Blue sky thinking: How Boeing's 787 Dreamliner could change air travel forever
After 10 years of blueprints and mounting buzz, Boeing is finally rolling its newest passenger jet out of the hangar – and it's quieter, lighter and more fuel-efficient than any other plane. Why should you care? Because it's also set to consign airsickness and jet lag to history...
Sunday 18 July 2010
The arms-aloft moment came shortly after 1.30pm on a typically grey day in Seattle on 15 December 2009. As chief pilot Mike Carriker and Captain Randy Neville – the only two people on board a plane designed to hold up to 250 – emerged from the 787 Dreamliner, Carriker raised both fists to the sky. It was a serene, decidedly un-American gesture aimed at the 1,000 or so people who had gathered to watch this, Boeing's first new passenger jet in more than a decade, land.
Just over three hours earlier, there had been many more hands raised in the air. As the Dreamliner taxied down the runway of the Boeing factory in Everett, 40 miles north of the landing field, around 12,000 of the company's employees had been given time off work to go and watch the 787 take off on its maiden flight; and practically every one of those workers was holding up a digital camera or mobile phone to record the moment for posterity.
Even for those who consider flying a necessary nuisance, the footage from that drizzly day on America's west coast is strangely moving. While the Boeing workers whoop and cheer as you would expect, it is clear that their jubilation signals more than the circling journey of another Boeing product, even one that had, by this stage, run two years later than planned due to manufacturing difficulties, strikes and any number of minor frustrations.
It is no simple task to get a new passenger jet off the ground – and the Dreamliner is no simple plane. It is, in words that have been bandied about since the project began some 10 years ago, nothing less than the next generation of air travel; the game-changer. For a start, there's the fact that the 787 is the first passenger jet ever to be made from composite carbon and titanium, a lighter material that means at least 15 per cent less fuel burn and CO2 emissions, plus higher reliability, fewer maintenance visits and around 60 per cent less noise. But while this is all very nice for the travel industry, it is not, perhaps, of too much interest to the average holidaymaker.
Yet this is precisely where Boeing found itself a most unlikely partner. Because the first purchaser of the 787 Dreamliner for the European market was not Virgin or a trendy Scandinavian or Swiss airline, but the decidedly mass-market First Choice, the UK package-holiday firm that started life as Owners Abroad.
In 2003, Mark German – a genial 40-year-old Mancunian with a "work hard, play hard" mentality and a background in engineering – was overseeing the maintenance of First Choice's fleet of 767s and 777s when he identified a need to "do something innovative with First Choice's long-haul product". Then, as now, for an airline wanting to buy some planes there were, essentially, two choices of manufacturer: Airbus or Boeing. While the former's proposed double-decker A380 offered the chance to seat up to 853 passengers, the latter's attention to green issues and revolutionary ideas to enhance passenger experience appealed to German's desire to "be involved with, influence and shape the future of airline travel". It was to be his Sliding Doors moment.
German had the ear of a sympathetic managing director, Chris Browne – one of the few women to hold a senior position in the travel industry. In 2005, German and Browne placed their order. When First Choice merged with Thomson under the TUI Travel umbrella a few years later, two of the UK's most powerful players in the holiday industry found themselves awaiting delivery of 13 Dreamliners, with purchasing rights for 13 more.
Browne remembers the moment well. "It was the best bit of shopping I'd done in a long time – and I like my shopping," she says. She's not kidding, either. While it would be foolish from a business point of view for Browne to reveal what she paid for her new planes, the list price for a Dreamliner is about $165m, and Browne had spent her company's money on little more than some drawings she had seen on a piece of paper.
Today, anyone in the market for the next generation of passenger air travel (and Boeing currently has some 860 orders on its books) will be treated to the full PowerPoint presentation treatment at the company's Customer Experience Center in Seattle. Here, you really start to get an idea of what all the fuss is about. When you have watched the 3D film and inspected the interior mock-up, regional director of passenger satisfaction Colleen Rainbolt will give you the lowdown on the many hours of research psychology that enabled Boeing to "dig into the minds of passengers".
The findings drew two conclusions: the first was that the boredom of air travel – the fact that it is, generally, a means of getting from A to B rather than something people want to take part in – focuses people's attention on the niggly little things around them: the seat, the legroom, the person next to them and so on. "Everyone dreams of, and is fascinated by flying," says Rainbolt, "but we needed to find a way to reconnect them to the experience." The second was that by the time passengers board the plane, they are already stressed out from their journey to and through the airport – "And," says Rainbolt, "we wanted the plane to feel like a psychological break from all that."
The domed, "church-like", entranceway to the Dreamliner is only the first of many design details passengers will notice. Once on board, every last component has been carefully considered: from the large windows that transform magically from clear to opaque and all points inbetween at the touch of a button; to the LED lighting that will replicate sunrises, sunsets and candlelit dinners; to the latch opening your overhead storage regardless of which way or where you push or pull it.
All those little "wow" factors modern travellers now expect are present and correct here. Add to these the fact that the Dreamliner will (a first this for a passenger jet) carry steam ovens that will make the food more appealing, as well as provide water-cooler areas where passengers can hang out and chat, and those "game-changer" claims start to look less like marketing speak and more like statement of fact. '
That many of these features are possible is due to the Dreamliner's light composite frame. Other advances in technology mean that the plane can sense turbulence in advance and adjust itself accordingly, while the pressure in the cabin is set to an altitude that research shows makes people feel less dehydrated and jet lagged than before.
The man responsible for some of this "wellbeing" research is aviation physiologist and sleep expert Dr Guy Meadows, who – when he's not working with Boeing on the Dreamliner project – runs the London Insomnia Centre. Meadows, who looks not unlike a young Tony Blair and can be just as convincing, is a mountain climber who has extensively studied the effect lack of oxygen and extremes of environment have on the human body.
"What interested me most about this project," he says, "is that flying is a constant challenge between the performance of the plane and the wellbeing of the people in it. If you pressurise a cabin to 8,000ft, it is the point at which people start to experience headaches, light-headedness and dizziness. The Dreamliner is pressurised to 6,000ft, which gives everyone eight per cent more oxygen. The reason that's important is that, to give one example, if you drink a bottle of water, you might notice after landing that the empty bottle has inflated. That's because it's what we call a closed cavity and your body has loads of them: lungs, sinuses and so on. The material the Dreamliner is built with has enabled us to reduce many of the stresses – feeling unwell, poor air quality, the noise, the lack of natural light – involved in flying; all the things that make you leave the plane feeling worse than you did when you got on. Everything about the Dreamliner is rewriting the way we look at air travel."
The fact that lighter planes can also travel further on less fuel will open up whole new worlds to Thomson and First Choice customers (Vietnam and Cambodia are softly mentioned, but the company will make its details public in its own good time). Meanwhile, Mark German and his team will choose other destinations, seat coverings and configurations, uniforms, fabrics and the thousands of small options available to Dreamliner purchasers.
So far, Boeing has completed around 25 Dreamliners, but by the time Thomson takes delivery in early 2012, the Everett plant will be piecing them together at the rate of up to 10 a month. Before then, there is the small matter of the hundreds of hours of tests – both on the ground and in the air – to which Boeing subjects its six guinea-pig planes at and around its factory.
One of the pilots responsible for this is Thomson Airways' own head of flight operations and technical training, Stuart Gruber. And while compiling the manual that all Thomson pilots will soon need and certifying the safety of every aspect of a new plane may not sound like the sexiest task in the world, Gruber has also had the chance to pilot a Dreamliner. "Sometimes," he says, "I have to calm it down. Everyone at Boeing will be all serious and I'm like, 'New plane! New plane!'"
Gruber, who has been flying since his teens and whose parents are a pilot and a "hosty" (hostess), is cautious as to what he can and can't say contractually, but he is more than happy to go on the record with his deeply technical theory that "pilots will love it". He also seems somewhat taken with the head-up display that comes as standard. "It's what fighter pilots use," he says. "It's basically a glass screen in front of you with infinite vision and all the information you need."
Take my breath away, indeed.
Out on the Boeing factory floor, there are many more people sitting at computer screens than there are working with such stuff as Dreamliners are made. Today, these employees will have another milestone to celebrate when the 787 lands on European soil for the first time in front of the press and trade at the Farnborough International Airshow.
From tomorrow, when the show opens to everyone, the British public will get its first chance to see the Dreamliner up close for themselves. And perhaps, some of those staring in awe at the next stage in the human miracle of engineering we call aviation, may even get a pleasant surprise when they find themselves flying off on a package holiday in a few years' time.
Because if things go according to plan and our need for a week in the sun continues to outweigh our concerns about environment and recession, more and more of us will probably find ourselves turning to those high-street package sellers we previously might have turned our noses up at. And who knows? First Choice holidays might even surprise everyone and live up to its name.
Boeing's 787 Dreamliner can be seen at the Farnborough International Airshow (farnborough.com) from tomorrow until 25 July. Thomson Airways' livethedreamliner.co.uk website will go live on 8 August
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