Despite the rise of tech giants like Microsoft and Amazon, Boeing actually remains the Seattle area’s largest private employer. Anyone who pays even passing attention to local media hears a lot of talk about Boeing: big orders they receive, negotiations with their labor unions, and most prominently, the production and rollout process of the 787 “Dreamliner”.
I was eager to fly on the new 787, and on my recent trip to Japan (more on that later) I finally got the chance: All Nippon Airways (ANA) flies the 787 on it’s Seattle to Tokyo Narita route.
Aside from its superior fuel efficiency, and some initial trouble with kitchen fires (now fixed), the main hoopla about the 787 revolved around it’s special features to improve passenger comfort:
First, the windows are noticeably larger, are conveniently at eye level, and darken gradually using cool magnetic smart glass technology (no more open/shut plastic shades). The idea is that you can increase the tint to keep out the bright sun, but still be able to see outside. The crew can also auto-darken all the windows to create a nighttime atmosphere on the plane (there’s always that one guy who refuses to close his shade on an overnight flight across the North Atlantic in the summer, when the sun is always up).
Multi-colored LED lights are able to slowly brighten the cabin to simulate sunrise, eliminating the rude awakening you get when the crew suddenly flips on the fluorescent lights in the “morning,” taking passengers from peaceful nighttime to Wal-Mart-like brightness in a split second.
Most importantly, the 787’s fuselage is made of carbon fiber, which, compared to metal, is stronger and doesn’t rust. This means the cabin can be kept at a higher humidity level (15% instead of 4% on other aircraft) and be pressurized to simulate a lower altitude (6,000 ft, rather than 8,000 ft, above sea level). Since humidity and pressure play a large part in the fatigue you feel after a long flight, this is a welcome improvement.
After two flights on the 787, each approximately 9 hours, I can say that I was a little disappointed. The windows are definitely cool, but if you’re not in a window seat you don’t really notice much difference. Our ANA flight crew apparently couldn’t figure out how to use the fancy sunrise lighting effects; they turned all the lights on just as abruptly as always. As for the pressure and humidity, I guess I may have felt a little less fatigued than on a normal transoceanic flight… but that could’ve just been a placebo effect. Fifteen percent humidity is still very dry air for those of us who don’t live in the desert.
The biggest single factor in the comfort of any flight is something that Boeing unfortunately has no control over: the seats. Airlines get to choose those and install them in any configuration they choose. The seats ANA chose for their 787’s are bad: narrower and with less leg room than similar long-haul aircraft I’ve been on (most recently, the A330’s and 777’s that United and Delta use on Transatlantic routes). I was scrunched. I’ve even been more comfortable on recent domestic flights- specifically the new 737’s that Alaska Airlines equips with ultra-cool, slim Recaro seats.
I won’t go out of my way to fly the 787 again (especially not ANA’s version), but I guess I won’t specifically avoid it either. Most airlines, ANA included, are setting up their 787’s in a 3-3-3 configuration, meaning that a third of the poor souls on board are stuck in a middle seat. That’s less optimal than the 2-4-2 configuration you find on Delta’s A330s, and far worse than the awesome 2-3-2 configuration on the old 767’s, which is still my favorite plane despite it’s lack of 787-like features. Given that I’ll soon have to start buying a seat for my daughter, too (painful on the wallet), the 787’s 3-3-3 may not be so bad.