Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner Delivers Space and Range

 - March 26, 2012, 1:45 AM
Boeing 787 Dreamliner

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With countless technical delays, Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner has been a long time coming, but for prospective VIP customers it is likely to prove worth the wait. When the smoke clears, the 787 is likely to go down as one of the great airplanes of all time, not least because of the leap forward it represents in terms of the use of composite materials in place of metals.

As an airliner, the 787 will seat 210 to 250 with a range of 7,650 to 8,200 nm (14,158 to 15,176 km). In VIP configuration with 24 to 35 passengers sharing the 2,400-sq-ft (223-sq-m) cabin, the 787-8 will be able to remain aloft for nearly 22 hours and fly 9,590 nm (17,748 km) nonstop, connecting virtually any two points on the globe. In the belly there is space for 4,400 cu ft (125 cu m) of cargo. A follow-on stretched model, the 787-9, will add 300 sq ft (28 sq m) of cabin floor space and fly 400 nm (740 km) farther. This is all the airplane most ultra-billionaires and heads-of-state will ever need. And with an estimated finished price well above $200 million, it should be.

I have been a big fan of composite airplanes–ones made of fiberglass and/or carbon fiber–since I started flying very small ones in 1994. In the not-too-distant future, I suspect, all airplanes will be built this way, since the advantages over metal construction are so numerous: there’s no corrosion; they’re easier to repair, lighter and stronger with better fuel economy; they can be more aerodynamically shaped; and they can be assembled faster and with far fewer fasteners. On the 787, composites gave Boeing engineers the ability to design a super-efficient wing that incorporates a somewhat disconcerting looking aerodynamic twist and raked wingtips.

Composite aircraft have another big advantage: Because a composite fuselage needs far fewer support structures, such as ribs and stringers, than a metal airplane, the same diameter fuselage yields much more cabin volume and passenger comfort. In business jets, you can see this on Hawker’s Beechcraft’s Premier IA and Hawker 4000 models as well as on Bombardier’s new Learjet 85.

Composite aircraft also look cool. No rivets. No ugly, wavy sheet-metal skins. And when mated to new-generation fuel-efficient engines from General Electric and Rolls-Royce, the 787 will burn up to 20 percent less fuel than comparable metal aircraft, according to Boeing. Given the price of oil, that makes a big difference.

Lured by this claim, the airlines have ordered more than 800 Boeing 787s worth an estimated $132 billion. Added operational efficiency was not the only attraction. Many of these orders were from airlines in countries where, not coincidentally, local aerospace firms received large 787 supplier contracts. Japan’s All Nippon Airways has ordered 55 of the 787s and Japan Airlines another 35. Tokyo Rayon (Toray) has a contract to supply $6 billion worth of 787 carbon fiber composite. Mitsubishi is building the central wing box and Kawasaki is building some of the fuselage sections. The parts are flown to Boeing’s factory in Everett, Washington, in specially modified 747 freighters called “Dreamlifters.”

There are numerous other examples of connect-the-supplier-to-sales-dots on the 787 with fuselage subassemblies coming from six companies worldwide. Many of them had never fashioned such large assemblies from composites before and, not surprisingly, there were quality-control problems and resulting delays. Things became so snarled that Boeing ended up buying a key supplier to straighten them out. 

Playing catch-up with such a bulging order book, Boeing decided to build a second assembly line for the aircraft in Charleston, South Carolina, next to the plant of that key supplier, Global Aeronautica. The plan is to ramp up to 10 airplanes a month by 2013, with seven built in Seattle and three in Charleston.

Complications and controversies aside, passengers will notice significant interior improvements on the 787. Among them: less cabin noise from the quieter engines; larger windows; better carry-on stowage; electro-chromatically controlled window darkening; sleek and sculpted ceilings and sidewalls; variable LED mood lighting; improved climate control; and an overall feeling of greater spaciousness and openness.

The cockpit is simply a work of art–ergonomically, functionally and aesthetically.

Boeing has authorized six centers to provide VIP interior completions for the 787. Some designers already have fielded ambitious interior concepts for the aircraft that include a second level, giant big-screen theater room, band stand, full bar, transparent floors, fitness center, sauna, library, walk-in shower, formal dining room, gourmet kitchen and extraordinary color schemes and accents. Others treat every passenger to a true first-class experience with lie-flat seating, privacy surrounds and the same connectivity and entertainment options found in a luxury hotel suite.

Boeing is sharing design data and holding workshops with the completion centers in the hopes of avoiding the sort of glitches that plagued the early 737-based BBJs a decade and a half ago. But because it is a mainly (80 percent) composite airplane as opposed to the metal ones they are used to, centers working on the first 787 VIP aircraft will find themselves at the beginning of a learning curve. Each 787 VIP comes with an allotment of engineering hours from Boeing to help work over these issues. The first one is scheduled for delivery to completion centers quite soon and it likely will require 18 months to finish. Sixteen 787 VIPs are on order.

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