The Boeing Dreamliner project is now caught in a destructive sequence of setbacks that threatens that company as well as major customers like Qantas with very serious consequences.

Boeing this morning postponed any further statements about the future delivery and certification schedules of the 787 until some time in “coming weeks” which sounds like they mean January or maybe even February.

Most US observers had, until today, expected Boeing to say something definitive before Christmas.  They generally expected Boeing to announce a significant delay in the delivery of the first 787 to launch customer All Nippon Airways but even longer delays to those carriers currently promised deliveries within 18 to 24 months of the jet first entering service with the Japanese carrier, and that includes Qantas and Jetstar.

This is because the final assembly line at Everett, north of Seattle, is choked up with incomplete Dreamliners, some of which are being partially disassembled to replace components now found to be unsuitable, but which were incorporated in the early units in anticipation of being approved by the test and certification program or quality assurance inspections.

It is a grand screw up.

Multiple sources have told Crikey blog Plane Talking that the first All Nippon 787 will not be delivered for at least six to eight months after the promise of a first quarter 2011 delivery, meaning as late as December next year if not “early” in 2013.

But the technical news is worse. The Dreamliner is now considered at risk of not being granted what is known as ETOPS 180 capability on delivery, rendering it useless for long range trans-oceanic or northern polar flight paths until the jet ‘qualifies’ for the rating.

ETOPS refers to extended twin engine operations. The180 specifies the number of minutes it is certified to fly at single engine speed before it can reach an emergency airport. Thus ETOPS 180 is a measure of proven reliability of an airliner’s engines and flight critical dependent systems (notably electrical systems in the case of the 787) provided the airline also qualifies to be an ETOPS operator of the type.

ETOPS 180 compliant flight paths are invariably crooked as they twist and turn to stay within the specified reach of an emergency strip. But without that approval an airliner flying between Australia and the US would under current rules fly via eastern Asia, Siberia and Alaska, and take many days and crew changes to do so!

The electrical system aboard a prototype Dreamliner recently caught fire in the US causing the grounding of the test and certification program since November 9.  The Rolls-Royce engine type which most of the test fleet and early customers will use exploded in a ground test last August as well. (Qantas chose the competing engine type, made by GE, proving that it can be right sometimes.)

However, the issue for Qantas customers and shareholders is the continued failure of Boeing to meet a series of promises as to the delivery of the 50 assorted 787s it has on order, originally for deliveries starting in August 2008.

Qantas has a geriatric fleet of Boeing 767s that were supposed to have been replaced by Dreamliners by about now.  These now unreliable and costly to maintain jets were to have been initially replaced by the newer Airbus A330s that Qantas transferred to Jetstar, pending their return to the parent company after the low cost carrier takes delivery of eight brand new high density format 787-8s to be based in Singapore from June 2012, at least according to the fantasy commitment Qantas signed up for in July 2009.

Part two of that fleet shuffling strategy is no longer available. Jetstar has received a small fleet of young ex-Qantas A330s as well as some of the new ones it had on order, and Qantas is stuck with a  collection of un-dead 767s it probably couldn’t pay anyone to take away.

It is considering extending the leases on the 767s, which is “unsatisfactory” or finds more A330s, which are said to be  ‘unavailable’.

An unhappy sounding source at Qantas this morning said the airline had been left in the dark by Boeing. Being left in the dark by Rolls-Royce over the issues with its Trent 900 engines on the giant Airbus A380s has already been a major, major problem for Qantas. But to be now also plunged into darkness by Boeing makes the airline sound like it is in a perpetual state of eclipse. And from companies who have taken billions of dollars worth of orders from it.

When Qantas will get illuminated by Rolls-Royce or Boeing is apparently anyone’s guess, although at the moment January 18 has been set as the provisional date for the gradual re-introduction of Rolls-Royce powered A380s on the Australia-Los Angeles run. Provided Qantas gets enough guarantees from the engine maker that one of them won’t disintegrate somewhere along the 14 hour long remote oceanic flight paths which require it to use those engines at a higher thrust rating than any other airline operating A380s just to get airborne with a decent payload from LAX.

Peter Fray

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