By the start of the 21st century, change was much more incremental. Consolidation had left the world with two main commercial jet manufacturers: Boeing and Airbus.
Boeing executives initially had not considered government-backed Airbus a serious competitor. But in 2003, the unthinkable happened. Boeing delivered just 281 new jets. Airbus produced 305, becoming for the first time the world’s biggest plane manufacturer.
American jobs – and pride – were at stake.
And that wasn’t all. Airbus was starting to develop its own new jet: the A380, the world’s largest commercial plane, capable of carrying up to 853 passengers, or the equivalent of at least five Boeing 737s.
“They were scaring everybody,” said Bryan Dressler, who spent 12 years as a Boeing designer. “People here in Seattle have been through the booms and busts of Boeing so many times, even the slightest smack of a downturn makes people very edgy.”
Airbus believed that larger airplanes were needed to connect congested airports in the world’s largest cities. Boeing executives weren’t so sure.
They believed airline passengers would pay a premium to avoid those same congested hubs with long nonstop flights between smaller cities. Now they just needed to develop a plane that would somehow make such trips economical.
It had been 13 years since Boeing started development of a new plane, the 777. The company had recently scrapped two other major projects: a larger version of the 747 and the Sonic Cruiser, a plane that would fly close to the speed of sound.
A development team with a knack for assigning new planes code names based on national parks had just the thing: Project Yellowstone.
The plane – eventually rechristened the Dreamliner after a naming contest – was unlike anything else previously proposed.
Half of its structure would be made of plastics reinforced with carbon fiber, a composite material that is both lighter and stronger than aluminum. In another first, the plane would rely on rechargeable lithium-ion batteries to start its auxiliary power unit, which provides power on the ground or if the main engines quit.
While other planes divert hot air from the engines through internal ducts to power some functions, the 787 uses electricity. Getting rid of those ducts is one thing that makes the plane lighter.
There were also benefits for passengers. The plane’s extra strength allowed for larger windows and a more comfortable cabin pressure. Because composites can’t corrode like aluminum, the humidity in the cabin could be as much as 16 percent, double that of a typical aircraft. That meant fewer dry throats and stuffy noses.
Before a single aircraft was built, the plane was an instant hit, becoming the fastest-selling new jet in history. Advance orders were placed for more than 800 planes. Boeing seemed to be on its way back.
“Employees knew this was going to be a game changer, and they were stoked that the company was taking the risk to do something big,” said Michael Cook, who spent 17 years as a computer developer at Boeing.
But this was no longer the trailblazing, risk-taking Boeing of a generation earlier. The company had acquired rival McDonnell Douglas in 1997. Many McDonnell Douglas executives held leadership positions in the new company. The joke was that McDonnell Douglas used Boeing’s money to buy Boeing.