How Dreamy Is the Dreamliner?

16 Feb

“If you put me in a blind test, I would say this is no different,” said Winfried Scherle, a senior executive at lens maker Carl Zeiss AG, during the Feb. 3 flight.

Others said they landed feeling more refreshed. They had an easier time sleeping, felt their eyes and nasal passages didn’t dry out as much as usual. Still, it was a modest improvement, not dramatic difference. Oh, and a baby still wailed onboard.


Boeing points to design changes both inside and out of the cabin that make for a better ride. With a body largely constructed of super-strong plastics—carbon-fiber composite material—instead of aluminum, the 787 can have higher cabin humidity since rust isn’t a worry. The humidity level in the Dreamliner cabin is 10% to 15%, compared with 4% to 7% typical in other airplanes. But 15% is still extremely dry—about the same relative humidity as the average summer afternoon in Las Vegas, according to meteorological data.


he cabin is pressurized to a lower altitude than conventional jets, lessening the effects of being high in the air, such as headaches and fatigue, because of a 6% improvement in oxygen absorbed by the body at 6,000 feet compared with 8,000 feet, according to a Boeing spokeswoman. Studies show big windows help reduce motion sickness, Boeing said, and LED lighting that can simulate sunrise, for example, can help ease jet-lag effects.

A new aircraft stability system that will make for smoother rides in turbulence is still only partially functional in the five 787s in service, but an updated software load planned within weeks will improve the ride even more, according to the aircraft maker. Fuel efficiency and emissions are 20% better than the Boeing 767, a similarly sized jet.

Does it live up to the hype? Japanese airline All Nippon Airways, the launch customer for the 787, started flying it regionally within Asia on Nov. 1 then added long-haul service between Tokyo and Frankfurt on Jan. 21. The long-haul flights are the real test of passenger comfort.

“To me, it didn’t feel like a revolution. It felt like a natural evolution. It was different but it wasn’t hugely different,” said Michael Grepo, a computer-systems expert for the U.S. government who took a long weekend last month to fly the new 787. He said he didn’t feel as short of breath as he does on other aircraft, and he didn’t have to hold his nose and blow to clear his ears as often. Orange light on the cabin ceiling before landing simulated sunrise and was calming, Mr. Grepo said. It seemed to make a difference psychologically.


As for the humidity, “it still felt like I was drying out, but it wasn’t as bad or noticeable as on a regular airplane,” said Mr. Grepo.

I flew from Tokyo to Frankfurt on Feb. 3 and could feel the Dreamliner differences. My contact lenses didn’t dry out as much as they usually do on long flights; same for my nose. I only slept an hour, partly because a nearby infant wailed several times during the night, even though the Dreamliner is supposed to lessen air-pressure pain in babies. Still, I wasn’t dragging as much as I usually am after sleepless overnight trips.

Small details do make a difference. The plane comes standard with individual air vents over passengers, something that is rarely found on wide-body jets. That gives each passenger more control of air flow and temperature. And the large 787 window offered a beautiful panoramic view of Tokyo on departure.

Nobumi Matsuda, who runs an eye clinic in Tokyo and is studying the eye health of airline pilots in Japan, downed three bottles of water during the Feb. 3 flight and said the 787 humidity improvement just wasn’t enough. “I thought there would be more,” he said. “It’s half-and-half. I half like it, and I’m half disappointed.”


As for passenger disappointment, Boeing said in a written response: “While it could be argued that the passenger comfort improvements are incremental, the combination of so many improvements in one airplane is revolutionary in our opinion.”

The Dreamliner ranks as the fastest-selling commercial jet in history, with 59 airlines around the world ordering 870 of them. Deliveries began more than three years late, and yet serial production problems didn’t lessen the promised improvements in travel.

Now, it is scheduled to hit U.S. airports later this year. Japan Airlines says it will fly the 787 between Tokyo and Boston beginning April 22, and Tokyo and San Diego next December. ANA says as Boeing delivers more planes it will add Seattle and San Jose, Calif., as 787 destinations from Tokyo. The first 787 to be delivered to United Airlines is under construction and is expected before the end of this year.

Passenger loads on the 787 have been higher than other flights, indicating popularity of the new plane, ANA said, and the carrier believes the 787 is drawing travelers away from competing airlines and bullet trains.

The 787 is designed to carry 220 to 250 passengers, according to Boeing. ANA has outfitted some 787s with 264 seats for short trips and 787s to be used in long-haul flights with only 158 seats—64 of them in a roomy business-class cabin that takes up half of the jets floor space with lie-flat seats cocooned individually.

So far, passengers have been thrilled, ANA said. A more detailed study will be conducted at the end of February. “Cabin attendants say it’s much better for their skin,” an ANA spokesman added.

Some of the benefits may be so subtle that it takes awhile for passengers to notice. Just after waking up, Thorsten Hoffmann, a sales executive from Germany, said the plane feels like a normal plane—he expected to feel more different. But after landing, he changed his view of the 787.

“I feel really good,” Mr. Hoffmann said exiting the plane. “I slept longer on this flight than I ever have before on a flight. Maybe there really is a difference.”


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