(Note: the pictures in the slideshow at the bottom of this piece are a mixture of official Qatar Airways images, and photographs taken on board the delivery flight.)

Background:  To briefly recap for anyone who doesn’t have the B787 facts at their fingertips. The 787-8 Dreamliner can carry 210 – 250 passengers on routes of 7,650 to 8,200 nautical miles (14,200 to 15,200 km), while the longer 787-9 Dreamliner (not yet being flown commercially – scheduled for first flight and first delivery in 2013 and early 2014) will carry 250 – 290 passengers on routes of 8,000 to 8,500 nautical miles (14,800 to 15,750 km).

The B787 series is eagerly awaited by airlines because of its fuel efficiency (it uses 20 per cent less fuel than today’s similarly sized airplanes), and has a 20 to 45 per cent advantage in cargo revenue capacity.

Introduction: This was the delivery flight of Qatar Airways’ first B787-800 aircraft from Seattle’s Boeing Renton Airfield to Doha international airport, a flight of over 13 hours duration. We cleared security at the airfield and then were driven to the steps of the aircraft. Departure time was 1300.

First impressions: The first impression is of space. Instead of entering straight into a galley area, the designers behind the B787 always intended for the entrance way to have a higher ceiling, and though not every airline has kept this configuration, Qatar Airways has. It means that with clever lighting the experience of boarding the aircraft is more pleasant, particularly after the narrow and claustrophobic air bridge (though on this occasion we simply walked up a flight of steps from the tarmac).

You are actually entering at one end of the business class cabin – 22 seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. There are no central overhead lockers, and on this layout no overhead crew rest – this coupled with the  low profile of the business class seats makes the cabin feel almost empty.

An advantage of this is that the larger profile windows (18.5 by 11 inches; 47 by 28 cm) come into play, and while you’d expect there to be more light in the cabin, it’s the view that makes the difference, with Boeing saying that “Passengers in any seat on the airplane enjoy a view to the horizon, which connects them to the flying experience”.

I’ve been told by the Boeing designers that the intention was for the windows to be higher up on the fuselage, allowing for you to see more of the sky without having to crane your head forward, and it’s true that looking out of the window is far more addictive when there’s that much more to see, including the sky above, a lovely pale blue once we had left rainy Seattle behind.

The overhead lockers above the window seats are large enough for standard carry-on bags to be slotted in sideways so you can fit more in, though it may take people a little while to get used to this, and on my flight they were still putting them in sideways and filling up the lockers unnecessarily.

The entrance also has a bar area and a magazine rack, with a further marble-style surface which you can lean on, though I didn’t see anyone congregate there during the flight, and without any seats it’s unlikely they would. There is a restroom on one side here and then two seats in a pair together – these were used as crew rest on our flight.

The take-off was very smooth, and we were quickly airborne. In-flight the aircraft is noticeably quiet – much more like the A380 than the B777-300ER, for instance. During this review I’m going to quote what Boeing says about various aspects of the design of the aircraft. Concerning the ride it is this:

“Sensors on the 787 are designed to counter the effects of turbulence by causing certain control surfaces to change slightly. This innovative system helps maintain a smoother ride throughout the flight, reducing nausea for those subject to motion sickness”

It’s hard to know how much this will reduce turbulence. In general it was a smooth flight apart from a few minutes when the seatbelt light was on, though turbulence never seems so bad when you can see the land below and the sun is shining.

Concerning the noise from the engines, Boeing says that “the use of serrated “chevrons” as part of the nacelle design… and other technologies lower noise both inside and outside the cabin, making it quiet for communities, ground crews and passengers.”

The other major difference in the cabin, after the windows, is the cabin pressure. Here’s what Boeing says about it:

“Today’s airplanes are pressurized to a typical cabin altitude of 6,500 to 7,000 feet (1,981 – 2,133 m), with a maximum certification altitude of 8,000 feet (2,438 m). Because the advanced composite materials that make up the 787’s fuselage do not fatigue, the 787 can be pressurized more, which allows for lower cabin altitude levels.

“Studies at Oklahoma State University explored the effect of altitude on passengers to determine optimum levels. After testing at various altitudes, it became clear that lowering the cabin altitude to 6,000 feet (1,830 m) provided meaningful improvements. Lowering the cabin altitude further, however, provided almost no additional benefit. Based on that knowledge, Boeing designed the 787 to be pressurized to a maximum cabin altitude of 6,000 feet.”

In all honesty, I couldn’t tell the difference, but whether that’s because I fly so much I’ve become desensitized, or just because I was exhausted after flying from London to Seattle and then flying from there to Doha (and then on to London after that), it’s hard to tell. What’s for sure is that there was that fresh plane smell I’ve been lucky enough to experience on a few occasions (delivery flight of the first A380 to Emirates, and on a B777-300ER delivery flight from Seattle prior to this B787 flight).

The Qatar Airways aircraft is fitted with an advanced (i8000) Thales IFE system, and I interviewed Fred E Schreiner, Senior VP, IFS Engineering on the flight and will publish the interview later. The seat also has in-seat power taking US and UK plugs, and the OnAir system for both wifi and mobile phone calls – the pricing is $15 for 10 MB, $35 for 35MB, though we were provided with vouchers.

The system worked well when just a few people were logged on (for instance in the middle part of the flight when most were asleep), but during busy times shortly after take-off and for the last few hours before landing in Doha it could not handle the demands made on it, perhaps because journalists were uploading photos from the flight.

The seats: The business class is in Qatar has gone for a very spacious 1-2-1 configuration, (A-EF-K), which as well as creating a relaxing layout in the cabin, means you have a large amount of personal space. To view the seatplan for this aircraft, click here.

The business class seat is large, with a bed length of 80 inches, and a bed width of 30 inches and comfortable in many different positions, from the upright take off / work and landing position to fully flat as a bed. The window seats are angled towards the window so you can make the most of the views and there is a control on each allowing you to dim them or lighten them according to how much light you would like in – this happens quite slowly, by my count nearly two minutes, so the temptation to play with them is slightly dampened.

Storage includes the large overhead lockers – though note you will bang you head on them until you get used to how low they come down, and a drawer for your shoes, a space under one of the seat arms for a bottle of water and the noise-cancelling headphones, a large side table area which has a magazine rack, and the tray table which slides out from under the large 17-inch IFE touch screen with a further fold-out portion. The tray table typifies the seat, being strong, practical, and designed in such a way that you can push it back under the screen when you want to get out of the seat without having to remove everything.

There was plenty of room to work on a laptop with all my papers spread out around me and a cup of tea to one side – no different from work. The laptop power worked without fail, and of course without the need for an adaptor for a UK (or a US) plus, the connection wasn’t temperamental.

The colours of the seat and surround are the Qatar ones – a deep ruby purple on the leather detailing and a Prince of Wales look to the seat cloth. The IFE system (the Thales i8000) has a huge amount of content on it, but I didn’t find it easy to use, despite having a fair amount of familiarity with IFE systems in general, and Qatar’ Oryx system in particular. In part it is because the range of options can be a little confusing.

Note that although it is the same IFE system in both economy and business, Qatar has opted to give more options on the handheld device in business than in economy, though I didn’t manage to list those differences. There is both a touchscreen Android system handheld device 3.8 inch screen which controls the main screen and the screen on the device.

There is an overhead light controlled from the handheld device (I think, I never got it to work) and a more simple reading light with a switch which I used instead. For sleeping, pyjamas are provided, along with ear plugs, eye mask and a bottle of water. The seat was easy to recline and meets a small footstool tucked away under the IFE screen to create a comfortable and wide (22 inches) fully flat bed. I found it easy to sleep on this flight, notching up around six hours before waking and accepting the offer of a cup of tea and some shortbread before breakfast.

What’s impressive about the seat is the way the minor details have been thought out. The IFE screen is easy to turn off, so you are not disturbed by the light from it, and the smaller handset also turns off so it does not shine in your face from its position in the arm rest. The armrest closest to the aisle can be electronically operated up and down via the seat controls, so if you want to trade off a narrower bed for the feeling of security of having the armrest there between you and the aisle, it’s an option, or you can lower it and take advantage of an even wider bed.

At the far end of the bed next to the footstool on the window seats the side of the frame of the seat has been cut out, so you actually get a few extra inches for your toes to stretch out in these seats compared to the pair of seats in the centre of the aircraft, though I wouldn’t imagine anyone is promoting different seat lengths (and they aren’t really, but if you are tall I think you’d notice it).

Food and drink: As reported on businesstraveller.com, Qatar’s culinary world menu has four celebrity chefs who have created dishes for Qatar’s inflight offering:  Nobu Matsuhisa, Vineet Bhatia, Tom Aikens and Ramzi Choueiri. The menu on this flight was as follows (please skip ahead if you are not interested):

  • Appetizer: black cod with lemon.
  • Starters: pea and mint soup, crème fraiche; selection of cured salmon, grilled prawn and smoked tuna, potato and horseradish salad; Arabic mezze, hummus and moutabel served with Arabic bread.
  • Main courses: prime beef tenderloin with rosemary jus, gratin potatoes, baby carrots, asparagus and turnips served with side salad of rocket and shaved parmesan cheese; saffron yoghurt marinated prawns with lemon and coriander sauce, basmati rice, wilted spinach with chick peas, cucumber and tomato salad; grilled red onion and pumpkin tart, basil pesto, sun blushed tomatoes with red pepper and scallion salad. Also a choice of cheeses (comte, Rosenberg and brie).
  • Desserts: blueberry cheesecake, mascarpone and honey; vanilla and pistachio ice cream; selection of seasonal fresh fruits.
  • The bread basket included ciabatta, multigrain roll, sourdough and bread sticks.
  • Wine choice: Billecart-salmon champagneor brut-rise. Domaine Marc Morey et fils, Chassagne-Montrachet, 1er cru vergers, 2010, Burgundy, France; Craggy Range Te Muna vineyard, 2011, Martinborough, New Zealand; Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, 2011, Alsace, France; Chateau Brane-Cantenac, AC Margaux, Bordeaux, France, Two Hands, Angel’s Share, 2010, McLaren Vale, Australia, Costasera, Amarone Della Valpolicella, 2008, Veneto, Italy. Kopke, Colheita, 1982, Douro Valley, Portugal.
  • Also a long list of cocktails, mocktails, spirits and soft drinks including nine different juices and the ability to make proper coffee, very welcome in the morning.

During the flight we were also able to have, on request, snacks such as baked potato and leek soup, Cajun chicken breast salad, Arabic mezze, tortilla wrap with marinated lamb and tahini yoghurt dressing , grilled sea bass, lemon and chive linguini, cheese plate (manchengo, Roquefort and boucheverette), lemon tart with candied lime zest or a selection of fresh fruit. I noticed also that there were some snacks and canapés laid out on the bar area by the entrance for anyone who wasn’t full after all the options.

  • Breakfast: strawberry and banana smoothies; orange juice, muesli, fresh fruits, smoked salmon on pumpernickel toast with fennel salad. Mains: grilled prime tenderloin steak with cheddar cheese and chive scrambled egg, spring onion potato cake, roasted tomato and mushrooms, Bombay masala omelette, chilli garlic sausages and grilled cherry tomatoes; apple and raisin French toast, crème fraiche with honey, Arabic breakfast plate: labneh with za’atar, feta and shanklish cheese served with foul medames and Arabic bread.

A note on the economy seating: it is in two cabins, in a 3-3-3 configuration (ABC-DEF-HJK) starting from row 10 to 25 omitting row 13 and then 26 though to 36, with this last row being 2-3-2 (AC-DEF-HJ). The Recaro seats are 16.9 inches wide, have a pitch of 31 inches (though some sources claim 32 inches) and a recline of seven degrees. There is seat power in the proportion of two for every three seats and the IFE screen is 10.6 inches.

Note that there are IFE boxes under some of the seats which slightly restrict your feet area, but in this regard the middle seat is best since the boxes are under the aisle seats of each set of three. The IFE screens offer a USB plug and an iPod and iPad connection with cables available from the flight attendants, on this delivery flight at least.

Verdict: the B787 is a lovely aircraft, clearly a step change for the aviation industry but also for passengers, if only for the large windows, lower pressurisation and all-round environmental improvements in terms of efficiency and noise. The wow factor will ensure that regular flyers are bound to hunt out the services to try out the aircraft, and though on board you start to quickly take for granted the new elements when you then get back onto an older generation aircraft – even the much admired B777, you then miss it.

The Qatar Airways configuration is outstanding, and though the economy class is 3-3-3, the Recaro seating has a good seat pitch (31 inches) when the thinner seat cushions and articulated seat are taken into account, and the IFE screens and larger windows make the cabin environment more pleasant than most.

Just make sure you don’t sit next to anyone too big, because the seat width of 16.9 inches will always be a squeeze. In business, the seat backs up the CEO’s claim that Qatar’s business class is the match of many first class seats. It makes me wonder what he has planned for first class on the A380.

Fact file

Tom Otley