation package for the years of delay.
Then the Indian government had to approve the undisclosed compensation deal, and that didn’t happen until Aug. 3. Meanwhile, two Dreamliners assembled in Everett, Wash., were flown to North Charleston. Air India eventually took those planes last month.
On Sept. 19, Boeing South Carolina Vice President and General Manager Jack Jones said his plant’s first jet, known internally as LN 46, was ready and that he hoped to deliver it “next week.” But that didn’t happen.
“You know how these things go,” Deaton said. “It goes when all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.”
Dinesh Keskar, Boeing’s top salesman for India, said there was no delay, just the processes of Air India and the Indian government.
“You need two things to be ready — the airplane needs to be ready, and the customer needs to be ready,” he said.
Cash-strapped Air India had issued a request for $500 million bridge financing for its third through sixth Dreamliners. Then on Thursday, Airfinance Journal, citing a source at Air India, reported that the carrier would be getting a loan of about $100 million from Boeing to finance its third 787.
Saj Ahmad, the London-based chief analyst with strategicaeroresearch.com, said that “speaks volumes” about Air India’s financial reputation.
“As lender of last resort, Boeing was never going to say ‘no’ to a loan for Air India,” Ahmad wrote in an email Thursday. “Boeing will of course have preferred the customer to seek money from other sources, but it can ill afford to have assets (787s) sat around doing nothing either, so delivering them provides a sliver of hope that the airline makes money to then pay Boeing back.”
Keskar declined to discuss finances, instead saying Air India had to find time for its limited number of pilots and crew trained to operate 787s to come to Charleston.
“They are operating two airplanes right now,” Keskar said. “They cannot just drop those and come here. These are all operational logistics that I’m not smart on.”
An Air India spokesman did not respond to an email seeking comment Thursday, and hasn’t responded to Post and Courier inquiries for three months.
Keskar said he and “about a dozen” senior officials and crew from Air India arrived Thursday afternoon in Charleston, and that the foreign delegation was resting up for today’s event and Saturday’s fly-away.
The delivery, the 28th Dreamliner handover since they began a year ago, is the last step in a plane-making process that began years ago.
Taking final form over the course of the winter and spring, the jet first flew in May, returned from being painted in Texas in June, went for more test flights thereafter, then waited.
Now it’s ready to go, and Air India seems ready to take it.
“I’m excited,” Keskar said. “You guys should be excited. This airplane is finally delivering.”
Reach Brendan Kearney at 937-5906 and on Twitter, @kearney_brendan.