Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Thoughts on the 787 debut

The world of heavy industry seems to attract two types of observers: business folks with direct or indirect financial stakes, and enthusiasts. Everyone else pays only passing attention to industry announcements, such as Boeing's recent introduction of the 787 Dreamliner, the company's first new model since the 777 debuted in 1995. Why should people get worked up about a plane that airlines will pack full of seats in almost identical fashion to nearly every other plane they've flown in?
The 787 appears to be a new and different kind of plane, however, a large evolutionary leap that merits more than passing attention from the general public. In particular, I think it should excite potential passengers for at least two reasons: First, Boeing claims they've improved fuel efficiency by up to 20%, meaning lower-emissions travel (a 20% reduction in guilty consciences, if the relationship is linear), and possibly lower prices for customers. Secondly, the plane's design includes a number of in-cabin features that intend to make sitting cramped and still for hours more comfortable for everyone, not just first and business class flyers. The promised features include larger windows, dimming windows to reduce glare, greater cabin humidity, LED cabin "mood" lighting, and cabin pressurization to 6000 feet rather than the standard 8000 ft. 
Sure, there's no reason to believe that 787 passengers will be any less cramped than they are now. But these marginal improvements sound like they'll make for substantially more comfortable flying, and may cause people to pay attention to which plane they're flying like they haven't since passenger jets became ubiquitous in the 1960s.
To me, these in-cabin improvements signal welcome attention to the experience and needs of passengers, rather than simply the economics of the airline business. 
Also, just look at that dashing wing.

UPDATE: James Fallows comments on the the 787, writing, "the Dreamliner was designed by people who wanted passengers to realize that they were sitting in an airplane, up in the sky, not in a conference room at a Holiday Inn." At first glance, I think I'd prefer that airplanes did feel more like hotels and less like, well, airplanes. What he's getting at, though, is the extent to which the plane's designers want to play to people's love of flying in the best possible way. Fallows quotes one of the plane's designers who told him, "[their] research shows that, very deep in the subconscious, almost everyone--young and old, in any part of the world loves the idea of flying." Needing to plumb the depths of human subconsciousness to turn up some positive feelings about flying suggests that a good deal of negativity lingers on the surface. At the same time, these findings make a lot of sense; that is, it's not outrageous to say that in a variety of ways many people think flying in a jet is pretty damn cool. For example, I find some aspects of flying awful, and other aspects extraordinary, like viewing the earth from seven miles up.


Ben said...

Even when I sit in an airplane and consciously think to myself: "You're flying. You are flying." I still don't really have a sense that I'm flying. I see the clouds and they're beautiful, but distant and lacking a sense of scale. I want to feel the acceleration and the wind and the coolness of the clouds. Here's a thought. Maybe when people say they dream of being able to fly, what they actually mean is that they dream of being able to fall forever.

somebody said...