Raves for 787 Dreamliner. Will new plane bring fun back to flying?

Don't hold your breath. Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner has a lot of cool features, say passengers who flew United's first commercial Dreamliner flight. But analysts say US airlines that buy it won't opt for all the amenities.

Eric Kayne/Houston Chronicle/AP
A United Airlines Boeing 787 takes off for its first scheduled commercial flight from Houston to Chicago, with more than 200 customers on board Sunday, Nov. 4, in Houston at Bush International Airport.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which United Airlines flew on Sunday from Houston to Chicago, drew rave reviews from passengers aboard the inaugural flight. But whether the aircraft eventually transforms the experience of the flying public from cramped and joyless to something verging on enjoyable depends entirely on how airlines that order it decide to outfit the plane's interior, say aviation experts. 

To be sure, the initial chatter was glowing. Newscasts in Chicago are replaying their video of a ceremonial two-hose wash that greeted the United Airlines aircraft, as well as effusive comments from passengers about bigger windows, larger overhead bins, higher humidity in the cabin, and amenities such as touch-free faucets in the lavatories. The Chicago Tribune headline: “Passengers Love The New Boeing 787 Dreamliner.”

Industry analysts are more sober in their assessments, saying United has done less to outfit the Dreamliner than have foreign carriers such as All Nippon Airways, Ethiopian Airlines, Air India, and others – a sign that carriers in the US are likely to continue to put passenger comfort down the list behind the need to make money. 

“Of course, the PR opportunities for a new aircraft … end in positive reviews. A clean cabin with new seats, first-class service for everyone aboard, and bragging rights all around,” says marketing professor Ronald Hill of the Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania, via e-mail. “However, its ultimate usage is in the hands of airline companies, who have given up, for the most part, competing on quality instead of price. While consumers truly dislike the flying experience and would often prefer a visit to the dentist, we have become addicted to seeking the lowest possible price for our travel.”

Overall, the two-aisle plane is much more fuel-efficient and less costly to maintain, while offering a new level of in-cabin comfort for passengers. Most planes are built mostly of metal, but half of the Dreamliner, including the fuselage and wings, is made of strong, light composite materials.

The Boeing Co. spent a decade learning what makes the flying public feel good and what types of interior architecture work best, says company spokesman Scott Lefeber. Innovations on board the 787 include LED lighting (which is cheaper, more versatile, and emits less heat), a dramatically lit entry way, bigger storage bins, cleaner air, and larger windows with unique electrochromic shades. 

But Richard Aboulafian, vice president of analysis for Teal Group, says the promise of technology can overexcite customers who may feel let down if the travel experience doesn’t measure up to the hype.

”It’s a good plane, and there is a lot of new technology that is very promising for the long run but [that] in the short run produce all kinds of glitches that reduce the quality of the experience,” says Mr. Aboulafian. “New gadgetry has a way of being quirky and idiosyncratic." Moreover, it is up to an airline – not Boeing – whether to stack in 330 seats or only a roomy 225.

So far, United is the only US airline to own a 787, but others have placed orders, including American. Delta reportedly is interested. The economics of competition will help answer the question of how much tickets cost, and will be related to demand, analysts say.

It’s important to keep in mind that passenger comfort is only one reason – and arguably not the most important one – for airlines to buy Boeing 787s, says Seth Kaplan, managing partner of Airline Weekly, in an e-mail. 

“Primarily, airlines like [the 787s'] operating economics and their range – i.e., able to fly rather long distances rather efficiently. It’s long been possible to offer a very comfortable product to all passengers. It’s just not easy to make money doing so.”

United is trying to juggle passenger amenities versus ticket cost, says company spokesman Rahsaan Johnson.

“We’re looking at a number of factors, from how much personal space do customers want versus how much they are willing to pay,” he says. For now, United is offering a section aboard the 787 with more legroom that is less expensive, as well as sections with state-of-the-art entertainment possibilities. Talk to the 200 or so people who were on the first flight, he says, and you will hear nary a discouraging word. He offers these two tweets from the inaugural flight:

"It was very classy,” tweeted business book author Jeffrey Hayzlett, a “graceful welcome to the aviation world.”

“Wheels down Dreamliner!! So awesome,” tweeted investing consultant Peter Shankman.

Passengers should not expect to pay more for a United flight on a 787 compared with identical routes on a different United plane, adds Mr. Johnson. 

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