Illustration by Ryan Heshka

Boeing’s best hope for survival as an aviation giant sits in a small warehouse in a Seattle industrial park. It’s a mock-up of the interior of a new jet, the 7E7 Dreamliner. Representatives from major airlines are steadily marching through it, trying to decide whether they want to buy it. From a passenger’s perspective, the 7E7 design is appealing: Artfully tapered arches frame a backlit ceiling. Bigger than normal windows reach above eye level. Electronically dimmable glass replaces clumsy plastic shades. Overhead bins big enough to swallow four full-size roll-ons blend smoothly into the ceiling.

But airline reps are interested in more than passenger amenities. They want to know whether Boeing–a company that seems to be running out of feet to shoot itself in and that is rapidly losing its supremacy to Europe’s Airbus–can deliver the 7E7’s promised savings and operational benefits. More pressingly, they want to know whether Boeing can actually follow through and build the Dreamliner. The company’s credibility took a hit in 2002 when it scrapped plans for the Sonic Cruiser, a radical, tail-first jet that was supposed to fly as much as 100 mph faster than today’s airplanes. Alan Mulally, Boeing’s unquenchably enthusiastic commercial airplanes boss, had presented the Sonic Cruiser as a sure thing, the biggest innovation in air travel since the jet engine. Then, nothing.

Boeing is promising that the Dreamliner will deliver a full 20 percent cut in fuel burn, and that its performance and operating costs will handily beat those of its closest rival, the Airbus A330-200. Creating technology that lives up to such expectations will be difficult and risky, but Boeing has no choice: This is its only commercial jet in development. Dreamliner chief engineer Walt Gillette concedes: “It could be the end of us” if the new jetliner does not succeed.

These are stormy times for the 88-year-old company, which launched the jet age in 1958 with its elegant 707. Last year, Airbus delivered more jets–305 to Boeing’s 281. It was the first time another company had surpassed Boeing in jet sales. Airbus also has orders for 129 of its A380 superjumbos, scheduled to fly in 2005, while Boeing’s iconic 747 is in trouble: Two attempts to sell improved versions have fizzled, and Boeing delivered only 19 last year. In October, weak sales forced Boeing to end production of its 200-280-seat 757, and the 245-375-seat 767 probably won’t survive unless the company can close a deal to build 100 tanker versions for the U.S. Air Force. “Internally, they realize that they’re down to the 737 and 777,” says Byron Callan, who studies the aerospace industry for Merrill Lynch.

Boeing officials have more than a sales slump to contend with. Congress is scrutinizing the company’s proposed $17 billion lease of 100 refueling 767s to the Air Force–initially because of the high cost of the deal but more recently because of alleged improprieties. In November 2003, chief financial officer Mike Sears, heir apparent to CEO Phil Condit, was fired. Condit’s investigators had learned that Sears made overtures to a senior Air Force procurement official, Darleen Druyun, about a Boeing job while Druyun was still overseeing the tanker project. One week later, Boeing’s board of directors asked for Condit’s head and replaced him with Harry Stonecipher, a 67-year-old former company executive coaxed out of retirement. One of Stonecipher’s main tasks, in his own words: “We’ll spend an awful lot of time restoring our reputation. We have to deal with the perception that we’re a bunch of crooks.”

It’s not exactly the best time to try to sell a risky new project to a wounded, risk-averse airline industry.

THE SEATTLE-BASED design firm Teague Associates, which created the Dreamliner’s interior, first partnered with Boeing in 1947 on the Stratocruiser. The aristocrats of the airline business–Pan American and British Overseas Airways Corporation–flew Stratocruisers. Not only was the airplane legendary, so were the parties in its lower-deck bar, a cozy space reached by a spiral stairway and lit by the warm glow of flaming engine exhaust. Though passengers loved the Stratocruiser, only 56 were ever sold; its large size made it too expensive
to operate. The Stratocruiser was the inspiration for the upstairs lounge on the 747. That lasted about five years, until airlines realized they could more profitably use the space for additional passengers. This time, Teague and Boeing have made sure that design appeal doesn’t come at the expense of revenue-providing seats.

With the Dreamliner, Boeing’s top management, including 7E7 senior vice president Mike Bair and Boeing commercial airplanes CEO Mulally, is challenging Airbus’s strategy of building huge double-decker airplanes like the A380. The real future of air travel, according to Boeing, isn’t superjumbos flying between mega cities; it’s smaller airplanes connecting the midsize cities that most people travel to.

Today few pairs of cities are connected by intercontinental nonstop flights. If you live in Minneapolis, for instance, you can fly direct to just three cities on the other side of the Atlantic or Pacific. Any other destination involves a plane change. The same, more or less, applies to Denver, Manchester, Lisbon and Osaka. Why? The smaller long-range jets on the market today (around 250 seats) are expensive to operate, Mulally explains, so airlines funnel passengers through hubs where they can fill a bigger, more economical 777
or 747. But the 7E7 will be both small and efficient, Boeing claims, making it possible to open up hundreds of city pairs. The result: faster, more convenient travel for the majority of passengers, who will be able to bypass congested hubs. “How would you rather travel?” Mulally asks.

Boeing predicts airlines around the world will buy its midsize 7E7 in vast quantities–up to 3,500 in the next 20 years–and that, by contrast, Airbus’s 555-plus-seat A380 will be a flop, confined to a few high-traffic routes like Singapore to London. With its cash reserves drained by the big airplane, Boeing officials say, Airbus won’t be able to compete with the Dreamliner.

The 7E7 will come in three versions. The baseline model will carry 200 passengers in a three-class cabin, with a range of up to 9,800 miles–New York to Hong Kong, for example. A short-range version will have the same body length and shorter wings, together with a lighter airframe and landing gear (Japanese airlines, in particular, want an airplane that will fit the same gate as the 767 that they use today). And down the line, Boeing plans a longer-body, heavier 250-seater with a Singapore-to-New York range–9,600 miles.

The Dreamliner will be all things to all people, Boeing insists. In addition to offering airlines better performance at a lower price, it will cosset passengers with bigger windows and wider seats. It’s being painted as the Leatherman of jets, able to make money carrying 200 passengers from New York to Hong Kong but also performing well on 3,000-mile domestic flights within the United States, or on shorter trips within Japan with 250-plus passengers squeezed into tighter seats. Or, with 440 passengers in nine-abreast seating, it could make 2,000-mile holiday flights from Northern Europe to beach-party destinations. Airlines love such versatility–among other things, it makes airplanes easy to resell and boosts their book value.

The trouble is that Boeing’s various goals for the 7E7 conflict. Wider seats mean a wider cabin, and basic geometry tells us (at least those of us who weren’t passing notes in math class) that the volume of a cylinder goes up with the square of the diameter. Result: more weight and more drag. Versatility isn’t free either. More range and a bigger payload demand more fuel, a stronger, heavier wing to carry it and bigger engines to handle the greater weight.

BOEING ENGINEERS aren’t counting on fundamental design changes to fulfill their grand vision. The company recently backed away from its research into a radical airliner design, the Blended Wing Body (BWB), a flying wing. The retreat caused some controversy within Boeing, because more than a decade of design work has indicated that a blended wing body could be more efficient than a conventional jet–and cheaper to build. George Muellner, Boeing’s vice president for Air Force programs, has complained of a “tube-and-wing mentality” at the company. (Today Boeing would rather not talk about the BWB at all. Though the concept is being pursued for military applications, the BWB page has been excised from the company’s Web site. A request for an interview with the BWB’s creator, Boeing senior technical fellow Robert Liebeck, draws an instant, snippy response: “Our market forecast for the next 20 years does not include commercial applications for the BWB concept. Since our leadership is of one mind on this issue, we don’t believe a further interview on this subject is necessary.”)

Since they aren’t introducing a new design, the 7E7 looks like a smaller 767 or a 777–with a nose job. A sleeker nose will reduce drag and cockpit noise, program manager Mike Bair points out. Don’t expect the shark-like tail from the artists’ concepts to appear on the real airplane, but a close look at the aft edge of the wing reveals a set of simple, multipurpose moving surfaces, replacing complex flaps.

The biggest innovation in the 7E7 is that most of the wing and body will be made from carbon-fiber composite–strong strands of pure carbon bonded together with resin. Fighter wings and jetliner tail surfaces have been made from carbon fiber since the early 1980s; Boeing plans to make the 7E7 from the same fibers and resins that it uses on the 777 tail.

There is no reason a composite wing can’t be built. Boeing made carbon-fiber composite wings for the 7E7-size
B-2 bomber 15 years ago. The question is whether the weight savings are worth the cost (the B-2 was not exactly cheap, even by Pentagon standards). A jetliner’s wings carry greater loads than the tail, so the skin must be inches thick, comprising hundreds of plies of fiber. “The challenge isn’t building an aircraft but building so many airplanes economically each month, and physically laying down that amount of material,” says Bair, adding, “It’s not insurmountable.”

It had better not be insurmountable, because Boeing has no backup, such as an advanced aluminum structure, in the works. “There’s no fallback,” says Bair. “We know we can make it work.”

The fuselage presents different challenges. A jetliner’s fuselage is under constant stress from cabin pressure in flight. When it’s built from aluminum, designers worry about fatigue, the gradual weakening of the metal. Composites are impervious to fatigue, which is caused by metal’s crystalline structure–something composites don’t have. The bad news: Impact damage can cause the composite plies to separate, weakening the skin even though the damage remains invisible.

While tail surfaces are safe from most impacts, airplane bodies are not. In Bair’s words: “There are areas on the fuselage that get attacked by ground equipment, by a galley service truck on a rampage.” The solution, says Gillette, is
to embed in the 7E7 fuselage electronic sensors that can detect changes in stress patterns that are caused by internal damage. The sensors will be linked to a “neural net” computer that “learns what normal is.” If a hungover loader on the Heathrow ramp misjudges his distance, “the system knows it’s been hit and that its response to the load is different.”

Because composites don’t expand or contract with changing temperatures as much as metal does, it’s easier to build the airplane from large “snap-fit” components, saving assembly time, Gillette says. Boeing wants to build its body “barrel” sections in one piece, using robots to wind fibers around a 20-foot-diameter tool. And switching from aluminum alloys to composites will align Boeing with a larger research and development community. “The world is working on toughened composites (for railroads, bridges and autos),” says Gillette. On the horizon: nanotubes and new fibers that may be 10 times stronger than carbon.

Composites save an impressive amount of weight–the 7E7 will weigh 10 tons less than the shorter-range A330, says Boeing–but that translates into a fuel-burn savings of only 2 to 3 percent. The biggest single fuel saver will instead be the 7E7’s new engines. The big three–General Electric, Rolls-Royce and Pratt & Whitney–are designing new engines for the Dreamliner (Boeing will have picked two of them by the time this story appears). GE’s GENX is expected to use 20
percent less fuel, for the same power, than the GE engine on the Airbus A330-200. The GENX is based on the technology used in the GE90-115B, just entering service on Boeing’s 777, and currently the world’s most powerful engine. Rolls-Royce’s engine builds on the Trent 900, which the company is developing for the A380. P&W’s engine is entirely new.

The 7E7 will replace some pneumatic and hydraulic systems with electrically powered ones. Hydraulic technology, such as the pumps that bring landing gear up, is reliable, but it’s unique to aerospace, so the entire cost of developing it ends up in the price of Boeing’s jets. Electrical systems are more universal: “The whole world wants to develop high-power electric generators and controllers,” Gillette says. As a result, electric-powered devices should become more efficient and less costly.

DESIGNING AND BUILDING an all-new jetliner is a venture that leaves little change out of $10 billion. That’s one of many reasons why aerospace is no place for wimps. Nobody takes that risk without solid commitments from customers. Boeing is already soliciting 7E7 orders from key buyers like Singapore Airlines, an acknowledged leader in long-distance travel, and All Nippon Airways, a likely launch customer for the short-range model. “Launch” customers–those who buy airplanes off the drawing board–are taking a risk of their own. But Boeing has a track record of delivering airplanes on time and on spec, and the upside is often a significant discount. Boeing will likely need to secure buyers for up to 100 Dreamliners before it turns on the money spigot. Outwardly, there’s no lack of confidence: Officials say they hope to score their first Dreamliner sales as early as this summer. “When we launch the 7E7,” says Randy Baseler, Boeing’s vice president for marketing, “the real question is who’s going to sign up for an A330-200.”

Boeing intends the Dreamliner to lift off in 2007 and enter service the following year. The assembly line will be located in Everett, where Boeing builds the 777, 767 and 747, but most of the work will be done elsewhere. Specially modified 747s, with bulging upper bodies and side-hinged tails, will bring fully assembled wing and body pieces into Everett from suppliers around the world: The entire wing, for example, will be built in Japan. The assembly line will move at double-quick time. It may take as little as three days to click a 7E7 together.

If Airbus officials are worried, they conceal it well. When asked whether the company intends to launch a competing aircraft, vice president for market forecasts Adam Brown replies: “Don’t hold your breath. We don’t see an urgent need to act in response to the 7E7.”

For one thing, Brown contends, Airbus doesn’t buy Boeing’s vision of a point-to-point future. The clash of views became very apparent at the Dubai air show this past December. There, Boeing issued a forecast showing that Middle Eastern airlines would need only 43 A380-size airplanes in the next 20 years. This was news to Emirates Airline, the region’s star business, which alone has already ordered 43 of the new giants. “We’re not saying Emirates is wrong,” Boeing’s Baseler says cautiously. “We have different views and that’s okay.”

Brown’s caustic reply: “Anyone who says that is living in a parallel universe.” Brown also points out that fuel is just part of an airline’s total operating costs, and modern airplanes are already so efficient that fuel represents less than one-fifth of the total. Result: Even if the 7E7 beats the A330 on fuel burn by 20 percent, that’s equivalent to just 4 percent of operating costs. Also, the baseline version of the 7E7 is smaller than the A330, which is bad for the bottom line because basic operating costs remain stable (for example, all airplanes have two pilots, regardless of size). “Crank all those numbers in, and you’ve got a 1.8 percent difference in cash operating cost,” says Brown. “That’s not enough to set the world on fire.”

There’s just one point on which Airbus and Boeing agree: They can’t both be right. And observers like Merrill Lynch’s Callan don’t think Boeing has much choice but to stay its course. “If they come back with another paper product,” he says, referring to an airplane like the Sonic Cruiser that never gets beyond the design stage, “the suppliers are going to say, ‘You can’t waste our time anymore. If you can’t take the risk, forget it.'” If Boeing doesn’t launch the 7E7, says Callan, “they’re done.”

Bill Sweetman is a Popular Science contributing editor.