Editor’s Note: Five Years ago, All Nippon Airways became the world’s first operator of the Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner. Below is a report written by Airways Managing Editor & Senior Partner, Chris Sloan, who was onboard the carrier’s first 787 flight from Tokyo to Hong Kong.
On Wednesday, October 26, 2011—exactly 53 years after Pan Am introduced the world to the Boeing 707 with a trans-Atlantic flight from New York International Airport (Idlewild, later John F Kennedy) to Paris (Le Bourget)—another milestone in commercial aviation history was forged when the world’s first all-composite airliner, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, entered passenger service with Japan’s All Nippon Airways (ANA).
Many forests have been decimated, and huge ‘bytes’ chomped into cyberspace, by a plethora of articles extolling and examining the virtues of this so-called ‘game changing’ airplane. Pundits have discussed the relative merits of the 787 and the contemporary—but far larger—Airbus A380, while debating the former’s importance to air transport in the context of other revolutionary airliners from the same stable: the 707 and 747 wide-body.
The overall consensus is that the Dreamliner seems destined to have an even more profound effect on the future of the airline industry than its Boeing designers and airline customers have predicted. It appears inevitable that all future airliners will be measured against the leading-edge technology, decentralized shared global production, reduced environmental footprint, customer appeal features, lower maintenance costs, and—not least—improved fuel efficiency of the Dreamliner.
As oil prices escalate and travel markets become increasingly fragmented over the expected 55-year service lifespan of Boeing’s latest design, the hyperbole surrounding the 787 Dreamliner appears capable of being supported by actuality.
Some 7½ years after its formal launch, and 3½ years behind entry-into-service (EIS) schedule (never mind the billions of over-budget dollars and a break-even point a decade away), the 787 was finally ready for revenue service service with a charter flight from Tokyo-Narita to Hong Kong on October 26.
At the handover ceremony in September 2011 and as the October EIS date loomed large, the anticipation and ‘will it live up to its hype?’ expectations reached fever pitch. I knew I had to be on this flight, thereby enabling Airways readers to participate, if only vicariously, in this historic event. After all, my grandparents had been on that Pan Am Boeing 707 inaugural, so I had a legacy to uphold.
Actually, I had been actively working toward this goal for well over a year. Nevertheless, it was not going to be easy to accomplish. When I flew on Singapore Airlines’s (SIA) inaugural Airbus A380 service in October 2007, the airline had sold nearly all of the 400-plus seats in a worldwide eBay auction.
First, business, and economy class tickets went for anywhere from $1,000 all the way to a reported $100,000 for one of SIA’s coveted ‘Suites’. ANA’s first two Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners, however—comparable in size to a Boeing 767-300—have a much smaller passenger capacity: 12 in business class and 252 in economy. Furthermore, SIA had auctioned off two separate flights, whereas ANA chose to auction its seats on the 787 charter as an inclusive roundtrip package. Thus, the laws of supply and demand made securing a seat on the Dreamliner inaugural a much more difficult proposition.
Further complicating matters, ANA offered approximately 100 seats for around $1,000 each to members of its frequent flyer program with proof of Japanese residency. Not surprisingly, ANA received 25,000 applications for this lottery. The next one-third block of seats would be reserved for journalists, and a strictly limited number for executives from ANA and Boeing.
Airways was fortunate to be included in the former group. Boeing’s only representation onboard was Scott Fancher, the VP/GM of the 787 program, along with a public relations executive.
Dreamliner engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce wasn’t in the picture, nor were other subcontractors. Six business class seats were listed for auction to benefit an environmental charity: three to Japan-domiciled ANA frequent flyers; and three to any other ANA FFP members, but available only via eBay Australia, whereby bidders had to pre-register and bid in Australian dollars.
Realistically, besides press and VIPs, the latter were the only three seats available for purchase to non-Japanese resident members of ANA’s FFP, although the price did include an overnight hotel stay in Hong Kong. The incredible demand for this historic flight became front-page news, making the winners instant celebrities.
Dean and Stephanie Wood of Davie, Florida—who were on the SIA A380 inaugural, and own an aircraft parts distribution company, Aviation Concepts—won the first pair. Associated Press reported that they paid nearly $18,700 for two business class seats.
The Woods’ exceptional karma continued when they won two economy tickets for the long-haul 787 inaugural from Tokyo (Haneda) to Frankfurt, Germany, by winning a game of ‘rock, paper, scissors, fire’ in competition with 150 fellow passengers at an event after the Hong Kong flight. Reportedly, the ever-classy ANA gave them an upgrade on the spot.
What the Woods paid for their tickets was a relative bargain compared to the price of the final seat. The next week, Gino Bertuccio—the Miami-based owner of a cosmetics company and another airline aficionado who was also in first class on the A380 inaugural—grabbed the space. “I didn’t pre-register so I missed the first auction,” he explained. “On the second auction I started my bid at $7,000 and bidded (sic) up to $19,000. Forty-five seconds before the auction ended, I meant to put in a high bid of $22,500 Australian [$23,400] but I misplaced the comma because of a typo and bid A$225,000 [$234,200] instead.
I had only paid $12,000 for the A380 inaugural. I felt horrible and terrified not knowing what amount I was going to be on the hook for. Then, fifteen seconds later, which seemed like an eternity, I learned I won the seat for $33,500—$100 more than the next highest bid. As someone who loves to fly and actually will seek out less-direct, longer flights, this was money well spent.”
A fourth noteworthy on the flight was Thomas Lee, director of business development of Zodiac, whose company builds systems for the 787, including the emergency escape slides, toilet vacuum waste systems, and seats. However, it wasn’t his status as a supplier to the 787 programs that netted him a seat. “I was on the inaugural flights of the 747 and A380 and wanted to be the only person to achieve the ‘Triple First’ by flying on the first 787,” Lee enthused.
“In a small way, the 787 feels like my baby. It’s special to see after years and years of waiting to see the technology in service. I am so grateful that ANA invited me as a guest.”
Even more enthusiastic, but in a typically more reserved Japanese manner, were launch customer ANA and the Japanese public in general. With Japan having experienced an annus horribilis in 2011 owing to the March earthquake and related tsunami and Fukushima nuclear plant destruction, plus a 20-year economic malaise, they needed something to celebrate.
Boeing bills the Dreamliner as ‘Made with Japan’, in recognition of the 35% of the aircraft’s structure that is manufactured in the country, notably the striking raked wing (Mitsubishi), the center wing box (Fuji), and part of the forward fuselage (Kawasaki). Accordingly, Japanese industry and people have much to be proud of.
ANA was particularly buoyant at a pre-flight press conference where it was revealed that the company expects to save $131 million per year in Jet-A fuel alone thanks to the Dreamliner. The first 12 examples are due online by March 31, 2012, and an additional eight by the end of March 2013. All 55 on order, including 15 787-9s, are expected by March 2018.
“This revolutionary new aircraft will transform air travel for passengers and help ANA in its strategic goal of becoming Asia’s number one airline,” said ANA President and CEO Shinichiro Ito. He revealed that Hong Kong was chosen for the inaugural flight because “Hong Kong was our first [regular] international charter flight. We have a special relationship with Hong Kong.”
Ito-san also announced that ANA is looking at new destinations primed for the 787, including Belgium, Switzerland, and an unnamed city on the US West Coast, rumored to be Seattle.
The flight crew, looking pleased, proud, but formal, were also present at the press conference. Happily, the first 787 revenue flight was a family affair for some, with Captain Masami Tsukamoto as co-pilot and his wife Midoriko Tsukamoto in her role as chief purser. Capt. Tsukamoto was also the first non-Boeing pilot to fly the 787, and for a time in 2007-09 was on Boeing’s payroll.
In command was Capt Yuichi Marui, ANA’s director of 787 operations. Boeing took a back seat to its launch customer ANA on inaugural day. But at the press conference Scott Fancher asked the passengers to, during the flight, “take a deep breath, take it all in, the larger windows, higher humidity, and lower pressurization, and breathe in what the public will experience, a new standard in commercial aviation.”
Fancher drew laughs when he pulled out his boarding pass and said, “I can’t tell you how long I have waited for this slip of paper.” Later he revealed that this was only the second 787 flight with a full passenger load—the first being a Boeing employee shakedown trip—and his first with passengers, so he was particularly interested to see how guests would respond to the new airplane’s cabin features.
Check-in for the appropriately numbered flight NH7871 at Tokyo-Narita Terminal 1 was a relatively
low-key affair, with no commemorative decorations in sight. Seat assignments were drawn democratically from an envelope. I drew 6C, an economy bulkhead aisle seat by the window. Oddly, ‘B’ seats don’t exist on ANA’s eight-abreast (2-4-2) 787.
Luckily for me, my seat-mate was the informative and amusing Guy Norris of Aviation Week (and formerly with Flight), who co-authored with Mark Wagner the book Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
As we made our way to Gate 59A, only then did it start becoming obvious that something special was afoot. There was a mob of passengers, press, executives, and the merely curious swarming around the gate area.
Festivities began at the gate with a kagamiwari (sake barrel-breaking) ceremony, for which ANA’s CEO Ito and other executives donned Japanese happi coats—light waist-length garments usually worn at festivals—before raising wooden boxes filled with sake as a celebratory gesture.
More ceremonial wooden sake boxes were handed out to all in attendance along with generous servings of this traditional libation.
Boarding began promptly at 1140 ahead of a 12:20 departure. USA Today travel reporter Ben Mutzabaugh became the first 787 ‘commercial’ passenger to have his ticket swiped at the gate before boarding. But, technically speaking, he wasn’t the first to board the 787, because after passing through the gate we were bused to where ANA’s first two 787-8s—registered JA801A and JA802A—were parked. There, we boarded ‘801’ for the maiden flight to Hong Kong.
Although the 787 was 3½ years late entering service, ANA wasn’t about to accept anything less than an on-time departure of its inaugural service. Passengers were allowed brief photo opportunities in front of the Dreamliner and a commemorative banner before being ushered up the stairs. With special boarding passes and cameras around our necks, we boarded through the L1 door forward of the business cabin galley, instead of L2 entrance, where the bar is located, which is Boeing’s recommended point of entry.
Business seats feature a 62in (1.57m) pitch and are 21in (53cm) wide. Economy class are 31in (79cm) and 17in (43cm), respectively. ANA decided to specify individual armrests for the middle seats, resulting in a 2in (5cm) gap between them. This space, along with the very high ceilings, contributed to initial impressions of spaciousness, even with the congestion created by passengers milling about and stowing their carry-on items, along with the media contingent’s camera equipment. The massive overhead bins, as advertised, easily swallowed up all the carry-on baggage.
Another immediate and favorable impression upon boarding was the large amount of natural light allowed in by the windows, some 30% larger than those of a Boeing 777.
The gracious cabin crew, of which there were ten on duty as distinct from the usual complement of six,
politely asked everyone to be seated in the hope of an on-time departure. Ultimately, NH7871 pushed back three minutes late, at 12:23, which was commendable given all the pre-departure activity.
A traditional water cannon salute was performed after engine start-up, and at 1241 the 787 rolled down Runway 34L. Engine noise was muted. Instead of the ‘roar of the Rolls’, we heard the somewhat soothing background drone of the 787’s electrical systems.
Soon after becoming airborne, the cabin did become very noisy—not from the sound of the Trent 1000-A turbofans but from a cacophony of clicking camera shutters and a round of applause. Three minutes into flight, the throttles were retarded to climb power as we made our way to 38,000ft and a cruising speed of 431kt (798kph). It was a picture-perfect day for flying, with very light winds and no weather en route.
Our 4hr 8min flight plan took us southwest over Honshu, the main island of Japan; then over the Japanese islands of Shikoku and Kyūshū, the East China Sea, Taiwan, thence to the Lantau Islands and Chek Lap Kok, where Hong Kong International Airport is located. Capt. Marui made a public address (PA) announcement, reminding everyone that this was the world’s first passenger flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, adding how happy the company and crew were that this moment had arrived.
With the air silky-smooth, the seatbelt signs were turned off and the celebratory atmosphere and media spectacle really kicked in. The very courteous, patient, specially-selected ANA flight attendants somehow managed to serve drinks among the melée of passengers and press. Some remarked that it wasn’t quite the party atmosphere of previous inaugurals, but this might have been because the business cabin was closed off, and many of the Japanese passengers were, by nature, more reserved than their boisterous western counterparts.
Like many, if not all, of those onboard, I felt like a kid in a candy store, and it was time to get down to business and sample all the wizardry. The general consensus among fellow passengers—and I readily agreed—was that the hi-tech windows were an immediate hit. I could easily see outside the 19 x 11in (48 x 28cm) windows, situated just above waist level. Living up to the publicity, they certainly provide a panoramic view, creating a connection with the sky. Not only do they reduce claustrophobia, the windows obviate the need to crane your neck to peer outside, regardless of where you sit.
The electronic window-tinting performed flawlessly, dimming from 100% transparent to nearly opaque in a mere 30 seconds. Cabin lighting was set between shades of calming blue and orange, with a very subtle transition from one to the other.
Few passengers enjoy turbulence, but in this case many on our flight were hoping for a little less perfect
weather day to test the turbulence-dampening, ‘vertical gust suppression system’ whereby accelerometers in the airplane’s nose register up-and-down movements and transmit compensatory signals via fiber-optic cables to the control surfaces on the wings.
According to Boeing, the sensitive technology relieves motion sickness symptoms for the majority of passengers. What would have been a 9ft (2.8m) drop in an ‘air pocket’, is supposedly reduced to 3ft (0.9m). During descent into Chek Lap Kok, and also on the return flight, we did encounter some chop, and the Dreamliner seemed to react with a smoother ride, a sensation not unlike driving along a cobblestone street.
Meanwhile, I watched the control surfaces on that beautifully sculpted wing adjust to the vagaries of the turbulence—which represented some of the best in-flight entertainment I could have asked for.
But that’s not to devalue the excellence of the Panasonic IFE system. Apart from the typical on-demand music and video offerings, there is seat-to-seat chatting capability, along with very high-resolution multifunction air maps, derived from Google Maps, permitting users to select multiple views and levels of detail. The USB port did seem to be charging my iPod, but I was not able to play back its music or photos on the system screen.
Economy seats were firm yet comfortable; instead of reclining, the bottom cushion moves back and forth, which creates the same effect, but without infringing on the personal space of the passenger immediately behind.
Gino Bertuccio allowed me to sample his business ‘throne’, which reclined to a near-flat position. These seats are not the lie-flat long-haul product. Meanwhile, Scott Fancher explained that, behind the scenes, onboard electronic devices were collecting flight data and transmitting it back to Seattle via satellite every 15 minutes.
The 787’s technological marvels extend to the seven lavatories with features I wasn’t aware of despite visiting Boeing’s Dreamliner Gallery. Upon entering the toilet compartment, the door pivots inward to avoid blocking aisles or the interior of the bathroom; the dark-blue lighting inside transforms to a brighter daylight hue; instead of flushing the toilet with a handle, you run your hand over a sensor that triggers the toilet seat to close before flushing begins.
As Thomas Lee explained, this creates a vacuum that attenuates the flushing sound considerably, and cuts water consumption in half—another Dreamliner weight-saving innovation. One of the lavatories, dubbed ‘loo with a view’, is designed to accommodate handicapped passengers; it has a window with the only conventional window shade aboard the Dreamliner.
The big question on many passengers’ minds was whether we would notice more comfortable conditions with the lower pressurization and higher humidity levels claimed for the Dreamliner. Most felt that they didn’t feel any significant difference, or that it was perhaps too subtle. However, the prevailing opinion was that this would probably make more of a difference on a long-haul flight than a 4½-hour sector.
Many did remark how much fresher and cleaner the air smelled and felt, perhaps not surprising given that the air conditioning packs are driven electrically rather than by engine bleed air. The quiet cabin during cruise was very noticeable too.
ANA has a world-class reputation for exquisite service, and the Dreamliner inaugural was the perfect opportunity to showcase it. Even in economy we were served sumptuous meals and drinks. The Japanese menu consisted of an appetizer of fried squid, dried baby shrimp, and cabbage salad,
followed by a hot main dish of pork belly ragout in soy-based sauce and grilled salmon sushi, with custard for dessert.
For the western meal there was a starter of marinated salmon and baby shrimp accompanied by beef and pork pastrami, followed by a fresh garden salad; a seafood gratin main course, and, again, custard. Both meals were topped off with a commemorative ANA ‘We Fly 1st’ 787 cookie.
The stand-up bar between business and economy became the social hub of the flight, and was well stocked—and continually replenished—with an array of snacks and drinks. As wonderful as the refreshments were, the hospitality of the cabin crew left even a greater impression. Incredibly gracious and attentive in exceeding service expectations, they cheerfully navigated their way around the excited passengers—myself included—thronging the aisles.
An outstanding touch was CEO Shinichiro Ito spending almost the entire flight speaking to every passenger he could possibly meet. What is an inaugural flight without the requisite swag of souvenirs? This one was no exception: just about everything not nailed down—from menus to safety cards and even headphones—automatically became a keepsake.
ANA’s hospitality extended to the gift envelopes which, in true egalitarian style, were the same for both classes. The airline marked the occasion with such items as a clever 787 wooden bookmark, laminated first flight commemorative boarding passes with 787 lanyard, the same 787 scarves handed out at the delivery ceremony in Everett, and even a Dreamliner USB thumb drive device. Elaborate books of 787 stamps were also available for purchase from onboard duty free stocks.
At 15:20 Hong Kong time, the throttles of the Trents were eased back, signaling the initial phase of our descent into Chek Lap Kok. With a sense of showmanship, the flight attendants foreshadowed that something special was about to happen by remotely dimming all the windows to their darkest setting.
The dynamic LED (light emitting diode) ‘mood lighting’ system—which normally mimics the natural progression of daylight—presented the flight’s crescendo: within seconds, the cabin was transformed from a subtle, pink hue into a psychedelic ‘disco inferno’ comprising the full color spectrum of light. Everybody burst into spontaneous applause at this surreal sight straight from the Seventies.
After this unexpected treat, cabin lighting reverted to the bright takeoff level, then seatbelt signs were turned on as we descended through mid-level clouds and ripples of light turbulence on approach. Meanwhile, our screens showed a detailed aerial map of the airport as we flew low over the South China Sea on final.
At 15:52lt, 4hr 8min after departing Narita, the world’s maiden passenger voyage of a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner arrived onto Hong Kong’s Runway 7L with a textbook landing; once again, thunderous applause echoed through the cabin.
Immediately after turning off 7L, flight NH7871 was greeted in style with a two-water cannon welcome. Although this was expected, the ceremonial Wutan lion dance, pounding drums, and swarm of people greeting us on the ramp left a major impact on everyone. As we descended the stairs, even the most jaded among us could not help but be impressed and moved by this display.
Capts. Marui and Tsukamoto appeared to attempt to sneak down the stairs to avoid attention. But, caught offguard, they were treated to yet another burst of applause as they departed the airplane for a press conference—slightly embarrassed by all the good-natured fuss being made over them.
On the following day, Thursday October 27, the Dreamliner returned to Tokyo as flight NH7872. Compared to the previous day this was a far more subdued affair, with only a few ramp personnel to see us off, no applause on takeoff or landing but, as always, with ANA’s trademark of wonderful service. This quiet and relaxed flight gave us all the opportunity to get to know the Dreamliner more intimately during what felt like a more typical operation. We landed in the dark at Narita, on time at 20:50, and taxied to the stand next to sister-ship 802.
After some final pictures and farewells, the inaugural event was over, but for the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and ANA the real mission was just beginning.
The next day, both airplanes performed several hour-long excursion flights over Tokyo. On November 1, scheduled domestic service began between Tokyo-Haneda, Okayama and Hiroshima, two of Japan’s longest domestic routes.
International regional service was slated to begin between Haneda and Beijing in December. The service many eagerly await as the next true test of the Dreamliner’s efficiency and passenger appeal is the first
long-haul flight from Haneda to Frankfurt, approximately a 12hr 15min trip, scheduled for January 21, 2012.
Summarizing ANA’s thoughts on the introduction of the Dreamliner, President/ CEO Shinichiro Ito reflected: “We [Boeing and ANA] have been through hard times in the development of the 787, but we
are thrilled to be the first airline to fly the airplane.”
Other significant airliners, such as the 707 and—especially—the 747, had difficult births, but over time few recall those problems. What is remembered is how they changed the industry and the way the
world traveled, which—almost certainly—is the destiny of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.