BOEING'S BILLION DOLLAR GAMBLE; It's Made in the World's Biggest Building, Takes Only Four Days to Put Together and Is the First Commercial Aircraft Built from Carbon Composites, but Will the Revolutionary New Dreamliner Win the Battle for Our Skies?

Article excerpt

Byline: Angus Batey

Tucked away in the upper north-west corner of the US, about 30 miles north of Seattle, sits the biggest building in the world, utterly dominating the town of Everett. It's three-quarters of a mile long and a third of a mile wide.

Beneath the concrete floors there are two miles of pedestrian tunnels, while nestling in the five-storey structures that have sprung up inside the place are meeting rooms, offices and cafes. The inhabitants of this strange, vast palace get around on golf buggies and bicycles. It's so huge that the storm water runoff ponds - a must in Seattle winters - are large enough to float an ocean-going liner, and it has its own fire department.

Yet the most remarkable thing about this place is not the structure itself, nor the town-sized community it plays home to, but what is going on inside it. Under all that roof, beneath the 26 ceiling-mounted cranes and the million light bulbs, 33,000 people are engaged in a multi-billion-dollar gamble on the future of air travel.

Originally designed for the ubiquitous 747, the factory floor at Boeing's plant in Everett can hold 15 jets in various stages of construction, plus dozens of wings, tails and other body parts. In one bay, four jet liners, with technicians and workers crawling inside, over and around them, stretch out across the building's width.

The new aircraft being built here is, to the untrained eye, just another passenger jet, with a rounded nose, triangular tail, thin tubular body and elegantly curved wings. If it's changing the aircraft industry, it's not doing so visibly. But scratch the surface and you realise that what's going on at Everett is a revolution in the way passenger aircraft are designed and built.

The aircraft is the Boeing 787 - named, after a public competition, the Dreamliner - and it has a list price of between $150 and $200 million. It's powered by Britishbuilt Rolls-Royce engines (although this is optional) - indeed, 25 per cent of the plane, by value, is made in the UK. The first commercial airliner to be built primarily from carbon composites, it made its maiden flight on a grey, wet December day last year, travelling the short distance from Everett to Boeing Field, an airport to the south of Seattle. But its journey to the skies was a lot longer and more complex than that.

These days, there are only two big players in the passenger airliner manufacturing business, and they are locked in a continuous rivalry. In an industry buffeted by one crisis after another - the economic downturn and this year's volcanic ash disruptions - the premium now, more than ever before, is on efficiency.

Around the turn of the century, Boeing's rival, Airbus, began investing in the enormous, double-decker A380, which seats 550 passengers. The main motivation behind it was the idea that it is more economic to carry more passengers per flight, and that having fewer flights reduces staff and fuel costs, as well as the environmental impact. It's a sound theory - as far as it goes.

Boeing, though, moved in a different direction. Instead of building aircraft so big that they could only operate out of larger hubs - for instance, New York or London - the company would focus on smaller planes that could service a much greater number of airports, and enable airlines to offer direct flights between a wider range of destinations. There were other advantages to thinking smaller. The A380's size causes delays, as its wake is commensurate with its bulk, and other aircraft have to keep a greater distance from it than from other aircraft. This means that there have to be longer gaps between departures when an A380 is scheduled.

So Boeing decided not to compete directly with the A380 but targeted what it saw as the bigger market - airlines replacing their ageing mid-size aircraft.

Building a new plane is an enormous undertaking and the entire programme is likely to cost Boeing a staggering $45 billion. …