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Boeing CEO says no more 'moonshots' after 787 Dreamliner ordeal

Next decade to be about fewer risks, lower costs

Boeing 787 Dreamliner on the tarmac in United livery

After weathering a decade of delays, cost overruns, and technical difficulties with its latest high-tech aircraft, Boeing CEO James McNerney says the company isn't planning any more ambitious gambles like the 787 Dreamliner, but will instead focus on cutting costs and increasing production.

According to a report by the Seattle Times, McNerney on Wednesday told a meeting of Wall Street analysts in Seattle that Boeing's business model of the last few years made it too hard to compete with its European rival, Airbus.

"All of us have gotten religion," McNerney reportedly said. "Every 25 years a big moonshot ... and then produce a 707 or a 787 – that's the wrong way to pursue this business. The more-for-less world will not let you pursue moonshots."

Instead of investing heavily in developing new technologies, as Boeing did for the radical design of the 787, McNerney said the company would design future planes with existing technologies in mind – including some developed for the 787.

The Dreamliner incorporates a number of groundbreaking new technologies, including a body composed mostly of lightweight composite materials, electrical flight systems in place of hydraulic ones, a power plant based on lithium-ion batteries, and even electronic dimmers for passenger windows in place of mechanical shutters.

But designing and building the Dreamliner turned out to be both more difficult and more expensive than Boeing had hoped, and that was before the infamous battery glitch that grounded the global fleet of 787s last year. By the time Boeing delivered its first 787s to customers in 2011, it had reportedly sunk $32bn into the project.

McNerney said Boeing's goal now will be to further capitalize on those investments by taking the technologies and lessons learned on the 787 and using them to make incremental improvements on existing aircraft designs.

"Without recounting the lessons of the last decade, which are imprinted on many of us, we've made it an imperative to de-risk the next decade," McNerney, who has been Boeing's CEO since 2005, said.

Boeing's next major project will be the 777X, a revamped version of the existing 777 model that will be upgraded to use new engines and a variant of the 787's composite wing. In the meantime, the company will work on shipping the larger 787-9 and 787-10 variants of the Dreamliner, which will also benefit from engineering that is "already proven and paid for," McNerney said.

He added that even if Boeing comes up with an idea for an all-new airplane, it will be a modest design, as the company plans to "avoid the moonshot, unless we have to."

While McNerney's straight-shooting comments make a lot of sense for Boeing today, your humble Reg hack can't help but be a little wistful about this new direction. Lots of companies talk about "moonshot" projects – Google being one prominent example. But unlike the internet's leading ad-slinger, Boeing was actually once instrumental in putting human beings on the moon. ®

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