Thursday, October 27, 2011

First Dreamliner passengers sing new jet's praises

By Ben Mutzabaugh, USA TODAYUpdated 3h 26m ago

 – Boeing's much-ballyhooed but long-delayed 787 Dreamliner finally entered commercial service this week, flying paying passengers for the first time on an All Nippon Airways flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong on Wednesday.

The ultramodern 787 is being hailed in the aviation industry for its technological innovations, including the carbon fiber construction that makes it the first jetliner not made of traditional aluminum and steel.

But while the 787 is drawing acclaim from industry observers, how will it go over with ordinary passengers?

The Dreamliner — which Boeing designed with passenger comfort as a priority — drew nearly unanimous positive reviews from the roughly 240 passengers lucky enough to secure a seat on its inaugural flight.
Those passengers, however, might not be a good barometer for how the jet is received by the average traveler. Nearly all of them were on board because they enthusiastically sought it out.

Only 100 seats on the 264-seat jet were made available to the general public, and ANA received more than 25,000 applications for those. The other 140 on board were a mix of journalists, airline officials and other industry workers.

Also among those 140: six business-class fliers who bid for their seats on Flight 7871 via auction. One passenger — Gino Bertuccio of Miami — paid more than $33,000 via that auction to get his spot on the inaugural flight. He also flew on the inaugural flight of the Airbus A380 in 2007.

So will the glowing reviews of the 787 hold up as the Dreamliner's passenger counts soar and as more airlines begin to fly the jet — possibly in less customer-friendly configurations than Boeing had envisioned?

"I think the 787's benefits will be appreciated mostly by frequent travelers and aviation enthusiasts," says Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of San Francisco-based travel research firm Atmosphere Research Group. "Passengers may have a better flight but may not know why, since some of these benefits are somewhat subtle."

Among the potentially "subtle" passenger-experience upgrades that were put before fliers on the 787 inaugural:

•Bigger windows. In what was hands-down the top new feature cited by passengers on the inaugural flight, the Boeing 787's windows are now the biggest of any commercial passenger airliner. Boeing says the 787's windows are 30% bigger than those on a Boeing 767. The windows also are now positioned closer to eye level for most passengers, meaning fewer strained necks from looking out the window.

"The windows," said Flight 7871 passenger Stephanie Wood of Davie, Fla., when asked about her favorite feature on the 787.

"You really notice it and it makes the plane feel so bright and like you're not shut in," added Wood, who also joined the flight via the charity auction after she and her husband, Dean, successfully bid on a pair of business-class tickets. The couple would not divulge the price they paid.

In addition to the well-received larger size, the windows on the 787 do not have manual shades. Instead, they are darkened by a button control that can electronically dim the light partially or entirely.

•Storage bins. Boeing says they were designed to accommodate the wheeled roller bags that have become ubiquitous. The bins on ANA's 787 — which are about 30% bigger than on Boeing 777 aircraft — easily accommodated even large roller bags, though irregularly sized luggage could mean a less-than-optimal fit.

In addition to making it easier for customers to fit their bags into the bins, Boeing thinks that will help more flights take off on time, because — in theory — passengers won't need as long to hoist their bags into the overhead bins.

•Cabin environment. Thanks to new technology on the Dreamliner, flights are pressured to the equivalent of 6,000 feet in elevation, lower than the 8,000-foot mark that's typical for commercial passenger aircraft. Boeing says that — coupled with the higher humidity levels possible on the 787 — should alleviate headaches, fatigue and reduce the general wear and tear travelers often feel from flying.

•Protected lap space.Patrick Smith, an airline pilot and columnist, wasn't on the inaugural flight but says he's intrigued by "ANA's shell-style economy-class seats. They have double-wide armrests and recline by sliding forward, not by hinging backward, meaning you never impinge on the legroom of the person behind you, even in the full recline position."

•Cabin aesthetics. Vaulted ceilings between luggage bins and over galley areas help play off the larger windows to make the cabin feel more spacious. Despite that, the aisles on the 787's inaugural flight still felt clogged when passengers got up in bunches.

•Gadget friendliness. ANA's configuration offered USB ports and electric outlets at every seat, allowing customers to charge a cellphone or access music or movie files via the in-flight entertainment console. Power outlets mean laptops now can stay charged for an entire flight.

•Quieter cabin. Boeing has said cabin noise on the Dreamliner will be lower than on other jets that typically fly on long-haul routes. While that was hard to quantify on the inaugural 787 flight to Hong Kong, most passenger conversations seemed to flow easily.

Another advantage for airlines (and environmentally concerned passengers): The Dreamliner's reduced weight and aerodynamic profile will increase fuel efficiency up to 20%.

Still, Smith of warns that even with all of those perks, not all Dreamliners will be created equal.

"In the end, though, how the plane is received will mostly come down to the way its operators tailor and customize the experience," Smith says.

Chris Sloan, another inaugural flight passenger, suggests the Dreamliner has been subject to overhyped expectations lingering from the 2007 debut of the Airbus A380 — now the world's biggest passenger jet. During that rollout, the A380's selling point was obvious: size. Sloan says the 787's significance is just as important, albeit it more subtle.

"Superficially, the windows are great. The high ceilings are great. And the bins," Sloan says of the 787. But, speaking about possibly inflated expectations, Sloan adds, "Do people really think all of a sudden economy class is going to become first class? No, it's not."

Sloan and others say the 787's strengths will get a chance to shine once the carrier begins flying the ultra-long-haul flights it was designed for — flights of more than 10 hours that will be significantly longer than the Dreamliner's four-hour debut flight between Tokyo and Hong Kong.

"We'll really see those advantages on a 14-hour flight," Sloan say. "A lot of these features will be much more apparent on ultra-long-haul flights. When you're exposed to those sort of conditions for 13 or 14 hours, that's when the Dreamliner will be at its best."

The first such service for the Dreamliner will start in January, when ANA will deploy the aircraft on a route between Tokyo and Frankfurt. Starting next year, United hopes to put its first Dreamliner on a long route of its own: Houston to Auckland, New Zealand.

Until then, however, that leaves the question of whether ordinary travelers will be savvy enough to notice the 787's differences — such as the double armrests that will keep middle-seat customers from fighting over a single armrest.

Stephanie Woods says she isn't sure.

"Will people notice those things? I don't know," she says. They're nice features, but — for some — they may not."

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