Lighter, cleaner, faster, greener

After a three-year delay, Boeing has launched its revolutionary Dreamliner 787 with Peter Hughes aboard the maiden flight.

For an airliner that is no bigger and no faster than thousands already flying, Boeing's 787 Dreamliner had an extraordinary send-off for its first commercial flight. All Nippon Airways (ANA), Japan's biggest airline, has bought the first two 787s and on October 26 it filled one with 240 passengers and flew them from Tokyo to Hong Kong on a charter. Such is the anticipation, an American passenger paid $US31,781 for a business-class seat in a charity auction on eBay.

There were speeches and sake in Tokyo, much bowing, many platitudes and an exhausting protocol of laboured courtesies before the Dreamliner went on its way. The director of Tokyo's Narita airport wished us well, fire tenders sprayed a watery arch with their hoses and when the aircraft left the ground, everyone clapped. Four hours later, when it landed in Hong Kong to more fire hoses and two dragons cavorting, everyone clapped again.

What did they expect? The thing flies - and very comfortably, too. It is quiet, airy and the cabin feels cavernous - even configured as this one is for domestic flights with 264 seats, 106 more than it will have on long-haul flights. The height of the ceiling, 2.4 metres, is the first thing I notice when I join this inaugural flight - that and the huge luggage bins. The age of the carry-on case has just been ratified by Boeing.

The reason for the sake and dragons is that the 787 is revolutionary in everything but its appearance. On the ground, that cavernous fuselage looks rather portly. The wings begin to give the game away. They are as slender as filleting knives, trailing edges curved in the shape of some exotic bay and flicked up at their ends almost coquettishly. They are structures of exceptional beauty.

In flight they flex like diving boards. And therein lies their marvel: they change shape for optimum aerodynamic efficiency. What is deceptive about the Dreamliner is not that its interest is skin deep but that the interest is with the skin itself. It is the first airliner to be made of plastic. More than half the basic structure, including the fuselage and wings, is constructed not of traditional aluminium but of new composite materials such as carbon-fibre-reinforced plastic.

"Plastic is what you have on the dashboard of your car. This is not plastic," a Boeing spokesman declared with emphasis. His protestations would have been more convincing if one of the suppliers of "composite materials" wasn't using ANA's plastic water bottles to advertise the fact.

However you describe them, the new materials make the Dreamliner stronger and lighter and thus, more economical. It is one of the least polluting of all commercial aircraft. Along with fuel consumption, carbon-dioxide emissions have been cut by 20 per cent. The biggest contribution to these efficiencies comes from a new generation of engines developed by General Electric and Rolls-Royce, whose Trent 1000 engines have been picked by ANA for its 787 fleet.

The first aircraft was meant to have been delivered three years ago but Boeing has been hit by a number of setbacks that have cost the company billions of dollars in delays. Ironically, one of the problems leading to the production hold-ups was a worldwide shortage of "fasteners", the unglamorous nuts, bolts, clasps and rivets that hold an aircraft together. And this despite the 787's one-piece fuselage eliminating the need for between 40,000 and 50,000 of the items. While a 747 needs a million holes to be drilled in its fuselage, the 787 needs fewer than 10,000.


There are savings in maintenance, too. The new materials don't fatigue or corrode, so the Dreamliner costs 30 per cent less to maintain than a comparable conventional aircraft. It doesn't require a really major service for 12 years.

From a passenger point of view, there are three principal innovations. Thanks to the strength of the plastic fuselage, the cabin windows are the biggest of any airliner flying or in development - more than 7.5 centimetres longer than those on a 747 and more than 65 per cent bigger than those of a 767. Passengers in the central block of seats, between the two aisles, have sight of the horizon. The advantage is not simply to improve the view but to stop people feeling queasy or suffering from airsickness. Boeing claims an eightfold improvement on that. Even so, ANA 787s still carry sick bags.

The windows are fitted with "auto-dimming" smart glass, what Boeing calls "electronic curtains". At the touch of a button, the windows gradually darken until they're completely blacked out. The old sliding window blinds have been scrapped as a consequence. Softer cabin lighting, using LED rather than strip lights, is supposed to lessen the incidence of headaches, dizziness and fatigue. Even jet lag could be reduced because lighting can be modulated according to the time of day, easing passengers into changes in time zones.

Besides the lighting, the cabin atmosphere has been improved to help passengers feel more comfortable. It is pressurised to the equivalent of 1800 metres rather than the usual 2400 metres. As a result, it is claimed that 8 per cent more oxygen will be absorbed into the blood. But was a fan the most tactful souvenir of the maiden flight of an aircraft that makes so much of its benign cabin climate?

The humidity is higher and, crucially, the air is cleaner. The Dreamliner doesn't use the old "bleed air" system, whereby cabin air drawn through the engines is vulnerable to contamination from any leak of toxic fumes. Instead, the 787 filters fresh cabin air from the atmosphere. Talk to Boeing engineers, though, and it sounds as if the change was made as much to save fuel as for passenger well-being. Bleed air compressors add to the engine load. On older aircraft, they also supply pneumatic pressure to work the brakes. The 787 has electric brakes.

Light and efficient, the 787 is bringing the economics of big jets to the middle of the market. With a 20 per cent saving of fuel over similar-sized aircraft, the 787 has the range and speed of a jumbo. The new aircraft, for example, can fly non-stop from Tokyo to New York, whereas the 767 can only manage Tokyo to Los Angeles. One can expect airlines to use the 787 to open a number of new long- and medium-haul routes that wouldn't justify a jumbo.

Boeing has orders for 821 Dreamliners from 56 airlines, including 55 from ANA, 24 from British Airways and 15 from Virgin. By 2014, with a second production line working, Boeing expects to be turning out 10 Dreamliners a month. But by then the Airbus A350 XWB, Dreamliner's direct competitor, should have entered service.

If the 747 is anything to go by, the Dreamliner is an aircraft in which people will be flying two generations hence. The jumbo made its inaugural transatlantic flight in January 1970. The latest version, the fourth major variant, was delivered last month. That means that, in one form or another, the Dreamliner could still be going strong in 2051. There are few branches of modern technology in which one can accurately predict developments in five years' time, let alone 50.

I have seen the future and it's flying. That's worth applauding.