787 First Flight K64825-03

MIAMI — Earlier this month, Boeing lead salesman Randy Tinseth made some waves by highlighting the role that the Boeing 787 has played in expanding non-stop routes around the world. In doing so, Tinseth dredged up all of the same old debates about the 787 versus the Airbus A380, and about whether the 787 is truly revolutionary.

Randy Tinseth. (Credits: Boeing)
Randy Tinseth. (Credits: Boeing)

I think at first glance, you can pretty clearly conclude that the 787 is not revolutionary in the narrowest sense of the word, in so far as revolutionary means a sea-change in commercial aviation. By that standard, the only airplanes that qualify are the Wright Flyer, the Sikorsky Ilya Muromets, the de Havilland Comet, the Boeing 747 and the Concorde.

But given a more expansive definition, the 787 pretty clearly represents a sea-change in the widebody market, the first in a new era of widebody aircraft that includes the Airbus A350, the Boeing 777X, the Airbus A330neo and (eventually) the Airbus A380neo. If you think about the history of major passenger widebody aircraft, they can be broken down roughly into four eras.

Era one spanned the Boeing 747, the Douglas DC-10, the Lockheed L-1011, and the Airbus A300. Era two included the Airbus A310, the Boeing 767 and the McDonnell Douglas MD-11. Era three included the Airbus A330, the Airbus A340, the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 777. And era four is the present span of aircraft noted above. By that standard, the 787 ushered in a new period in air travel, and it is absolutely revolutionary.

 

For all of the trials and tribulations that the 787 program has undergone, it has undoubtedly enabled the creation of new routes. No aircraft in history has been able to fly as few passengers as far as the 787 can or as efficiently. And it’s important to divorce an assessment of the 787 from Boeing’s bungled management of its development.

But returning to Tinseth (really Hamlin’s) assertion, I think that the Goldilocks Effect is real and tangible. And that effect shows up not only in the new routes (which are tabulated beneath this article), but also in the routes that may have been formally launched before the 787, but were either intended for the 787 or only survived because of its operating efficiency; both new routes created and old routes saved.

And I do think that the former is an effect unique to the 787. The A350-900 will offer fantastic operational efficiencies in its own right, but it is not as useful of a tool in launching new long and thin routes. The A350-900’s effect on route networks will mostly be quantified in terms of routes saved. The A330neo may change that paradigm, but we won’t know for sure until it enters service.

And the question of whether the 787 or A380 is more representative of the future of commercial aviation has been pretty clearly answered in favor of the 787 (and A330neo and A350 mind you). Point-to-point long-haul flights have not taken over airline networks, but it would be a mistake to assume that the 787 was about enabling point-to-point long-haul flights. Rather, the A380 was a hub-to-hub tool, whereas the 787 was a hub-to-small-spoke tool.

And from that perspective (as has been the case in almost every short-haul airline market worldwide), customers overwhelmingly favored the aircraft that would generate more nonstop options. The A380 is a formidable aircraft in its own right, but at least for the moment (and contingent on infrastructure bottlenecks clearing) the 787 appears to have won a decisive battle on that front, even as it lost billions for the company that produced it.