S.C. Dreamliner set to soar

The first Dreamliner assembled in South Carolina, which was introduced amid great fanfare last month, is expected to take flight within a week. file/grace beahm/staff

The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner assembled in South Carolina will take flight sometime in the next week, the company said Tuesday, with the exact date to be announced today.

“It could be between now and another week,” Boeing South Carolina spokeswoman Candy Eslinger said.

The disclosure followed remarks that Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Jim Albaugh made about the flight earlier in the day at the company’s annual investor conference in St. Louis. The takeoff will mark another milestone for the North Charleston plane-making operation.

LN 46, as the plane is known internally, rolled out of the final assembly building for the first time April 27, and has been undergoing engine tests and other checks along the campus flight line since.

If everything goes according to schedule — including a paint job in Texas and more testing upon its return to North Charleston — the first locally made 787 passenger jet will be delivered to Air India late next month.

That will be a big celebration, but Boeing, America’s largest exporter, has bigger issues to worry about, such as the looming U.S. defense budget cuts and several ambitious commercial airplane production rate ramp-ups.

And that’s what the company’s top executives spent most of their time talking about during the investor conference.

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney discussed the aerospace giant’s increasingly international sales for military and commercial jets, and Boeing finance chief Greg Smith reviewed the company’s record $380 billion work backlog and the plan to bring the Dreamliner program to maturity and profitability.

Albaugh, who has previously spoken highly of the young North Charleston Dreamliner operation, said both the aft- and mid-body fuselage-making units on the local campus have been upgraded significantly since Boeing bought them from Vought Aircraft Industries and Global Aeronautica.

But he added that the local campus still has a ways to go before workers can produce enough sections to meet next year’s goal of 10 jets per month.

He said Boeing has sent engineers from Everett, Wash., the 787 program headquarters, to South Carolina to solve shimming and other problems, part of “a very pro-active approach” Boeing is taking in getting its newest plant up to speed.

“This is not hoping we can get it done,” Albaugh said. “This is taking all the bottlenecks out.”

He said the spinning machines that form the composite sections of the plane “don’t clean up as well as we think they should,” and Eslinger confirmed that five of them have been undergoing replacement since the middle of last year.

She also said a new piece of equipment that drills and fills holes in the fuselage sections is being installed.

Albaugh addressed the extended version of the Dreamliner, the 787-9. The fuselages for that version will be produced in North Charleston beginning this year.

Albaugh said there had been some “slippage” in the schedule for the 787–9. But compared with the delays associated with the 787-8, the first Dreamliner model, Albaugh said, “we’re doing a much better job of risk management.”

Generally speaking, he said Boeing’s seven-year work backlog is too long and is driving away customers.

“If the demand is there, we’ve got to match the capacity with the demand. We’re giving up market share if we don’t,” Albaugh said.

The 787 program, which is producing 3.5 planes a month now, is scheduled to go to five per month this fall.

Air India also has experienced some problems recently. It has been losing money since merging with Indian Airlines in 2007, and for the past week hundreds of its pilots have been striking, leading to canceled flights, accusations and recriminations, and further financial problems for the airline.

According to press reports, the legacy Air India pilots are protesting unpaid wages and a plan to train their colleagues from the former Indian Airlines in how to fly the 27 Dreamliners the national carrier has on order.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Previous versions of this story incorrectly stated the value of the company’s current work backlog. The Post and Courier regrets the error.