How the Boeing Dreamliner Works

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner taxis in front of a crowd of Boeing employees before its long-awaited first flight on Dec. 15, 2009, at Paine Field in Everett, Wash. See more flight pictures.
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On Oct. 26, 2011, 240 reporters, aviation enthusiasts and assorted passengers climbed into the sky on the maiden commercial voyage of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The plane was Boeing's long-awaited, much-discussed aircraft that's bent on revolutionizing long-haul flights and reconnecting passengers with the experience of flying.

With its lightweight carbon-fiber body and wings, a 21st-century electrical system, a spacious cabin and a design that allows the plane to burn 20 percent less fuel than other midsize airliners, the Dreamliner was a dream come true for Boeing, its passengers, and the airlines that shelled out more than $200 million per plane. Then, like a Stephen King novel, the dream turned into a nightmare. A computer-related brake issue, fuel leaks and other problems cropped up in the aircraft.

On Jan. 7, 2013, a fire occurred. The battery in the underbelly of a Japan Airlines 787 caught fire as the plane sat on the tarmac in Boston. The blaze sparked an investigation of the Dreamliner's systems. Within days of the Boston fire, a 787 made an emergency landing in Japan after passengers began smelling smoke. The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all 787s in the United States (there were only six at the time) until engineers could figure out what was wrong [source: Ahlers].

Were these problems inevitable? Did Boeing, concerned about high costs, doom the Dreamliner before its first flight? No one can say for sure. However, long before the first Dreamliner took to the air, Boeing officials devised a way to save money on construction. Boeing's suppliers would become its partners. The suppliers would spend their own money to produce entire sections of the 787. In return, each company would share in the revenue generated by the sale of each Dreamliner. Like an Erector Set project, the top suppliers sent each portion of the Dreamliner to Boeing's factory in Everett, Wash., where workers put the plane together in three days [source: Stone and Ray].

How well did it work out? At least initially, not well, experts say. A shortage of parts delayed the project, causing it to fall behind schedule. By the time the Dreamliner went into service in 2011, the project had undergone seven delays. In fact, the first 787 was held together with temporary fasteners. That's because the permanent fasteners were nowhere in sight. The problems associated with the plane were long and varied. Some experts blame Boeing's overreliance on other companies for the delays and problems [source: Stone and Ray].

Still, on Oct. 26, 2011, the Dreamliner made its first voyage. Some 240 people climbed aboard the airplane, all seemingly amazed and impressed at what they saw. And despite the Dreamliner's many problems, some people still believe the 787 will revolutionize the aviation industry.