The All Nippon Airways flight was packed mostly with aviation reporters and enthusiasts, some of whom paid thousands of dollars for the privilege and treated the experience like a rock concert, clapping after takeoff and snapping photos for posterity.
“It’s silly, but it’s a little piece of history. New cars come out all the time, but how often do new planes come out?” said Stephanie Wood. She and her husband, Dean, of Davie, Fla., won a charity auction by paying close to $19,000 for two business-class seats.
The 787, which is nicknamed the “Dreamliner,” is neither the fastest nor the largest jet on the market, but it is built out of ultralightweight materials and promises to improve airlines’ fuel efficiency dramatically, a big deal at a time of soaring oil prices.
Boeing also is pitching its 787 as a major upgrade for travelers. It was designed with larger windows, more space in overhead bins and improved lighting. The jet also was designed to provide air pressure and humidity levels that more closely resemble those on the ground, a feature that Boeing says will ease jet lag.
The 787’s inaugural flight came more than 3½ late because Boeing was plagued with manufacturing problems. Parts for the jet are made by 52 suppliers scattered around the globe. And, in a first for Boeing, large sections of the jet are built by these outside vendors and then cobbled together.
That process, aimed at saving money, has not been as smooth as hoped. Instead, Boeing has been forced to pay airlines millions of dollars as a result of the delays. It aims to deliver 10 jets a month to reduce the backlog of nearly 800 and not incur any more penalties.
Boeing also faces pressure from European rival Airbus, which is designing its own lightweight composite jet, the A350. That plane is still several years away from flying.
The most noticeable feature of the 787 is its windows, which are 30 percent larger than those on older jets. Passengers no longer need to hunch forward to see the ground. Those in the middle of the plane can even glance out part of the windows. The shades are replaced with a glare-reducing
electrical dimming system that adds tint to the window within 30 seconds.
Many of the aviation enthusiasts on board Wednesday’s flight carried memorabilia from past inaugural flights. They snapped photos of overhead bins and even the restroom, which is equipped with a window and bidet.
Thomas Lee of Los Angeles handed out his own press release and biography. There was his first inaugural flight — the Boeing 747 as a 17-year-old boy in 1970 — and then the Airbus A380 four years ago.
“I’m not crazy,” he said. “For an aviation enthusiast, this is as high as it gets. It’s like going to a movie on opening day.”
He and the rest of the coach passengers paid 78,700 yen, about $1,035, to be part of the inaugural flight.
The 787 has been sold by Boeing as a “game changer,” promising to revolutionize air travel just as its 707 did by allowing nonstop trans-Atlantic service and the 747 did by ushering in an age of mass travel.
The 787 is designed to connect cities that might otherwise not have nonstop flights. Planes such as the Boeing 747 and 777 and the Airbus A380 can fly most long-haul routes, but finding enough daily passengers to fill the massive jets is a challenge. The A380 typically has 525 passengers but can hold up to 853.
The 787 carries only 210 to 250 passengers. That means it can fly nonstop routes that larger planes can’t profitably support, such as San Francisco to Manchester, England, or Boston to Athens.
Connecting such smaller cities — and avoiding major hubs — is the “holy grail” of air travel, said Richard Aboulafia, analyst with the Teal Group. That’s why the plane is the fastest-selling new jet in aviation history. There were 821 orders for the 787 before its first flight, although 24 were recently canceled by China Eastern Airlines because of delays.
The industry is most eager to find out if the plane meets Boeing’s 20 percent fuel-savings claims. “If it performs as promised, it’s the iPod of the aircraft world. If it doesn’t, it’s just another CD player,” Mr. Aboulafia said.
ANA is the first airline to fly the plane and expects to have seven of them by the end of the year. United Continental Holdings Inc. will be the first U.S. carrier to fly the 787, sometime in the second half of 2012. It’s planning to use the plane between Houston and Auckland, New Zealand. There may be a short period when United, which ordered 50 of the jets, uses its first 787 on domestic or short trans-Atlantic flights.
For passengers, the changes start with boarding. They enter into a wide-open area with sweeping arches. Eyes instinctively move up. There’s an impression of more space. Claustrophobia is reduced just a bit, even if seats are as cramped as ever.
Another physiological trick: Lights gradually change color during long flights to reduce jet lag.
But the biggest changes come thanks to the stronger composite shell, which is less susceptible to corrosion than aluminum. Air won’t be as dry, with humidity doubled to 16 percent. The cabin will be pressurized at the equivalent of 6,000 feet — 2,000 feet lower than most planes. That should lead to fewer headaches and leave passengers with more energy during long trips. A number of passengers said Wednesday’s flight was too short to notice any improvement.
Other changes for passengers include:
• The largest overhead bins ever. They are designed at an angle to make the cabin feel significantly larger. Boeing says there’s enough room overhead for every passenger to have one carry-on bag; however, the only way that seemed feasible was with identically rectangle bags, stacked in the optimal order.
• Less noise. New engines with a wave pattern around the exhaust reduce interior and exterior noise, although Boeing won’t say by how much. Since the plane is lighter, additional sound and vibration padding can be added. Wednesday’s flight appeared quieter, but a handheld sound meter registered noise levels similar to a Boeing 777.
• Later models will have a turbulence dampening system. Accelerometers in the nose register a sudden drop. A signal is sent in nano seconds via fiber-optic cables to the wings. Adjustments are made and what would have been a 9-foot drop is cut to 3 feet.
Most passengers don’t know the make or model of their plane unless they read the safety instruction card. The 787’s interior is likely to change that. Even those who don’t fly it are likely to notice.
Hundreds of employees at Hong Kong International Airport stopped work to watch — and take photos — of Wednesday’s arrival.
“We’re celebrities,” said passenger Lee Simonetta of Atlanta. “We ought to just taxi around for an hour.”