Livin’ the Dream(liner): Boeing’s jet lives up to its name

Twenty minutes into my first ride aboard a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I knew I was hooked. Spoiled. Would never be satisfied with anything else.

Which is essentially what I thought or said whenever I flew on what was then the “next generation of air travel,” and it’s proven to be true every time.

My love affair with flying started in my preschool years when my parents took the family on the tri-tail Constellations operated by TWA, the Lockheed L-188 Electras, and other “prop jobs” that plied the skies. I loved the noise and the vibration.

Then, at the age of seven, I rode my first jetliner: a Boeing 707 (NYSE:B). Entering service in 1958, it marked a quantum leap over the aforementioned propeller planes, and started their fall from grace.

While other single-aisle jets would follow the 707, air travel would move to the next level with the introduction of Boeing’s 747. Dubbed “Jumbo Jets” these behemoths were two and a half times the size of a 707, and started carrying passengers in 1970.

My first ride aboard a 747 was the fall of 1973. A novel feature was the inclusion of a “piano bar” toward the rear of the aircraft. I recall several of us lounging in the area, chatting with what were then called “stewardesses” – and who, back in the day, actually talked with their passengers instead of retreating behind a curtain to read their latest pulp novel or fashion magazine – while one of the passengers tickled the ivories of the Fender-Rhodes electric piano.

The inauguration of passenger service aboard the Concorde in 1976 moved air travel up several more notches, but only for a relatively few air travelers. Operated by British Airways and Air France, these “supersonic transports” or SSTs flew passengers at Mach 2.02 from London or Paris to New York, Washington, DC, and Miami, among a handful of other international destinations.

The planes, which each carried only 100 passengers, had been envisioned as the next big step in air travel. However, concerns about the effects of the sonic booms surfaced before its first passenger flight, and ultimately limited the Concord to flights over water. Because of the limitations on the routes it could fly, its modest range of 3,500 miles, and stratospheric ticket prices, they remained the provenance of the rich and famous and never became a part of most travelers’ flying experiences.

First ANA Dreamliner to carry passengers from SEA

Now, the introduction of the 787 Dreamliner has elevated air travel once again.

Even its name is evocative of the excitement and the “anything is possible” attitude of the early years of the jet age.

In passenger service less than a year, this plane and its revolutionary construction have won accolades from engineers, pilots, and passengers.

I’m about to add my name to that list.

On Oct. 2, after a 24-hour delay from the scheduled departure time thanks to a faulty valve in the system that cools the aircraft’s power electronics, I was privileged to be aboard All Nippon Airways' (ANA's) 14th Dreamliner, and the first to carry passengers from the West Coast.

Dreamliner Entrance

ANA had configured this Dreamliner for international service, which meant we were not greeted by the grand entryway that Boeing conceived as providing a more welcoming experience (as shown at left). On ANA’s jet, it was replaced by a galley from which we would be served our meals.

No matter. ANA’s delightful service started as soon as we were through the door, but that will be a topic for another post.

Immediately, I noticed the ceilings were higher than similar aircraft, contributing to the overall spacious feel. Colored lights along the corridors added a touch of whimsy while simultaneously being relaxing.

Colored overhead lights

Settling into seat 3A in Business Class, I was pleased to see the ample amount of storage and workspace. The purpose of my trip, after all, was to experience the Dreamliner, photograph it, and write about it, so I would indeed be working.

After giving my coat to a very attentive flight attendant, I stowed my laptop and camera, and settled in. More on the entire Business Class experience in a future post.

As our pilot pointed us toward the active runway at Seattle’s Sea-Tac airport (SEA), we taxied under a celebratory arch of water from two of the airport fire department’s water cannons, reemphasizing that our departure was something special indeed.

Water cannon salute of first 787 departure

As soon as we started our take-off roll, it immediately became obvious how much quieter the Dreamliner is than its counterparts. Thanks to the ultra-quiet but extremely powerful Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines, we were quickly at VR and airborne shortly thereafter. We slipped the surly bonds of earth with 5,000’ of runway 34-R’s 11,900’ total length remaining; an impressive performance indeed for an aircraft weighing slightly more than a half-million pounds.

Once aloft the windows, which Boeing says are 30% larger than other aircraft and “the largest windows of any current commercial airplane” became the co-star to the fabulous view they allowed. The portals are noticeably taller and slightly wider than other aircraft, giving passengers a far better view from the ground below to the stratosphere above.

Adjustable windows at various stages of opacity

The first thing I did, as did many of my fellow passengers, was play with the dimming function of those windows. Instead of shades, they use electric currents to darken and lighten the window panes.

Next, I focused on the in-flight entertainment center complete with Sony® noise-cancelling headphones for business class passengers. While I found the Dreamliner noticeably quieter than other aircraft, I was sitting ahead of the wing and engine, which is always an airplane’s quietest area. Even at that, the headphones took what ambient noise there was down several notches.

The entertainment options included a wide variety of films, both Hollywood and Japanese, music, real-time in-flight maps, and seat-to-seat messaging. I was actually able to text my fellow passengers while in-flight. One small drawback to that feature is that there’s no “You’ve Got Mail!” icon or similar; one has to periodically check the “Connect” queue to see if you have any new messages.

Business class connectivity includes a USB port, a port for one’s iPod, and a universal power outlet, which enables passengers to plug in their laptops and other devices without fishing for the adapters. Universal power outlets are also featured in economy class.

In-flight route map

The entertainment center included an in-flight map that kept me up to date on our progress, airspeed, outside temperature, as well as times in flight, remaining, at our departure point, and at our destination. The temperature and airspeed data enabled me to calculate that for most of the flight, we were traveling close to Mach 0.84, very close to the design speed of Mach 0.85.

Thanks to the strength the airplane’s carbon fiber composite material, the airplane’s fuselage can handle the stresses from the larger window cutouts and can also accommodate being pressurized to a lower cabin altitude. Instead of being pressurized to the equivalent of 7,500’ to 8,000’, the Dreamliner is pressurized to about 6,000’. That lower cabin pressure is coupled with a state-of-the-art air filtration and humidification system to reduce passenger fatigue.

Honestly, I didn’t think it would make that much difference, but it did. My ears didn’t pop once during our decent from our 40,000 foot cruising altitude, and at the end of a 10-½ hour flight I was tired, but not completely spent as I have been on similar hauls.

A novel feature of the Dreamliner, at least in Business Class, is what Boeing personnel refer to as the Dream Lav. It’s about double the size of a standard aircraft lavatory. On ANA, they’re equipped with the very Japanese TOTO toilets, complete with bidet function but without the heated seats, which would draw quite a bit of current.

As delightful and exciting as the Dreamliner is, a few small points became apparent.

The Dreamliner crossing the Washington coastline

Due to the nature of the carbon fiber material, the Dreamliner’s wings flex quite a bit more on takeoff, landing, and during turbulence than the aluminum wings of other aircraft. They were designed for that and tested rigorously, but it can be a bit disconcerting if you’re not anticipating it, particularly if you’re not a comfortable flier anyway.

A fellow passenger pointed out an overhead bin that was not deep enough to stow a standard-sized carry-on with wheels out, as we’re always instructed to do on other airliners. Boeing project spokesperson Lori Gunter told me in an email that the bins were designed to handle four carry-ons simultaneous, so the bin over seat 8A may have been an anomaly.

Dreamliners do not currently have in-flight wireless connectivity, which would be welcome, especially on longer flights. However, Gunter told me in-flight wireless systems should be “available in the catalog” by the end of the year. An airline executive with whom I spoke after our arrival in Tokyo assured me that they would be adding the service, though he could not provide a date the service would be installed and available.

Returning to my seat after chatting with fellow passengers, I noticed that all the windows were at maximum darkness, obviously controlled by the flight crew, and apparently a hint that it was time to nap. When the crew adjusts the windows, it overrides individual control so passengers cannot change the brightness on their own.

With seven hours left to Tokyo I decided to take the crew’s suggestion and get some sleep, despite the Aerosmith lyric running through my head: “I don’t wanna close my eyes; I don’t want to go to sleep … because I don’t want to miss a thing.”

Kicking back in the lie-flat seats, which actually did lie flat, a line from a childhood prayer followed Aerosmith’s words, but with a new ending: “If I die before I wake,” I’ll be 40,000 feet closer to Heaven.

In some ways, I was already there.

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Photos by Carl Dombek unless otherwise noted
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ANA provided me with round-trip transportation and lodging in Tokyo as part of a media familiarization trip so that several reporters and bloggers could experience the 787 first-hand.