Boeing’s B787 has changed the aviation landscape.
Geographically, this is because you are flying directly from the factory, whether it’s Boeing at Everett, Washington, or North Charleston, South Carolina, or Airbus at Toulouse or Hamburg. Mentally, it’s because when you board an aircraft already in service, your excitement will be reserved for the destination; the aeroplane is just a means of conveying. Not so with a delivery. The whole day, week or, in the case of those who’ve planned this event, months and years have been spent looking forward to this moment, and when the aircraft is new generation – a B787 Dreamliner, for instance – the excitement goes up a level.
In part, this is because you have been prepped to notice the difference. Both Boeing’s Dreamliner, and Airbus’s answer to it, the A350 XWB (Extra Wide Body), of which more later, have been deliberately positioned as New Generation. The capitals suggest that they have formed a category all of their own, that they are a step change and represent a technological leap forward. They are made in new ways from new materials and promise a new experience for those who fly them or are flown in them. Following years of waiting and, let’s face it, years of delays, these developments have been much anticipated and, now, here they are.
Boeing’s first B787 was delivered to All Nippon Airways in 2011 and, since then, more than 600 have followed. Boeing is increasing production in its two B787 factories in the US to 14 per month. Millions of passengers have already flown on them and a fair proportion may have asked themselves whether they noticed the ‘passenger enhancements’ – the fresher air, the larger windows, the quieter cabin, the mood lighting, or the slightly increased cabin pressure that supposedly lessens the ill effects of long-haul travel and even jet lag. It’s possible for flyers to debate which aircraft they prefer – the A350, B787, or the double-decker A380. But for the majority of airlines and passengers, the A350 and the B787 have transformed long-haul flying. And as new variants arrive, new routes have opened.
There’s a fair chance that you have already flown on the B787 Dreamliner. It has become a significant player in many fleets, including those of Air Canada, Air India, American Airlines, ANA, British Airways, JAL, LATAM Chile, Norwegian, Qatar Airways and United. It is in common use across many long-haul routes. In fact, it was designed as a medium-sized, point-to-point aircraft that doesn’t need to go via hubs, and can operate cost-effectively on less popular routes. So although British Airways has 25 of them, as a regular flyer between our offices in London and Hong Kong, I know BA will be using its older, and larger, aircraft on routes such as these. Much the same principle applies to Emirates, which relies principally on A380s and B777-300ERs to ferry people to and from its Dubai hub.
It will come as no surprise that, for the airlines, the reason for buying these aircraft is because they are economical to run, not because we like large windows on a plane. The beauty of the B787 is its ability to fly long distances, cheaply. And it can even carry a decent amount of freight in the hold, helping to provide extra revenue for the route. The result is that airlines make more money on routes for which the aircraft has the appropriate number of seats, and also have more freedom to experiment with routes that previously weren’t commercially viable.
Boeing positioned the aircraft as a ‘hub-buster’, or more prosaically, as a catalyst for ‘network fragmentation’, meaning that the B787 enables airlines to fly between new city pairs economically. Air India’s Chairman and Managing Director, Rajiv Bansal, is clear that it has enabled the airline “to open numerous new and non-stop routes”. For British Airways a notable success has been London to Austin, while for an airline like United it was San Francisco to Chengdu (BA had a B787 on its Chengdu route, but this was dropped in 2017). Qantas intends to fly one of its new B787-9 aircraft nonstop between London and Perth in 2018.
Ironically, although the B787 has certainly served this purpose for BA and dozens of other airlines, it has also allowed new entrants into the market – most noticeably Norwegian – to offer competition across the Atlantic at prices that previously would not have been possible. Meanwhile, a carrier such as Cathay, which opted for the A350 XWB, has been using its Airbus planes on new routes like Dusseldorf (since dropped), restarting its Hong Kong to London Gatwick flights, and, next year, using it on new routes such as Dublin and Brussels. There are currently two Dreamliner variants – the B787- 8, and the larger B787-9. A new one – the B787-10 – is coming in 2018 (the launch customer will be Singapore Airlines). Every airline configures its aircraft differently, and so the number of passengers that can be carried varies. If you want to know who gets the most on, or the fewest, head over to businesstraveller.com and our feature ‘The B787: how the airlines compare.’ (We also have the same format for the A350 and the A380.)
Having flown on the various B787s (and A350s) with more than a dozen airlines, and been on delivery flights of both models, the chance to fly back to Heathrow on British Airways’ 25th delivery was too good to miss. This was a B787-8, which for BA means seating for 214 passengers in three classes – 154 economy seats in a 3-3-3 configuration, 25 premium economy in a 2-3-2 configuration, and 35 business class seats in a 2-3-2 configuration. The B787-9 seats only two more passengers, 216, despite being six metres longer, but that’s because it has first class on board – just eight seats, so the configuration is 127/39/42/8.
The B787-8 has a maximum range of 15,200 kilometres (9,440 miles) and is currently on routes from London to Baltimore, Cairo, Calgary, Chennai, Hyderabad, Montréal, Newark-New York, New Orleans, Seoul, Tel Aviv and Toronto. The B787-9 can fly slightly further (15,400 kilometres) and flies to Abu Dhabi, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Cairo, Calgary, Delhi, Dubai, Houston, Jeddah, Kuala Lumpur, Moscow, Mumbai, Narita-Tokyo, Newark-New York, San Jose California, Santiago, Seoul, Shanghai, Tel Aviv and Toronto. (The list is slightly longer only because BA has more B787- 9s – 16 at the time of writing, compared to nine B787-8s.)
The airline has two further B787-9 aircraft and three B787-8 aircraft to arrive in 2018, followed by a dozen B787-10s to arrive between 2020 and 2023. We don’t know the configuration of those, or whether they will have the much-rumoured new business class on board. Before that, BA will receive the first of its A350s.
As for the A350 XWB, the extra-wide body tag seems to be a dig at the B787, and is an illustration of the irony of these new-generation aircraft. At launch, the B787 was supposed to have only eight seats across in economy, but although launch customer ANA followed this, most other airlines went for nine-across (as did ANA with subsequent deliveries). Responding to negative feedback from the B787 passengers, when Airbus debuted its own new generation aircraft, it made a big point of the extra 13cm of cabin width, giving the aircraft its ‘XWB’ tag along with a ‘feel the space’ advertising catchphrase. To business class passengers the difference is imperceptible, but to the vast majority of passengers who fly economy, every inch matters. British Airways quietly increased the economy seat width by a centimetre on the B787-9. Whether this half an inch is enough is debatable.
So while the new-generation aircraft fly to new places and, in many cases, help airlines offer us competitive fares, the final promise of flying in new levels of comfort probably only applies if you’re not in economy class.
THE DREAMLINER STORY
The first whispers of what would become the B787 began in early 2003 when Boeing gave the go-ahead for a “new super-efficient, mid-sized airplane”: then christened the Boeing 7E7 (the ‘E’ stood for “efficiency, economics, environmental performance, exceptional comfort and convenience, and e-enabled systems”). The moniker didn’t catch on though, so B787 it was.
The intention was to formally offer the plane to airline clients in 2004, and start delivering in 2008. It took three years longer than that, but the first test flight took place from Paine Field in Everett, in Washington State, on 15 December, 2009, and concluded with touchdown at Boeing Field in nearby Seattle. The first delivery to an airline was to ANA in September 2011. The larger B787-9 was delivered to launch customer Air New Zealand in June 2014, while the larger-still B787-10 will go to launch customer Singapore Airlines in 2018.
One of the original B787-8 Dreamliner flight test planes was donated to the Museum of Flight in Seattle. Known as ZA003, it was the third B787-8 produced, and circumnavigated the world several times in 2011 and 2012 during a ‘Dream Tour’ that introduced the B787 to more than 68,000 visitors in 23 countries.
WHAT’S SPECIAL ABOUT THE DREAMLINER?
Passengers often don’t want to think about the wings, since it seems a miracle that an aircraft can fly without them flapping. But those of the B787 are a thing of beauty. The aircraft is identifiable to even the most inept plane spotters by virtue of its raked wingtip (where the wing sweeps upwards at the end). The wings are designed to give the aircraft greater fuel efficiency and allow it to climb more effectively. They also flex. At the Boeing factory I was told that they had a machine that tested how strong the wings were by lifting them upwards until they broke. In the case of the B787, its wings broke the machine instead.
Fly often enough and you will inevitably encounter turbulence. But with forecasting improvements, pilots can avoid the worst of the weather. Newer aircraft such as the B787 are very good at reducing turbulence. The aircraft has a gust-suppression system, which recognises changes in wind speed and direction, and counteracts them quickly to give a smoother ride.
The aircraft consists of a composite fuselage made of plastics wrapped with carbon fibre, which makes it stronger and lighter than aluminium, and also not prone to the metal fatigue resulting from flexing. This allows cabin pressure to be maintained at a higher level than with previous aircraft – pressure equivalent to 1,800 metres altitude, instead of the more usual 2,400 metres, creating a more comfortable experience for passengers and crew. Boeing claims that just 5% of passengers on the new aircraft experience discomfort during cabin pressure change, compared with 25% in conventional aircraft on flights of 12 hours or more.
Dreamliner windows are 30% larger than those on most commercial aircraft, with dimensions of 27.2cm x 47.6cm. It means more customers can maintain eye contact with the horizon, which helps prevent motion sickness. On a daylight flight there’s more natural light, so your body can cope better with travelling through time zones. In place of the plastic window blinds – often a touch paper for an argument between the person who raised them to read and those passengers trying to enjoy a snooze – the B787 windows are made from electrochromic glass, which has five stages of tint, ranging from completely dark to fully transparent. While passengers can adjust the level of tint with electronic dimmers, it can also be controlled by the flight attendants.
Conventional aircraft have dry cabin air to reduce condensation (and corrosion) on the aluminium fuselage parts. The downside of this is dry eyes and nasal passages. But with no aluminium fuselage, the humidity can safely be increased in a B787. When the effect of this is combined with the feeling of space and comfort provided by the larger windows and open architecture, it can help reduce jet lag.
Often referred to as mood lighting, the B787 has potentially hundreds of combinations. But, in practice, it has pre-determined settings: for take-off, landing, day boardings, evening service and sleep, including different settings for different cabins.
The B787 is significantly quieter than predecessors, making it easier to relax and sleep on board. The aircraft also has a quieter noise ‘footprint’ on the ground below.