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What happens when you have a $14 billion hole and you aren’t building airplanes fast enough to fill it? Dogged by languid demand for twin-aisle aircraft and a spate of inspections, rework and  manufacturing quality issues on already-built 787s, a question of the program’s long-term profitability hangs over Boeing.

That has been part of the airplane’s story since its protracted birth. The Dreamliner has been a phenomenally expensive airplane to build. In its decade of deliveries, Boeing has earned back about half of the more than $28 billion in 787 production costs it has consistently reassured Wall Street it will recover.

Related: Boeing grapples with a ‘Pandora’s box’ on 787

After arriving in 2011, three and a half years later than expected, Boeing aggressively moved to steeply accelerate 787 production to ten aircraft per month (later to 12 and 14) and significantly reduce its production costs — 75% of which are controlled by suppliers. In the years that immediately followed that first delivery, Boeing was burning more than $100 million on each airplane it built.

Today, deliveries are halted and production is down below five airplanes each month while it works through invasive and time consuming rework and inspections on 787s, including, most recently on the jet’s forward pressure bulkhead. Analysts say the sharp drop in production, already weighed down before COVID-19 by a glut of twin-aisle jetliners and later the pandemic’s toll on international travel “could create a forward loss for the program,” wrote Bank of America’s Ron Epstein in a recent investor note.

But from its earliest days, despite huge development costs and delays, Boeing’s flagship program has remained profitable. With a method called program accounting, long blessed by both the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and its auditor, Deloitte, Boeing spreads its high early costs of jetliner production over a roughly 10-year block of deliveries, enabling it to book future earnings in times of steep cash burn. Ultimately the intent is to balance out the enormous costs of producing a jetliner and recognize the long-term rewards of a successful program.

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Jon Ostrower is Editor-in-chief of The Air Current. Prior to launching TAC in June 2018, Ostrower served as Aviation Editor for CNN Worldwide, guiding the network's global coverage of the business and operations of flying. Ostrower joined CNN in 2016 following four and half years at the Wall Street Journal. Based first in Chicago and then in Washington, D.C. he covered Boeing, aviation safety and the business of global aerospace. Before that, Ostrower was editor of the award-winning FlightBlogger for Flightglobal and Flight International Magazine covering the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and other new aircraft programs from 2007 to 2012. Ostrower, a Boston native, graduated from The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs with a bachelor's degree in Political Communication. He is based in Seattle.

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