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Betting the Future

In some ways, designers of commercial jets have an impossible task. Though constrained by today’s economic woes and technology limitations, they must think about what passengers and airlines will need and want 50 years from now. After all, the first 747s were delivered in 1970, and new ones are still being built and are expected to last 30 years or more. That means the basic design of a commercial jet, if successful, can persist for upwards of 60 years. “It clearly outlasts all of us,” says Walt Gillette, vice president of engineering and manufacturing for the 7E7. The need to plan for such longevity, he points out, makes designing a new aircraft like designing “a 100-story skyscraper.”

Except no one has to keep building and selling the same model of skyscraper every year for 30 years. That’s where the art of predicting the future comes in-an art that can clearly make or break a jet maker. Boeing essentially bet the company on the 747 in the late 1960s, a gamble that paid off with a world-dominating jumbo jet, a plane perfectly timed to the surging demand for long-haul, affordable air transportation.

But the industry has also seen some Edsel-like design failures and other miscalculations that have crippled entire companies. Lockheed Martin’s L-1011, which made its first flight in 1970, was reliant on a single engine manufacturer, Rolls-Royce-a decision that proved financially disastrous when the then troubled engine maker imposed delays and price increases. Years later, the three-engine L-1011 proved more expensive to operate than newer, competing twin-jet designs, and this contributed greatly to Lockheed Martin’s exiting the commercial-jet market in 1981. Once-powerful McDonnell Douglas failed to develop new models; Boeing bought the company in 1997 and quickly discontinued the MD-80, MD-90, and MD-11 commercial jets.

And then there was the Concorde supersonic-jet program, still the most radical technological gamble in commercial-air-travel history. It was essentially a government project, but even with substantial subsidies from British and French taxpayers, only 14 of the needle-nosed craft ever entered service. Today the surviving members of the fleet are being retired, with no supersonic commercial-jet replacements in anyone’s sights.

Given such recent history, no one at the Boeing factory in Everett has to be reminded how critical it is to get the design of the 7E7 right-or what another market-dominant commercial jet would mean to the company. The sense of urgency around the Everett plant is almost palpable, extending well beyond the empty factory floor behind the hangar door marked “Building the Future of Flight Together.”

Next to the office building where engineers are hashing out the 7E7 design, a sister structure owned by Boeing is vacant and available for lease. During a recent visit to an enormous Boeing machine shop, the only sound other than echoing footsteps was a regular tapping noise-which turned out to be four workers playing Ping-Pong behind a screen of cardboard. It was, clearly, a facility just rearing to go on its next big project.

Gillette, for one, believes he has one more blockbuster plane left in him. He conveys some disappointment that it won’t be the more radical Sonic Cruiser, which would have broken new ground in mainstream commercial air travel. “It was about the value of going fast,” he says. “It’s been 50 years since the industry really addressed the value of extra speed.” But he also quickly acknowledges that the need to be bold must be balanced against economic realities-starting with what the airlines are willing to buy.

In short, the challenge for Boeing designers, says Gillette, is to use technology to make “the business case” for the new plane. Gillette knows it will all come down to whether his team can convey just the right balance of technological wizardry and manufacturing frugality to convince the board to bet the company one more time.

If Gillette and the other engineers at Boeing can win the day, they may well have helped determine how we will all fly for decades to come. And the sound of Ping-Pong balls in Boeing’s cavernous machine shops may be replaced by the snapping together of the 7E7’s parts, as they smoothly come together on a newly bustling manufacturing floor.

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