Boeing 787 Fire Likely to Delay Deliveries -- Again

Last Updated Nov 17, 2010 12:41 PM EST

Last week, a Boeing (BA) 787 in the middle of testing experienced an onboard fire and had to divert. The fire was serious enough that the test fleet is still grounded, and this puts doubt into the current, already very-delayed delivery schedule of the airplane. And that puts pressure on Boeing from all sides.

When Airbus kept pushing back its first delivery date of the A380 aircraft, the company took a lot of heat for not sticking to the schedule. There was one company, however, that did no such thing. Boeing refused criticize on Airbus, because it understood the difficulty in getting a new airplane certified and flying for an airline. Now it finds itself in the same position, but it's likely to be worse for Boeing than it was for Airbus.

The A380 is a niche airplane, and while delays did hurt the customers that wanted it, it's hardly a game-changing aircraft like the 787. With more than 1,000 orders and options, the 787 is the cornerstone of many airlines' future fleets. It's mostly-composite body combined with efficient engines will allow fewer people to travel farther for less . . . when it gets delivered.

The electrical fire onboard last week caps what has been an awful development cycle for Boeing. The 787 has faced all sorts of delays due to problems that one might expect for an innovative new airplane like the 787. But for airlines, plans for future growth continue to be put on hold by Boeing's failures.

When Japan's ANA placed the first order for the 787 (then called the 7E7) in 2004, it expected the first delivery to be in April 2008. Here we are in November 2010 and the first delivery still hasn't happened. While it's currently expected to happen early next year, that's now in doubt.

While it's not entirely clear what happened, it seems that there were a number of systems failures on the 787 that, thanks to system redundancies, did not prevent the plane from safely landing. But major failures are of great concern and that's why the fleet is grounded. Now speculation is that deliveries will be pushed back to 2012 as they work to solve the problem up in Washington.

This is not only terrible for the airlines that are relying on this airplane (some like Continental, have already announced route start dates), but it hurts Boeing in competition. When it launched, Airbus was so caught up with the A380 that it was going to be many years before it could have a competitor to the 787. That airplane, the A350, is now expected to be delivered in 2013.

When the 787 launched, there was no other option for a game-changing aircraft. As the 787 continues to slip, the A350 becomes even more competitive. But you won't see Airbus crowing about that. The company knows all too well that aircraft delays can happen to anyone. This is just Boeing's turn.

Related:

Photo via Flickr user Dave Sizer/CC 2.0