When Skift Airline Weekly started publishing in 2004, it was a vastly different world. Think of it—YouTube launched that year in a world without smartphones, and the internet was something we accessed from desktop computers. In the airline world, B747s plied between the big hubs that still dominated networks. There have been many innovations in the airline world: Ancillary revenues, online booking, apps, and other tech and business-model innovations — but there’s one we think stands out.
The Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
Let’s look at why. In 2004, neither the B787 nor the A380 had yet taken to the skies, although the A380 would make its debut shortly after we began publishing. And what a debut it was. Airbus, after planning for a double-deck aircraft since the 1990s, finally had one that could challenge Boeing’s long dominance of the very large aircraft market, critical for flying between the world’s hub airports. There was a lot of irrational exuberance around the A380: Airlines were proposing onboard gyms, day-care centers, and showers (which Emirates ultimately did provide on its A380s), and orders came rolling in.
Boeing took a different tack. The U.S. company initially bet on speed, not size, designing the Sonic Cruiser, which would fly just under the speed of sound. Airlines were at first intrigued but were put off by the aircraft’s possible fuel burn, especially after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hobbled the industry. So Boeing, needing anyway to replace its aging B757/767 platforms, went back to the drawing board and ultimately produced the B7E7.
This was a radical departure in aircraft design. What ultimately became the B787 was the first large aircraft to use carbon-fiber composite materials for sections of the fuselage. This is the first reason we think the B787 is one of the most important innovations in the industry since 2004.
The carbon-fiber composite fuselage sections allowed the B787 to offer a 20 percent reduction in fuel burn, which interested airlines facing ever-larger fuel bills. The list of airframe and power plant technological advancements is a long one and includes such passenger-facing innovations as a cabin pressurized at a lower altitude, larger windows, and those nifty electronic window shades, not to mention unseen innovations like a radical new electrical system that dispensed with much of the need for bleed air. But the upshot is that Boeing designed and built an aircraft with an advanced aerostructure, making possible efficient flights on long, thin routes.
And this is another of the B787s innovations. Before its launch, the long-haul business model was mostly predicated on filling large aircraft with 400 or more people and flying between hubs, where passengers would transfer to connecting flights to their final destinations. For example, both Northwest and United at the time had goldmines in their Tokyo Narita hubs, from which B747s from the U.S. unloaded passengers to connections throughout Asia.
The B787 changed all that. With its launch, airlines could begin flying profitably point-to-point, with fewer passengers. Routes like Brisbane-Wuhan, or São Paulo-Addis Ababa became not only possible, but in many cases profitable. This effect was most notable in the Pacific, where the B787 fragmented the market, to the point that both United and Delta (which inherited Northwest’s hub after the merger) started overflying their Narita hubs and ultimately de-hubbed the airport, choosing to fly direct from the U.S. to destinations throughout Asia. And ultra long-haul non-stops, like San Francisco-Singapore, also became not only possible but possibly profitable.
Arguably, the B787 paved the way for new entrants, like Norwegian, to test out the low-cost long-haul model (to mixed success), something that would have been impossible with a fleet of B747s. And tellingly, Airbus responded with its own advanced mid-sized long-haul aircraft, the A350.
The B787 became one of the best-selling wide-bodies in aviation history. And the A380? Airbus this year announced it was ending production of the aircraft.