Flying is such a dismal experience—crowded cabins, foul air and sterile surroundings—that if it weren’t an essential service, fliers would have abandoned it decades ago. But Sunday’s debut of the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” may change that. For the first time since the jet age began in the 1950s, passengers will benefit directly from technical improvements in air travel.
Just a few years ago, the Chicago-based jet builder seemed to have lost its commerical savvy. It tinkered with financially dubious ideas such as the Sonic Cruiser, which would have flown near the speed of sound, cutting travel times by 20 per cent. But airlines, obsessed with saving fuel and not time, stayed away.
Then Boeing developed a good idea: it asked what airline customers want. It built a “skunk works”—an autonomous research group—near Seattle to study passenger service, learning from customer-service champions such as Wal-Mart and Disney. Among its discoveries: fliers don’t like foul air and crowding. That research led to the 787, which rolled out of a Seattle-area hangar on Sunday. The Dreamliner provides better air, thanks to a fuselage built not of aluminum but carbon-plastic composites, which can withstand higher cabin air pressure without bursting and, unlike metal, don’t corrode, enabling Boeing to raise the desert-like levels of humidity in cabins from five per cent to a comfier 20 per cent.
Add larger windows that can be dimmed with electronic shades, a wider cabin permitting wider seats, and aesthetically pleasing ceiling lighting that simulates the sky outside. “We wanted to bring back the magic of flying,”
says Blake Emery, Boeing’s director of differentiation strategy. Sales of the plane have ballooned to 677, even though it won’t fly until next year. (Air Canada has bought 25 units.) The age of the flying cattle car may be at an end, and not a moment too soon. M
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