The first passenger flight of the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing's first new aircraft in 16 years, greeted the smoggy Hong Kong skyline yesterday after leaving the blue skies of Tokyo earlier in the day.
Boeing claims the aircraft will take the flight experience to new heights, but the launch could not have come at a worse time given the gathering storm clouds over the global economy and its impact on aviation.
Delayed for three and a half years due to production hiccups, All Nippon Airways (ANA) operated its first 787 to Hong Kong on a charter flight. Twenty of the planes will be delivered to ANA by next year, with another 35 aircraft by 2017.
'It's been a hard time for the 787 [due to the delay],' said Shinichiro Ito, president and chief executive of ANA, yesterday during the flight. He is however thrilled that the plane, which was meant to be launched in May 2008 before the Beijing Olympics, will be available for the London Olympics next year.
The new plane, which could help ANA save about US$131 million a year as it uses 20 per cent less than similar-sized planes, may be worth the wait. The 787 is the first commercial aircraft to make the wholehearted leap from metal to a lightweight composite structure, making it cheaper to fly. About 50 per cent of the aircraft is constructed from composite material, such as carbon fibre-reinforced resin, compared with 12 per cent on the Boeing 777.
Boeing claims there are other advantages besides fuel efficiency. Passengers will feel less fatigue because the cabin air pressure is set at an altitude of 6,000 feet, instead of 8,000 feet in other airliners. That is only possible because the composite material can withstand the greater air pressure from the inside of the cabin.
The 2,000 feet altitude difference will mean 8 per cent more oxygen can be absorbed by passengers, helping to fight jet lag on long-haul flights. Although the flight yesterday, which lasted four and a half hours, was not long enough to test the jet lag advantage, journalists on board reported not feeling tired afterwards, even though they woke up as early as five in the morning to catch the flight.
Boeing also claims higher humidity levels on board, thanks to the reinforced plastic in the airframe, could help passengers feel more comfortable after the flight.
'It was an awesome flight, I enjoyed the entire time very much,' said Stephanie Mogol-Wood, who bought a business-class ticket on eBay in Australia for approximately US$30,000.
While the first flight may have impressed the aviation buffs, Boeing is watching nervously to see how the 787 fares in an increasingly competitive and hostile market.
To tap into growing demand for regional travel in Asia, the US company is already mulling the development of a new variant of the 787 capable of carrying more passengers but flying fewer miles.
The sovereign debt crisis in Europe and the weakening US economy means airlines are increasingly having second thoughts about their orders for long-haul planes. China Eastern Airlines cancelled its order for 15 787s last week, deciding instead to buy Boeing's single-aisle 737s for domestic and regional flights.
The 787 family has two versions - the 787-8 with 210-250 passenger seats, and a flight range of 14,200 to 15,200 kilometres; and the 787-9, with a passenger capacity of 250-290 and a range of 14,800 to 15,750 kilometres.
Both versions are ultra-long haul planes which can fly between any two points in the world non-stop. A new model - the 787-10 - would only have a range of 7,000 nautical miles, but with a fuselage 15 per cent longer than the 787-9.
'We are thinking about a 787-10 as we see the market for intra-Asia flights is huge,' said Scott Fancher, vice-president and general manager of the 787 programme. The plan for the extended version would be officially announced as soon as next year when all the details are finalised.
He shrugged off the suggestion that the 787-10 was being rushed out because of the economic crisis. 'We are not making a decision about what happens in one or two years,' said Fancher. 'Building an aeroplane you need to plan for 30 years [ahead].'
Apart from China Eastern, Fancher was not aware of other B787 cancellations from mainland carriers.
With an order backlog of more than 820, the largest starting order book for a wide-body plane, Fancher said Boeing felt comfortable despite the cancellations. The average list price is US$201.7 million.
ANA is also happy with the 787. 'We find it is just the right size for flying both domestically in Japan and on international flights,' said Keisuke Okada, executive vice-president of ANA, the launch customer and a joint developer of the plane.
In theory, the bigger the plane, the lower the cost per seat, major selling points for large jets such as the Airbus A380 and Boeing's 747. But with the global economy suffering, more capacity will weigh on air fares as airlines struggle to fill the seats. 'Too big is not good for the existing [economic] environment,' said Okada.
Boeing is hoping other airlines will feel the same.