The Boeing 787 Dreamliner is not the largest plane in the world. Nor is it the fastest. It doesn't have on-board showers or full-size beds, nor can it lay claim to the greatest range or sleekest entertainment system in the air. But it will change the way we fly for decades to come. Boeing's latest commercial airliner is several feet wider and longer than the 767, the company's smallest wide-body (twin-aisle) jet, yet it's 20 percent more fuel efficient. Given that fuel is the single greatest operating cost for any airline, savings of that magnitude could return the industry to profitability, and perhaps even usher in lower airfares for passengers.
But while the 787's efficiency makes it an attractive option for airlines, it also serves up a more comfortable ride for passengers. We recently had a chance to fly on a domestic round trip between Tokyo and Okayama in Japan aboard an All Nippon Airways (ANA) Dreamliner -- one of the first two ever delivered. Quieter engines, dimmable windows, LED lights, huge overhead bins, an in-flight bar and on-demand entertainment enhance comfort, even during shorter flights, while higher humidity, a greater internal pressurization level and a gust alleviation system to reduce the effects of turbulence help improve the experience behind the scenes. Care to take a ride? Jump past the break to join us on board Boeing's brand new Dreamliner.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner exterior
The 787 concept originally began as the Sonic Cruiser, a Mach 0.98 airliner with a proposed fuel burn in line with the 767. Boeing began shifting its focus towards efficiency and away from speed as the airline industry suffered over the last decade, however, and the Dreamliner as we know it today was born. The aircraft was originally scheduled to begin service in 2008, but a complicated design resulted in several delays, with the first delivery to ANA completed this September. Despite the timing of its launch, the 787 is not Boeing's answer to the Airbus A380, a double-decker with a seating capacity between 525 and 853. Instead, the outfit focused on building an aircraft that was both fuel- and space-efficient, with enough seating to accommodate 210 to 250 passengers.
The primary design improvement over previous Boeing aircraft is the use of composite materials. In fact, 50 percent of the 787's fuselage and wing structure is made up of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic and other composites, resulting in a lighter-weight, more robust design. Aluminum, titanium, steel and other materials comprise the remaining 50 percent. With a one-piece fuselage, Boeing was able to avoid using 1,500 aluminum sheets and some 50,000 fasteners, which naturally would have added to the weight and created more potential fault points. The titanium and composite materials are also more durable than aluminum, reducing the number of hours each aircraft will be out of service for maintenance.
Because enormous components like the main fuselage were pre-assembled, Boeing modified four 747s to become "Dreamlifters," which are used to ferry major assemblies from plants around the world to the company's headquarters in Everett, Washington. The extra effort and transportation expense is worthwhile, though, considering the new materials make it possible to enhance passenger comfort as well. Because composites are resistant to corrosion, Boeing was able to boost interior humidity levels from four to 15 percent, with higher cabin pressure to boot -- fixed at 6,000 feet, compared to 8,000 on older aircraft. A new air-conditioning system improves air quality, removing ozone from the atmosphere outside the plane, while also filtering out odors and harmful elements from recirculated air. Finally, a computer-controlled active gust alleviation system helps counter the effects of turbulence.
The 787 is powered by a pair of turbofan engines -- either the General Electric GEnx or the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 -- each capable of 64,000 pounds of force. The engines employ a tooth-like cover, which cuts noise when mixing exhaust with outside air -- it's not silent, but the improvement is definitely noticeable from inside the cabin. Boeing made the engine type interchangeable at the wings, enabling Dreamliner owners to change the engine to match others in their fleets. Different engine types require different mechanic training, so this flexibility benefits airlines that tend to standardize their inventories. Speaking of maintenance, the 787 includes a computerized monitoring system that allows it to report potential issues to crews on the ground, so teams don't always need to come on-board to troubleshoot.
Naturally, the Dreamliner's cockpit is state-of-the-art. It's home to four huge primary LCDs with an industry-standard interface, including gyroscope, altitude, fuel and other status indicators. Secondary displays control the radios and other communications equipment, while heads-up displays (HUD) for both the pilot and co-pilot display orientation and elevation without the need to direct attention away from the windows. Overhead panels have been simplified as well, with only critical, yet seldom-used used controls remaining.
The cockpit also employs a variety of security and comfort features. It's quite roomy, with enough space for more than one person to move around at once. All told, there are two seats for the pilot and co-pilot, along with two extras behind those for relief pilots and other authorized personnel. A closed-circuit camera system allows the co-pilot to monitor cameras outside the entry door, along with two angles in the first class galley, while a five-digit PIN panel limits access while in-flight.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner cockpit
Depending on how the flight attendants have the aircraft configured, you may board the Dreamliner to a rainbow of LED lights, alternating colors throughout the cabin. The 787 is a bulbless plane that trades traditional florescent lights for a variety of single- and tricolor LEDs. Without the dramatic rainbow effect, the lighting appears natural at first glance -- until the colors change, you may not notice that thousands of bright, cool LEDs are illuminating the cabin. You'll also find LEDs inside those individual overhead reading lights, along with gooseneck lamps in the premium cabin.
Those flexible reading lamps are pretty nifty, but how about an in-flight bar? The so-called premium cabin (think business or first class) includes just that, with permanent fixtures keeping bottles in place during take-off and landing. The ANA aircraft we rode will eventually be used for long-haul international flights, but is currently on a short domestic route between Tokyo's Haneda airport and Okayama, a city near Osaka. As its current configuration includes just 12 seats in the premium cabin, the bar is positioned in between coach cabins for the time being, so it wasn't in use during our short flight. That particular 787 will soon be reconfigured with a larger premium cabin, however -- let the sake bombs ensue!
While seating will change slightly, some features are consistent between both cabins. Enormous overhead bins provide plenty of space to store carry-on bags, which will be particularly useful for domestic flights in the United States, where passengers have begun carrying on more bags to avoid fees for checking their luggage.
After you toss your overstuffed roller overhead, you'll probably notice the giant shadeless windows. The larger size makes it easy to look outside the plane without slouching, while traditional shades were replaced with electro-chromatic dimmable smart glass, rated for 70,000 cycles or 20 years of use. Think of it as an enormous Transitions lens, but with manual control. Want to dim the cabin? Simply press a button below the window to adjust the opacity. When the window is at its darkest setting, light won't enter the cabin, but we were still able to see details outside -- in bright daylight, at least.
There's one place in the cabin where you can still find a window shade -- the lavatory. The in-flight bathrooms that we used were quite large, and -- unlike any other aircraft we've seen -- include a window. It's the same size window used in the rest of the cabin, and comes complete with a dimmer switch, though a plastic shade is include as well for additional privacy (on the ground, we presume, since you won't encounter any voyeurs at 35,000 feet). ANA's variation also included a Japanese-style bidet, along with an automatic toilet seat lowering mechanism and a touchless sink. We imagine other airlines will opt out of the bidet option, which has become popular even at public washrooms in Japan.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner cabin features
We didn't have a chance to fly in ANA's premium class, but we did spend a few minutes in the seat on the airline's standby plane. It was reasonably comfortable, as expected, but not extraordinary by any means. Currently arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration, this aircraft offered just 12 premium class recliners -- we're told that additional seats will be added once the plane begins international service. The seats reclined further than those in economy, but don't lie flat, though ANA will be introducing staggered flat-bed seats on its international routes, with additional storage and connectivity options. (As configured, our 787 included a USB port and universal power outlet for charging devices.) There was only a brief beverage service in economy during our short hour-long flight, but premium passengers received a light meal. There's a larger display for the in-flight entertainment system, which we'll return to in a moment.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner premium
Home sweet home. Beyond the windows and larger overhead bins, not much has changed in ANA's 2-4-2 (two seats on each side, four in the center) economy cabin. Middle seats are separated into pairs of two with a large space in between -- not nearly wide enough to be considered a third aisle, but at least middle passengers don't need to feel like they're sitting on top of the person to their side. We flew on All Nippon from New York to Tokyo earlier this year, and experienced the same seats with 34-inch pitch (the amount of space from one seat to the next). The unusual seat design prevents you from disturbing the passenger behind you when reclining -- the bottom cushion slides forward up to three inches as the back slides down, but if you're tall, you may find your knees up against the forward row at full sprawl. You're essentially shifting discomfort from your back to your knees. There was a beverage service during our flight, with drinks served in special "787 - We Fly First" ANA cups. Naturally, you'll see the same windows here as you will in the premium cabin, but with a smaller in-seat display and no meal service to keep passenger distracted, those dimmer switches will likely get quite a bit more use.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner economy
And speaking of that in-seat display the 787 (like any modern aircraft) includes a basic on-demand entertainment system. Sadly, there's nothing special about ANA's setup, with a basic 16:9 touchscreen display with a privacy filter and standard wired controller -- it's virtually identical to the system we used on an ANA 777 earlier this year. Since it's up to each airline to configure its Dreamliners as desired, it's possible that other carriers will dress to impress when it comes to their interiors. While the in-seat entertainment system didn't blow us away with a crisp display or vast selection of HD movies, it's perfectly fine for an hour-long flight. Considering that the 787 can fly non-stop from New York City to Hong Kong, however -- a roughly 16-hour trip -- a more modern configuration would make the in-flight experience more pleasant, and memorable.
As configured, the system we used includes a live flight map with multiple viewing options, including detailed and overview maps, along with a text overlay outlining departure and arrival time, distance traveled, elevation and ground speed. The "high resolution" map view is the only HD picture you'll get on this screen -- menus and demo videos we saw weren't sharp, and many were displayed with a 4:3 aspect ratio. Speaking of content, not much was loaded for our flight -- movies wouldn't play, and short programs were limited to a (rather informative) 787 overview and an extended ANA advert. The music menu appeared to be the only option that was fully populated, with channels for Japanese pops, jazz, classical and variety.
Since we've also traveled on transpacific ANA flights with a system that appeared to be identical, it's safe to say that long-haul planes will be better equipped when it comes to programming, including a selection of Japanese and Western (read: American) flicks and TV shows. There's also an in-seat messaging system if you'd like to try your luck at flirting with neighboring passengers -- simply type their seat number in the "To" field and input your message using the QWERTY wired remote or on-screen keyboard.
Boeing 787 Dreamliner in-flight entertainment
If you haven't already gathered, the actual in-flight experience isn't drastically different on-board the 787 Dreamliner, but let's face it: that adage about how an adventure is more about the journey than the destination can never ring true with air travel in the day of mile-long TSA queues, baggage fees and fuel surcharges. Still, the 787 is noticeably more comfortable than nearly every other airliner, thanks to its oversized dimmable windows, large overhead bins, higher humidity and cabin pressure, LED lighting and quieter engines.
Those in-flight enhancements may improve the passenger experience -- perhaps even prompting some aviation geeks to put their loyalty aside and try out a new carrier -- but they aren't enough for an airline to justify overhauling its fleet. For that, the industry will turn its attention to the Dreamliner's fuel efficiency, versatility and low-maintenance design. As ANA representatives explained to us, adding medium-size long-haul aircraft to the fleet will allow the largely domestic airline to become more competitive in the international market, adding daily flights from Tokyo to destinations like Denver and Boston, where jumbos like the Airbus A380 or Boeing's new 747-8 Intercontinental would fly far below full capacity, yielding a loss for the airline. When you consider that connecting flights can be an enormous inconvenience, especially when returning to the US, this proposition is likely to be hugely appealing to business and holiday travelers alike.
So how can you ride a Dreamliner? All Nippon Airways is currently the only carrier in the world to have received the 787, with two already in its fleet and two more expected sometime this month. There's only been one international flight so far, when one of the planes was used on a charter between Tokyo and Hong Kong in late October. It's currently in use on flights NH751 and NH754 between Tokyo's Haneda airport and Okayama every morning, and flights NH683 and NH686 between Haneda and Hiroshima each evening, with service to Itami, Yamaguchi and Matsuyama, Japan beginning soon. A flight between Tokyo and Beijing is scheduled to begin later this month as well, with overnight service between Haneda and Frankfurt expected to launch in February. Overall, the flight was quite enjoyable, but from the passenger's perspective, the 787's launch isn't as significant as, say, the Concorde in 1976 or the A380 in 2007, and probably doesn't warrant a trip to Japan. So, is the 787 a solution for the struggling airline industry? That still remains unclear -- even with this Dream finally becoming a reality.