Will the Dreamliner Soar?

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Jim Coley / AFP / Getty

Interior of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Boeing's unveiling of the new 787 Dreamliner, auspiciously timed for 7/8/07, drew a crowd of 15,000 employees and their guests to Boeing's Everett, Wash., facility in a manner fitting for what is the most successful, fuel-efficient commercial jetliner in history. To date, 47 carriers have ordered 677 of the planes. Carbon fiber composites make up 50% of the plane's material by weight (compared with only 12% in Boeing's last released jetliner, the 777), enabling Boeing to offer cost savings and more passenger comfort to airlines. But now that the celebrating is over, Boeing will need to buckle down to get the first jetliner of six ready for flight tests beginning in early September.

The weekend spent wowing international broadcast and print media, client-carriers and supplier-partners culminated in Sunday's event, as former TV news anchor Tom Brokaw hosted the 787 Dreamliner premiere from a stage set up in Boeing's 40-36 Building, a sprawling 10-sq. acre facility north of Seattle. In addition to the 15,000 gathered in Everett (wearing badges that read "Success Runs in the Family"), about 25,000 Boeing employees and retirees also watched the broadcast from the Seattle Seahawks' 50,000-seat stadium rented for the occasion. The event, broadcast to 45 countries in nine languages, had all the trappings of a network media event but was available only on satellite television.

Why the fanfare? Boeing is confident that the advantages offered by the Dreamliner for passengers, airlines and the environment is a winning combo. And a lot of it is thanks to the plane's composite construction. Optimally, the 787 will get 100 miles per gallon per seat, compared to the 76 passenger miles per gallon of a 767. Air filters will reduce the smell of fuel. Relative humidity will be up to about 15%, from the industry average of about 5%. Cabin pressure will be set for a lower, more comfortable altitude, 6,000 ft. down from 8,000 ft. All interior lights will be LED. Windows will be 10.7 in. by 18.4 in., 60% bigger than the 777 and 80% bigger than the Airbus 330 and A340, and Boeing has ditched window covers for electronic dimming controls. Boeing also promises a smoother ride with less turbulence. And during a press conference Sunday morning, Mineo Yamamoto, president and CEO of All Nippon Airways, which will be the first to fly the 787 next May, said that the company also worked with Boeing and Japanese toilet maker TOTO in the development of a bidet-type toilet to be "the first airline to refresh the parts that other airlines cannot reach." Go Japan!

A procession of the 47 client-airline CEOs with representative flight stewards, from All Nippon to Kenya Airways, kicked off the event. Boeing CEO Jim McNerney then spoke of the advantages of the new jetliner and introduced Brokaw, who called the 787 "a rock star of the future" and announced the 677 orders. The pixilated numbers appeared in story-high brilliance on each side of the stage and a roar overtook the building. The managers and workers of Boeing's supply partners who collaborated to develop the 787 joined the event via satellite from six locations, including Fuji, Kawasaki and Mitsubishi in Japan, Alenia in Italy, and Global Aeronautica/Vought and Spirit in the U.S.

Soon enough the moment arrived when Mike Bair, chief of the 787 Program, introduced the Dreamliner. The backdrop parted and sunshine glinted off the blue and white aircraft fresh from the paint shop as it was tugged closer to the building. As is Boeing's tradition, everyone rushed the plane for a closer look; Vivaldi's Four Season's played from the speakers.

Bair said in an interview Friday that one thing that distinguishes the 787 program is the amount of visibility. "We've been in a fishbowl," he said. "It can be a little aggravating, but it's good." But if the production process has been scrutinized, it's Boeing's own doing. Since production of the Dreamliner was announced in 2003, Boeing has made transparency imperative, especially as international partners assumed more of the heavy lifting and financial risk on the supply end. "We've had a trite little saying that says 'you can't manage a secret,'" said Bair. "So we've had everything out in the open and everything visible, because you never know where help is going to come from. It's been a struggle."

But few at Boeing, if any, would argue that it wasn't worth it. As the hands of Boeing's workers graced the final product on Sunday, checking out the landing gear, the fasteners, the smooth sides that lacked the ripples often caused by aluminum, many stood back to admired the craftsmanship of so many countries combined.

"Boeing's brand reputation in the last six months has been transformed because of this plane," says Paul Charles, director of communications for Virgin Atlantic, which has ordered 23 787-9s for delivery from 2011. "It's in the same league as the Wright Brothers' wooden plane, the first metal plane. And this is the first plastic plane," he says. "This is precisely the kind of milestone in the industry that we need."

Carriers are still weighing their options. Some are considering the 787; others the Airbus' 350, viewed as the 787's main competitor which will be out in 2015. Delta, as it ramps up its international presence, could be on the books by the end of this year with the largest Boeing order so far, for 125 787s. But Delta, like others, has to wait. Boeing is sold out until 2015.