I’ve seen Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner several times during my travels this year and, travel geek that I am, I’ve been looking forward to flying on it. As it turns out, I ended up on one of United’s first 787s on a flight from Houston to Los Angeles on my way home this week. This aircraft and crew are dressed up for international service, including a pillow and a blanket on every coach seat, so this three hour flight was a preview of flying the Dreamliner to Europe or Asia on ten-plus hour flights—the kind of long distance routes the 787 is most likely to be deployed on.
Besides than the fact that everything was fresh, clean, and new, the first thing I noticed when I sat down in the plane was that it’s a damn effective Faraday cage. My iPhone had a full strength LTE signal in the boarding area and barely managed to eek out one bar of 3G reception on board. Since the composites that the 787 is built from don’t conduct electricity, Boeing’s engineers had to add a conductive material to the mix to provide for lightning protection. Whatever it is, it dampens out mobile phone signals more than traditional aluminum airplanes. Not that it matters much since you have to turn off your phone down when the doors close, but it might make a difference to somebody trying to get that last hit of email or send an important message before departing overseas.
Taking off in the Dreamliner feels and sounds a lot like taking off in a 777. There’s a deep, confident and, at times, very resonant sound from the engines as they spool up at the start of the runway and it takes a bit of time for deliberate acceleration to set in. But then, after the plane rotates and leaves the ground behind, a lovely sense of quiet settles in as the engines throttle back. It’s noticeably quieter than any other jet I’ve been on. When sitting over the front edge of the wing in seat 16A, most of the noise at 40,000' seems to be from the airflow around the fuselage and the engines are barely noticeable. In addition, the air distribution system is also far quieter than most airplanes I’ve been on, as advertised.
Speaking of air distribution, the improvements to both cabin pressurization and humidity are quite noticeable. I’ve gotten so used to clearing my ears over years of travel that I barely notice pressure changes on most flights anymore unless I have a head cold. However, it did seem that I cleared my ears less than usual as the aircraft ascended and I could tell that there was more air pressure when I walked about the cabin. The difference in humidity even was more striking. I didn’t feel dry at all during the flight and—based on the number of times I had to visit the restroom while on layover in Los Angeles after slugging down my normal amount of water—seemed to be quite a bit less dehydrated than I usually am after a flight. It’ll be interesting to see how much these changes make a difference in how you feel after a long distance flight, but I expect they’ll help quite a bit.
More cabin pressure and humidity as well as less noise are all welcome improvements, but what I’ve been really curious about is seeing the new big electronically dimming windows. I’ve never liked the traditional binary option of open or closed. It means that you have to make the choice between being considerate to your fellow passengers or being able to watch the world go by. The new windows let you strike a balance. You can dim the window to reduce glare for your fellow passengers and yet still see outside and have a sense of the environment outside.
There are five settings available and—based on rough experimentation with my camera’s metering—each setting reduces or increases the amount of light by four times. At the darkest setting, the direct evening sun is not a whole lot brighter than a laptop screen. Here’s a photo that illustrates this:
In photographic terms, the window acts a lot like a 10 stop variable neutral density filter with five settings. The first two settings below the lightest each provide roughly three stops of light filtration, based on the exposure meter in my camera. For example, here are the metered exposure readings I got during one of my experiments with the window settings:
Lightest window setting: 1/2000th @ f/4, ISO 200 (EV 14)
Medium light setting: 1/250th @ f/4, ISO 200 (EV 11)
Medium setting: 1/30 @ f/4, ISO 200 (EV 8)
The next two settings each seemed to cut about 2-2.5 stops of light. In addition to cutting light, the window also adds a variable amount of color cast depending on its setting. At the two brightest settings, the color cast is fairly unobjectionable and easily corrected for either by a camera’s auto white balance or in RAW processing in post. Darker than that, however, and the color cast deepens to a point that’s fairly objectionable to color photography unless you’re purposefully going for a cyanotype effect.
Furthermore, like any airplane window, there is a lot of reflection between the layers in the window. In the 787, the inner layer seems to be quite a bit further away from the outside layer than on older jets which amplifies this problem quite a bit. In addition, the tint layer on the window adds its own contribution to reflections. As a result, when the sun is on your side of the airplane—as it was on my flight—you have to work that much harder to avoid reflections. Simply holding up your camera to the window and snapping will almost certainly result in an obvious reflection.
On the Dreamliner, I had to work a bit harder than I usually do to minimize the impact of reflections when shooting into the sun. Here’s another photograph made a bit later where I’ve made the best of the reflections in the view and have managed to keep the camera’s reflection out of frame. However, you can still see some reflections from inside the cabin in the image—especially over the engine.
Photography concerns aside, the 787 is a pretty sweet ride. Even the better designed restrooms with their automatically flushing toilets and great mirror lighting are nicer than most previous aircraft. So, what’s not to like about United’s Dreamliner?
One of Boeing’s design goals with the 787 was to provide a bit more room for coach passengers by giving them eight 19" wide seats per row in a 2-4-2 configuration. Along with the high cabin profile and generous aisles, this would give passengers a spaciousness that they don’t usually have in coach and mean that nobody was more than one seat away from an aisle. 19" might not sound like a lot, but that’s not much narrower than the 20" to 21" wide seats found in most domestic first class cabins.
Think about it for a moment. Doesn’t splitting the difference between regular coach seat widths and first class sound just about perfect?
Unfortunately, United decided they’d rather cram in nine 17" seats into each row in a 3-3-3 configuration. These are the same lousy width as many of United’s other aircraft, and narrower than the 18" wide seats on United’s 767, 777, and A320 aircraft. That two inch difference might not sound like a lot on paper, but if you’ve ever ridden on a full plane—and I can’t imagine anybody who reads my blog hasn’t—you know exactly what an extra two inches would mean for comfort.
The other result of stuffing an extra seat per row is that the aisles are very narrow. The standard “Watch your knees and elbows!” call out from attendants as they moved catering carts through the plane was given with much more earnest during the beverage services. The flight attendant that served my beverage was quick to mention that the aisles on the United Dreamliner were narrower than on any other full-size jet she’d served on.
On the plus side, the seats do have an improved recline over United’s other coach seats, in part because the seat part moves forward when you recline the back. That makes life a bit nicer. Also nice is the in-seat on-demand entertainment system and AC power plugs throughout coach. The only major technology omission is that there’s no WiFi service yet. The briefing card states: “As a new aircraft type, the 787 requires further certification and development by Boeing before satellite Wi-Fi can be installed.” So, it’s coming. Until then, the 787 remains an unconnected island.
The bottom line is that, at least from a passenger perspective, Boeing did a great job with the Dreamliner. The bigger windows, lower noise levels, and increased cabin pressure and humidity all make for a nicer ride. I fully expect that international flights in the Dreamliner will be nicer than any other United plane to date, except for that whole seat width thing. If they’d gone with the default 2-4-2 configuration with 19" wide seats, this would be the airplane everyone would want to fly long flights on. As it is, the 17" seats are the vinegar in what is otherwise a very nice flying experience and sour the promise of spaciousness and more passenger comfort.
In baseball terms, it sacrifices what would have been a home run for a double. Good, but it could have been outstanding. As it is, if I have the chance to take a 787 versus any other plane on a United flight, I’ll take it. But it’s not enough to make me choose a United flight over ANA, Lufthansa, or any number of other major international carriers I frequently fly on and prefer the service on.
You know who ordered the default 2-4-2 configuration despite having a national population that’s thinner than the United States? ANA. That’s the Dreamliner I want to ride next.