Flying – and dreaming – in the Dreamliner

Equipment: B787. That’s what it said on my ticket back from Japan and, being a geek, it made me terribly excited. For ‘equipment’ means ‘type of plane used’ and ‘B787’ stands for ‘Boeing 787’, also known as the Dreamliner. I was going to be flying on a 787 for the first time.

The Dreamliner is considered to represent a pivotal moment in aviation history, being anticipated and hyped in equal measures. It is supposed to be the plane that revolutionizes air travel, cutting fuel consumption significantly thanks to an all-composite fuselage – in short, it’s made mostly of carbon and plastic, not metal. On the other hand, its development has followed a torturous and twisting path, with technical difficulties, delays and some airlines pulling the plug on their orders.

Departing at stupid o’clock

For better or for worse, the new Boeing finally rolled into service at the tail end of last year, the first models being delivered to Japan’s second airline All Nippon Airways. And it was ANA that would be taking me back to Frankfurt from Tokyo Haneda, departing at the ungodly hour of 1.10am.

Most of the shops were shut by the time we arrived for check-in at Haneda, an airport that still seems to be getting used to its status as a major international hub. Whereas Narita – Tokyo’s traditional international airport – lies some two hours’ train ride out of the city centre, Haneda is a pleasant twenty minute journey along the port side to a big swathe of reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay. Permission for night flights was finally granted for Haneda a couple of years ago, and with the construction of another runway jutting out into the sea and the building of a big shiny new terminal building, Tokyo’s hitherto domestic airport is now ready to welcome visitors from all over the world right into the heart of the capital. Apologies for the digression, but I thought it important to point out just how convenient, friendly and downright pleasant Tokyo Haneda International is.

“Hai, nana-hachi-nana desu,” responded the woman at check-in when I sought to confirm what I’d be flying on. Although the use of the indefinite article in the name might lead one to think otherwise, more than one example of ‘The Dreamliner’ was kicking around on the apron. Over the last twelve months delivery out of Boeing’s Seattle factory has continued apace, and ANA’s fleet now boasts sixteen of the beasts with fifty more to follow. Japan Airlines, Ethiopian Airlines and a few others have also since received the first of their orders. Nonetheless, in spite of the hype around the jet, most of ANA’s fleet are currently plying their trade on domestic routes, with only a few crossing continents to America and Europe.

It’s dark by the time of boarding, so I can’t really gawp at the 787 as it’s being prepared for flight. Mind you, it doesn’t really look that dissimilar to all the other big jets out there, with a round body, long wings and two engines. The only real stand-out feature is the jaggy engine cowlings, which look like they could have someone’s eye out. Unlike something like the double-decker Airbus A380, to the untrained eye there is virtually nothing that would belie the 787’s significance.

‘Mood lighting’ in action. It takes fifty years for plane makers to cotton on to multicoloured bulbs.

The features of the much talked-about cabin are equally subtle. On first impressions it looks like most other jets. There are three blocks of seats where you’d expect them to be, overhead bins in the place one would hope to find them, and toilets and galleys in the usual location. The chairs in cattle class are comfy if a little on the thin side (although this might be an ANA thing as the 777 I came out on had the same seats), and the TV screens are big and clear with – important for me – a nice high-resolution map application. I can’t comment on the leg room because I’m a tiny wee man, and as such even the back seats of a Porsche 911 have ample space for me.

The thing that strikes me, though, is how short the cabin is. This is not a big plane. We are row 30, and there are only a handful of rows between us and the galley at the back of the passenger section. On all the other long-haul jets I’ve traveled on, one could walk for five minutes and still not reach the back. Indeed, the 787 in launch form is comparable in size to Boeing’s old 767, measuring significantly shorter than a jumbo or a triple seven. Part of this is to do with the Dreamliner’s design philosophy of having a lot of smaller, more efficient planes going direct from point to point – as opposed to the double-decker Airbus A380 idea of taking a huge number of people from one ‘hub’ to another and then farming them out to their destinations on smaller ‘spoke’ flights. Another part of the reason is that a longer, higher-capacity 787 is in the final stages of development and will be coming onto the market in due course.

Hand-written information sign

With this being a night flight, it’s already dark outside so there is no opportunity to check out the darkening windows. These apparently go from transparent to opaque at the touch of a button, thereby doing away with the need for shutters. What I can see, though, is the ‘mood lighting’ that throws discreet green, blue and orange hues round the cabin, the intention being to create a more relaxing atmosphere on-board. Unfortunately the blue lights in the toilet are very reminiscent of the UV bulbs installed in Scottish train stations to stop junkies being able to see their veins to shoot up. At least the hand-written postcard, which magically appears up mid-flight and informs passengers that a range of snacks are available in the galley, is a little more endearing.

I have a sandwich and beer, brush my teeth and settle down for the night. As I close my eyes, I reflect that the 787 is, on balance, a little disappointing. There’s nothing that sets it apart from all the other planes I’ve been on, I think to myself.

Nine hours later I wake up. We are over Helsinki. I have had dreams about football and motor racing. Crucially, my eyes don’t sting, my throat isn’t parched, and my skin isn’t crawling. This is when I realise the Dreamliner is actually a little special. The way in which it produces the air for the cabin is very different to the traditional method used in virtually every other passenger aircraft, essentially piping in compressed fresh air rather than cooled exhaust gases. Cabin humidity is controlled to give something more like the kind of air you’d find in the outside world, and the passenger compartment is pressurized to a lesser extent than other passenger jets. Boeing have developed all sorts of clever technology to make this possible, but you don’t need to be a systems engineer to understand the main point of all of this is that many of the less pleasant elements of flying are removed.

787 after sunrise in Frankfurt

The long sleep – courtesy of the climate-controlled cabin – leaves precious little time to explore the other features of the new passenger jet. This is just as well because ANA’s music channels are, frankly, rubbish unless you are partial to some 1970s Japanese pop ballads. The selection of films appears to be much more wide-ranging, with a blend of Hollywood, independent, Japanese and world movies past and present.

The mood lights are brought up to a soft yellow, warm towels are distributed and breakfast served. The trays are promptly taken away, the engine noise increases slightly, and before I know it we land with a gentle bump. It’s 5.10am and pitch black in Frankfurt, and the flight has been completed entirely in darkness. A short promotional video extolling the virtues of the new Boeing and ANA plays as we taxi to the stand, then everyone on the nearly-full aircraft makes their way out onto German soil.

I’d be lying if I said my travel on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was an eye-watering techno-fest that kicked everything I thought I ever knew about aeroplanes into touch. In fact, the only thing it did that no other plane has ever done is send me to sleep. But then again, that’s probably exactly what the designers were hoping to achieve.

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