Monday, October 1, 2012

Dreamliner service to West Coast off to rocky start

It could not have happened on a worse day.

Imagine New Year's Eve in Times Square or a 4th of July celebration in virtually any American city. Imagine the crowds and the media watching in anticipation. Now imagine that the ball doesn't drop or the fireworks fizzle.

That's likely how officials with both All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Boeing felt when the first Dreamliner flight slated to carry passengers from the West Coast had to be delayed due to mechanical problems.

Dignitaries from the Port of Seattle, Boeing, and ANA joined members of the media who had been invited to "Dreamliner Day" at Sea-Tac Airport (SEA) to celebrate the airliner's first passenger flight to the West Coast.

ANA Dreamliner arrives at SEA to water cannon salute
ANA Flight 1078 landed on Oct. 1 some 45 minutes ahead of schedule, and was welcomed with a water cannon salute delivered by two of the airport’s fire trucks. Despite the rainbow that formed over the plane, the sun would not shine on the airliner that day.

Guests watched the arrival of the Dreamliner from an area near the plane’s arrival gate, S-16 in the airport’s south satellite, that had been decorated for the occasion. We nibbled hors d’oeuvres and sipped soft drinks while waiting for ANA officials to clear customs and return to the gallery for remarks and schmoozing.

Business Class seat
Following the remarks, reporters and travel writers -- including many who were to be on the return flight -- were allowed to board the aircraft for a preflight glimpse of what was repeatedly referred to as a “game-changing aircraft.”

As advertised, the interior is definitely different than most jetliners in service today. The ceilings are higher, the windows larger, and the color scheme more restful. The seats looked more comfortable, the lavatories were larger, and LED lighting provided a softer feel than harsher fluorescent lights in use on other aircraft.

The first passenger-carrying flight to the West Coast, completed by ANA’s 14th Dreamliner, came very close to marking the first anniversary of the delivery of the first Dreamliner ever, which was delivered  to ANA on Sept. 25, 2011 (Read previous article here).

The return flight will take a bit longer.

Economy Class seat
Virtually everyone was surprised when they heard the announcement that, “Due to mechanical issues, the departure will be delayed by an hour and a half.”  The scheduled 1:15 p.m. departure became 2:45. At 2:45, the gate attendants announced that they would have more to tell us at 3:15.

Meanwhile a local TV station, which had reporters scheduled to be on board for the flight to Tokyo, was reporting that the flight was being cancelled, and that passengers would be delayed by 24 hours.

Shortly after 4:30, ANA made it official: the flight would not leave until the next day.

Unofficially, would-be passengers shared what they’d heard: that the issue was minor but required a new part; the part was on site but they didn’t know how quickly they could get it installed.

The official word on the cause, which came out some hours later, blamed a faulty valve in the system that cools the aircraft's power electronics.

Most of the passengers agreed: “Safety First.” Live to fight (or fly) another day.

For its part, the airline was gracious and apologetic, rebooking those passengers who needed or wanted to get to Tokyo or beyond more quickly, and providing vouchers for meals, lodging, and Internet access at the hotel for the rest. And, for those travelers who stayed, I can think of worse places to spend an additional day than Seattle, especially when the weather was Chamber-of-Commerce-perfect.

The inconveniences aside,  I don’t know who should be (or is) more embarrassed: ANA or the plane's manufacturer Boeing, which had several high-ranking executives at the soirée who touted the wonderfulness of this “game-changer.”

Everyone who flies frequently knows: stuff happens. And every airline has the responsibility of putting the safety of its passengers above schedules or revenue or, really, any other consideration at all.

Still, it must be frustrating to invite dignitaries and the media to an event, to say essentially, “Watch this!” and “this” turns out to be a 24-hour delay.

It’s cliché to be sure, but better safe than sorry. Although I’m betting there’s plenty of “sorry” to go around.

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.



Photos by Carl Dombek
Click on photos to view larger images

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