Saturday, November 5, 2011

Flying on the 787!

For those of you who don't follow aviation, the past few years have been a struggle for Boeing as they tried to bring their newest airliner, the 787, into service. Originally scheduled to be delivered in late 2008, the program suffered a number of setbacks in both production and testing that caused a total of three years in delays. The 787 is the first composite jet aircraft (with the fuselage mostly composed of carbon fiber reinforced plastic rather than aluminum) and it is also the first aircraft to use an extremely modular manufacturing process, in which engineering firms around the world built the parts and shipped them to Seattle for final assembly. Given how completely different it is in both product and production, it is not entirely surprising that it took so long to get it right.

The first test flight was in late 2009 and from then, things have progressed relatively smoothly. Last month saw launch customer ANA, a Japanese carrier, receive their first plane with a special livery. They had already set their schedule this past summer, with the first flight taking place on October 25th. That was a charter from Narita to Hong Kong with many media members and aviation enthusiasts aboard. Regular service commenced on November 1st with daily flights to Okayama and Hiroshima. Unfortunately I had to work that day, but November 3rd was a holiday in Japan, so I decided to book a ticket that day for a one-night excursion to Okayama, returning on Friday, again on the 787.

When I booked the ticket, I was surprised that seats were still available on the holiday as I expected a great number of airplane geeks to snap them up. The price for the 787 flight was the same as for other flights, but it was an early departure, leaving Haneda at 7:30.

One of the great things about flying in Japan is that you can avoid the check-in desk entirely if you have a certain type of ticket. I arrived just before 7 for the flight, went through security in a minute (the TSA could learn a few things from the Japanese system) and finally got a glimpse of JA801A, the first 787 in revenue service. The gate area was filled, not only with passengers for the flight but also with those from other flights who had come to take a few pictures of the new bird.

When boarding began, there was a distinct buzz among the passengers, with most taking pictures from the jetbridge. Once on the plane, people took their seats quickly (only 10 minutes to board 264 passengers!) and then took the time to look around.

The 787 has a number of features that make flying much nicer. The most obvious is the lack of a window shade; instead passengers can darken the window through five levels of shading using a button just beneath. Even at the darkest setting, you can still see outside, which is a great benefit for those of us who enjoy the view while in the air. The windows themselves are about 1.3 times bigger than those found on older aircraft.

As we were boarding, the ceiling was lit with the colours of the rainbow, but once the flight was ready to leave, this was switched to a light blue.

ANA has configured the economy cabin in a 2-4-2 setup, with personal entertainment systems in each seat. The middle two seats are separated by a small space and each has its own armrest, so it is a bit more spacious than a typical middle seat.

One of the interesting features is the wing, which has a raked end and flexes during flight. Below is a picture of a wing with the sun rising beyond.

The 787 is noticeably less noisy than other planes, although I think the upper deck of the A380 is even quieter. There were times when you forgot you were flying, it was such a smooth and quiet ride. Pressurization on the aircraft is also much better, so much so that on landing I didn't have feel my ears pop as they normally do. Of course, the flight itself was only an hour long, so it wasn't enough time to really appreciate the differences between the 787 and its predecessors, and a lot of things I missed, such as the fancy new lavatories with washlets.

After we landed in Okayama and taxied to the terminal, I noticed a couple of hundred people lined up on the other side of a fence who were taking pictures. This is a big news event in Japan and aviation enthusiasts from around the country were happy to be able to see it firsthand.

The Okayama airport has an observation deck which costs 100 yen to enter, but allows for some good clear shots such as the one below.

If you are planning to visit Japan and looking to fly on this aircraft, ANA does have an English website. Okayama and Hiroshima are the only cities served at the moment, but more will be added as more planes are delivered. It's definitely a very cool plane and worth checking out when you get the chance. As for me, the ride was so comfortable though that I'm hoping to catch a long-haul flight on one of these in the near future.



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