MIAMI — In August, LAN Airlines became the first airline to serve Miami with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, adding nonstop service to its hub in Santiago, Chile. The route is served daily, consisting of an evening departure and dawn arrival in both directions. However, to maximize utilization, LAN added two weekly triangular routes, which means the aircraft does not stay parked at MIA during the day. On Saturdays, it connects the 787 in both directions through Cancun, Mexico and on Sundays through Punta Cana. Both resort cities are very popular with Chilean tourists, especially in the high vacation seasons of June, July, December and January.
With a busy schedule and no immediate vacation plans, I decided to book a Sunday day trip from Miami to Punta Cana and back, especially since I had never flown on the 787. I first experienced LAN in 2002, when I was working in South America. As a 24-year member of American Airlines’s Advantage frequent flier program, it was very convenient for me to use LAN since both airlines are part of the Oneworld Alliance, and during my three years in South America, I experienced short, medium, and long-haul service in economy and business class with LAN. In my opinion, my experience with LAN has been among the best, especially when it comes to customer service.
Economy Class – Miami to Punta Cana
I booked my outbound leg on a deeply-discounted economy one-way fare of $102. In addition to change penalties and no refunds, this fare did not allow me to choose my seat until 48 hours before departure, when check-in opens. When I went to the LAN mobile app to check-in, I noticed the flight was virtually empty, so I was able to choose a window seat in the front of the economy section, though bulkhead and exit seats could only be requested at the counter on the day of the flight. Since this was an international flight, I was still required to show my passport at the counter to get a boarding pass so I arrived at the airport a couple of hours before our scheduled 7:50 AM departure. As a lifetime Gold member on American, I was able to use the business class check in line, which meant limited waits. Also since it was early in the morning, there were no significant security lines and I was comfortably seated at Gate J18 less than ten minutes after getting my boarding pass. Our aircraft arrived from Santiago 90 minutes before departure. Thirty minutes before scheduled departure, instead of boarding, the pushback time was delayed to 8:20 AM without any explanation. Perhaps the explanation lies in the 787’s operational challenges. As of June, the 787 has a 98.5% dispatch reliability, compared to the 777’s 99.3%, and Boeing continues to work with airlines to improve it. I did not see any maintenance crew at the gate or around the aircraft, so I was confident the teething pains were a thing of the past. Any concerns quickly disappeared once boarding started. Our flight included some passengers who originated in Santiago and those of us who boarded in Miami. Overall, I estimate that the flight was 30% full. While it’s nice to be able to fly the 787 on this two-hour route, I doubt LAN can sustain it with such a low load during low vacation season, unless a significant number of passengers are being picked up at Punta Cana to continue to Santiago.
We boarded through entry door 2L, and the first noticeable feature was the arched ceiling with LED mood lighting on the entryway. I quickly found my way to window seat 15L. I took some pictures and then examined the inflight entertainment (IFE) touchscreen on the seatback, which offers 115 movies, 120 TV shows, over 1,000 music albums, and 24 video games. Other options include a moving map display, duty free shopping, and onboard cuisine information. The screen also has a USB port to keep mobile devices charged. Furthermore, the seats have power ports near the floor to connect larger devices, such as laptops. I also tried the window dimming control that is unique to all 787s and replaced the traditional movable shade. It definitely comes in handy when the sun is hitting you, or when there is too much glare on the IFE screen.
We pushed back and taxied to runway 8R. Since I was seated next to the right engine, I was looking forward to experiencing the reduced engine noise firsthand. The roar of the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines when take-off thrust was set was definitely quieter than anything I have experienced. I have not flown on the Airbus A380, which is supposedly even quieter, but this was very impressive regardless. With a light load and a two-hour flight, the aircraft climbed to 41,000 feet. The 787 boasts more humidity during cruise since the composite fuselage is less prone to corrosion, compared to the older aluminum types. I was wearing a sports watch with an altimeter that showed that translated our 41,000-foot cruise altitude to 6,000 feet above sea level. On any other airliner, this figure would be closer to 8,000 feet above sea level. However, since this was a short flight, it was hard to tell if this made a difference in terms of comfort, but I have no doubt passengers will feel the improvement on the long flights the aircraft was designed for.
The quick snack service consisted of a complimentary sandwich and accompanying beverage. After eating, I got up to explore the 3-3-3 seat configured economy section. I went to the last rows to get a good look at the impressive wing flex from the window. The last window rows are reserved for flight attendants to rest and include a curtain for their down time. Since the flight was virtually empty, I moved to bulkhead seat 12L. The economy pitch is already very generous with 32 inches of pitch and 17.3 inches of width, and the bulkhead row has at least a couple of more extra inches for even more comfort. Others took advantage of the lack of passengers by lying down open rows of three seats to get some sleep.
LAN’s mood lighting cycle consists of warm colors during boarding and deboarding and cooler ones during cruise. Boeing introduced curved overhead bins 20 years ago with the 777, and the 787 retains the same features, which create a sense of extra space. One of the 787’s sales pitches is that “every seat is a window seat”, given the larger size of the windows. Looking across the seats to the other side, this is very evident and further enhances the extra sense of space.
Soon we were descending into Dominican airspace. The ride had been very clear and smooth with many Caribbean islands visible during cruise. We ran into some rainclouds during approach. Typically these cause some bumpiness, and they gave me a chance to see if the gust alleviation system on the 787 lived up to the hype. There was some movement when we crossed these clouds, and it was definitely less noticeable than on other aircraft. After touchdown in Punta Cana, the aircraft parked in the ramp and exited using stairs. This was a real treat since it gave me chance to take close-up pictures of the outside of the aircraft. The flightline also had other visitors, which included a Nordwind Airlines (Russian charter airline) 777-200ER and two Canadian 737-800s belonging to charter carriers Air Transat and Sunwing Airlines. A bus took us to the main terminal. A unique feature of the airport is the open-air terminal covered in palm leaves. It was a very warm day, so the interior of the terminal is not very comfortable. Passport control and customs lines were short and quick. I had eight hours on the ground before my return flight to Miami, so I headed to a beachside restaurant to enjoy some tropical drinks and seafood.
I had not flown on LAN since 2005 and was happy to see the overall good quality of service had been maintained. Crews are very attentive and friendly, and even before the 787, the other widebodies that consist of the A340-300 and the 767-300ER, have had a very comfortable configuration in economy with enough IFE to make longer flights more enjoyable.
Over the last two years, I have been reading about the great inflight experience the 787 offers. I finally got my opportunity, and can confidently say the aircraft lives up to the hype in terms of modernity, innovation, and passenger comfort. LAN does a very good job with its economy class configuration, which is nice to have on those long-haul flights. Stay tuned for the evening flight back to Miami, where I experienced LAN’s “Premium Business” class product on the 787.