Talk about flight delays: When All Nippon Airways (ANA) flight NH7871 departed Tokyo’s Narita Airport on Runway A last October 26, bound for Hong Kong, the airplane—a Boeing 787 Dreamliner—was more than three and a half years late. But its passengers were in a state of near rapture. One man, Gino Bertuccio of Miami, had paid $34,000 for a ticket (usual cost: About $1,000) at an online auction just for this moment, the Dreamliner’s much anticipated commercial debut. His fellow passengers, according to the Associated Press, “treated the experience like a rock concert, clapping after liftoff and snapping photos for posterity.”
You could say that expectations are sky-high for the 787 Dreamliner, a plane aviation observers—and Boeing top executives—hope will revolutionise air travel. One blog post on the well-respected website Airlinereporter.com called the Dreamliner “the iPhone of the aviation industry.” The plane’s coming-out party was supposed to have been in May 2008, but its unprecedented technical challenges—among much else, requiring 800,000 hours of design time on Cray supercomputers— repeatedly delayed delivery.
The more mundane headaches included orchestrating 50 suppliers at 135 manufacturing sites around the world and modifying a B747-400 to haul the major assemblies to the Dreamliner plant in Everett, Washington, (and, in so doing, creating the largest cargo plane by volume in the world). As time dragged on, some airlines cancelled, but most, including ANA, Singapore, Continental/United, Qantas and Air Canada, stood by their plane. As of February 2012, Boeing had received orders for 870 planes, worth an estimated $110 billion, making the Dreamliner the most successful commercial launch in aviation history. Boeing expects to deliver from 70 to 85 of the aircraft in 2012.
The carriers that kept the faith see the Dreamliner as not just an upgrade but also a revolutionary leap forward. For starters, the B787 is the first commercial jet not made primarily of metal. Fifty percent of the Dreamliner, including the entire fuselage and most of the wings, is fashioned from carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic. That makes the B787 far lighter than any plane of its size and allows it to cruise as effortlessly as an albatross. The trailing wing edge automatically optimises the airfoil shape during flight, and the wings actually flex upward by as much as 26 feet, making a bowl shape that allows the plane to perform like a glider.
The economic payoff is enormous—the 787 flies at the same 0.85 Mach top speed as the 777 but consumes 20 percent less fuel. That won’t necessarily translate into lower fares, but it means something just as valuable for the international passenger: Less travel time and fewer plane changes.
The B787’s increased range over the B777 will rewrite the world airline route map by enabling carriers to fly non-stop between cities that were formerly served through hub-and-spoke systems; Boeing has identified 450 airport pairs that could be connected for the first time with the B787.
Continental/United, for instance, the first US carrier to get the B787 (it expects delivery in the second half of 2012), has already announced plans to fly non-stop from Houston to Auckland and Houston to Lagos.