A Ride on the 787

Boeing’s new jetliner is quiet, sleek, and comfortable. Now, if they could please fix the windows…

STORY AND PHOTOS BY PATRICK SMITH

December 16, 2012

It’s the pointy end of a spiffy new jet that piques the interest of most pilots. There’s no denying that the 787 has a great-looking cockpit and some fascinating systems architecture. I can’t imagine there’s a pilot out there who wouldn’t want to fly one.

However, I figure the various aviation magazines and websites have the jet’s gizmos and plumbing well-enough covered.  (Plus, I’m protesting the glacially slow progress of cockpit ergonomics.  It’s been how many years, and we still don’t have an FMS or ACARS interface with a QWERTY keyboard?)

So, instead, here’s a critique of the 787 from a passenger’s point of view.  A few weeks ago I was fortunate to catch a ride from Boston to Tokyo-Narita on one of Japan Airlines newly delivered ships.

JAL’s BOS-NRT flights were launched last spring; the first-ever nonstop service between Boston and Asia, and the first scheduled 787 service anywhere in North America.  (United has since taken delivery of its first of several 787s, and Ethiopian Airlines will soon launch the plane on its popular route between Washington-Dulles and Addis Ababa.)

Some impressions…

First, the airport. Call me a hometown cheerleader (I live and grew up in the Boston area), but Boston-Logan has to be the most underrated airport in the country.  It wasn’t always this way, but following a decade of major renovations, including an expanded Terminal E and the construction of Delta’s Terminal A, Logan has emerged as one of the most modern and functional major airports in North America.  It’s clean, bright, easy to navigate, and who doesn’t love the inter-terminal connector walkways, with their harbor and skyline views, and inlay sea-life mosaics?

JAL’s flight 007 leaves from Terminal E.   When I was a kid, this was called the “John A. Volpe International Terminal,” named after the former Massachusetts governor.  Then, as now, it is the only terminal at the airport with customs and immigration facilities, and it is home to all of Logan’s overseas carriers. Though not exclusively: the cluster of gates at the eastern tip, once the home of Braniff and later Northwest, are today used by AirTran and Southwest.

The building has doubled in size.  The check-in hall is entirely new and arguably the airport’s handsomest spot.  The spacious, wood-panel interior is softly lit and, unlike most US airports, blissfully quiet — free of the incessant PA announcements and infernal CNN monitors that plague most of America’s terminals.  Passing the TSA checkpoint one enters the building’s older section, which is more or less as I remember it from years ago, with lots of gray aluminum and segmented windows staring towards Revere.  Flight 007 left from gate 8, at the far western end.

Somehow the JAL staff managed to begin boarding a fairly full, 13-hour flight only 25 minutes prior to departure, and actually pushed back early.  There wasn’t even a bottleneck in the jetway.  I was in 23A, a window seat in the second row of economy.

The 787 isn’t as large as other long-haul widebodies. I was a surprised by the stubbiness of the cabin.  In terms of range and capacity, the plane falls between the 767 and 777.  But it feels a lot closer to the former, albeit with 777-style overhead bins and a bevy of new accouterments.

Though it can hold up to 300 passengers, JAL uses a roomy, two-class layout, with extended legroom in economy, for a total of only 186 seats — about 20 fewer than the average 767.

The sidewalls and consoles are sculpted in that rounded, organic, vaguely futuristic style that reminds me of the caves of Turkish Cappadocia (think of Eero Saarinen’s landmark TWA terminal at JFK).  The mid-cabin lavatory is big enough to hold a party in — with cool blue moodlighting to boot.

JAL’s Recaro economy chairs have generous legroom,11-inch video screens (Ethiopian’s are 15 inches!) cup holders, coat hooks, AC power ports and a USB connection.

Despite these goodies, I wondered how many of the passengers had any idea they were riding on the world’s newest and most sophisticated jetliner.  It’s different, but it’s not that different.

If one thing gives it away, it’s the windows.  The 787′s cabin windows are a good 40 percent bigger than normal.  They’re of equal width, but almost double the height of typical windows.  These skinny ovals are perhaps the most distinctively shaped cabin windows since those of the DC-8 or the Caravelle, 45 years ago.

Instead of a traditional draw-down shade, the glass is tinted electronically, with a push-button.  It never fully opaques, and at full tint the effect is a bit like being under water: you can make out certain details, but most of the color and sunlight are filtered away.  The world is rendered in a leaden bluish-gray, similar to the way things look under a very bright full moon.

It’s a nice idea in that you always have a view.  Unfortunately, in direct sun, much of the heat still leeches through, even at maximum tint.  My window pane became painfully hot to the touch, and the radiant heat grew uncomfortable.  At one point I stuck one of the seat-pocket briefing cards into the frame to help stay cool.  When a flight attendant saw this, she came over and gave me a black, self-stick window blotter.  Apparently I’m not the only one to find this bothersome.

In addition, the tinting is not instantaneous.  When the plane banks and suddenly you’ve got the sun bearing down on you, it takes several seconds for the glass to go dark.

All Nippon Airways, the launch customer of the 787, has reportedly complained to Boeing about the heat issue and malfunctioning of the tinting mechanisms. The electronic system struck me as a novelty – technology for the sake of itself — and something that, in the end, isn’t as useful or reliable as the good old manual version.

On the brighter side, as it were, the 787′s cabin is whisper-quiet thanks to advanced insulation and an active noise reduction system.  This makes long flights less fatiguing, saves battery life on your iPod, and makes it easier to hear the movies.  It also amplifies the conversations of your neighbors and the wails of nearby children.

The pressurization and air recirculation systems, meanwhile, are designed to maintain higher humidity levels and lower cabin altitudes than are customary.  (The plane’s composite construction ensures that moisture levels won’t be corrosive.)  These are welcome changes, but after landing at Narita I’m not sure that I felt any less weary or dehydrated than I normally do after a 13-hour journey.

JAL’s onboard service was very good overall, if not quite on the level of other leading airlines from Asia, Europe, or the Middle East.  There were two hot meals and a snack service.  During the in-between hours, a buffet was set up in the mid and rear galleys with snacks and bottled water.  The lavatories were stocked with toothbrushes and other amenities.

One thing that JAL and most other foreign airlines understand better than their US counterparts, is that service is a continuous thing.  Whether it’s premium or economy class, you don’t hand out a meal and then go hide for seven hours.  JAL’s flight attendants made continuous rounds, serving beverages, collecting trash, etc.

There were two hot towel services: one after takeoff and a second one about an hour before landing.  Yes, in economy.

One complaint is that JAL’s inflight entertainment options could use an upgrade.  That big video screen is only useful if there’s something worth watching.  Delta offers a far better choice of movies and TV, even in economy.  Also, the video handset controls are inset into the armrests in such a way that your elbow digs painfully into the well.

But if you ask me, the coolest thing about JAL’s 787 isn’t on the inside, but on the outside.  I’m talking about the airline’s reintroduction of the tsurumaru, the circular red-and-white logo used since 1960.  Possibly the most elegant airline logo ever conceived, it’s a stylized depiction of the crane, lifting its wings into the circular suggestion of the Japanese rising sun.  Beginning in 2002 this ageless symbol was phased out in what had to be the most regrettable makeover in the history of airline identity, replaced by a “rising splotch” – a blood-red blob that evoked pretty much nothing at all.  It was a terrible decision on aesthetic merits alone, and still worse considering the crane’s cultural importance in Japan.  Apparently enough people complained, however, and the tsurumaru has since been resurrected.

Similar to the A380, the lines of the 787 give it a somewhat anthropomorphic profile.  But while the A380 looks like a steroidal beluga, the 787 is a sleeker species.  The tail is awkwardly undersized, but those scalloped engine nacelles (for noise reduction; similar to those on the new 747-8) and sharply tapered wingtips are definitely cool.

As for the name, kudos to Boeing for sticking with the numerical sequencing that began almost 60 years ago with the 707.  However, I’m not especially fond of the “Dreamliner” designation.  Somehow the imagery there is a little too wobbly and ethereal.  People don’t want their planes (or their pilots) nodding off.

It could have been worse.  Initially, before Boeing had settled on a name, Dreamliner was in contention with three other possibilities.  They were: Global Cruiser, Stratoclimber, and eLiner.  Global Cruiser sounds like a yacht, or a really big SUV.  Stratoclimber sounds like an action hero, and eLiner is almost too awful to contemplate — sort of like “iPlane.”

If you haven’t caught a glimpse of the 787 yet, you will soon.  Boeing’s order book stands at more than 800.

 

Related Stories:

Logan Redux: the Pilot Goes Home Again

The Yin and Yang of Airline Identity

 

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33 Responses to “A Ride on the 787”
  1. The name could have been MUCH worse: they barely avoided iLiner.

  2. David says:

    Very nice write up. Nice to read a pilot’s perspective while a passenger. It seems like the main benefit for passengers in the quietness.

    I recently flew B-class on AF from IAD to CDG on an A380. It was hands down the quietest aircraft I have ever been on and it felt very spacious. The staircase from the upper deck to the lower deck was huge. It looked like something you would see on a cruise ship — not an aircraft. But the AF B-class seats are angled and not that comfortable.

  3. Joe says:

    Stratoclimber: the exercise machine that converts into a lounge chair!

    As for electrochromic windows, get used to it — some say that’s supposed to be the Next Big Thing in “smart” windows for buildings, and already some car makers are using the technology for sunroofs. I’d imagine, however, that those come with something actually opaque that you can close…

  4. Randy Fritz says:

    I think “Stratoclimber” sounds like a cross between a bomber (think B-17 to B-52) and the ladder you need to get into one.

    Too bad about the windows, but I still can’t wait to fly in one.

  5. Reza Gorji says:

    Great read. I am amazed at some of the improvements you mentioned.
    Thank you.

  6. Jim Houghton says:

    Wouldn’t a white window-blotter make more sense, heat-wise?

  7. Terry Reagan says:

    Thanks for the comments Patrick.
    My kid and I saw the 787 in construction in Everett and I’ve been eager to see how it all turns out.
    Considering how most airlines are going these day (from bad to worse), I think that JAL is still probably doing quite a nice job.
    We hope that Boeing will take into account the user notes for future planes. I had my doubts at the time about their “photochromatic” windows. One man’s lovely dark tint is another’s blaring sunlight. And interesting your comments on the effects of noise reduction — from outside, but not inside.

  8. L Sorensen-Jolink says:

    Thanks for the interesting piece! It’s too bad for passengers that United, the first US carrier to fly the 787, has opted to stuff 9 seats into each economy row rather than the 8 that Boeing recommends. United’s 787 will accommodate 219 passengers in its two classes with a 3-3-3 seat configuration in Economy. Japan Airlines accommodates 186 passengers with a 2-4-2 seat configuration in Economy. No matter what the other passenger amenities are, seat size, pitch and leg room are the critical determinants of comfort for all but the tiniest of us.

  9. keith peers says:

    HI great reading. is the CABIN ALT better.

  10. mhighers says:

    I really look forward to reading your blog. I actually like the name “Dreamliner” but it does sound like a mattress brand.

    You mentioned the Recaro seats in economy, but didn’t say if they were a marked improvement where it counts…on the back and bottom. Were they?

    Thanks

  11. Mark Richards says:

    A great description. Especially good that, despite JAL’s western influences, they have maintained the Japanese passion for excellent service.

    However I must differ with you on your Logan praise. From a non-connected public transit link to a confusing garage to terminal connection scheme, I have found it takes some local knowledge to navigate.

    Perhaps I will always be jaded. Recalling the memory of a parking ticket received in the midst of a blizzard that obscured signage tends to paint the facility as run by typical Boston idiots. And of course, speaking of idiots, the memory is still fresh of two lovely bicycles on my overhead rack being shaved off and mangled at one of the garage entrances. My stupid, but signage and a less damaging pre-warning device would be a thoughtful touch.

    I fly Manchester, but would prefer Orlando, at least for the parking and climate.

  12. Gene says:

    I’m wondering how those flexy wings looked from inside. When I watched the first one take off I was amazed at how much the tips rose as lift was developed. And seeing the static test aircraft in the jig with the wings bent to an amazing angle was confidence inspiring.

  13. Tim says:

    Hey, Patrick, how hard (not expensive, just difficult) would it be for an airline to just install old-fashioned shades on those windows if they wanted to? Or maybe just mini-curtains?

  14. Dana Levin says:

    Patrick, JAL also has started direct service from San Diego to NRT with the 787, which without this plane, woundn’t be possible because of San Diego’s runway layout. This saves a couple of hours on a connect. The flights are 4 days a week now and will go every day in March. This is the first non stop to the far east for San Diego and hopefully more to follow with the 787.

    • Tim says:

      What’s wrong with San Diego? Are the runways too short for 777s and 747s, or is there something wonky about the approach routes?

      • chicagogreg says:

        Tim, SAN is long enough for the 777 (BA has a daily from LHR) but not long enough for a fully-laden 747. BA used to fly a 747 from LHR but it made stops in PHX for refueling.

        • Tim says:

          Just checked and saw I got an answer. Then why couldn’t you fly SAN-NRT before then? I just checked Great Circle Mapper, and SAN-NRT is only an extra 63 nautical miles further than SAN-LHR. A 777 should be able to make either distance. Is it just that Japanese airlines tend to use 747s over 777s?

  15. Maciek says:

    I am not a pilot, rather a frequent flyer. Last week I boarded the newest Polish LOT’s 787 on its maiden flight from Warsaw to Prague.

    Great plane! Far better than any other I know, including A380.

  16. Dave Shaw says:

    Regarding the electronic window shades. I agree that it looks like a techie feature, but it probably is also a weight reduction bonus.

  17. DM says:

    You mean they still use tiny alphabetic keyboards?

  18. Don says:

    What will happen after the next new Boeing airliner? 797 and then what? They have run out of the series. Why have they always stuck with this 7×7 series? What does it signify?

  19. Allen ward says:

    en.wikipedia.org/…/Boeing_787_ …The 787-8 is designed to typically seat 234 passengers in a three-class setup, 240 in two-class domestic …

  20. Allen ward says:

    Don, always wondered myself! History below. Patrick, great article and great website. Will become a regular reader. Found it from your post on airliner.net @ the recent 787 issues.

    http://www.boeing.com/news/frontiers/archive/2004/february/i_history.html

    The truth is a bit more mundane. Boeing has assigned sequential model numbers to its designs for decades, as have most aircraft manufacturers. Boeing commercial aircraft use their model number as their popular name: Model 40, Model 80, Model 247, Model 307 Stratoliner and Model 377 Stratocruiser.

    Boeing planes built for the military are best remembered by their military designations, such as the B-17 Flying Fortress or the B-52 Stratofortress. These airplanes also had Boeing model numbers assigned to them-the B-17 is the Boeing Model 299 and the B-52 is the Boeing Model 454.

    After World War II, Boeing was a military airplane company. William Allen, Boeing president at the time, decided that the company needed to expand back into commercial airplanes and pursue the new fields of missiles and spacecraft. To support this diversification strategy, the engineering department divided the model numbers into blocks of 100 for each of the new product areas: 300s and 400s continued to represent aircraft, 500s would be used on turbine engines, 600s for rockets and missiles and 700s were set aside for jet transport aircraft.

    Boeing developed the world’s first large swept-wing jet, the B-47. That aircraft sparked interest with some of the airlines. One in particular, Pan Am, asked Boeing to determine its feasibility as a commercial jet transport. At the same time, Boeing began studies on converting the propeller-driven model 367 Stratotanker, better known as the KC-97, into a jet-powered tanker that would be able to keep pace with the B-52 during in-flight refueling.

    Boeing product development went through several renditions of the model 367, and finally a version numbered 367-80 was selected. It was soon nicknamed the “Dash 80.”

    Boeing took a calculated risk by financing the development and construction of the Dash 80 prototype with its own funds. The goal was to put the airplane into production as both an Air Force tanker/transport and a commercial jet transport.

    Since both of these offspring of the Dash 80 would be jet transports, the model number system called for a number in the 700s to identify the two new planes. The marketing department decided that “Model 700″ did not have a good ring to it for the company’s first commercial jet. So they decided to skip ahead to Model 707 because that reiteration seemed a bit catchier. Following that pattern, the other offspring of the Dash 80, the Air Force tanker, was given the model number 717. Since it was an Air Force plane, it was also given a military designation of KC-135.

    • marcel says:

      Wasn’t the 707 called the stratoliner? So, stratoclimber would have been in keeping.

      About “700″ not having a good ring to it: if 007 is a license to kill, then perhaps they understood 700 as a license to be killed. Just an idea…

  21. Rick says:

    Allen,
    Thanks for the history. I always wondered what happened to the 717!

    • freqflyer says:

      More about the 717: there is very little awareness that the KC-135 is the Model 717, so when McDonnell-Douglas bought Boeing with Boeing’s money in 1997 [but that's another story] the problem was what to do with the McD commercial aircraft then in production, the MD-11 and the MD-95.

      The MD-11 was wound down and phased out in 1999. The MD-95 was the newest iteration of the DC-9; Boeing tried to fit it into the existing product line by calling it the 717. A nice little airplane, but it didn’t sell. It too was phased out. The two major customers were Hawaiian Airlines and AirTran. Hawaiian will replace their 717′s by A320′s; AirTran has been taken over by Southwest. The 717′s have been sold to Delta

      As for “Dreamliner”, that designation was first used in 1946-47 by the new York Central railroad [remember them?] for their post-war fleet of new sleeping cars.

      http://www.ebay.com/itm/New-York-Central-Railroad-Streamliner-Dreamliner-Sleeper-Vintage-Print-Ad-1947-/310772121883?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item485b76411b

  22. Anonymous says:

    […] Down below, meanwhile, was the economy cabin, with as many seats — 427 — as an entire Boeing 747. Because the upper deck has its own boarding door and dedicated jetway, I never saw economy  – or first class for that matter, with its shower and fully enclosed passenger compartments — is cordoned off by curtains and decidedly off limits to the curious. The main benefit of this segregation is a much quicker boarding process, but one drawback, perhaps, is that the experience feels less like flying on an airplane than merely relaxing in some cavernous rectangular function room.  This feeling of disconnectedness is exacerbated by the poor view from the upper deck windows, which are mounted deep within the side panels and angled upward. I much prefer the oversized windows of the 787. […]

  23. […] Down below, meanwhile, was the economy cabin, with as many seats — 427 — as an entire Boeing 747. Because the upper deck has its own boarding door and dedicated jetway, I never saw economy  – or first class for that matter, with its shower and fully enclosed passenger compartments — is cordoned off by curtains and decidedly off limits to the curious. The main benefit of this segregation is a much quicker boarding process, but one drawback, perhaps, is that the experience feels less like flying on an airplane than merely relaxing in some cavernous rectangular function room.  This feeling of disconnectedness is exacerbated by the poor view from the upper deck windows, which are mounted deep within the side panels and angled upward. I much prefer the oversized windows of the 787. […]

  24. Mike says:

    I’ve flown the 787 a few times from North America to Asia and one advantage of the electronic windows became obvious.

    On westbound overnight flights where sun never goes down, the cabin crew can remotely dim all of the windows at once. So that on an overnight flight you won’t have that ONE GUY who keeps his window shade up and keeps everyone else from sleeping.

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