State of the art goes sky high at Boeing
The aircraft maker's high-tech 787 has overcome a turbulent start, writes Steve Colquhoun
Hubris can be dangerous when ultimate success isn't assured. Boeing's decision to nickname its new 787 the "Dreamliner" was brave considering delivery delays and damaging safety-related dramas have become the norm, rather than the exception, in bringing new planes into service.
There was almost an air of inevitability - not to mention schadenfreude - as newspaper editors around the world sharpened up their "dream turns to nightmare" headlines in January.
Two separate battery fires in the space of days struck the first 787s delivered, and suddenly the world was looking askance at the plane that had attracted more glowing headlines than any other since the hyperbolic launch of the massive Airbus A380 in 2007.
That launch was delayed by wiring-harness issues, while subsequent engine availability and production problems slowed early deliveries. A catastrophic engine failure on Qantas flight QF32 in November 2010 over Indonesia caused the temporary grounding of the entire A380 fleet, although no further big issues have been reported.
The A380 has since forged a reputation as a modern and capacious long-haul workhorse. Peter Harbison, the executive chairman of the CAPA-Centre for Aviation, says experience proves the flying public can move on from safety-related dramas.
"I don't think there's a good deal of confidence lost as long as a sequence [of mishaps] doesn't emerge," he says. "The public tends to have a short memory and the 787 looks so different that I don't think there will be any impediment to selling seats."
Fairfax visited Boeing's 787 factory in Everett, outside Seattle, to see the very first Australian-bound example being built. It is expected to arrive in September, when the mid-size, single-deck, long-range jet will become the flagship of budget airline Jetstar.
It will be joined by two others before the year's end and a further 11 before the end of 2015. After a period of testing, training and certification, paying Jetstar passengers will step on board for the first time in November.
Qantas initially ordered more than 30 of the ultra-modern Boeings, but walked away from the deal after budget constraints hit its operations. It is quick to point out that it opted out before January's safety-related issues. Instead, Qantas will take possession of a dozen Airbus A330s that Jetstar will release as its 787s arrive.
Jetstar will eventually press the 787 into service on its international routes, from Australia's east coast to holiday destinations including Honolulu, Bali, Phuket and Tokyo. First, though, Jetstar plans to stretch the 787's legs with trips to longer domestic destinations such as the Gold Coast, Cairns and Darwin.
A good deal of the budget airline's travellers are infrequent, even first-time flyers, and not accustomed to the rigours of cabin pressure and sensory deprivation that come with long-haul travel. Jetstar expects them to appreciate the 787's big windows, which, according to Boeing, are the largest in commercial aircraft. They have also been raised to eye level so passengers can see the horizon without needing to duck their head. The ubiquitous plastic window blind is also set to become a relic of the past, replaced on the 787 by an electronic system that tints the window by degrees until almost total blackness.
To reduce the physical stress of flying, reduced cabin pressures will replicate the atmosphere at 6000 feet rather than the industry-standard 8000 feet, resulting in less oxygen deprivation-related fatigue. Boeing says the 787 is also smoother and quieter in flight, and its cabin air more humid.
Boeing's regional director of product marketing, Carrie Shiu, says she took a test flight on the 787 before it was launched and was impressed. "When you flew on that airplane for more than six hours you could feel the difference," she says.
"We can personally tell you, you just don't get as thirsty, your eyes don't get dry, don't get itchy as much, you don't have the headache. That's the real experience. OK, that's not scientific, but I can tell you, you feel a lot better."
The 787 cabin has been rethought and one of the greatest aggravations of leisure travel - boarding the plane and finding room in the storage bins for your hand luggage - will be reduced by larger bins that pivot down from the roof, offering significant extra headroom and a more spacious cabin feel. Jetstar plans to install a state-of-the-art entertainment system for every passenger, complete with a 22.8-centimetre screen for economy passengers and a 26.9 centimetre one in business. It will include access to movies and music on demand (after a credit card swipe for economy passengers), and also a passenger-to-passenger chat feature.
Internet connectivity won't be offered at this stage, because it is uneconomic. But Jetstar expects many passengers will bring their own media devices, so it will provide a USB point at every seat and power point access. All of these developments are calculated to improve the physical experience of flying.
But perhaps the greatest step forward for Jetstar's budget-sensitive customers is the high-tech plane construction that is expected to deliver the airline significant fuel savings that should be (partially) passed on to the customer.
Boeing says the carbon fibre composite of the fuselage and wings - moving away from heavier steel and alloys - along with the switch to lighter lithium-ion batteries, will result in fuel savings of up to 20 per cent. Fuel is any airline's greatest single cost, so it's expected Jetstar may be able to pass on discounts of up to 10 per cent on 787 routes.
The stronger composites used in construction also allowed Boeing to throw away the rule book on how it assembles planes, resulting in a process that saves an astounding 160,000 rivets per plane and means far fewer maintenance checks.
Jetstar's 787 program director, Mark Dal Pra, says the airline's cost-sensitive passengers will appreciate any savings it can offer. "The great thing that this aircraft brings for us is lower operating costs which means continuing to offer our low fares, and an improved customer experience, so it's amazing that we've got something that does both of those things simultaneously," Dal Pra says.
The 787's comparatively long range is also a boon for airlines, Harbison says. It will be able to go beyond the "hub to hub" limitation of other aircraft, reaching regional international airports and adding significant flexibility in scheduling. 'It's that ability to go non-stop, where other planes need to do a one-stop, that the industry really values," he says.
Radical change rarely comes without pain, however, and the cost to Boeing of the 787's two highly publicised battery failures has been high. Images of passengers fleeing an ANA plane via escape slides after an emergency landing in Tokyo were beamed around the world. Along with another similar incident on a JAL plane in Boston the same week, the "Dreamliner" tag suddenly seemed somewhat fanciful.
At the heart of the issue is that lithium-ion batteries - used in mobile phones, laptop computers and other self-powered devices - have a known propensity to occasionally self-combust under stress.
Boeing has since placed the offending battery packs inside a fireproof aluminium box that also includes a venting mechanism. It is designed to quarantine any ignition and prevent smoke from entering the cabin. The fix was approved by the US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the grounded 787 fleet resumed service.
It seems to be a tacit acceptance that battery failures - and fires - can and will still happen, but that with the failure contained, the plane will still be able to divert to safety.
Jetstar's Dal Pra says he is confident in the FAA's decision, which still needs to be ratified by Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority before the 787 can be based here.
"I think the fix that Boeing has put in place is a very rigorous one, they've done a lot of tests around it, the FAA have been fully involved and they have improved it. So we are very confident in the fix that has been put in place," he says.
Can the 787 emulate the A380 by shrugging off its ignominious start to life and asserting its genre-shifting benefits? Much depends on the next two to three years as Boeing ramps up production of the Dreamliner and more planes make their way into service. Any repeat of January's dramatic scenes would place a question mark next to the 787's "dream" tagline.
The 787 shows the potential to become the champion of a changing and improving face of aviation, embedded with groundbreaking technologies that could change the way we travel. The plane making its way into service, the 787-8, seats about 335 passengers and has a range of 8000 nautical miles.
From this month it will be joined on the production line by the longer 787-9, which adds 50 more seats and an additional 300 nautical miles in range. An even longer 787-10 has been mooted.
Boeing has hinted that its short-range 737 - the backbone of numerous domestic fleets around the world - might pick up several of the 787's innovations. No doubt the management at Airbus headquarters in Toulouse, France, is also paying close attention to what the Seattle team is up to.
Notwithstanding the very real danger associated with bringing technology to market before it is fully mature, the 787 flags a large number of small innovations that could add up to a giant leap forward in the way we travel. The dream remains alive - for the moment.