By Charisse Jones, USA TODAY
The Dreamliner, Boeing's 787 jet that's touted as a revolutionary change in how passenger planes are made, is taking to the skies - at last.
On Wednesday, the world's first jet to be made mostly of carbon fiber, instead of traditional aluminum and steel, will carry passengers for the first time when Japanese carrier All Nippon Airways (ANA) flies from Tokyo to Hong Kong with 264 travelers on board.
PICTURES: First 787 Ready for Passengers
The flight is a coming-out party for a jet that reflects the biggest change in aircraft construction since metal replaced wooden biplanes. The Dreamliner's relatively light weight and aerodynamic features promise to cut fuel costs up to 20% and enable airlines to reap profits from new non-stop routes. The jet also aims to attract passengers with cabin comforts that include overhead bins and windows larger than those on current passenger jets.
Excitement about the Dreamliner has been so great that it's become the fastest selling twin-aisle commercial jet in Boeing's history - before a single one rolled off the assembly line.
"This is a huge leap," says Jon Ostrower, editor of Flightblogger.com, who has chronicled the Dreamliner program. "If it's not a revolution, it's a very significant evolution of the way we're used to flying and the way we're used to seeing airplanes put together."
But the Dreamliner is also a source of pressure for Boeing, which delivered the first one three years later than planned. While the Dreamliner's debut was being delayed by parts shortages, work stoppages and other problems, Boeing's chief rival, European aircraft-maker Airbus, was working on a mostly carbon fiber jet of its own that is set to begin test flights next year. There also are questions about how long it will take for the new jet to turn a profit for Chicago-based Boeing. While Boeing will not say how much it spent creating the jet, its price ranges from $193.5 million to $227.8 million.
Boeing, which has sold 821 Dreamliners, brushes off concerns that the delays in getting the jet in the sky are causing financial or production headaches to meet aggressive delivery schedules. Instead, Boeing says, the nation's biggest manufacturing exporter has made a wise investment in a jet that will pay dividends for years to come.
"We really have delivered a game-changer to the marketplace," says Scott Fancher, Boeing vice president and general manager of the 787 program. "We've made an investment in a set of technology that will be with us for 20 to 30 years and serve as a basis for the development of our new airplanes as we go forward."
There's no doubt the Dreamliner represents a big change in the way planes are made.
Its body is 50% composites by weight, a material that makes the midsize, twin-aisle Dreamliner light and strong. Other jets have incorporated composites, but not to the extent Boeing has put them into the 787.
The payoff for airlines is the ability to fly long-distance trips without burning as much increasingly costly jet fuel as other similar-size planes. The Dreamliner's unique makeup also won't corrode as easily as other jets, making it 30% less costly to maintain, Boeing says.
"This is the first major change in overall fuselage structure since going from wooden to metal airplanes," says industry consultant George Hamlin of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Va.
The Dreamliner can carry 210 to 290 passengers. It could pave the way for airlines to have new, direct flights between far-away cities on routes that otherwise wouldn't have profitably supported non-stop trips on a bigger jet burning more fuel with so few passengers.
"If the airplane performs as advertised, we will see smaller cities getting more international service - the Bostons and Portlands and Clevelands of the world," Ostrower says.
Passengers wanting to fly overseas from those cities now, he says, often "have to fly to a Chicago or (Washington) D.C. to pick up a direct flight on a much larger airplane."
ANA is the first airline to get the Dreamliner, but United Continental won't be far behind. United, which is merging with Continental to become the world's biggest airline, will be the first U.S. carrier to get the 787. It plans to fly it between Houston and Auckland, New Zealand, by the latter half of next year.
That Houston-to-Auckland route is a prime example of how the Dreamliner opens up "new markets that might have been a little bit thinner on the demand side," says Jim Compton, United Continental's executive vice president and chief revenue officer.
If the 787 is making the trip, airlines also could make more money on routes they're already flying, Compton says.
"Fuel is the biggest cost item we have today, so to get 20% savings on that just improves the profitability," he says. "And obviously it's going to draw customers."
Making flying more comfy
At a time many travelers see flying as an ordeal to endure, Boeing says the Dreamliner was designed to make air travel more pleasant from the moment passengers step aboard.
Instead of a narrow portal, fliers will step through a tall, open archway to enter the cabin. When they want to doze or watch a movie, they can push a button to dim their window rather than tug on a shade. The cabin ceiling has lighting that simulates the sky, going from daylight to dusk.
Fliers should feel less knocked around thanks to sensors that help ease turbulence, Boeing says. The engines are designed to be less noisy than those on conventional passenger jets. The Dreamliner's carbon composition allows for higher humidity inside the cabin. That means passengers should be less prone to dry throats and noses or feeling exhausted once they land.
"It really has an effect on how a person feels after a 10- or 12-hour flight," Boeing's Fancher says.
The jet's passenger features have caught the attention of some frequent fliers who are eager for an opportunity to climb aboard a jet that Boeing says will make their hours in the air less arduous.
Clarissa Cervantes, a research associate in Beverly Hills, says she can hardly wait. "I believe this is the future for travel," she says.
Matt Daimler, founder of SeatGuru.com, a website that informs travelers about airline cabin features, says the Dreamliner's 19-inch-tall windows - compared with the 11- to 13-inch windows found on most passenger jets - are a particular treat.
"Being able to see more, and having less of a feeling of claustrophobia in that aluminum tube, is a bonus right off the top," he says.
But some of the Dreamliner's other perks, such as the cabin lighting system, are no longer unique, Daimler says. Competitors such as Airbus have caught up to Boeing while it struggled to get the Dreamliner in the air.
"The challenge with some of the other little things they've talked about is they've found their way to other planes," he says. "So is it as exciting as when they announced it three or four years ago? Maybe not so much anymore."
The Dreamliner was dogged by delays after it went into production in May 2007. Deadlines were pushed back for reasons ranging from a machinists strike in late 2008, to the discovery of a structural flaw in the jetliner in June 2009, to an onboard electrical fire that temporarily grounded all test flights in November 2010.
"I don't recall a three-year delay in a commercial program of any significant size," says industry consultant Hamlin. "Unprecedented probably applies here."
Meanwhile, Airbus was catching up. Its A350 will be made of slightly more carbon fiber - 53% by weight - than the Dreamliner, and the first one is scheduled to be delivered at the end of 2013, says Chris Jones, vice president of sales for Airbus Americas.
Despite its problems, the 787 remains in high demand. Along with ANA and United Continental, Delta, Virgin Atlantic and Vietnam Airlines are among the 56 customers that have ordered a record-breaking 821 Dreamliners, worth roughly $145 billion.
Boeing's next challenge is to fill those orders. To do it, the company plans to go from its current rate of producing two Dreamliners a month to 10 a month by the end of 2013.
That's an unprecedented production pace for a twin-aisle jet, some analysts say, and they question whether it can be achieved, particularly given the plane's history of problems.
"You're doing a whole bunch of things that are impossibly new," says Richard Aboulafia, an airline analyst for the Teal Group, noting Boeing's dependence on various suppliers as it works with the new 787 technology.
And, Aboulafia says, Boeing will have to churn out Dreamliners to start seeing a profit. It could be at least a decade before the company makes back the money it spent developing the groundbreaking jet.
"They should focus on making money on each one they build first," he says, "and that's going to take a few years at least."
Boeing says that it's prepared to meet the production schedule and expects the Dreamliner's "profitability to improve over time, in the same manner as our other commercial production programs," Boeing spokesman Scott Lefeber says.
On Thursday, the U.S. Government Accountability Office raised questions about the maintenance and repair of composites in commercial jets such as the Dreamliner.
The GAO said the FAA and Boeing are dealing with any concerns. But Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues for the watchdog office, said, "It will take some time to acquire the record" of how composites behave when they are used in such quantity.
"I don't think passengers should be any more concerned than they would ordinarily be in taking a flight," Dillingham said. "The aircraft has been thoroughly tested at every stage of development and has passed both U.S. and European airworthiness standards."
Keeping the buzz going
As the flying public gets its first chance to experience the Dreamliner in coming months, it will become clearer whether the initial buzz around the aircraft will last.
There's no guarantee, for instance, that the fuel savings that airlines will accrue by adding Dreamliners to their fleets will be passed on to passengers in lower fares. However, the savings may slow ticket price increases.
And there's no certainty that the advantages to passengers that Boeing touts won't be diluted by the airlines as they put the planes in service. Although bins and windows will remain large, for instance, it's the airlines that choose what seats - and how many - are put in each plane. More passengers carrying on more baggage can reduce a feeling of spaciousness and fill even larger bins quickly.
Whether the buzz will last, Ostrower of Fightblogger.com. says, will largely "depend on how these planes are received, how they're marketed by airlines and how they're customized."
But in the meantime, he says, "There's a heck of a lot of excitement about this airplane."