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Boeing 787: A Paradigm Shift or Just a Nice Airplane?

"The A350 hasn't flown, but it has the same game plan as the 787, to be as efficient as possible in a smaller package," Hamlin said. "Singapore took 20 of them while returning bigger planes and taking (a few) A380s.

"We've seen that aircraft with too many seats haven't done so well," he added. "As (former AMR CEO) Bob Crandall once said, 'Nobody ever went broke with an aircraft that is too small.'"

United is the first U.S. carrier to fly the 787, but ANA, Japan Air Lines and Ethiopian have flown the aircraft to and from the U.S. Of the 33 now flying, ANA has 16, JAL has six, Ethiopian, Air India, LAN, and United have two each and Qatar has one. Boeing has 805 firm orders. Potential orders from American (AAMRQ.PK) and Delta (DAL - Get Report), which inherited an order from Northwest, have not yet been booked and are not counted.

Despite "teething problems," customers have been happy with the 787, said aviation consultant Scott Hamilton. "I haven't heard of any airline having any particular problems with the airplane once it entered service," he said. ANA and Air India briefly grounded aircraft due to engine problems.

Like many major construction projects, the 787 arrived late and over budget. The first delivery was three years late and, even last week, questions arose about how quickly the next three United 787s will arrive. Boeing long ago admitted to major flaws in its execution of a plan to outsource key components to an array of vendors around the world. In setting up a second 787 plant in Charleston, S.C., Boeing stepped into the hornet's nest of Congressional anti-labor hysteria, which the company reeled in by negotiating a new contract with the International Association of Machinists in 2011. Now, the IAM is seeking to organize the Charleston plant.

In August, Australia's Qantas Airways said it would cancel orders for 35 787s; the airline still has options for 50 of the planes. In March, China Eastern cancelled an order for 24 aircraft. But orders come and go. Boeing once had about 860 orders. Now, it has orders for 805 after delivering 33.

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