Airline executives admire slim lines and sleek curves. There's nothing like added weight to kill their ardor for a planned airplane, because...

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Airline executives admire slim lines and sleek curves. There’s nothing like added weight to kill their ardor for a planned airplane, because it can turn an efficient jet into a gas guzzler.


But Boeing has good news for 787 weight watchers — in particular the 100 or so airline customers gathered for a two-day summit in Seattle about the hot-selling new jet.


Within the past fortnight, the airplane went on a diet and shed a dramatic 2,500 pounds.


A binge of design tweaks this fall had triggered a rapid weight gain, prompting lead customer All Nippon Airways (ANA) to privately warn Boeing last month it was “greatly concerned that the efficiency is at great risk because of the airplane’s heavy weight.”


Airlines such as the Japanese carrier are relying on the fuel-conserving 787 as a key to making money, and every pound of weight counts dramatically. One way to look at it: An airline flying the 787 its maximum range would have to take 10 passengers off the aircraft to make up for a 2,500-pound weight gain.


The 787 is still in development, slated to first fly in 2007 and have its first delivery in 2008.


The importance of keeping weight down was underscored last week by Air Canada’s decision to strip the paint off an operating 767 to save just 360 pounds. It expects to save $20,000 annually in fuel, or $900,000 if applied to the airline’s entire fleet of 767s.



Losing 2,500 unwanted pounds


How fuel-efficient will the 787 be?


Boeing is designing the new jet to be about 40,000 pounds lighter than a similar-sized Airbus A330. With new engines adding efficiency, Boeing claims the jet will use 20 percent less fuel than the A330.


What difference does 2,500 pounds make?


Boeing’s performance engineers say a 2,500-pound weight reduction would cut a 777’s fuel burn by about 80 gallons on a transcontinental flight, saving just over $130 at current prices. Assuming a typical 600 flights per year, that could yield annual savings of about $80,000.


On longer flights of 6,000 nautical miles or more, when airplanes operate at their maximum operating weights, reducing weight by 2,500 pounds could increase the payload by ten passengers or 2,500 pounds of cargo, and hence increase airline revenue by $2,500 to $5,000.


Source: Boeing


Boeing’s latest slimming news should enhance an already upbeat mood at the 787 customer summit, which ends today.


With the enormous sales success of the new jet, Boeing is considering a second Everett assembly line and may order one more large cargo freighter to ferry parts around the globe.


Weight concern


Just a month ago, Boeing was 5,800 pounds over its target weight of 222,000 pounds for the base version 787-8, according to a company insider familiar with the details.


The plane gained about 1,500 pounds just between mid-September and mid-October, as designers made changes such as adding electronic equipment racks in the upper fuselage.


Early in October, Boeing got a stark presentation from ANA, the launch customer that has ordered 50 787s and must be satisfied with its progress.


“Our future flies with the 787,” Kenichi Inukai, ANA director of engineering, told his Boeing audience, according to an internal company report. “If it fails, we fail. If it succeeds, we succeed.”


“It is very disappointing to see the weight status has not changed much for the past several months,” he went on. “Without your further effort, ANA is going to fail.”


A few days before Inukai’s warning, Walt Gillette, 787 head engineer and vice president for airplane development, instructed Boeing’s development partners to “design to zero margin” — meaning they are not allowed to build in extra margins of strength or thickness to the jet’s components. Instead, suppliers must build strictly to Boeing specifications.


No cutting corners


Marty Bentrott, 787 vice president for sale and marketing, said that doesn’t mean Boeing is cutting corners. He called it a routine instruction at this stage of a jet-development program, when shaving off weight becomes an imperative.


Bentrott said Boeing specifications already incorporate a hefty safety margin.


It’s not just suppliers that are being urged to keep weight off. At a meeting of 787 partners in early October, according to an internal Boeing report, Gillette said the company’s own engineers needed to avoid loading the 787 design with cool features and “trying to create the perfect 777, which they didn’t have time to do a decade ago.”


Boeing spokeswoman Lori Gunter said the rapid weight loss in the past two weeks brought the jet to within 1.5 percent of the target — closer than at similar points in development of the 747 and 757.


“It was no single big thing,” she said, “There were a lot of 1- and 2- and 10-pound savings.”


Boeing’s goal remains to reach the target weight by next September.


Asked about the weight, an ANA spokesman said the airline now has “great confidence that we will arrive at a specification that suits our needs.”


Doubling production?


At this week’s summit, 787 customers will likely ask about the potential to ramp up production more quickly.


Boeing is studying a rate increase that would double production from seven to 14 jets per month by setting up a second assembly line.


The aim would be to open up new early-delivery slots. The 787 sales team could then offer the jet to potential buyers instead of them considering the rival Airbus A350, now scheduled for first delivery in 2010, two years after the 787. There currently are no openings for new 787 buyers until 2010.


Qantas of Australia and Singapore Airlines, for example, are weighing the competing jets. A promise of early deliveries might influence a decision.


An internal report on the potential production increase said Boeing’s fabrication division could cope with a ramp-up. The sticking point is whether its 787 global partners could do likewise.


“You’re talking to suppliers on a brand-new development program of significant magnitude, with entirely new manufacturing processes, let alone an entirely new set of logistics challenges,” said 787 executive Bentrott.


“It takes some coaching and engagement to help them get over the emotional hurdle.”


Bentrott said Boeing won’t make a decision on higher 787 production rates until mid-2006, but he’s optimistic.


Request to customers


In the meantime, he said, Boeing is asking committed customers that have early-delivery slots, but are flexible, to consider giving those up “to help us with some of these strategic [sales] campaigns.”


The internal study also concludes if Boeing goes ahead with the production increase, a fourth custom-built, large cargo freighter would be needed to transport parts of the 787 around the globe.


Three used 747s have already been commissioned for that role.


The first is being modified in Taiwan; the top of the fuselage behind the cockpit has been taken off, making the jet — for the moment — a top-down convertible.


Soon, a bulbous new top will be added, transforming the jumbo jet into an ungainly supersize freighter for carrying slim-line 787 parts.


Dominic Gates: 206-464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com