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For a supposedly quiet plane, there has always been a lot of noise around the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. From the unveiling of its pioneering design in 2004 to the first delivery in 2011, there was an industry buzz. Then mutterings of concern grew into a chorus of alarm in January, when safety authorities grounded the fleet after a spate of incidents, including a burning battery.
But after a few relatively trouble-free months, Boeing’s insistence that these were just teething troubles has been accepted and orders have grown.
Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s vice-president for marketing, landed on a lot of tarmac during 2013, selling the plane and restating its merits to customers anxiously reviewing their purchases. “It wasn’t a great start,” he admits. “We clearly had challenges early in the year … and the disruption that presented.”
The most alarming challenge was a battery that caught fire on a Japan Airlines plane, fortunately on the ground at Boston airport. Other 787s suffered fuel leaks and one was forced to make an emergency landing. By mid-January the US federal aviation authority had grounded the worldwide fleet.
“As you can imagine it was a very difficult situation. It’s very rare when you have to … take planes out of service. We had an unprecedented response inside the company to identify the work we had to do with the testing, and to incorporate the fix for those in service and those in production.”
The 787 returned to the skies in April and glitches have been rare. The last high-profile incident was a fire on an Ethiopian Airlines plane at Heathrow in July. “The airlines are telling us it’s delivering,” Tinseth says. The feedback from passengers has been amazing.”
Boeing’s marketing boss would say that, but people at the sharp end seem to agree. British Airways pilot Mitch Preston flew the first 787 in BA livery and is managing the model’s entry into service. He says passengers consistently say they arrive feeling better. “It’s not marketing fluff, it really isn’t.”
Low fuel consumption and reduced noise have been the big selling points, but a key part of the 787’s appeal to passengers is the increased cabin pressure said to alleviate the ill-effects of flying. Preston says: “Typically I get off a 787 flight feeling less tired and dehydrated.” He also likes the lighter cabin and the views from its bigger windows.
BA waited decades for a pioneering new plane, then two turned up at once. The Dreamliner arrived in the same week as BA’s first Airbus A380. Both had been ordered years earlier, but the 787 was delayed in production hell and A380 was deferred by BA itself as recession made it wary of the doubledecker superjumbo.
Captain James Basnett is Preston’s counterpart for the A380. “Everybody who flies the A380 loves it. It’s very impressive, efficient, reliable. We did all the flying without a hitch and crews love it,” he says.
As with the 787, the plane may be dramatically different but the cockpit is designed for continuity for pilots, albeit with a host of technological improvements.
“The flightdeck is slightly more complex, but with more tools to help us – cameras, electronic flight displays and an electronic flight bag.” The latter, which the 787 also offers, aims to reduce the headaches and weight of paperwork.
Passenger feedback has been effusive, Bassnett says. “You notice the width and height in the cabin. It’s noticeably quieter.” One downside of which is that “you can hear people snore”. But not the co-pilot, he adds.
The A380 has “the best of a small aircaft on a big aircraft and a lot of technology you don’t see elsewhere”, he says. There wouldn’t be a pilot on the fleet who wouldn’t prefer it. They’d say it was the most enjoyable plane they’d ever flown”.
Preston, however, says: “There are very few pilots in the world who’ll not say the plane he’s flying is the best thing. I don’t begrudge James what he’s flying, but on this issue he’s wrong.” Size isn’t everything? “Indeed.”
The earlier problems with the 787, he says, never enter his mind. A more important endorsement came this month from his employers, who booked 18 more Dreamliners – the pending “double-stretched” 787-10 model. BA has also ordered the same number of A350s, widely seen as Airbus’s riposte to the Dreamliner. It uses similar lightweight composite materials and by the time of delivery may include a version of the lithium-ion batteries.
The airline’s stance reflects the broader aviation picture. The purchase of an A380 or 787 is far less a decision between manufacturers than a question of competing visions of the economics and future of air travel. Airlines carrying high volumes of passengers on major routes favour the A380, and Emirates – by far the largest customer – has refitted its Dubai hub to service its fleet, which is set to reach 140 planes. Five depart Heathrow for Dubai daily. At crowded airports where slots are at a premium, putting more customers on each plane taking off can make real sense.
But if the A380 is, as an Airbus spokesman put it, a “congestion buster”, the 787 is better known as a “hub buster” – one that rewrites traditional models of funnelling connecting passengers onto the jumbos that make long-haul flying viable. With fewer seats, its fuel efficiency and range are enabling the likes of a direct Heathrow-Austin connection – BA’s next new route for 2014 – even with less passenger demand than established routes.
On the simple comparison of orders, the 787 is beating the A380, though Airbus has the satisfaction of knowing its superjumbo is slowly wiping the ageing Boeing 747 from the skies.
Technical problems did ground a Norwegian Air Dreamliner last week in the US, but burning batteries and emergency landings are slowly becoming a more distant chapter in the 787’s story. It is now approaching 100m miles in service and last month surpassed 1,000 orders. Tinseth says: “The technologies are being proven … Was it a risk worth taking? Absolutely.”
The Planes Compared
Size: Seats 525 passengers in a typical three-class cabin layout
Range: Up to 15,700km
Boeing 787 Dreamliner
Size: 300-330 passengers in a typical layout
Range: Up to 12,964km
*Cost and size for 787-10 model. Orders/deliveries confirmed until end Nov 13
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk