Boeing's 787 Dreamliner an aviation game-changer

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Passengers get ready to board ANA’s 787 Dreamliner at Tokyo-Narita Airport. ANA is one of 56 airlines that put in orders for Boeing’s new plane. | Lori Rackl~Sun-Times

ABOARD THE BOEING 787 DREAMLINER – As far as airplane delays go, this one was a doozy: Chicago-based Boeing Co. was three years late in delivering its first 787 Dreamliner.

The long-awaited aircraft – hailed by many as an aviation industry game-changer – finally began regular service this week in Japan.

It’s the first mid-size commercial plane capable of flying long-range routes. That has a host of implications, including the potential to ease congestion at O’Hare.

It’s also the first passenger jet made primarily of carbon fiber – basically a type of strong, lightweight plastic – instead of traditional aluminum.

And All Nippon Airways (ANA) is the first on a long list of customers to get the Dreamliner, which I had the chance to check out during a 90-minute flight last Friday out of Tokyo.

More than 200 of us – mostly Japanese men and women in dark suits – filed into the softly lit cabin, designed to raise the bar in passenger comfort. Anyone who’s flown lately knows that bar desperately needs raising.

The Dreamliner feels less claustrophobic than similar-sized planes, thanks to ample headroom and windows a third bigger than those on a Boeing 767. Despite my middle row seat, I was able to get a view of Mt. Fuji as we flew past Japan’s iconic volcano.

Overhead luggage bins are bigger, too, which will help in the increasingly hostile war to store carry-on bags.

Double armrests between the middle four seats means no more fighting for elbow room. Although that feature won’t necessarily come with every Dreamliner, since individual airlines dictate much of the cabin’s configuration. ANA, for example, opted for eight seats per row in economy class; others could choose to squeeze in nine.

On ANA’s Dreamliner, seats are designed to slide forward rather than tilt back. That means the guy in front of you isn’t in your lap. Nice touch, but I could have used an extra few inches of leg room, too.

Other signs that this isn’t your father’s airplane: The windows go from transparent to dark blue with the touch of a button – no more pull-down shades. And the toilets are tricked out with a bidet function.

Many of the Dreamliner’s advances can only be felt, not seen. The cabin’s air pressure is the equivalent of 6,000 feet altitude, or about 2,000 feet lower than that of typical planes. This, along with higher humidity levels made possible by the Dreamliner’s non-rusting materials, should help reduce headaches and other discomfort that goes along with lengthy flights. On my 90-minute jaunt to and from Tokyo’s Narita Airport, I couldn’t tell the difference.

The jetliner has a gaseous filtration system to remove contaminants and odors that can irritate the eyes, nose and throat. And passengers prone to motion sickness might not need to reach for that little paper bag as often. The plane is equipped with “smoother ride technology,” a system that senses turbulence and automatically adjusts the wings to counter it.

Holding between 210 and 290 passengers, the Dreamliner is a mid-size plane capable of big-jet distances. Other aircraft its size can fly from Japan to Los Angeles without refueling; the Dreamliner can make it all the way to New York. It has the potential to open up hundreds of new non-stop routes between cities where customer demand hasn’t been high enough to justify the use of bigger planes. People in mid-sized cities such as Cleveland, for example, will be able to fly directly to some international destinations without having to transfer to bigger planes at major hubs. That translates into less “pass through” traffic at busy airports like O’Hare.

The Dreamliner can handle long-haul flights because its lighter weight and new engine technology has it guzzle about 20 percent less fuel than comparable jets. (That goes hand-in-hand with a 20 percent reduction in environmentally unfriendly carbon dioxide emissions.)

Jet fuel is expensive, so airlines are clamoring for planes that go light on it. The Dreamliner’s low maintenance costs also put it high up on many an airline CEO’s wish list. Some 56 customers from six continents have placed orders with Boeing for 821 Dreamliners – a tab that totals $167 billion.

One of those customers, China Eastern Airlines, got sick of waiting while Boeing grappled with production and development delays and repeatedly pushed back its delivery dates. The airline canceled its order for 24 Dreamliners last month.

United Airlines is slated to be the first U.S. carrier to get the Boeing 787. United plans to fly the Dreamliner between Houston and Auckland, New Zealand later next year. Unless, of course, there’s a delay.

Information for this article was gathered on a research trip sponsored in part by ANA and the Peninsula Tokyo.

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