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Living the Dream

Published: 19/12/2011 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2011 » December 2011/January 2012 » Special Reports » Home » Features »

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Could Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner be the most over-hyped aircraft ever? “A plane so revolutionary that it has tinted windows (wow) and LED lights (pinch me),” as one of the posters on our online forum (businesstravelerusa.com/discussion) says, with just a hint of sarcasm. With the first delivery only having taken place on September 26, to Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA), and scheduled passenger services only beginning at the first of November, it is difficult to judge. 

“It’s not about the windows, it’s not about the lighting or the shape of the bins,” says Tom Galantowicz, director of 787 interiors for Boeing. “It’s about all of those things working together. You can’t truly appreciate it until you are in the space and feel it.” Kent Craver, regional director of passenger satisfaction and revenue for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, agrees:  “It’s really combining the lower cabin altitude with a higher relative humidity, our smooth ride technology that dampens turbulence, and our gaseous air filtration system, that will help passengers feel better after a flight. We have done a lot visually and aesthetically with things you can see, but some of the real benefits will come from things you can’t see.” 

Commentators have been keen to quash excitement with reminders that the Dreamliner was delivered three years late. To a lesser extent, this was also the case with the high-capacity A380 superjumbo, which was delivered to Singapore Airlines about 18 months behind schedule in October 2007. More recently, Airbus parent EADS announced that their A350 – the airliner designed to go head-to-head with the 787 – is also running behind schedule, by as much as six months, according to the latest reports.

Still the delays the Dreamliner faced were unparalleled, especially compared with the speedy execution of Boeing’s 747. The 747, which was more than double the size of its predecessor, the venerable 707, officially entered service with Pan Am on January 22, 1970 – a mere two months and six hours late (the last delay owing to overheating of the engines at the last moment). Even more impressive, it had been built in less than 28 months – three times quicker than the Dreamliner – by a team of Boeing engineers nicknamed “the Incredibles.”

One of the key reasons for the tardiness of the Dreamliner, which also earned the sobriquet of  “the Seven Late Seven,” was its groundbreaking use of carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP). However, Boeing stresses the carbon composite material is not an everyday plastic. “Plastic is what you get on the dashboard of your car,” says Mike Sinnett, vice-president and chief project engineer of the 787 program. 

Although CFRP has been employed in small quantities on aircraft such as the Boeing 737 and 777 for years, what makes the 787 unique is that CFRP has been used to build an entire single-piece fuselage, instead of one made up of hundreds of sheets of aluminum. As with any new implementation of technology, unforeseen problems arise and these have a cascading effect on production. “With 1,000 airplanes out there [using carbon composites] we have a lot of experience with this material,” Sinnett says. “What was new to us was how we applied it and how we constructed it.” 

Other factors that contributed to the missed deadlines ranged from issues with the wing design to electrical fires. In fact, the media became so obsessed with it that even publications such as the satirical web site The Onion made it the butt of jokes, with one headline reading:  “Boeing lays off only guy who knows how to keep wings on plane.” 

In Boeing’s defense, Scott Fancher, vice-president and general manager of the 787 program, says: “The last new plane we designed was the 777 16 years ago, so the 787 is a huge step forward. From the standpoint of commercial aviation, this is as big a leap forward as the 707 to the 747, and the introduction of the Jet Age. But that’s why we think these investments will pay off for us.”

For the average passenger, the plane will look more or less like any other from the outside – perhaps with the exception of its raked albatross-like wing tips and distinctive saw-tooth-shape nacelles that cover the engines. Interiors are partly left up to the individual airline, which will be given a selection of seats, color schemes, in-flight entertainment, galley fittings and even lavatories to choose from by Boeing. But in terms of the overall aesthetic of the cabin, it is the aircraft manufacturer that has had the final say. 

While attending the September handover celebrations in Seattle, Business Traveler had the opportunity to look around ANA’s first Dreamliner. Stepping on board, one of the most apparent differences are the much talked-about windows, which thanks to the new carbon composite architecture that allows for a larger cut-out, are 30 percent bigger than on the 777. From your seat, you can look out more easily as the windows meet your eye line better, and add to a feeling of space. What’s more, instead of conventional sliding blinds, each pane of glass is “electrochromatic,” which allows it to darken gradually (in about 90 seconds) to near black at the touch of a button. 

For some, the idea of being able to see out of a window while working on a laptop and without the glare of the sun will be appealing. But there is more to it than that. “Windows can be controlled individually or en masse by flight attendants,” Craver explains. “If it’s an overnight flight but it’s light outside, the attendants can dim all of the windows – leaning over food trays or people sleeping to close them will be a thing of the past. Attendants can even set a range allowing some individual control, but without completely filling the cabin with light. Even when the windows are fully darkened you can still see outside – it is like being in a limousine with tinted windows.”

Other design features you are likely to spot are the vaulted ceilings, glowing LED mood lighting and slick overhead bins, which fit four regulation-size (10 inches x 12 inches x 24 inches/25cm x 30cm x 61cm) pieces of carry-on in each. 

But there are also “unarticulated” needs that Boeing has met which may not be so obvious, Galantowicz says. “Some of the features create reductions in symptoms that you might not notice – for example, how do you comment on the headache you didn’t get? It’s one of those phenomena where the features play together to create something that is better – you’ll feel good but will not necessarily know why.” 

So what exactly has Boeing done to achieve this? The first thing was the installation of a “gaseous filtration system,” which improves air quality by removing bacteria, viruses, fungi, odors and contaminants, and helps to reduce dizziness, eye irritation and dryness. This has been combined with a lower cabin altitude of 6,000 feet (2,000 feet lower than normal planes) that improves humidity and allows the body to absorb 8 per cent more oxygen. This feature is unique to the 787, as a conventional aluminum aircraft would suffer structural fatigue if pressurized any higher. 

Boeing put considerable effort into researching the effects of lower altitudes on human physiognomy to come up with reliable statistics. “There is great data for altitudes of between 15,000 feet and 30,000 feet for mountain climbers, and for altitudes above 50,000 feet for ejection out of military aircraft,” Craver explains. “But no good research into the effects of altitude on the human body under 10,000 feet. So we teamed up with Oklahoma State University and cycled more than 500 people though a pressure chamber, 12 at a time, for simulated flights up to 20 hours in length.”

Most air passengers will experience cabin altitudes of about 8,000 feet, roughly the same as the summit of Mt. Olympus in Washington State – which is significant because it is from this height that climbers start to report mild symptoms of altitude sickness such as headaches, muscle aches, fatigue and nausea. “What we found, focusing on moderate to severe headaches, was that at sea level to 6,000 feet, statistically there was no difference in our volunteers reporting symptoms,” Craver says. “But above 6,000 feet we got a pretty big spike. So it was clear that if we could get to an internal altitude of 6,000 feet, we could help to alleviate or mitigate symptoms caused by altitude.” 

The manufacturer has worked on improving the smoothness of the flight by introducing a system that “senses turbulence and commands wing control surfaces to counter it.” Boeing also claims to have created a quieter cabin by incorporating more discreet air conditioning, “advanced vibration insulation and material to reduce squeaks,” and better fan designs in the engines to reduce noise. (Rolls-Royce, which designed the Trent 1000 engines, says the power plants are its quietest yet.) 

“We wanted to develop a set of technologies that would serve as the backbone of the planes we design for the next 30 years,” according to Scott Fancher, vice-president and general manager of the 787 program for Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “We have invested in understanding the latest advances in environmental sensitivity, propulsion, materials sciences, systems integration aerodynamics, and created a wealth of knowledge of these technologies and what their capabilities are.” 

Sinnett adds: “The design of this aircraft has been like no other – it represents the beginning of a new focus on the passenger experience.”

ANA launched regular domestic services with the 787 from Tokyo Haneda to Okayama and Hiroshima on November 1, but it will be on long-haul, point-to-point routes that the Dreamliner will prove its worth. “The 787 is considered a medium-sized aircraft but it can travel more than 52 percent farther than a similarly sized 767, while using 20 percent less fuel,” according to Satoru Fujiki, the airline’s senior vice-president. “It presents an opportunity for us to open new routes that would not previously have been viable and gives us the chance to expand our network.” The Japanese carrier, which is due to take delivery of 20 Dreamliners by spring 2013, will be launching internationally between Tokyo Haneda and Beijing in December, followed by a thrice-weekly Tokyo-Frankfurt service on January 21 (increasing to daily in February). A spokesperson told Business Traveler that London was “one of the possible destinations we are considering.” 

ANA’s long-haul 787 will be in a two-class layout with 46 fully-flat business class seats in a staggered 1-2-1/1-1-1 configuration; the 112 seats in economy class are set up in a 2-4-2 arrangement. (Boeing points out that the Dreamliner is not suitable for ten-abreast seating.)

For those who are still not convinced of the Dreamliner’s credentials, there is only one thing for it – book a ticket. Suzanne Fletcher, executive director of the Washington Tourism Alliance, was at the 787 launch and predicts uptake by corporate passengers in particular will be huge. “Travelers will choose flights on aircraft where price is not a factor and forego mileage programs because they want to fly the plane. With this aircraft offering a superior passenger experience, people will fly the routes where they can fly the Dreamliner.”  

By Jenny Southan

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