How Do Airlines Get Their Planes?

Posted on 03/08/2017

If you travel often enough, you probably notice that airplane styles have evolved over time, much like the way cars are redesigned. Yet, airlines can’t simply go to a dealership and choose a jet off the lot. It often takes several years to receive a brand new commercial airliner. TravelPulse visited Boeing Commercial Airplanes in North Charleston, South Carolina this week, to see how this takes place.

Like their land-dwelling counterparts, commercial airplanes are built on assembly lines. Airlines often order several planes at a time, because they can get strong discounts off the list price for doing so. Some airlines have even ordered up to two hundred craft under the same contract.

Airlines are given a spot in line, known as a delivery slot. If a particular model is popular, the wait can take years. For example, Boeing is currently delivering 12 (787) Dreamliners a month, with an order backlog of 690 planes. If you ordered a plane today, you’d likely find yourself waiting close to five years, though open slots do occasionally occur.

Thus, ordering planes involves a lot of strategy and forward thinking: Airlines not only have to consider growth, but also the replacement of older planes they’ll be retiring.

Before the planes go into assembly, airlines have to choose their interior fittings. Boeing has a design center, which is much like the place you would visit if building a new house. Airlines can comb through books of swatches for their carpets and seat upholstery, and even choose the seats themselves. They can also choose galley and lavatory equipment, lighting and color schemes. This is also when airlines decide the seat configuration, how much leg room they’ll be giving you or if they’ll sandwich an extra seat into your row. The design is then demonstrated in a virtual aircraft cabin.

Once all the parts are on site at the final assembly location, building begins.

First, the fuselage sections are all connected together, along with the wings, tail and horizontal stabilizers. In position two, the internal electronics are powered on for the first time, the landing gear is attached and the plane sits on its wheels for the first time.

Interior work is done in position three, such as the installation of flooring, cabin walls and overhead storage bins. Positions four and five see the engines and installed, along with more mechanical tests.

After being towed from final assembly, the plane is then fueled up and begins its flight testing, which actually starts on the ground: Running the engines at full power, and taxi testing to make sure the brakes work.

Next, Boeing has its test pilots take the plane up for its first flight, giving the plane a full run-through of mechanical tests. Once they land, they’ll make final build adjustments and fly it once more to make sure it’s perfect.

Painting happens next, which can take several days and several hundred hours of human labor, depending on the intricacies of the airline’s paint scheme, officially known as the livery. (In North Charleston, Boeing paints all of their planes in a hangar near the factory where they’re assembled). After being painted, the airline customer has their own pilots take the plane up at least once or twice, and again, adjustments are made if needed.

Finally, the aircraft is officially presented to the airline at a Delivery Ceremony.

A Boeing VP of commercial aircraft sales will attend, along with a representative of the airline customer and someone from the engine manufacturer. At milestone delivery events, such as Korean Air’s first 787-9 delivery that I attended, the airline’s President and COO attended along with about 20 executives from Korean Air were on hand.

During the delivery, Boeing, the airline customer and the engine manufacturer each sign delivery certificates, then Boeing gives the airline a commemorative set of keys to the plane. (Commercial planes aren’t really started with keys, just switches.)

After the plane is delivered to the customer, it is then flown straight to the airline’s headquarters city or primary maintenance base.

If it’s the first of a new type of plane, they’ll often put it on short domestic routes in order to train as many cabin crew as quickly as possible. Korean Air flew their brand new Boeing 787-9 nonstop all the way from Charleston to Seoul, which took about 15.5 hours.

Unfortunately, I didn't get to ride along, but I’ve done it once before with another airline, and it’s a very special opportunity.

Like automobiles on the road, some planes stand out more than others (often due to creative liveries) even as they're one of many. Nonetheless, today's modern aircraft are a marvel of planning, foresight, build quality and execution.