While the television cameras rolled, Boeing engineers unveiled a seamless, rivetless, one-piece barrel of carbon-fiber composite that has the unmistakable profile of a jumbo jet's back end.
During 2005, the Tribune closely examined Boeing Co.'s high-stakes effort to regain primacy in the aviation industry and revolutionize air travel during a critical period for one of Chicago's most prominent companies.
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"This is probably one of the two or three major milestones . . . for commercial aviation's second century of flight," boasted Walt Gillette, the 7E7's chief engineer.
Boeing's European archrival, Airbus SAS, may beg to differ. But there's little doubt the new plane will play a crucial role for Boeing.
The 7E7 is intended to replace the company's aging 767, which has been trampled in recent years by the A330, a jet built by Airbus. At 217 seats, it will be 20 percent more fuel efficient than the 767 and is designed to fly short and long-distance routes, bypassing congested hubs that routinely snarl air travel.
For Boeing, however, the Dreamliner also will serve a more pressing mission: helping rescue the company from a multiyear tailspin that has seen it slash jobs and fall to a demoralizing second place behind Airbus in the worldwide market for passenger planes.
"They need a way to claw back into a market they once controlled," said John Leahy, Airbus' chief commercial officer.
Launching an airplane has famously been called the modern equivalent of building a Gothic cathedral. But Boeing, which hopes to see the 7E7 shuttling passengers through the skies by 2008, is convinced the plane also can launch a new era at the troubled company.
Boeing faces a long, difficult road ahead. And Airbus is doing all it can to stanch its rival's momentum, including retrofitting the A330 with new wings and engines to compete with the 7E7.
But the inside story of how Boeing set out to build this new, plastic plane, and how it has turned many doubters into believers, provides a vivid snapshot of how a major company innovates to stay competitive in a global economy.
It also highlights the rich stakes involved in one of the most remarkable industrial battles in the history of commerce: a clash of corporate titans for supremacy in the skies.
In 2003, Airbus delivered more commercial jets than Boeing for the first time. Over the past 12 months it has triumphed in one sales campaign after another, extending a winning streak that has allowed it to steal 21 percentage points of market share since 1999.
Boeing is hoping to slow the Europeans by negotiating a settlement to eliminate controversial government subsidies that have helped fuel Airbus' growth over the past three decades. It has cut costs dramatically in recent years by slashing 39,000 employees and streamlining its production lines.
In December, Chief Executive Harry Stonecipher bowed to the Airbus threat by replacing his top airplane salesman, promising publicly to make Boeing's sales team more responsive to customers.
But the company still has a problem.
"It became really obvious to us that the business model has to change," explained Mike Bair, the 48-year-old Boeing executive who heads the 7E7 program. "There are some notable exceptions, but, in aggregate, our customers can't make money with our product."
Competing effectively with Airbus will require more than just eliminating European subsidies and revamping the sales force. As the airline industry sinks ever deeper into a crisis marked by bankruptcies, pension defaults and layoffs, Boeing must build a product its customers can afford.