Until someone invents a time machine, we're stuck with aviation. So it's up to Boeing, along with its only real competitor, the E.U.—backed Airbus, to carry the banner for technological and ecological innovation in the air. For more than 75 years, Boeing has—with some significant stumbles—pushed aviation forward.
Among its many firsts were the first twin-engine capable of flying on a single engine (the 247), the first pressurized cabin (the 307), the first American commercial jet (the 707), the best-selling commercial jet in history (the 737), and the airplane that revolutionized global travel, connecting distant continents (the 747).
In July of last year, Boeing opened the gigantic doors of its Everett, Washington, assembly plant and rolled-out what is perhaps its most important jet of all: the 787 Dreamliner, a highly adaptable, fuel-efficient airplane by which the Chicago-based company might yet save the industry.
Fifty percent of the Dreamliner's fuselage is built of composite materials (up from 12 percent in the 777, introduced in 1994), helping to shave some 20 percent off fuel consumption versus comparable jets. The 787 is lighter, 60 percent quieter than similar planes, and emits cleaner exhaust. Inside, it has lower cabin pressure and higher humidity; coupled with lighting that adjusts with time zone shifts, it should help eliminate the headaches, dry mouth, and body aches that typify the transcontinental hangover.
"We looked at every aspect of the flying experience," says Tom Cogan, chief project engineer for the 787. The list of advances goes on and on—more legroom, the largest-ever overhead storage bins, 19-inch self-dimming windows, a wireless internet and entertainment system, an in-flight self-diagnostic maintenance system, a slew of cockpit tech toys that should enhance safety and cut departure delays—and if sales are any measure of market excitement, Boeing has a hit on its hands.
As of New Year's Day 2008, 55 different customers had ordered more than 800 Dreamliners, making it the fastest selling commercial airplane of all time.
"It's not just an evolutionary step. From my perspective it almost borders on revolutionary," says the perhaps hyperbolic Cogan, who would also point out that the 787 is but a sign of Boeing's knack for progress. "We're already looking at the future and always will."