How Boeing blew it.

Commentary about business and finance.
Dec. 5 2003 1:34 PM

Jet Lag

How Boeing blew it.

(Continued from Page 1)

To save itself, Boeing needs to accomplish two feats. One is to mend fences with the Pentagon and save the deal under which it will build 100 767 jets to serve as midair tankers (the only hope for the aircraft, which no commercial customer now wants). That may not be terribly hard; the Air Force really, truly wants those tankers, and even John McCain's blustering over the deal isn't likely to impede it.

But the other more important challenge for Boeing is to get back to basics in commercial aviation, which after all is what built the company during the 1960s and 1970s. Whether Boeing is up to the task is far from clear. After fiddling in recent years with notions for a supersized 747 and a fast jet called the "sonic cruiser," Boeing has decided its savior will be a jet called the 7E7 "Dreamliner." This twin-engine, 220-seat jet is supposed to give airlines a comfortable, superefficient plane that dovetails nicely with the move away from hub-and-spoke airline flight patterns and toward the point-to-point flights preferred by customers.

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Yet it's basically a variation on the tube-and-wing model used by every commercial aircraft manufacturer since Donald Douglas created the DC-3 in 1936. It bears scant resemblance to the inspired engineering moxie that led Boeing to work up a balsa mock-up of the B-52 bomber in a hotel room in 1948. Or that in a mere 16 months took the 747 from a design concept for a failed military transport plane to a flyable commercial aircraft that literally changed the world by making possible cheap mass global travel.

What really is needed is a shot of that old-time engineering nerve. Ironically, says Paul Czysz, a professor emeritus of aeronautics at St. Louis University, that might have been found in the McDonnell Douglas archives. During the 1980s and 1990s, engineers there developed what is called the "blended wing"—a variation on the flying-wing model used in the B-2 bomber. Basically, a blended wing is simply a fat wing with the engines and tail fins attached to it—no long skinny tube with the wings stuck on the side. It's an ideal design for commercial aircraft—even more fuel efficient than the proposed 7E7, capable of carrying huge loads, easily switched between passengers and cargo and back. Should any U.S. aviation company actually build a commercial version, says Czysz (full disclosure: He's a former McDonnell Douglas guy), no other airliner could compete. Boeing toyed with something a little like the blended wing with its proposed sonic cruiser, but scrapped that in the wake of Sept. 11 and the collapse of commercial aviation.

The 7E7, offered in its place, is certainly a safer bet. But if the Dreamliner isn't a winner—and there is no clear evidence that it will offer airlines something that Airbus can't—the odds are good that Boeing will be out of the commercial aircraft business in 10 years. To leapfrog Airbus, Boeing needed to roll the dice. Instead, its new culture of soaking the taxpayers for military goodies while playing it safe on the commercial-aircraft front may have cost Boeing its future and blown a hole in the U.S. economy that never will close.

Douglas Gantenbein is the Seattle correspondent for the Economist.

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