Seat 2B By Joe Brancatelli
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The Revenge of the Dreamliner
June 9, 2016 -- When a United Airlines flight left San Francisco last week to establish a nonstop link to Singapore, United not only capitalized on an ill-considered decision by Singapore Airlines, but it also highlighted what can only be called the Revenge of the Dreamliner.
United's new San Francisco-Singapore nonstops, you see, are operated with Boeing 787s. You surely remember the Dreamliner. That's the $200-million-a-copy plane prematurely pronounced dead by jittery experts three years ago after a panicked grounding and handwringing over the aircraft's safety.
I never worried about flying the Dreamliner, but even I'm amazed at how quickly the Boeing 787 has shaken off its shaky start and become a mainstay of global aviation. The plane is literally remaking the world's route map.
More than 400 Dreamliners have been delivered since All Nippon Airways operated the first commercial flight late in 2011. Another 1,100 orders from 62 airlines and other customers are on Boeing's books, the planemaker says. Nearly 100 million people have flown the aircraft and Dreamliners have flown more than 1.2 billion revenue miles without serious incident since the initial spate of trouble.
More than that, the Dreamliner is going when no other planes have gone before. Boeing says the 787 has pioneered at least 100 routes between cities that have never before had nonstop links. It thinks there might eventually be 400 such routes. Airlines like LOT Polish and Norwegian Air Shuttle already operate all-Dreamliner fleets across the Atlantic. Asian carriers such as Hainan Airlines of China are switching across the Pacific, too.
"We're getting our first 787-9 tomorrow," says Joel Chusid, U.S. executive director of Hainan, the fast-growing private Chinese airline. "We've already got ten 787-8s in service and 34 Dreamliners on order." Hainan expects all of its U.S.-China flights will switch to Dreamliners by the end of the year. "We would have done it sooner," he explains, "but we haven't been able to get them quickly enough."
To explain the jargon, the plane now designated the 787-8 is the original Dreamliner, the one that premiered in 2011 and caused the rash of initial bad publicity. It can carry 242 passengers as far as 7,355 nautical miles. The Dreamliner 787-9 is the first variant and Boeing says it can carry as many as 290 passengers as far as 7,635 miles. A third version, the 787-10, is due for delivery in 2018 and will accommodate 330 flyers.
I'm no plane geek, so those kind of stats rarely impress me. I'm a business traveler and, to me, planes are like staplers or photocopiers. If they do what they are supposed to do, I use 'em and forget 'em.
That said, though, it's impossible to ignore how the Dreamliner is changing our lives on the road. Besides popping up on familiar long-haul routes — New York to Tokyo, Chicago to Shanghai, Los Angeles to Sydney — the 787 has made all manner of new nonstops possible.
Besides that San Francisco-Singapore run, the Dreamliner's longest, United has also deployed the 787 on routes as diverse as Chengdu, China, and Tel Aviv, Israel. American Airlines flies the 787 nonstop from its Dallas/Fort Worth hub to Beijing. British Airways flies it between Austin and London. Hainan put its Dreamliner on the new Los Angeles-Changsha route and connected Boston and Shanghai for the first time.
And LOT Polish claims the Dreamliner essentially saved the airline. A perennial moneyloser, LOT credits "the Dreamliner effect" for finally allowing it to profitably connect New York and Chicago with its Warsaw hub.
Airlines like LOT praise the Dreamliner and use virtually the same phrases to explain why the 787 works. For starters, they claim it is the right size: It carries about half the number of passengers as the double-decked Airbus A380 and is smaller than both Boeing's 777 and its venerable 747.
The widebody's long range allows airlines to run what the industry calls "long, thin" routes. In English, that means distant cities that can support nonstops only if there aren't too many seats on the aircraft. The Dreamliner is also more fuel-efficient and cheaper to operate than competitive aircraft.
"And it's a fast mother," adds Chusid of Hainan. He says some 787 flights between the United States and China have arrived more than two hours early, so Hainan has tightened up schedules to account for the plane's speed and reliability.
I'm reluctant to say business travelers "love" the Dreamliner because who "loves" their stapler or their carry-on bag? But it can't be denied that the 787 gets positive reviews. The larger-than-standard windows have their fans. The higher humidity of the 787's cabin air seems to reduce jet lag for some flyers. And until airlines decided to stuff an extra seat into each row of coach, travelers appreciated the Dreamliner's spacious, eight-across layout.
But in the long haul, it is the long hauls that gives the Dreamliner its edge with business travelers.
The aircraft has racked up an impressive list of ultra-long-haul runs. The new SFO-Singapore flight from United, for example, saves flyers three or four hours on a journey to that city. The new nonstop routes into China's "secondary" cities such as Changsha or Chendgu allow business traveler to skip the connection in — and the crowded skies over — Shanghai and Beijing. (By the way, Boeing has a flight tracker that shows every 787 in the sky at any time.)
And Randy Tinseth, Boeing's vice president of marketing, points to one other benefit, intended or otherwise, of the Dreamliner.
"It's been fabulous serving high-tech markets like San Jose, Austin, Boston and Bangalore," he notes. "I'd love to say it was because the 787 is a high-tech plane and high-tech travelers appreciate it. But the reality is that high-tech markets are not necessarily populous markets. So they are exactly the kinds of long, thin routes we designed the plane to fly."