Boeing 787: A Plane Built With, Gasp, Passengers In Mind

09/28/2011 01:52 pm ET | Updated Nov 28, 2011

EVERETT, Wash. -- Imagine a plane that reduces vibrations from turbulence to the point where the ride is smooth even during landing. A plane with enough space for each passenger to store a bag right above his or her seat, and windows that let you look out at the sky even as the person next to you sleeps.

That's the plane of the future, and it was delivered to its first customer this week. The Boeing 787, known up until now for the problems and delays associated with it, will soon be regarded as the aircraft that transformed air travel more than any other aircraft since the 747 was introduced in 1969.

Boeing says it's the first commercial airliner designed with the experience of passengers prioritized above all else, but there's plenty of excitement from airlines as well. The Dreamliner, as Boeing calls it, is made of composite materials instead of traditional metals and will ultimately be about 20 percent more fuel-efficient than older jets. That explains the orders for 821 planes already in place from 56 customers.

Just don't expect those savings to be passed along to customers; speaking to reporters here on Sunday, Satoru Fujiki, the vice president of the Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways, which later this month will become the first airline to carry paying passengers on the 787, only smiled and laughed a bit when asked if fares would drop because of the fuel savings. It's even possible that fares will be a bit higher for flights on the 787 than on other aircraft flying the same route.

Still, what explains the excitement for the plane among frequent travelers is a series of seemingly small changes that add up to a major difference in flying experience. The jet's cabin is taller and more spacious than previous models, and notably the windows are much larger than anything a passenger will have seen on airplanes before. The windows don't have manual shades, either. You press a button and, after a brief delay, the clear window becomes a dark and tinted, yet still transparent, portal. (And these windows can be centrally controlled, so flight attendants won't have to reach over passengers anymore when it's time to make the cabin dark.)

The last major new commercial plane to be introduced, the double-deck Airbus A380, was important because it expanded the seating capacity for long-haul flights. It didn't change much else, though; the 787, which looks much like a regular passenger jet except for its curved wings, has the potential to make flying a whole new experience.

Boeing and its engineers say the ride is smoother on the 787 than on previous jets, the air is less dry in the cabin, and the internal altitude for passengers is what you'd feel at 6,000 feet outside -- instead of the typical 8,000 feet. That means fewer headaches for passengers, although there's nothing the manufacturer can do about a screaming toddler in the next seat.

Mike Sinnett, the chief project engineer for the 787 program, put it best when he said the plane has benefits that not even the airlines can take away. In a time of strict baggage allowances and horrible in-flight meals, there's no telling what the airlines might do to this aircraft. But, at its core, it remains a strong product that is capable of delivering an exceptional traveling experience.

That's a big relief for Boeing, which has made a roughly $30-billion investment in the 787 program. It's a big bet that has faced many challenges, and the first delivery is already three years late. It's also heavier than expected, meaning less fuel-efficient than advertised, and it can't support in-flight Wi-Fi use, though the plane maker says future iterations of the 787 will have improvements in those areas.

And what a relief it is for Boeing employees finally to see these jets leave the factory here and head off into the sky. After all the issues with suppliers and software and everything else, the excitement in this city where 32,000 people work for Boeing is palpable. Probably no one is more excited than Scott Fancher, the general manager of the 787 program, who looked like he was walking out of prison and said he's just excited to learn what passengers will think of the plane.

Still, Blake Emery, who is the director of differentiation strategy for Boeing, said he won't be worried if travelers don't immediately grasp the difference of flying on a 787 jet.

"How do you think," he asked, "about the headache you didn't get?"

This post is part of Patch: The Road Trip. Read Arianna Huffington's introduction to the project, and be sure to follow Paul on Twitter and MapQuest.

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