Boeing's radical 787 "Dreamliner" has turned out to be anything but a dream for Boeing and the airlines that ordered the plane. Assorted manufacturing and supply glitches delayed the initial delivery by almost four years, and shortly after the first airline service, the plane developed battery problems resulting in a grounding of several months. Now, with the battery problem supposedly fixed, airlines have started flying the plane again. Some folks in the industry, however, believe the battery "fix" is temporary and not a true solution, and several longtime travelers have announced, "I'm not getting into one of those any time soon." Should you, as an ordinary traveler, also be wary of the plane?
Why You Should Like the 787
The Dreamliner was designed with some important features to improve the passenger experience and the airlines' bottom lines:
- The cabin is designed for a better atmosphere—pressurized at a lower effective altitude and with higher humidity than other jets—meaning more comfortable surroundings.
- Early flyers also praise the extra-large windows and dramatic "mood" LED lighting.
- The 787 was tabbed to replace the aging 767 models on long-haul routes with insufficient traffic to support flights in the larger and extremely successful 777s. That means nonstop service on such routes as Boston-Tokyo, Chicago-Warsaw, Denver-Tokyo, and San Diego-Tokyo—routes that would previously require making connections. It was also designed to provide 20 percent better fuel economy than the 767, as well as less noise and less atmospheric pollution.
Why You Might Worry About the 787
The plane relies on electric power much more than any other jet, and the original central lithium-ion battery caught fire on several flights. Boeing's fix—accepted by the FAA and the customer airlines—packages the battery more securely and vents any possible fire or smoke to the outside. Some worry, however, that nobody has discovered exactly how to stop lithium-ion batteries from ever catching fire in the first place.
But your main worry might well be that most current operators have elected to turn that potentially comfortable cabin into a cattle car, with very narrow nine-across seating. Those seats are at least as narrow as those on 737s, already notorious for being too tight for today's travelers:
- United, the only U.S.-based airline to have 787s, elected to go the cattle-car route, with nine-across seats, 3-3-3, at a slightly above average front-to-rear pitch of 32 inches (31 inches on most other United economy cabins). On a long flight, those tight seats will be really uncomfortable compared with the wider seats on United's 777s and most other lines' A330s. Economy Plus has the same narrow seats but at a much superior 35-inch pitch. And business class has the by now almost requisite lie-flat seats. After some early shakedown flights between Denver and Houston, United plans to start Denver-Tokyo nonstops in June.
- JAL 787's economy class is better than on United, with wider eight-across seats, but business class isn't lie-flat. JAL plans to resume flights from Tokyo to Boston and San Diego in June, with San Francisco to be added by the end of the year.
- LOT, like United, opted for the cattle car in economy: nine across at an unforgiving 31-inch pitch. Its saving grace is a good premium economy cabin, with seats seven across at a 38-inch pitch. Business is lie-flat. LOT plans to resume Chicago-Warsaw nonstops in June.
As far as I know, no other current 787 operator—Air India (cattle car), ANA (good economy cabin), Ethiopian (cattle car), LAN (cattle car), and Qatar (cattle car)—has any current plans for 787 flights to North America.
So, what's the verdict? Certainly, you won't go wrong with JAL, but on the other lines, you have to consider the trade-off between a good nonstop schedule and lousy seats. And about the battery: I wouldn't hesitate to get on a 787 on JAL in economy or the others in business class, but I can understand those folks who want to wait a while. Your money, your time, your choice.
Ed Perkins Seniors on the Go is copyright (c) 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.
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