Boeing’s Stan Deal On Hitting The Mark On Performance And Schedule
On the eve of the Dubai Airshow, Aviation Week Senior Editor Guy Norris conversed with Stan Deal, president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, about key issues facing the company. Excerpts follow:
What do you say to those who are calling for Boeing to launch its next new aircraft sooner rather than later? We have a terrific product lineup that’s doing well—and you always need to invest. We have a double vision focus. There’s nothing in my portfolio that I worry today about—whether it’s narrowbody, widebody or freighters. I think we’re well positioned. In addition to closing certification on all the products we have in that phase, our focus on the research and development front is the X-66 Transonic Truss-Braced Wing. We’re focused on advanced materials, the flight deck, a new digital thread through our systems of record for design. Those are the ingredients that will go into the soup of a new product line and bring demonstrable capabilities to customers. That’s what our product development team is working on.
It’s a pretty exhaustive list of capabilities that we want to have well-tested and wrung out so the next product hits the mark on performance and schedule. Those two things, in some of the past developments across the industry, have been a little elusive, and we’ve got to do it right this time. So our focus is not on a launch next year. We’ve got time.
The other focus of our product development team is: What are the base hits you can put on your existing products? Some of those things are being tested on the ecoDemonstrator. Those are small changes that sometimes end up enhancing the product line of today.
Is Boeing rebuilding its relationship with China? And even if it is, is it too late to catch Airbus on market share? I don’t think it’s ever too late. It’s a long-term market that’s growing. I sense some positive momentum, mainly paced by the recovery of traffic. When you track the statistics of the Chinese market, which we do daily, they’re really at between 115% and 120% of 2019 traffic levels. Demand recovery tends to mean the airlines are starting to think through their capacity plans for the long term. I’ve been over there a couple times meeting with not only airlines but also government officials. So I’m cautiously optimistic, but until deliveries are flowing and orders are heading forward, our posture remains that we don’t have them in the long-term skyline right now. We do have inventory. When we see clearing of the inventory and we see orders flow through, we will respond appropriately. The world’s obviously quite complex on the geopolitical front, but I’m encouraged by some of the dialog that’s begun between the U.S. and China.
I think 94 of the 95 737 MAXs that were on the ground [in China] are actively flying. The Zhoushan [737 completion and delivery center in Zhejiang province] facility is starting to be restaffed. During the return to service, we delivered one airplane into Zhoushan for delivery to the Chinese. So they’re active on that airplane, and it will be one of the airplanes we focus on delivering through the course of the year.
The Middle East is a key market for the 777X. What is the status of the 777-9 development program? We’re still tracking to mid-2025 certification. Type inspection authorization [TIA] is the pacing item—we’re in design assurance reviews; that’s the prerequisite currently with the FAA to get that TIA. Those assurance reviews have gone well, and I anticipate shortly we’ll be at the first phase of type inspection authorization on the airplane and getting the FAA and eventually [the European Union Aviation Safety Agency] on for score for all those test cards we’ve been flying. We’re over 1,100 flights on the program already and 3,200 [flight] hours, so we’ve put more time on this airframe and engine combination than any other airplane in history [in terms of Boeing pre-certification flight tests]. The performance is looking good in terms of the fuel burn and system functionality. You’re aware of one engine issue we found through the test program on the combustor liner, which [GE9X engine supplier] GE Aerospace has got well in hand. We are also working to prepare engines for the [extended twin engine operations] test phase, which will be an important phase of the program. So currently, smooth sailing to the middle of 2025.
What about certification for the 737-7 and 737-10? We understand the 737-7 is close. We are very close—[but] we will celebrate when the ticket is in our hands. We’re done with all testing. It’s really in the paperwork phase and the inevitable back and forth of questions surrounding the implementation of [Section 106 of the Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act that prohibits the FAA from delegating certification tasks related to safety critical design features, such as flight control systems, until the FAA has reviewed and verified all underlying human factors assumptions]. That’s where we have spent an inordinate amount of time.
I would look at the 737-7 as paving the path toward those initial requirements of the law. The 737-10 is able to draft off that like the 777-9. We’re getting the design assurance to type inspection authorization so FAA regulators can get on that airplane. As part of the 737 MAX return-to-service [agreement with the FAA], we’ve completed the first phase of a human factor study with a wide cross section of pilots. That’s off the critical path of the test program but an important element.
The real focus we have for the MAX 10 is going to be the enhanced angle-of-attack system and the ability to calm the alerting in the flight deck. And that we’ve been flying on the MAX 10, so getting cert credit for that as soon as we can [is important] so we can also make available the service bulletin, which will be available and mandated for retrofit across the entire fleet.
When do you expect retrofits to begin? We’ll start about a year after certification. We are going to try to have as much of the kitting of the hardware available because it’s a volume question at that point. That’s why we’re focused on getting the paperwork approved and completing the pilot evaluation to get those service bulletins available.
Switching gears, how important is Boeing’s recent financial agreement with Spirit AeroSystems? It was an investment in stability at Spirit AeroSystems. It’s a win-win. For the near term, it helps Spirit out through some difficult times, and in the longer term, there’s some benefit on our side of the equation. It keeps the Spirit team really focused on the No. 1 job, which is being a high-quality, consistently producing aerostructures supplier.
How important is your relationship with Pat Shanahan, a Boeing veteran and the new Spirit president and CEO? We’ve had several interactions already as he took over. Operationally, he’s one of the best leaders in our industry when it comes to getting factories righted, people focused on lean and quality, and getting operational predictability. We’re delighted to see him there as they drive that performance.
It is a big stability event across all of our programs. He knows each of our product structures well, both the MAX and the 787, which are really the two big focus areas. With the previously announced rate increases, that’s where you’re going to see the biggest capacity deltas in terms of growth over the next three years.
Aside from the issues with Spirit, are you seeing the supply chain issues easing? Yes, but it’s slow. I wouldn’t characterize it as “back and functioning like a clock.” I think with each rate step, we’re going to encounter some pinch points. But in general, we’re seeing positive improvement across the big suppliers, including Spirit. With the engine manufacturers, we’re starting to see some constraints getting relieved.
But from my viewpoint, until we get to maximum rate, we’re going to remain very paranoid. We’re going to overstaff out in the field for surveillance. We’re going to open the capacity that Boeing has, whether it’s in terms of inventory of raw materials, standards or human capital, to help the supply chain stabilize at these rates. And the next phase will be persistent driving of efficiency and working the productivity curves. Because we do see escalation pressure relative to labor and some raw material pressure.
Looking to future production capacity, how are you progressing on establishing the Everett, Washington, 737 line? Quite well. It’s going to occupy the last bay where the 787 was—including the back of [Buildings 40-26/40-36]. That’s all cleared out. Plus, we are expanding the rear of the buildings’ apron. We’re in the midst of taking down one of those 1960s-vintage engineering buildings. Some of the tooling—although not yet in position—is being shipped into the factory. We’re on track to have that ready for the middle of next year, and we’re going to keep that highly synchronized with our Renton facility [in Washington]. So it is more capacity, and it also helps us with some of our demographics in terms of labor.
Many customers are starting to configure the MAX with premium interiors, and that’s not conducive to the consistent flow of that classic configuration. So we may introduce some of that variability initially in the Everett site. That line can flow at a different rate if we need it to.