Flying on the Boeing 787 is one of the most sought-after experiences in today’s air transport system—that is the message from airlines operating the new twinjet on a growing network of routes around the world.

This, of course, was Boeing’s goal from the start of the program a decade ago, but getting there has not been easy. The 787’s troubled development, production and entry into service is well-documented (see interactive feature) and the company learned bitter lessons from it that have been rigorously applied to follow-on 787 derivatives as well as the impending 737 MAX and 777X families.

Now, with the 787-9 stretch version poised for service entry and more than 160 787-8s delivered, the program is finally entering a calmer phase. After a disappointing start with systems and software-related issues, most airlines are now approaching 777-like reliability levels with their 787 fleets. Many are also using the 787 to open up new point-to-point, long-haul routes that cannot be economically flown by any other aircraft, in most cases. Most significantly, and the raison d’etre for the 787, operators are also reporting significantly lower fuel burn per seat compared with older models such as the 767-300ER—20-22%, depending on the length of the flight.

With deliveries expected to surge to three aircraft per week on average this summer, Boeing says another 15 new operators will be flying the 787 by year-end, virtually doubling the current user group which in June included 19 airlines (see table, page 78). “It is a big deal in terms of growth,” says the 787 chief project engineer and vice president, Bob Whittington. In the weeks before the Farnborough air show, average daily fleet utilization was around 300 departures and more than 1,650 revenue flight hours. 

Despite last year’s fleet grounding due to the battery problems, the aircraft passed the 100,000-revenue-departures milestone earlier this year and has carried 20 million passengers. Dispatch reliability is now running at 98.5% on a three-month moving average. “So we are getting into an area which is pretty consistent with other medium twins [such as the Boeing 767/Airbus A330 class],” he adds. Most days the rate is “running just under 99%, so the reliability is coming up on the aircraft,” Whittington notes. “We spend a lot of time so we can get to where the customer is, which is the 777. [It] sets the benchmark, and that’s where we are headed. We will be well entrenched with the rest of the medium twins by midyear and headed to 777-benchmark probably by the second quarter of 2015. Right now we are about 1 percent behind,” says Whittington. Late in 2013 the average dispatch reliability for the total in-service 787 fleet was at 97.5%, still significantly lower than the 99.2% dispatch reliability target set by Boeing for two years after entry into service.

Boeing is targeting improvements to the spoiler control units and brakes, which Whittington describes as “the top two delay drivers,” and continues to simplify the display and control alerting (DCA) software to reduce the third-largest cause of delays, nuisance messages. Electromechanical actuators control two of the seven spoiler pairs on each wing, while hydraulic actuators control the remainder. As with many aspects of the 787 design, the technology level in these areas is beyond that of any other airliner, which itself has represented a challenge to introduce into day-to-day service. According to the FAA and the Boeing Critical Systems Review Team tasked with reporting on the 787 after the January 2013 battery incidents, the spoiler control represents the first use of an electromechanical actuator on the primary control surface of a production civil jet airliner or military aircraft.

“The good news is this is also the first aircraft in aviation history where the pneumatic system is not the primary delay driver,” Whittington quips, referring to the use of more electric systems in place of the conventional pneumatic system. Improvements to the DCA software load have “dropped flight deck effects by about half,” he adds. Notable flight deck incidents such as a reported triple flight management system failure on an Air India aircraft in February “turned out to be a software glitch that was in the software from the beginning,” he says. “We have a software patch for that, and it is being installed now.”

Boeing is relentlessly backtracking through each software fix to weed out issues, explains Whittington. “We are at about 85 percent first-time quality, so [in] about 15 percent of the fixes we put out we didn’t get it all. As we lower the water level in the lake, something else pops out we didn’t see. At the moment, 85 percent take care of the problems, and as we move to 99.5 percent we will take every delay and break it down by root cause. We will then drop hardware and software fixes into the fleet.” 

However, finding time to install the upgrades is a problem. “The airplane gets 20-22 percent better fuel burn and the airlines are reluctant to bring [the aircraft] down for more than an overnight to put these fixes into them because they love the fuel burn. As a result, we have a little bit of a lag between the release of the update and the incorporation of the service bulletins.”

All Nippon Airways (ANA) was the first carrier to operate the 787-8, and its fleet of 28 is still the largest. It was severely affected by early incidents such as the battery-related global fleet grounding. But now ANA says it is “satisfied” with the 787’s reliability and dispatch reliability is “almost the same as other aircraft” in its fleet. The airline says it is not experiencing any inflight issues and the 787’s performance and operating economics are meeting expectations. ANA uses the type in five configurations on domestic, medium- and long-haul international routes. Some 787 routes are new, while the type has replaced other aircraft on other routes. 

Japan Airlines (JAL) was the second 787 operator and has 15 in service. The “failure rate has shown a trend of decline compared with the [early] period of its commercial operation,” the carrier notes. “We have been cooperating with Boeing and related [manufacturers] to further improve the 787’s quality.” JAL says the operating economics of the aircraft have been as forecast, with the reduced fuel consumption particularly noticeable on long-haul routes. The 787s have been using 20% less fuel than JAL’s 777s and 767s, the carrier adds. Also, customer feedback shows the cabin environment is comfortable and the higher humidity levels are being noticed.

Australian low-cost carrier Jetstar has taken delivery of five 787-8s that are replacing its Airbus A330s on long-haul routes. “The reliability is close to our other widebody aircraft and is improving as we incorporate reliability improvements from Boeing and as our engineers gain more experience on this new type,” says Mark Dal Pra, the airline’s 787 program director. “Boeing has delivered a significant number of service bulletins to improve reliability and these have had a positive impact,” Dal Pra notes.

“While there have been teething issues, which are to be expected with a new type, we are very pleased with the overall performance of the aircraft, and we are receiving positive feedback from our customers,” he says. The 787s are delivering “significant benefits” in fuel efficiency and lower unit costs, Dal Pra says. “We expect to see more as we gain scale and move from a hybrid widebody fleet to an all-787 fleet through to 2015.”

United Airlines, the sole U.S.-based operator of the type so far, is very pleased with its 787s. “[The aircraft] is exceeding our expectations on several fronts,” United says. “The aircraft’s superior operating economics enable us to serve new markets such as Chengdu, China; Melbourne, Australia; and Lagos, Nigeria.” The 787 “not only delivers on the efficiency promised, but it is by far the most popular aircraft in our fleet for both customers and employees,” the airline notes. “Last year, the 787 had the highest customer satisfaction scores, on average more than 15 points higher than the rest of our fleet.”

Belgium-based Jetairfly, which took delivery of its initial 787 in December, was the first to receive a Boeing award for operating the first 100 flights with 100% reliability. The airline, a subsidiary of Europe’s largest tourism group, TUI Travel, has also operated almost 500 flights with a dispatch reliability of 98.6%. Fuel-consumption savings compared with its 767s is “more than satisfactory,” the airline says, though less dramatic than savings reported by others. On average, this is 10-12% less fuel burn per passenger per 100 km, in comparison with a winglet-equipped 767, and up to 17% less than a standard 767.

Jetairfly also says the 787’s faster speed compared to the 767 “means time gain, passenger satisfaction and a positive financial impact.” The carrier’s passengers appreciate the aircraft’s quieter interior, lower cabin pressurization altitude and the resultant higher humidity level. Jetairfly cabin crews welcome the crew rest area and improved galley workspace, while pilots like the integrated avionics, improved cockpit view and working environment. The airline also says the integration of the controller-pilot data link communications with the autoflight system reduces crew workload and enhances safety.

The electronic checklists work perfectly in normal conditions, including triggers if a checklist is not completed in due time, says Jetairfly’s director of flight operations, Andre Berger. However, in “non-normal” circumstances he says checklist management requires careful cockpit resource management as both the electronic flight bag and the electronic non-normal checklists can possibly draw attention away from critical tasks such as communicating among crewmembers and checking the correct flight path. Jetairfly uses enhanced training and briefing methods to cope with this issue, he notes.

LOT Polish Airlines, the first European carrier to order and operate the aircraft, took delivery of its first two 787s at the end of 2012, four years later than initially planned. Despite an inauspicious entry into service coinciding with the battery grounding, LOT CEO Sebastian Mikosz says the aircraft is a “game-changer” for the airline.

Mikosz compares buying a 787 to dating the celebratory Paris Hilton: “everything is in the media,” he says. “The plane spotters and journalists are tweeting about each issue even before the head of operations is informed about it. However, LOT has taken advantage of the publicity. We have turned this media frenzy into a commercial advantage to tout the benefits of the aircraft.” Passenger reaction varies from “nice” to “over-ecstatic,” he says, adding that passengers particularly applaud the aircraft’s LED lighting, electronic dimmable windows and the higher cabin humidity levels. 

Most of the remaining problems are software-related, Mikosz says. “It takes 2-3 hours to restart the computer, and this causes delays for us.” Dispatch reliability is gradually increasing, partly due to growing familiarity with the aircraft. “Our pilots were used to flying Boeing 767s . . . . It has been a learning curve to gain the same know-how and ability with the 787,” Mikosz acknowledges. The same applies to airports and handlers. LOT flies an extensive charter program in winter to destinations such as Mombasa, Kenya; and Cancun, Mexico. “Several airports were not used to handling the aircraft. For example, they did not know how to work the energy supply and how to send data to the aircraft,” he adds.

British Airways plans to double its 787 fleet to eight by the end of this summer and will ultimately operate 34. BA first introduced the 787 on the Toronto and Newark, New Jersey, routes and has expanded to Chengdu and Hyderabad, and Austin, Texas; Philadelphia and Calgary, Alberta, also are being added. Typically, BA uses the type to replace the 767, and it “brings significant advantages in [20%] lower fuel burn and customer comfort,” says the airline’s chief Boeing captain, Al Bridger.

The “aircraft is a pleasure to fly and operate,” he says. “The pilot can choose to display as much or as little information as he or she requires, and the displays are superior in size and presentation to earlier-generation glass cockpits, incorporating such things as a vertical situation display and a head-up display,” he adds. “We were pleasantly surprised by just how intuitive and user-friendly the aircraft is—especially for a piece of incredibly high-tech equipment. Customers tell us they like the cabin comfort, the advanced smooth-ride technology providing extra comfort during any periods of turbulence, the lighting, low noise levels and higher humidity the aircraft offers. They disembark at their destination feeling less tired and more refreshed.”

Royal Brunei Airlines became the first 787 operator in Southeast Asia in October 2013 and introduced its first 787 on the Bandar Seri Begawan-Dubai-London Heathrow route two months later. The airline, which ordered five aircraft, also recently became the first to have an all-787 long-haul operation.

“We had some issues with the power-generation units, but Boeing had prepared us for those, so we had spares onboard the aircraft in case,” says maintenance services manager Rosli Sidek. “We also took care to run first schedules on a regional rather than international basis—that was definitely a good plan. No real inconveniences. We also flew the aircraft with engineers onboard. It allowed us to keep an eye on those [generators] and similar high-removal components.”

Describing the impact of the software upgrades, Sidek adds, “we have had what we call ‘nuisance message alerts.’ In the early stages we had lots of messages flashing up that the aircrew did not always understand and that they couldn’t do anything about, so we didn’t know how important they were. A lot of those are being dealt with, but the updates are still coming thick and fast. It’s still ongoing.”

Current Boeing 787 Operators

  In Service On Order
Order    
Air Canada 2 14
Air India 15 25
All Nippon Airways 28 35
British Airways 6 8
Business Jet/VIP Customer(s) 1 3
China Southern Airlines 10 9
Ethiopian Airlines 8 9
Hainan Airlines 8 9
ILFC 12 22
Japan Airlines 15 25
Kenya Airways 2 8
LAN Airlines 6 21
LOT Polish Airlines 6 8
Norwegian Airlines 2 3
Qantas Airways 5 13
Qatar Airways 13 30
Royal Brunei Airlines 4 5
TUI Travel 7 13
United Airlines 11 18
Total 162 278
     
Orders and Deliveries*    
Model Orders Deliveries
787-8 472 162
787-9 413 0
787-10 132 0
Total 1,017 162
*Through June 2014
Sources: Boeing and Aviation Week data

Current Boeing 787 Operators

  In Service On Order
Order    
Air Canada 2 14
Air India 15 25
All Nippon Airways 28 35
British Airways 6 8
Business Jet/VIP Customer(s) 1 3
China Southern Airlines 10 9
Ethiopian Airlines 8 9
Hainan Airlines 8 9
ILFC 12 22
Japan Airlines 15 25
Kenya Airways 2 8
LAN Airlines 6 21
LOT Polish Airlines 6 8
Norwegian Airlines 2 3
Qantas Airways 5 13
Qatar Airways 13 30
Royal Brunei Airlines 4 5
TUI Travel 7 13
United Airlines 11 18
Total 162 278
     
Orders and Deliveries*    
Model Orders Deliveries
787-8 472 162
787-9 413 0
787-10 132 0
Total 1,017 162
*Through June 2014
Sources: Boeing and Aviation Week data

Another improvement stems from sharing of information between vendors and other operators. “This is something that really helps, and is something Boeing does well,” Sidek says. “They have very regular meetings and updates on operational matters. I guess they want to keep their customers happy.” 

 

Watch our video report card on the Boeing 787 program at:
AviationWeek.com/Farnborough

Tap the icon in the digital edition of AW&ST for an interactive look at the Dreamliner’s ups and downs, or go to AviationWeek.com/787timeline