Boeing ramps up 787 testing

Boeing Co. is putting its new 787 through an aggressive flight-testing schedule, with the fourth plane set to begin test flights on Sunday.

Boeing wants to deliver the plane to its first customer by the end of this year. By midyear it plans to fly six planes a total of 90 hours per week, Jim Albaugh, chief executive of Boeing's commercial airplane division, told analysts on Tuesday.

Albaugh said the testing so far has included more than 100 stalls, practice with an engine off, and a dive that brought it to Mach .97, close to the speed of sound.

He said the testing program got off to a slow start after the plane first flew in December. But there's one month to six weeks extra built into the testing schedule in case of other delays, he said.

Boeing also plans to do more testing on each flight.

By the end of March it expects to have the government approval it needs to bring engineers and officials from the Federal Aviation Administration on the test flights, he said.

"Everybody felt very euphoric over the first flight, and it did retire a significant amount of technical risk," he said, "but we've got a very aggressive flight test program in front of us."

Boeing needs to produce 787s faster than it has any other large plane. Albaugh said its peak for large plane production was 92 of its then-new 747 in 1970. By 2013 it hopes to make 120 787s a year, or 10 a month. Right now Boeing is making two a month, and should be up to 2 1/2 by August, Albaugh said.

Boeing also said it moved one of the test planes to Victorville, Calif., on Tuesday. Pilots will fly the plane very close to Victorville's runway to gather takeoff and landing data. A support staff of 150 engineers and other workers will be there as well.

Boeing's workhorse, the 737, faces increased competition. Boeing basically has a duopoly with Airbus for planes that seat 126 to 149 people. But Bombardier, which mostly makes smaller jets, is developing a new plane called the CS300 that will seat 138 people as configured by Republic Airways in an order last month. That's comparable to the 737.

Albaugh said Boeing may put a new engine on the 737 to make it competitive with newer planes. He said he expects a decision on that near the end of the year.

Albaugh also said airline traffic is beginning to improve. "We think we'll see the airlines come back into the market in 2012," he said.