ABOARD ALL NIPPON AIRWAYS FLIGHT 7871 — It’s the plane that is supposed to change the experience of flying.
No more stuffy noses, dry throats or severe fatigue. Larger windows to provide a stronger connection to the world outside. And mood lighting that can either ease jet lag or turn the plane into a nightclub at 40,000 feet.
And for the most part, Boeing’s 787 succeeds. Flying it is more enjoyable. But it’s still flying. Just because the plane is new doesn’t mean the food will taste better or you won’t be stuck in front of a kicking kid.
There has been plenty of hype surrounding the 787, a long-range plane marketed as The Dreamliner that carried its first passengers Wednesday on a four-hour flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong. It has been called “revolutionary” and “a game-changer.”
And, indeed, a sleek design makes the plane stand out the moment you step on board. A higher ceiling — at least the perception of one — reduces claustrophobia. And natural light pours in, creating a welcoming feeling.
Maybe that 10-hour flight won’t be so bad after all. Maybe.
Fighting jet lag
The biggest benefit should come from features that fight jet lag. Those couldn’t really be experienced by the 240 reporters and aviation enthusiasts who made the relatively short inaugural flight.
They include a doubling of the humidity, to 16 percent, and bringing the cabin’s pressure closer to what it feels like on the ground. Planes are normally pressurized to 8,000 feet, higher than any point on the East Coast. Air inside the 787 is made to feel the equivalent of 6,000, slightly higher than Denver. The pressure and humidity changes should lead to fewer headaches and leave passengers with more energy after long trips.
The short flight also didn’t provide for a test of the full impact of LED lights that slowly change color, another feature designed to fight fatigue. The impact was felt when the cabin lit up in a funky rainbow display, turning the plane into something out of “Saturday Night Fever.” Add some loud music and it’s not too hard to imagine a bachelor or bachelorette party at 40,000 feet.
The lighting concept is being rolled out on other aircraft, including new models of the narrow-body 737. European aircraft maker Airbus also offers something similar on new A320s.
Another 787 feature worth noticing is the windows. The plane’s strong carbon-fiber frame, which allows for the humidity and pressure improvements, enables windows 30 percent larger than those on traditional aluminum-body planes.
Just don’t expect window shades. Boeing replaced them with an electronic tinting feature. Click a button below the window and it slowly starts to darken. The window never becomes completely blacked out — you can still see out — but enough light is blocked to make sleeping possible. Not that anybody was trying to sleep during the boisterous inaugural flight. At the very least, you can picture little kids playing with the windows for hours.
Boeing also tackles the problem of crowded overhead bins. Getting bags into the bins, and opening and closing them when they are heavy and full, was easier than on any other plane.
The plane’s manufacturer says they are the largest bins on any plane, with enough room for one carry-on bag per passenger. While the bins are much larger, the only way that seemed feasible was with identically rectangular bags stacked in optimal order.
The plane is also supposed to be much quieter, both for passengers inside and people on the ground. Engines with a wave pattern in the metal lower the roar, although Boeing won’t say by how much.
And a lighter plane allows for more padding to protect passengers from noise and vibration. Wednesday’s flight seemed quieter, but a handheld sound meter registered noise levels similar to Boeing’s 777. (Maybe those soothing lights were playing tricks on the mind.)
The most-promising feature of the 787 will come on later models: a turbulence-dampening system. Accelerometers in the plane’s nose will register a sudden drop and send a signal through fiber-optic cables to the wings. What would have been a 9-foot drop is cut to 3. No other plane has this technology.
Airlines have already purchased almost 800 of the original 787 because of promised fuel savings and the ability to open up new routes. Japan’s All Nippon Airways is the first to fly it. United Continental will be the first in the U.S. sometime late next year.
Beyond Boeing’s control
There are some features that Boeing can’t control. Individual airlines determine how much legroom passengers get. They also pick between a roomy eight-across seating arrangement or a more cramped nine-across layout.
All Nippon has eight seats in each row and installed a double armrest for the middle seats, providing a few extra inches of personal space.
And in the end, isn’t that all we want?