TOKYO -- The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, described and designed by its manufacturer as an aviation game changer, is more than three years behind schedule in taking wing with its purchasers. But, as the saying goes, the plane was worth the wait -- and All Nippon Airways is wasting no time in deploying the first two models of the new widebody jet that it has received.
ANA made headlines Oct. 26 when it operated the first commercial flight of the 787, a charter that flew 240 passengers from Tokyo Narita to Hong Kong. Two days later, Travel Weekly had a spot on the first flight of ANA's second Dreamliner, an hour-plus excursion from Narita around the Tokyo area. ANA has 55 of the jets on order, with 20 set for delivery by the end of fiscal 2012. (View a slideshow from the trip here or by clicking on the images.)
The carrier began domestic Japanese service aboard the 787 on Nov. 1 with flights from Tokyo's Haneda Airport to Okayama and Hiroshima, and will launch international Dreamliner services in December with once-weekly nonstops to Beijing. On Jan. 21, ANA will introduce long-haul 787 flights to Frankfurt, with thrice-weekly service that should go daily sometime in February.
"The Dreamliner will enable us to offer unrivaled standards of service and comfort to our passengers and will play a key part in ANA's plans for international expansion," Shinichiro Ito, ANA's president and CEO, said at the Sept. 26 ceremony in Seattle at which the carrier took delivery of its first 787.
On the Dreamliner
The spacious, high-tech and, dare I say, chic 787 Dreamliner-- a midsize but long-range jet that can seat 200 to 250 passengers -- goes a long way toward making air travel gracious once again. Airbus' much-ballyhooed and spectacular A380 double-decker might beat the 787 in terms of sheer size and capacity, but the all-composite-material, U.S.-built Dreamliner seemed to be just as quiet (if not quieter), "cooler" and less cramped.
That last factor might have had something to do with the configuration ANA has chosen for domestic 787 service: The 2-4-2 seating in economy offers two armrests and nearly two inches of empty space between the innermost seats. Dreamliners serving long-haul destinations will feature ANA's Business Staggered lie-flat seating in business class and "fixed-back shell" seats, which slide forward rather than recline backward, in economy.
As in-flight gravy, there's all the other the high-tech wizardry and innovation that Boeing has worked into the Dreamliner. The windows are 30% larger than those on other passenger aircraft. They also don't have pull-down shades but can be dimmed to a beautiful, still-transparent dark blue at the touch of a button.
And the cabin LED "mood lighting," which normally mimics the natural progression of daylight, can also, in a very psychedelic twist, display a rainbow of hues upon boarding (as ANA's 787 did in my experience). Lighting options include an array of boutique hotel lobby-like shades of red, violet or any hue in between to soothe nervous passengers.
Passengers on my flight, roundtrip from Narita, seemed enthralled. Our silky-smooth takeoff from the airport earned the flight crew a healthy round of applause once we were airborne. I was impressed, in-flight, by the lack of cabin noise -- apart from the animated chatter of my fellow passengers.
In place of the roar of any jet engines, I heard the somewhat soothing, low background drone of the 787's electrical systems (the Dreamliner employs a new technology, completely separate from the engines, to supply electricity to the passenger cabin, I was told).
Engine roar is further lessened by the addition of noise-reducing chevrons on the 787's engine nacelles.
The twin-aisle 787 also features Boeing's new Sky Interior cabin configuration, which -- thanks to the LED lighting, large windows, sleek styling and unique overhead bins (said to be the industry's largest) -- increases the sense of space and chic. Roomy is the impression, if not the technical reality (the 787 is actually smaller than Boeing's 777 and 747, as well as Airbus' A380 and A340.)
Flyers who board the 787 also enjoy higher humidity and a cabin pressure equal to 6,000 feet above sea level, some 2,000 feet lower than on all other large commercial airliners. That reduces the impact of jet lag and dehydration, according to Boeing and ANA, although my flight was too short to discern the difference.
Boeing was able to increase the 787's onboard humidity and air-pressure factors because the plane's carbon-fiber composite materials are less prone to rust than traditional aluminum airliner skins, an ANA representative told me. Composites, strong and more stress-resistant yet also light, are to thank for those larger windows, as well, and also will help ANA save an estimated $130 million in fuel costs.
Carriers next in line to receive their first 787s, in mid-2012, include United Airlines, with an order for 25, and European launch customer LOT Polish Airlines, which has ordered eight of the jets. (View a video from the trip below.)
For destination news and updates worldwide, follow Ken Kiesnoski on Twitter @kktravelweekly.