Selamta Magazine

The in-flight magazine of Ethiopian Airlines

Business + Tech

Birth of the Dreamliner

Inside Boeing's 787 factory.

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Ethiopian Airline’s first Boeing 787, which touched ground on Addis Ababa soil August 17, began as all 10 of the airline’s Dreamliners will — some 8,300 miles away in a Seattle factory.

Boeing’s 787 factory in Everett, Washington — where the company’s long-awaited Dreamliners are born — is reminiscent of any typical labor-and-delivery environment. It’s kept meticulously clean, people are shuffling about with a strong sense of task and focus, and there’s plenty of oohing and aahing over the planes about to be pushed out the factory’s doors.

Yet strikingly absent from the scene are any groans of labor pain — or much of any noise, for that matter. Nearby, where the 777s are in production, a cacophony of drilling and riveting echoes off the walls. But here with the 787s, the loudest sound is the occasional beeping of forklifts moving equipment around the factory.

That’s because the 787-8 Dreamliner is a plane unlike any other. The first of its kind, made of mostly composite materials that are bolted together, the Dreamliner has no need for the tens of thousands of drilled holes and riveted joints holding together its aluminum companions; the four-piece fuselage arrives at Boeing’s factory complete, ready to be joined with the curved-tipped wings.

Together with more efficient engines and aerodynamic improvements, the light-weight carbon-fiber material allows for a 20-percent fuel savings as compared to the Dreamliner’s midsize peer, the Boeing 767. Add in a dedication to design a greatly improved in-flight experience, and all of this translates into creating the most fuel-efficient, passenger-friendly airplane flying the skies today.

Introducing Ethiopian’s Dreamliners

On this day, the 75th of 869 Dreamliners ordered to date is settling into position 2 (of the four it will go through during final assembly). This glossy-white fuselage-plus-wings belongs to Ethiopian Airlines — and will become the fifth of 10 airplanes ordered by the airline back in 2005.

Ethiopian was the eighth customer, and the first in Africa, to order the Dreamliner.

“When the 787 hit the marketplace,” says Adam Morgan, Boeing spokesman, “it was the fastest-selling airplane of all time. Customers were moving quickly to sign up for the airplane before the delivery slots were sold out too far into the future.”

Currently, 58 customers are awaiting delivery of their US$200 million planes, and orders are sold out through the end of the decade.

With the Dreamliner, gone are the days of flying passengers into large hubs before re-routing them toward a final destination; with a range equivalent to that of larger airplanes, the 787 enables Ethiopian Airlines and others to open new point-to-point routes that were previously unavailable.

Having just passed through position 1, where the body and wings are joined together, the plane is now undergoing installation of all wiring, tubing and landing gear. Without any interior components yet in place, it’s composed of only the bare bones, but hints of the lauded creature comforts can be seen.

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The windows — 30 percent larger than standard airplane windows — are installed, as are the adjustable dimming tints lying overtop them. With just five taps of the finger, passengers will be able to adjust the windows from clear to 99-percent opaque. And though the ceilings have yet to be raised, you can easily sense just how spacious this plane will be.

“Most planes, you walk into a galley, and there’s a couple doors and you turn around and it’s pretty tight,” says Gunnar Lofstedt, a lead interiors mechanic. “This plane, you walk in and it’s inviting and wide open. It’s different from anything else out there.”

Indeed, with features such as higher cabin humidity, smoother ride technology and lower cabin altitude (equating to fewer headaches and less fatigue), the Dreamliner is set apart from its peers, leading the way to an improved in-flight experience.

The concept for the plane was conceived more than 10 years ago by simply listening to customer demands. In the late ’90s, airlines were clamoring for a faster airplane, so Boeing started product development for what they called the Sonic Cruiser. Then, after petroleum prices rose in the early 2000s, the airlines came back and said that what they wanted was not a faster plane after all, but one that was more efficient.

Dropping the Sonic Cruiser concept, Boeing chose instead to borrow some of the model’s technology to create a smaller midsize twin jet — what would become known then as the 7E7. Speculation abounded about what the “E” in the plane’s name stood for. Was it “efficiency”? “Environmentally friendly”? Some claimed it stood for “Eight,” a lucky number in Japan. Boeing says it meant nothing at all — that it was bound to follow the current fleet lineup and become the 787.

In any case, creating the Dreamliner meant the birth of many things at Boeing, as well — from new production processes, to a new business model, to entirely new systems and databases. “With the 787, we’ve developed a set of technologies that will be the backbone of development for many years to come,” says Boeing spokesman Scott Lefeber.

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During their lunch break, Boeing mechanics play table tennis.

The passion behind the planes

The Everett factory works in tandem with Boeing’s 787 factory in Charleston, South Carolina, to roll out three and a half Dreamliners each month. That rate will increase to five by the end of 2012, and again to 10 by the end of 2013, all in an attempt to help supply catch up with demand. And behind it all is an intelligent, driven, passionate group of people who are devoted to delivering these planes.

“Everybody in here on the floor is trying to push a plane out the door that is 100 percent ready to fly,” Lofstedt says. “They know the importance behind their job. We work late, we work early — we do whatever we gotta do.”

For Lofstedt, that means setting his alarm at 2:15 a.m., seven days a week, to lead the pre-shift overtime, and then leaving the factory at 4 p.m. And it can be grueling, physical work. Using a pedometer to track his mileage, Lofstedt says that he once logged 10 miles in a single day, all within the Boeing site. He averages six to seven miles — tracking down parts and tools, climbing up and down the planes’ stairs.

It’s not hard to understand, given the massiveness of the entire 1,025-acre (415-hectare) property. “It’s like its own city,” says spokesman Lefeber. Indeed, with its own fire and police departments, banking and dry-cleaning facilities, coffee shops and cafeterias, the Boeing site is a self-contained, fully functioning entity. Many employees are provided bikes to get from building to building, or just from side to side within the 100-acre plane factory — deemed “the largest building in the world by volume” by the Guinness World Records.

But despite the long hours and intensity of the job, “there are no superheroes here,” insists Jay McArthur, position 4 superintendent. “It’s just a bunch of individuals who know their job, and we get to put together what I think is one of the coolest products made today.”

For McArthur, who grew up building model fighter jets and trying to figure out the mechanical side of commercial planes, the same passion that fueled his interest as a kid continues, more than 20 years into his career at Boeing. “If you really think about how the seats we’re installing today,” he says, “will have people in them going to visit family or conduct business around the world, it’s pretty amazing.”

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Out the door

After all of its electrical connections are complete, Ethiopian Airlines’ fifth plane will move on to have its interior fitted at position 3. As the plane progresses through the line, hundreds of employees will have laid hands on it, ensuring that every aspect of the plane is flight- and passenger-ready.

For many, seeing the fully assembled plane ready to transition to the paint hangar is the sweetest part of the process. “When it’s ready to roll out the door, all the protective coverings are coming off and it looks like it’s ready to fly,” Lofstedt says. “That’s really cool.”

Similar to the smell of a new car, he says, the planes have a distinct new-airplane smell that triggers a sense of completion and utter satisfaction.

And though hundreds of other 787s will be born in the months and years to come, the excitement over each new plane never seems to waver. “When you go outside,” McArthur says, motioning in the direction of the site’s runway, “everybody stops when something’s taking off.”

His eyes shift upward, as if toward the sky, as he adds, “It’s a feeling of, I built that; our team did that, that keeps a lot of people going.”

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