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Is Dreamliner Delay a Blessing in Disguise?

The network carriers and Boeing engineers have the same nightmare, which is further delays in delivery of the fuel-efficient 787. Of course, those delays have come to pass, and at the worst possible time. For if the big carriers ever needed a new airliner to bail them out of the current fuel-driven cash crisis, it would be now. Unfortunately, the Dreamliner is a dream deferred, with delivery delayed 15 months; in fact, it was in May that Boeing originally planned to deliver its first 787s to its launch customer All Nippon Airways Co.

The network carriers and Boeing engineers have the same nightmare, which is further delays in delivery of the fuel-efficient 787.

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Of course, those delays have come to pass, and at the worst possible time. For if the big carriers ever needed a new airliner to bail them out of the current fuel-driven cash crisis, it would be now.

Unfortunately, the Dreamliner is a dream deferred, with delivery delayed 15 months; in fact, it was in May that Boeing originally planned to deliver its first 787s to its launch customer All Nippon Airways Co.

Ironically, Boeing still claims a five-year lead on the competition (i.e., Airbus) with its design for a multi-role, twin-aisle jet that pushes the edge of the envelope in its use of composite materials and other innovations.

Doubly ironically, although the big carriers are hungry for a plane that isn’t thirsty for fuel, the 787’s tardiness is a blessing in disguise, according to a Wall Street Journal article by Dan Michaels which points out that not only would many of the airlines have trouble paying for the planes they’ve got on order, they don’t need the extra seats right now anyway.

In the meantime, carriers are slashing old planes out of their fleets left and right, in an effort to both retire the fuel guzzlers and cut capacity.

For a recap of how dramatically different the Dreamliner will be from a passenger standpoint, page back in time to the September 2006 issue of Popular Mechanics, which ran an excellent feature on the 787’s revolutionary features.

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These include more comfortable humidity levels, lower cabin pressurization, slightly larger seats, larger bathrooms, and much larger overhead bins. And the plane is loaded with flight sensors that will automatically respond to minimize air turbulence. The 787 even has a self-monitoring diagnostic system that will predict mechanicals problems, meaning less downtime and fewer delays.

In short, this jet makes everything else in the air up there look like a Model T.

Even the windows on the 787 will be cutting edge — not only will they be the largest on any commercial plane, they’ll boast electronically adjustable electrochromic dimmers (sounds neat, doesn’t it?).

The biggee for me is the seatback screens, which will enable passengers to enjoy movies and Web feeds over an on-board wireless network hooked to a 2,500bps satellite connection.

This is the kind of technology that makes any airline futurist drool. The plane also will come in short-, long-, and mid-range models.

The 787 is a plane for all seasons and reasons, because it can operate both mid-market and point-to-point. The 787’s flexible design allows it to land on the shorter runways that are unavailable to today’s big jets and which will be unusable by the super-jumbo A380, which was designed just for the largest of the hub-and-spoke markets.

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The sheer size of EADS’ A380 — and the fact that gates at airport terminals have to be redesigned to accommodate it, not to mention the controversial wake vortex issues which apparently undermine some of its design assumptions — make it no surprise that fewer than 200 of the recently and repeatedly delayed behemoths are on order.

In stark contrast, nearly 900 orders for the 787 are on the books, meaning a lot of flyers are going to have the chance to experience Boeing’s Dreamliner starting late next year.

Airline Futurist • Miami • www.us.amadeus.com

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