I was fortunate to be invited by Boeing and Qantas – along with a very small number of other television, radio and print journalists – to be part of Media Team 787, a media only flight from Sydney to Brisbane and return onboard N787BX (ZA003). Configured with 135 seats, less than 30 guests were permitted to be carried by authorities by virtue of the aircraft’s ‘experimental’ status. The aircraft was in Sydney on the first stop of its final leg of the global Dreamtour. The clear emphasis and focus of the tour is well and truly aimed squarely at what the aircraft offers in terms of the passenger experience.
In this article I’ll try and articulate my impressions as a passenger and convey my early opinions relating to the 787 customer experience.
I arrived at Qantas HQ wondering how they would manage a few hundred people on the doorstop of their Sydney office. As it turned out, I was fortunate enough to be selected by Boeing as one of the 28 media representatives to experience a flight most people would kill for. Hosted by both Qantas and Boeing, the day included an informal return trip to Brisbane for lunch with various media opportunities scattered throughout the day. In attendance was the Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, Jetstar New Zealand CEO, David Hall, Boeing VP of Marketing, Randy Tinseth and a small army of Boeing staffers that provided logistical, maintenance and customer support.
Pics from the Early Press Conference
I avoid using words like stunning… but on this occasion I feel that I have to – there’s no word that more aptly describes the Dreamliner’s ramp presence. A gentleman I was talking to said that he was there because his television network “made him” (poor guy). “I’ve never been much of an aviation or travel fan”, he said, “… but being here now, and for the first time ever, I’m looking at an aircraft and the only word I can use to describe it is beautiful”. Such is the evolution of Boeing’s design philosophy. Gone are the days of reengineered 1960′s technology and those box-kite designs that we’d sadly come to expect from manufacturers. Not unlike a bird, the 787 exhibits a naturally organic yet futuristic presence on the ramp… and it exhumes a very obvious hypnotic and feminine charm that can’t be ignored. For many, the experience on the 787 will be the first time they’ve actually had an emotional connection with an airframe.
I’m usually a very level person with an unwavering temperament that thinks of aircraft in the same way a handyman does of his hammer. However, on this occasion, getting up extremely close and personal with the machine I found myself reaching up and touching it expecting some sort of cosmic implosion. I though back to a moment in a Star Trek movie where Commander Data (a sentinent Android) queries Captain Picard as to why he felt the need to touch the Phoenix when visiting a historic warp ship for the first time.
Data: Sir, does tactile contact alter your perception of the Phoenix?
Picard: Oh, yes! For humans, touch can connect you to an object in a very personal way, make it seem more real.
[Data also puts his hand on The Phoenix]
Data: I am detecting imperfections in the titanium casing… temperature variations in the fuel manifold… it is no more “real” to me now than it was a moment ago.
Many pilots – again, referencing Star Trek – form a Borg nation. We love aircraft and flying for reason that passengers and enthusiasts can’t and don’t relate to. We’re assimilated into a world of SOP’s, repetition, checklists and procedures, and there’s always a clear disconnect from the passenger experience (we’re more focused on the passenger comfort of that experience). Although we’re acutely aware of what passengers want, it usually rates rather low on our aircraft wish-list. We have a very utilitarian attitude; the aircraft is a tool of trade and we treat it as such.
The Boeing 787's Scupltured Ramp Presence
It didn’t take me long to realize why the 787 made such an immediate emotional impression on me – Boeing have reinvented air travel. What I was experiencing on the inside and outside of the aircraft was so new it was like I was touching an aircraft for the first time all over again. Boeing had stepped back far enough from the internal systemic bureaucracy that I can only assume plagues their organization to identify with the need to overhaul their thinking… and they did an incredible job. The result is a thing of beauty.
Inside the 787
Entry was made into the aircraft via the 2L door while parked in the Qantas hangar. Not unlike the 777, business passengers will appreciate the separate 1L door that can be used exclusively for the pointy end of the aircraft. Premium guests shouldn’t have to deal with those awful and underdressed commoners staring at them as they board.
I’m not quite sure the configuration of our aircraft was in any way, shape or form ‘typical’. We had a business section towards the front and two zones of economy class seating. The forward zone represented a realistic cattle class while the rear section provided business legroom in premium seating. Zone four was completely empty making it ideal for break dancing. In our case, the dance floor was used for television crews and journalists to conduct business… and it was heavily utilized as a place for groups of people to simply socialize in cruise. Just forward of the 2L entry door was a bar area and large LCD TV screen playing promotional Boeing videos. We were seated in a 3-3-2 arrangement in the rear zone with with business style leg room. When the aircraft enters into service we’ll likely see a high density 3-3-3 economy arrangement with legroom comparable to the 737.
Boeing 787 Seating Arrangements
The first impression is one of space. Unlike other aircraft – from both Boeing and Airbus – the minimimalistic yet private partitioning between classes wasn’t noticeable. The overhead storage bins seemed to be integrated into the aircraft architecture and recessed further up than we’re used to seeing yet they opened up to just above eye level with enough room for four standard (61cm x 30cm x 25cm) suitcases. Most importantly, and similar in concept to Boeing’s Sky Interior, their cambered flow into the ceiling gave the impression of invisibility.
The Boeing 787's Overhead Storage Bins
Taxiing to the Runway
The air-conditioning in a traditional Boeing steals air from the engine during start, with pilots normally turning the (cabin) bleed air system off until both engines are running. Most frequent flyers are very familiar with the sounds of silence just before pushback. I didn’t hear this, obviously, because the system is now a function of the electrical system. In fact, I barely heard the engines start at all. Boeing says that engine noise can easily be contained within an airport perimeter and this was a clear indication of such. The cabin remained quiet.
We taxied for runway 34L at Sydney and passed herds of plane spotters and photographers lining the eastern airport perimeter fence. If this is the reaction the aircraft is getting now, I can only imagine that passengers will flock to it in droves once it’s in service.
Under most circumstances, an aircraft will fly a reduced thrust takeoff to ensure that only enough thrust is used as is necessary. This is accomplished in one of two ways: a thrust derate simply commands a defined thurst reduction; while a temperature derate tricks the engine into thinking it’s hotter outside that it actually is. It’s an exact science that requires at least a few minutes of careful performance calculations before every takeoff. Most jet takeoffs use a combination of a thurst reduction and temperature derate determined by aircraft weight, runway conditions, climb gradient restrictions and environmental conditions – the effect being a longer life on engines, less noise and reduced fuel burn. On this occasion, however, we were told that that we would have a full-rated thrust takeoff. A full thrust takeoff in a gutted 787 with barely 30 passengers and minimal fuel! The angle of climb was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before in a jet and it’s something I may never see again. Despite that, cabin noise was minimal. Even during the takeoff roll I could comfortably talk to my neighbor at a soft volume. The engine noise wasn’t the “roar and buzz” I’m used to. Instead, it was like a progressive hum.
The advanced pivot trailing flaps means that the track fairings (installed in the pods on the underside of the wings) are smaller than on traditional aircraft – and they move a smaller distance with smaller motors. As such, flap retraction was extremely quiet and smooth.
The cabin windows are integral to the passenger experience. Once in cruise it was more obvious than ever how the windows opened up the cabin in such a way that it integrated with the environment outside the aircraft. Gone are those little windows that are better suited to submarines; the 787’s windows are 30% larger than those of the A380 and significantly larger than traditional twin-aisle types.
The aircraft doesn’t have traditional window shades. The shading is controlled by an electrochromic dimming system that allows passengers to incrementally change the tint of the window from fully transparent to black. This also gives cabin crew the ability to centrally control cabin window tints based on the phase or mood of flight. As such, the windows form an integral means in which to artificially emulate timezones in cross-latitudinal flight. As a bonus, the tints can be applied on the ground to keep the aircraft cool on hot days. The low cost of maintenance and replacement of cracked plastic and Perspex contributes towards the lower overall operating cost (resulting in lower airfares).
We were warned of turbulence under 5,000 feet prior to departure yet we barely felt any bumps at all in the early climb. The 787 has a revolutionary computer-controlled turbulence dampening system that symmetrically deflect the flaperons, ailerons and elevators to smooth the ride in turbulence. There’s a lateral component as well, enacted through the rudder on approach in response to gusts and turbulence. It was very smooth despite conditions that would have upset any other aircraft. Boeing predicts an eightfold reduction in the number of passengers who experience motion sickness.
The Boeing 787 is Very Stable and Quiet in Cruise
The 50% carbon-fibre composite materials in the airframe makes the overall aircraft stronger (and cheaper). The stronger fuselage means that the pressure differential – or the difference in pressure outside the aircraft compared to inside – can be greater than is currently the case. When Boeing were testing for an ideal cabin pressure, they cycled well over 600 brave participants through a compression chamber where they were subjected to various altitudes for up to 24 hours. 6,000 feet seemed to be an altitude that most people were comfortable with, so this was the figure engineers worked with. It’s not uncommon for some types to have a cabin pressure of over 8,000 feet but Boeing have managed to reduce this to under 6,000 feet in the 787 (pressure differential of 9.4 PSI at 6,000 ft cabin altitude while cruising at 43,000 feet). This kind of cabin altitude isn’t an option in aluminium aircraft because of a reduced aircraft life (due structural fatigue) and weight restrictions (yes, pressurised air has a weight degradation).
The lower cabin altitude means that the body will absorb 8% more blood resulting in fewer headaches, eye irritations, caught, colds, dizziness, fatigue and – in extreme circumstances – Deep Vein Thrombosis (or DVT). Boeing claims that one in four travellers experience some form of ‘respiratory distress’(another term to politely describe the onset of hypoxia)… yet this reduces to barely one in twenty passengers on the Dreamliner.
The lower cabin is good news for most of us…. but unwelcome news for drunks. It’s going to take you longer to get the high you’re looking for.
Cabin and cockpit air humidity is automatic. Humidification introduces a moisture element to the air that will be a welcome feature from those that get dry skin or cracked lips.
As well as the lower cabin and humidification, the air inside the cabin is filtered via two means. The outside air passes through an ozone removal abater (similar to a catalytic converter) before mixing with cabin air that has passed through a hospital grade HEPA (High-Efficiency Particulate Arresting) filter and gaseous filter. The resulting concoction then conditions the cabin. Many frequent flyers would be aware of the smell of fumes when they’re parked behind another aircraft getting ready for takeoff. These offensive odors are (hopefully) a thing of the past. We can only hope that the advanced filtration systems will quickly eradicate the ‘biological’ waste that is sadly one of the less sobering side-effects of altitude. I refrained from testing that part out.
The 787 air was clean, fresh and comfortable although I’d like to see (or at least hear about) how the cabin deals with a couple of hundred stinky cattle class Bali passengers in high density seating.
The well balanced soft LED lighting is integral to the mood lighting of the aircraft. It is cycled through various shades, colors and brightness to emulate a feel that best conditions the human mind and body to changing time zones. Boeing claims that the LED lighting lasts up to twenty times longer than traditional incandescent lights amd will not emit heat and uses less power.
Boeing has admirably chosen Google’s Android operating system to power their in-flight entertainment systems. Customers of the 787 must choose between pre-approved Panasonic and Thales Android systems with screen sizes ranging from 7 to 17 inches. Most are touch screen although the integrated-seat solution in business class means that the units are out of reach. Various gesture based devices have completed beta runs and will soon be available as a default business offer. Personally, I’m a fan of having business IFE systems retractable into my own seat so I can adjust the screen based on seating position. It’s unknown if Jetstar will offer any kind of integrated IFE solution in their aircraft or continue operating with pay-per-use iPads (since the ‘plug-and-play’ IFE system is listed as a standard option).
Various power ports and USB connectivity options are available as options.
What Does the 787 Represent?
The Boeing 787 represents an evolutionary approach to aircraft workflow and life-cycle cost management. It’s a projected approach that looks at available technology and the cost of maintaining it over the course of the aircraft’s entire lifetime. Boeing have designed the aircraft with a focus on the performance measures of maintenance costs and aircraft reliability mixed in with the more traditional design matrix to construct an aircraft that is more efficient, safer and requires less time in maintenance.
Qantas 787 Dreamtour posts to follow:
Boeing 787. A Pilot’s Perspective
Various Video and audio interviews. David Hall, Alan Joyce, Randy Tinseth and others.
Randy Tinseth, Boeing VP of Marketing, sat down with Flight and gave us the ‘elevator pitch’ (audio and video interview to come). The aircraft has acoustically treated engine inlets, chevrons and other special treatments applied to the engines and engine casings that decrease engine noise. In fact, sounds exceeding 85 decibels never leave airport boundaries. There’s a 20% reduction in fuel burn, 30% reduction in maintenance costs (the first heavy check isn’t required until after 12 years), a direct 10% lower cash operating cost and the aircraft will be more reliable – meaning better on time performance and less network disruptions. Most of all, the aircraft represents a passenger experience that simply isn’t available on any other aircraft type.
Qantas has struggled to regain consumer confidence in their brand after a turbulent twelve months of cutbacks, industrial issues and other bad press. For a company living in a fish bowl the 787′s visit to Australia is a welcome reminder of what they’re looking to achieve in the future. David Hall, Jetstar NZ CEO, told Flight that “… the 787 was a game changing aircraft for the airline”. After having flown on it, I can only agree.
- Boeing 787 Confirmed for Jetstar in August 2013 (Full Press Audio from 26th May 2012)
- Boeing 787: A Pilots Perspective
- Qantas QF74 Uncontained Engine Failure – Video & Pics
- Boeing revised QRH & Engine Failure Assessment
- Alan Joyce, Qantas CEO, on Inside Business
- The Day We Thought a Qantas A380 Crashed
- Qantas to Resume Operations – Industrial Action Terminated by FWA