Longer, farther: Air New Zealand gets first 787-9

EVERETT — Even commercial jetliners have a new-airplane smell. A crisp, clean scent reminiscent of new leather.

That was how the interior of Air New Zealand’s new 787-9 Dreamliner, the first of its kind, smelled Wednesday. The plane was parked at Boeing’s delivery center at Paine Field near the company’s Everett plant, ready for delivery.

Delays dogged development of the Dreamliner series’ first model, the 787-8, but it has gone relatively smoothly for the latest version, which Boeing executives and workers simply call the Dash 9.

The company met its goal to deliver the first airplane by mid-year 2014 on paper. Air New Zealand signed on the dotted line on June 30, but the airline didn’t get the keys from Boeing until this week.

The 787-9 is a major overhaul of the first model, said Mark Jenks, vice president of 787-9 development. “A very large part of the airplane was touched when we did the Dash 9.”

It is 20 feet longer than the 787-8 and holds about 280 passengers in three seat classes, about 40 more than the smaller model. Many of the 787-9 design changes and improvements were fed back into the earlier model. For example, using the 787-9 flight deck window housing on the earlier model cut a few hundred pounds off the 787-8’s weight.

The 787-8 entered service with a troubled record for dispatch reliability, meaning how often the airplane left the gate on time, and the entire fleet was grounded in the U.S. for several months last year after lithium-ion batteries caught on fire.

The plane’s dispatch reliability has steadily improved, and the new model is expected to enter service at the same level, Jenks said.

The 787-9 is about 50,000 pounds heavier, carries more passengers, holds more cargo and can fly 450 nautical miles farther than the earlier Dreamliner model.

“That’s a major game changer,” said David Morgan, Air New Zealand’s chief pilot.

The airline had ordered the earlier model but switched to the 787-9 “when it became clear that Boeing could produce a plane that had more capacity and maintained range,” he said.

Based in the island nation in the south Pacific, the airline is used to long flights.

“For us, it’s the perfect aircraft for our network,” said Kerry Reeves, the carrier’s aircraft program director. “Being 20 feet longer makes such a difference in terms of the economics of the aircraft.”

Starting in October, Air New Zealand will use its new aircraft to fly from Auckland to Perth, Australia, which Morgan said is about an eight-hour trip. The next month, the airline plans to use the airplane to fly to Tokyo and Shanghai.

The airline has orders for nine more 787-9s and options for an additional eight. The planes will replace 767s in the fleet.

Through June, customers have ordered 1,031 Dreamliners: 490 of the 787-8, 408 of the 787-9 and 132 of the 787-10, according to Boeing’s website.

The 787-10 is a simple stretch of the 787-9 and is expected to enter service in 2018.

There is room for all three models in the twin-aisle airplane marketplace, said Randy Tinseth, Boeing Commercial Airplanes vice-president of marketing. But “at the end of the day, we’ll probably sell more Dash 9s than Dash 8s.”

The earlier, smaller model will still be useful to airlines serving long routes with fewer passengers, said Scott Hamilton, an aerospace analyst and owner of Issaquah-based Leeham Co.

Delivery of the first 787-9 is a “huge milestone” for Boeing and the Dreamliner program, he said.

Jenks, who runs the program for Boeing, agrees. He has been with the 787 program since its inception.

“We had more challenges than we had hoped and planned,” he said inside the spacious cabin of Air New Zealand’s new plane. “The Dash 9 reinforces the confidence we had all along.”

Dan Catchpole: 425-339-3454; dcatchpole@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dcatchpole.

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