In praise of the 787’s ‘emotional experience’

By John Boudreau San Jose Mercury News

TOKYO — As the Boeing 787 Dreamliner nosed upward into the clouds, the engines purred rather than roared.

The recent All Nippon Airways domestic flight was anything but a routine route for many passengers. A year after ANA launched the world’s first 787 flights, Japanese travelers are still agog. Passengers craned necks to glimpse the big bird at Haneda Airport. And as they boarded, many whipped out digital cameras and iPhones and started shooting pictures like paparazzi setting upon Justin Bieber.

In an era when flying is more about diminished expectations than adventure, airlines like ANA hope the technologically advanced midsize 787 will put some of the thrill back into the air at 35,000 feet. So far, it seems to be working.

“Many, many people are excited,” ANA flight attendant Shoko Yoshimura said aboard the recent 787 flight from Tokyo to Fukuoka on the island of Kyushu.

Silicon Valley travelers will get their chance to board the Dreamliner when ANA begins its five-day-a-week 787 route between Mineta San Jose, Calif., International and Tokyo’s Narita International airports on Jan. 11.

The 787’s high-ceiling cabin glows with pastel colors. Its spacious interior, increased cabin pressure and higher humidity are aimed at making cross-the-world journeys less taxing on bodies. And its fuel-sipping technology and ability to cover long distances allows airlines to tear up old business models that left smaller market airports like San Jose out of their flight paths. It hasn’t been profitable for airlines to try to fill larger aircraft — such as a 368-passenger Boeing 777-300 — flying into secondary airports. ANA is outfitting its long-haul 787 with only 46 business-class and 112 economy seats.

“It gave us the opportunity to open up new markets — even secondary markets,” said Kohei Tsuji, ANA’s director of network planning. Once ANA gets more 787s delivered — it has so far received 13 of the initial order of 55 — the airline plans to expand its San Jose-Tokyo service to seven days a week, he said.

ANA anticipates having 20 Dreamliners by the end of March. According to Bloomberg, ANA agreed Friday to buy 11 more Dreamliners for delivery beginning in 2018, bringing the total of ordered planes to 66.

The plane has quickly become the envy of the industry. In a spring survey by ANA of 800 passengers who had flown its 787 between Tokyo and Frankfurt, Germany, 98 percent said they wanted another chance to fly the Dreamliner, no matter what airline’s logo was on the plane. A quarter of them said they’d go out of their way to board the new aircraft again.

“The 787 offers an emotional experience,” said Robert Herbst, an aviation industry consultant who operates AirlineFinancials.com. “That’s something passengers haven’t had for a very long time.”

It offers perks that even those who sit in the back of the plane in economy can enjoy. Passengers stepping onto an ANA 787 are greeted by flight attendants standing in the chamber-like entrance with a high ceiling — creating a sense of airy space rather than the feeling of entering a cramped tube.

“It’s a very beautiful plane and very comfortable to ride on,” said one passenger on the Tokyo-Fukuoka flight, who would only give his first name, Takahiro.

He was particularly taken with the lavatory enhancements — toilets equipped with bidet spray options. Two bathrooms also have windows.

“The bathrooms are especially wonderful,” the 29-year-old gushed. “The ceilings are high. You feel so much air. It feels good. And it’s environmentally kind.”

Overhead bins are so high that steps are built into the base of seats so flight attendants can reach the compartments without the risk of falling onto passengers. The plane boasts one of the largest galleys in the sky.

The plane doesn’t have shock absorbers to smooth out bumpy air and you still have to fasten your seat belt. But as the 787 lifts off, the rumble of engines is muffled. The twin engines are equipped with noise-reducing chevrons — jagged edges on the nozzles of the engines — that lower the sound of jet blasts by controlling how air passes through and around them.

“It was quiet. I was surprised,” Gonzalo Guerri, a Chilean tourist visiting Fukuoka, said after he gathered his luggage from the 787 flight.

He liked the aircraft’s overall ambience and new features, including the iPhone chargers built into seats. “It’s much more comfortable than other planes,” Guerri said. “And there are no blinds on the windows. You just push a button. It was pretty cool.”

Indeed, the electronic shades are among the most talked-about attractions of the 787, whose windows are at least 20 percent larger than those on other jetliners. With a touch of a pillowy button, passengers can darken the windows like giant sunglasses that change hues — soft sky blue to dark aqua.

The e-shades, Boeing says, are a feature in specially designed windows embedded with a gel sandwiched between two thin sheets of plastic. When a very low voltage is applied to the gel, the windows change colors.

Airlines around the world, which have ordered more than 800 of the new planes, view the 787 as an industry game-changer. Half of the plane is made of lightweight composites — high-strength fibers embedded in resin — allowing it to be 20 percent more fuel-efficient than other jetliners. With the cost of jet fuel soaring some 300 to 400 percent in the past decade, airlines are desperate to get the new plane. Fuel accounts for 35 to 45 percent of an airline’s costs, consultant Herbst said.

Boeing’s 747 — once called the Queen of the Skies — opened up long-haul travel for the masses in the 1970s by lowering per-seat costs. The fuel-guzzling four-engine behemoth, though, now weighs on airline profits.

The new 787, Herbst added, “will have an economic impact that is greater than any other aircraft in modern history.”

Even pilots are excited about the new plane, whose cockpit is equipped with a one-piece window that offers better views, ANA network planning director Tsuji said. It also comes with a dual heads-up display — or HUD — a sheet of glass mounted in front of pilots that allows them to simultaneously read flight instruments and scan the horizon.