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Boeing 787 Dreamliner the first of a new generation of aircraft

A new age in air travel is set to be ushered in later this month when a 787 Dreamliner operated by All Nippon Airways lifts off from Tokyo to Hong Kong on its first passenger flight.

The Dreamliner, made by Boeing Co., represents a major technological shift in the way planes are made and operated. It’s the first of a new generation of aircraft that despite more than three years of delay holds the promise to fly faster, farther and with more fuel efficiency and passenger comfort than predecessors.

“This truly is the first new airplane of the 21st century,” Jim Albaugh, chief executive of Boeing’s commercial airplanes division, said last week when the company formally delivered its first passenger-ready Dreamliner to All Nippon. “Today, Sept. 26, 2011, will always be remembered as the dawn of a new day in commercial aviation.”

PHOTOS: The future of commercial flight

But it’s early in the 21st century. Boeing’s European rival, Airbus, has new planes under construction, and visionaries at the company recently dangled the prospect of a mid-century plane offering passengers holographic video game displays and in-flight entertainment powered by their body heat.

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The company’s vision of aviation is documented in a report called “The Future by Airbus.” Company engineers imagine that by 2050 commercial planes will have pliable seats that adjust themselves to a passenger’s body and transparent cabin ceilings.

Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is more modest. Yet it may be months, perhaps years, before most airline travelers in the United States experience the aircraft’s new technology.

The first Dreamliners are headed to carriers abroad for transoceanic flights. Many U.S. carriers have purchased Dreamliners but have opted to wait to accept delivery of them until production bugs are ironed out. United Airlines expects to become the first U.S. carrier to receive a Dreamliner next year.

The Dreamliner is designed to be lighter and faster because of new fuel-efficient engines and an outside structure largely made of composite materials — carbon fibers meshed together with epoxy — instead of sheets of aluminum.

Inside the plane, travelers in every class will experience more natural light from wider windows, a wider variety of in-flight entertainment, and higher humidity so passengers don’t suffer as frequently from dry eyes and headaches.

Blake Emery, a psychologist who led the research team for the Dreamliner interior, said Boeing spent about a decade gathering information to create the all-new cabin design.

“This will set a new bar for passenger experience,” he said. “It marks a turning point for air travel.”

The Dreamliner sports bigger drop-down overhead luggage bins, and window shades have been eliminated in favor of buttons that adjust light coming into the cabin.

The cabin features soft “blue-sky lighting” instead of white fluorescent light. That feature will be standard not only on the Dreamliner but also on Boeing’s 747 jumbo jet and its 737 jet.

The twin aisle Dreamliner also has a wider cabin, which could translate into wider seats with more legroom, depending on how much space individual airlines allocate.

“No matter what way you look at it, a plane’s ultimate amenity is space,” said Joe Brancatelli, editor of JoeSentMe, a business travel website. “But you’re not likely to get that on a Dreamliner unless you pay for it.”

All Nippon, Japan’s largest airline, is designing its Dreamliner with wider seats in business class that recline into beds; touch-panel LCD screens that offer movies, videos and gaming; and bathrooms that include a bidet-toilet.

“All of those comfort and quality features make the 787 different from conventional aircraft,” said Satoshi Fujiki, a senior vice president for the carrier’s Americas division. “But the design will also benefit the airline.”

The higher fuel costs go, the less profitable airlines’ flights become. At the current price — $3 per gallon — fuel is at the highest level since September 2008, according to the Air Transport Assn.

To address this, the Dreamliner has newly developed engines and a lighter airframe that will allow it to burn 20% less fuel than jetliners of a similar size.

It will be a money saver, said Vaughn Cordle, a commercial airline pilot who is chief analyst of AirlineForecasts, a Virginia market research firm.

He calculates that a typical 5,500-mile flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Narita International Airport in Japan on a Boeing 777 passenger jet — the plane that All Nippon currently uses on the route — would cost an estimated $63,000 in fuel. On the Dreamliner, the fuel cost would be cut by $12,600.

“Remember, that’s just for one flight, and doesn’t take into account savings from the maintenance costs,” Cordle said. “For three to five years, the Dreamliner will have a maintenance holiday, which means carriers will pay a fraction of what they currently do for work on their older fleets.”

Meanwhile, Airbus, owned by European Aeronautic Defense & Space Co., a consortium of companies in France and Germany, is developing a 787 competitor dubbed the A350, setting up what could be another bitter showdown between the two aerospace behemoths.

Boeing and Airbus are also developing engines for their bestselling respective jets, the 737 and A320, that would achieve about a 10% improvement in fuel efficiency.

“Airlines need to reduce their costs to be profitable,” said Tom Captain, principal and vice chairman of Deloitte’s aerospace and defense practice. “These new aircraft give them the opportunity to bring fuel costs down. Much of the savings could ultimately find its way down to the consumer in terms of lower ticket prices.”

Even the paint on an aircraft has become a way of reducing drag and, therefore, fuel costs, said Bob Callahan, president and founder of Flight Sciences International, a Santa Barbara aviation consulting firm.

In recent years, paint coatings have been developed that reduce the buildup of debris on a plane’s frame, allowing it to “slip through the air” more easily, he said. One of these coatings is 100 times thinner than a human hair and smooths out nicks and scratches on a plane’s surface.

“In today’s aviation world, anything that can reduce costs is paramount,” Callahan said. “There are some fascinating technologies in the works out there.”

Airbus turned some heads with its 2050 plans detailed this year at the Paris Air Show in Le Bourget, France, one of the world’s largest aerospace showcases. The company released images of aircraft designs dramatically different from the typical tube-and-wing design of today.

Engineers see a much wider cabin resembling a bird skeleton that is “intended to provide strength where needed, and allows for an intelligent cabin wall membrane which controls air temperature,” the company said.

The designs convey features such as extra-wide seats, vast lounges and even a transparent ceiling providing unobstructed sky views, including the moon and stars on a night flight.

“If you put all the ideas together, it may sound far-fetched,” said Charles Champion, Airbus engineering executive vice president. “But it identifies the trends we see today. We are pushing those concepts to the limit.”

In the United States, MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics has created some out-of-the-box designs in its research to develop quieter, greener and more fuel-efficient commercial planes for NASA.

One design is called the “double bubble” because of its twin fuselages merged together to serve 180 passengers. Another is dubbed a “hybrid wing body,” which resembles a domesticated version of the batwinged B-2 stealth bomber. It would seat 350 passengers.

At California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, research is underway on a wide-nosed 100-passenger aircraft with turbo-fan engines placed above the wing. The research, in collaboration with Georgia Tech Research Institute, could enable commercial jets to take off and land at steep angles on short runways while reducing engine noise heard on the ground.

But that possibility is decades away. For now, the Dreamliner represents aviation’s most advanced offering. At last week’s Dreamliner delivery ceremony, Boeing’s Albaugh put it this way: “It’s not often that we have the chance to make history, to do something big and bold that will change the world in untold ways and endure long after we are gone.”

PHOTOS: The future of commercial flight

william.hennigan@latimes.com


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