Now that Airbus’s A380 superjumbo is with us and flying with Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Qantas, with other carriers set to follow suit this year, the most eagerly awaited aircraft is the Boeing 787, nicknamed the Dreamliner. As with the A380, the production process has been subject to several delays, most recently because of a strike at Boeing’s Seattle headquarters, but it now looks as though the opening customer for the aircraft – Japan’s ANA – will receive it in the first half of next year. During a recent visit to Seattle for the delivery flight to Doha of Qatar Airways’ first B777-200LR aircraft, Boeing revealed the thinking behind the 787 and the benefits it hopes the aircraft will offer business travellers.
The idea for the Dreamliner came in around 2000 with Boeing beginning the development on a concept aircraft called the “Sonic Cruiser”. The idea was that this would be a new, super-fast plane, capable of travelling at almost the speed of sound (around Mach 0.95, or 720 mph – today’s long-haul aircraft typically travel at 600 mph). At these speeds, journey times would be significantly shortened. What Boeing discovered, however, was that post September 2001, and in the face of rising fuel costs, airlines were more interested in efficiency.
Boeing knew that regular flyers (ie: business travellers) preferred some aircraft to others for a number of reasons – comfort, onboard technology and perceived safety – so the trick was to find out the sort of things that flyers valued, and then design an aircraft that could supply them. In this way, all things being equal, business travellers would choose the airline that had this aircraft on a particular route, and the airline would see an increase in its revenue.
Kent Craver, regional director of passenger satisfaction and revenue marketing at Boeing, says: “The irony was that when we held focus groups of passengers, we found out that most people did not look forward to the flying experience. As a company, that was an acute challenge – imagine making something that your customers did not enjoy using.”
Yet from those same focus groups, and from the information gathered by psychologists and cultural anthropologists such as Blake Emery and Clotaire Rapaille, Boeing discovered a couple of interesting things. The first was that when people fly, they are bored. For the most part they are travelling because they have to, not because they want to. It seems very obvious, but when compared to the experience of going to a sports game, it threw up some crucial points.
At a sports game, people sit for quite some time in small, narrow hard seats which are laid out in a tight formation so that if you want to stand up several people are disturbed, yet people don’t mind because they are engaged in an event that they have asked to take part in. And the research showed that irrespective of the cultures of the people, everyone has an inherent love of flying. Yet that love had vanished. And one of the reasons for this was that people don’t really associate flying with the physical act of flying any more, they associate it with travel. For most people, travelling is a process – from driving to the airport, checking in, going through security, finding the gate and so on, none of which is enjoyable.
Craver says: “So by the time they get to the aircraft they are already in the middle of the worst day of their lives.” That presents a problem for both aircraft manufacturers and airlines, since most of the frustrating experiences that happen to flyers occur on the ground.
“Our psychologist told us we should create a “separation” between what has gone before and the experience we were offering. One of the ways that can happen is when you are welcomed somewhere. It creates a psychological break from what has gone before, and allows someone to look forward to an experience,” says Craver.
So far so good, but since airline staff are outnumbered 50:1, they would have little time to offer a personal welcome, so Boeing saw that it was the architecture of the aircraft which would have to perform this welcome. Craver says: “The aim was to design an aircraft which created a separation with what had gone on before and that also reconnected people with the experience of flying.”
So how do you create a welcome? Viewing the new cabin of the B787, which exists in one of Boeing’s facilities outside Seattle, it is by initially increasing the overhead space as you step onto the aircraft. Typically, you enter via a long, claustrophobic airbridge tunnel, before squeezing down a narrow aisle and into a seat by a small window. The B787 interior opens up the space overhead, firstly by creating a dome, and secondly by the clever use of LED lighting, which in the example we were shown, is blue and white to mimic the sky. It does seem to create a welcoming feeling and also forms part of a very different interior from the ones we are familiar with in existing aircraft.
Craver says: “It’s the same effect created in medieval cathedrals. When people go in, they often enter through a small vestibule area that creates a tight space which then opens up to giant roofs and soaring spaces.”
The Dreamliner is being built in a new way, not least because it is being constructed from composites (carbon-fibre reinforced plastics) rather than aluminium, which means it is stronger, lighter, and quicker to build (in theory). As well as affecting the fuselage, the new method of “baking” sections of the plane meant that Boeing could also alter the interior of the aircraft to take advantage of the new strength. The first was to make the windows 65 per cent bigger than those on the B777, which are the largest windows in the sky at the moment. This allows people to see much more, which begins the process of reconnecting them to the physical act of flying, as well as allowing those seated in the centre of the wide-bodied aircraft to see the horizon. The new windows also allow for more intuitive control of light, with a dimmer switch rather than lowering or raising the blinds, which often create problems when some passengers open them and disturb others on “night” flights when there is daylight outside. Craver says: “It means that that even on a night flight, you can create a night-time effect and yet still see outside.
“The psychologist’s research reminded us of the importance of those childhood dreams of flying. Yet the interior of aircraft has a domestic, cave-like colour palette, which nullifies the effect of being in the air. On the B787, there are up to 11 lighting scenes the airline can choose from, as well as being able to define the transition time. Boeing calls this the “Sky Interior” to distinguish it from mood lighting, which tends to saturate colour,” Craver says.
Another aspect of the new aircraft, which will be welcomed by frequent travellers, is a reduction in cabin altitude. On all commercial aircraft, a balance is struck between offering a breathable atmosphere (something most travellers would say is quite important), and not over pressurising the plane (lowering the altitude), which is expensive and causes stress to the fuselage.
For many decades, the average altitude on board has been kept at 8000 feet, but after research at the University of Oklahoma, Boeing found that most of the low-level effects of altitude sickness such as headaches, nausea and fatigue dissipate below 6000 feet and so the aircraft is now pressured to 6000 feet, something the composite structure also allows. When combined with a slightly higher humidity the composite aircraft allows, Boeing thinks that travellers will see the benefits.
Finally, there are the obvious improvements such as large overhead lockers with easy-to-use latches, which open whether pushed or pulled. In business class, these have been removed from the centre of the aircraft to create more room.
The new technology has also ensured that the Dreamliner is 15-20 per cent more fuel efficient than the B767, which should be good for the environment and has certainly attracted airlines – 879 orders have been made so far by 59 customers worldwide. Not bad considering the list price for the Dreamliner is anywhere between $161 million to $171.5 million.
The new B747-800 Jumbo and the long range B777 aircraft
As far as most business travellers are concerned, the B787 Dreamliner is still a few years away. Instead, they will probably be flying long-haul in either the Boeing’s B747 “Jumbo” or one of the B777 family. The B747 is currently being extended so that an extra 45 passengers can be accommodated in a typical three-class configuration, with the B747-800 coming into service some time in 2011 (Lufthansa has an order for 20 passenger versions).
The Boeing 777 family of aircraft, meanwhile, has enjoyed continual success, and now consists of six different versions, five of which are passenger models. The aircraft’s popularity is proved simply by looking at British Airways’ fleet, which has 43 B777 aircraft with more on order, and Air France’s, which has more than 50. The B777 has room on board for between 301 and 368 passengers in a three-class configuration, and a range capability extending to over 9,000 nautical miles, enough for a route such as Doha to Houston non-stop.
The most popular choices are the B777-300ER (extended range) and the B777-200LR (longer range). The B777-300ER was introduced in April 2004, and with a range of 7,930 nautical miles and carrying 365 passengers, it was immediately popular with the airlines. The B777-200LR aircraft was launched in February 2006, carries 301 passengers and has a range of up to 9,395 nautical miles. It is currently the world’s longest-range commercial jetliner capable of connecting virtually any two city pairs around the world.
Approximately 35 per cent of the designs for the 777-300ER and 777-200LR planes were changed from the earlier 777 models – the wings were extended by 6.5 feet each by adding raked wing tips to improve aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. The wing tips also helped reduce take-off field length, increase climb performance and reduce fuel burn.
The two aircraft also have seat-mile costs that are 18-20 per cent lower than the A340-500 and A340-600 models. For carriers such as Qatar Airways, which received its second B777-200LR aircraft in February ready for its new Doha-Houston route, the choice is crucial, as shown by the fact that a strike at the Boeing factory delayed not only the delivery of the aircraft, but the introduction of the route.