Most of my readers know that I love getting my hands on the latest high-tech products. But, last week, I spent a few hours inside one of the latest and greatest products on earth: United’s latest Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” composite jet! Here’s my “butt-in-seat” review!
The Early Days of the Dreamliner
United Airlines is the American launch customer for the latest jet out of Boeing, the 787 Dreamliner. This next-generation widebody jet is truly state-of-the-art, with a composite fuselage and wings and all the latest electronics. The 787 is set to compete with the Airbus A330 (and to replace Boeing’s own 767) on long passenger routes.
Boeing began delivering 787’s late last year, with ANA and Japan Airlines first to fly customers. United received their first 787 (N20904) in September and began commercial plates on November 4 between Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles. United received their second Dreamliner (N26906, the one I flew on) on October 31 and began commercial flights a week later. As of today, 35 Boeing 787’s have been delivered to customers, but far fewer are actually flying passengers.
With better fuel economy, quieter operation, and better cabin pressure and humidity, the Dreamliner might just shake up the whole air travel industry as long as the airlines don’t screw it up. Airlines face competing pressure from customer service and comfort on one hand and profitability on the other. The Dreamliner could be the most comfortable and spacious jet inexistence if only the airlines don’t “pack-em-in” too tight to maximize revenue.
United’s Boeing 787 Configuration
Boeing configures jets according to the desires of their customers. If you had enough cash, you could buy your own Dreamliner with a pool table, waterbed, and basketball court. But it would be awfully expensive to fly around that way! Airlines do this same math, balancing luxury features with “butts-in-seats” to try to build a profitable business.
As they love proclaiming, United is the world’s largest airline, with more destinations than anyone else and a greater global reach than any other US carrier. United didn’t get that way by coddling their customers, however. Although their MileagePlus frequent flier program is also one of the largest, this is mainly due to convenience rather than exceptional service. As a “1K” or 100,000-mile annual flier, I get my share of upgrades, but domestic first class isn’t all that luxurious.
Since United generally leans toward the “more passengers” side of the business, it was no surprise that their 787 is equipped with 9-across seating in coach. “Economy Plus” has more legroom but still retains this tight-shoulder configuration. What was more surprising is the number of Business/First Class seats (call it what you want, this is a 2-class jet) on the plane: The whole area ahead of the wings is filled with 36 “lie-flat” cubicle seats in a 2-2-2 configuration.
These nice but not spectacular business-class seats were lifted from United-predecessor Continental Airlines’ 777 parts catalog. But that jet is over a foot wider than the 787, so the aisle is quite narrow and foot- and head-room along the windows is quite cramped. ANA isn’t nearly so cramped, but this likely raises ticket prices substantially. I’ll be flying in United’s 787 Business/First in December and will report back how this all works out!
787 Economy Plus Comfort and Amenities
The 787 cabin is remarkably open and airy when you walk onboard. The multi-color LED lighting complements large windows and high ceilings. Everything is contemporary, though United’s monochrome color scheme makes it look somewhat bland.
The truly massive overhead bins are very welcome – they’re so large a grown man could probably sit in there! And they have nice, solid latches and smooth damping. The only issue is that they pivot upward, dumping everything to the back when closed. And the center bins are missing in Business/First – there’s apparently a “crew rest” loft up there!
Once you sit down (in Economy or Economy Plus) the feeling changes somewhat. The (new style) seats are very tall and somewhat narrow for a long-haul jet. The feeling is “compartmentalized” rather than claustrophobic (this is no Embraer “sardine can” RJ145) but it’s definitely not as roomy as some large jets. Four out of every nine seats is an aisle seat, though, and those are roomier as long as the food cart isn’t passing by!
The window seats are my default choice, but these are a mixed bag on the United 787. Some are really nice, including bulkhead row 16, where I sat. You have two of the biggest windows in aviation all to yourself and no cart running over your feet! But others in Economy Plus and Economy bulkhead row 27 aren’t aligned with the windows, impinging on headroom.
The seats themselves are somewhat thin. Again, it’s not as bad as the steel perch on the Embraer jets but not “excellent” by any stretch. I did like their laptop-saving slide-forward reclining action, though it will make legroom in Economy even tighter unless everyone reclines together!
The seats and surfaces on the United 787 were surprisingly flimsy, however. Perhaps they’re meant to have a “soft-touch” feel, but I can’t see much longevity in the thin cloth, flexy overhead paneling, and rubbery window switches (we’ll get to that in a moment). I think Continental “cheaped out” when they ordered the cabin furnishings, and I hope United addresses this on future planes!
One more thing: The passenger air vents are simple rotary valves, not the “eyeball” type. This means you can’t redirect the air away from (or towards) your head!
787 Gizmos and Gadgets
The 787 Dreamliner is one huge flying gadget. Like the best Apple products, you’ll drool over the all-new construction and features you’ve never imagined wanting. But how good is it?
Electrochromic windows are one headline feature no one asked for. Press on the bottom of the rubbery circle below the massive window and, eventually, it dims. Press again and it dims some more, as indicated by the column of LED lights beside the control. But it’s so slow the passengers around me couldn’t figure it out. I flew at night, and I look forward to seeing if they really block enough light and heat to replace the conventional (but perpetually broken) shades used on every other plane.
I honestly didn’t notice the soothing color-changing light system, though that could have been due to the unfamiliarity of the cabin crew. They apparently found it difficult to moderate the PA volume, turning it up and down continually during the pre-flight announcements. And a too-loud synthetic voice announced seatbelt requirements.
I didn’t try out the entertainment system; the single bulkhead-mounted screen for my row stayed off except for CEO Smisek’s announcements. Every other seat has its own screen and controls, though. I hear they’re very similar to United’s contemporary “over-water” systems. United recently switched to smaller headphones, replacing the old “over-ear” design.
Many folks have noticed that the 787 acts like a Faraday cage, disrupting radio signals quite effectively. I lost Verizon LTE inside, though EV-DO worked fine. Others have reported similar issues with AT&T and T-Mobile GSM service.
One more thing: The United 787 Dreamliner is not equipped for Channel 9. Grrr!
787 spotting tips: Look for the unique 4-window cockpit, scalloped engines, and narrow wings. United 787s feature a swoopy gold line rather than the old straight one.
My 787 Flight: The Ups and Downs
I wasn’t supposed to fly the 787 until next month. My red-eye flight home from Storage Field Day 2 in San Francisco was to be a ratty old 767, connecting in Houston. Boeing’s Dreamliner deliveries have been continually delayed, causing United to postpone November service to Newark and San Francisco and cancel their one-off jaunts to Cleveland and Washington DC.
Then Boeing pushed out United’s second Dreamliner just before month-end, surprising everyone. I was talking with a United trainer at the gate in San Francisco who said Dreamliner Number 2 “snuck in” two days earlier than even he knew, so the SFO-IAH service (United 132) was reinstated at the last minute. I was as surprised as anyone when my flight equipment changed!
United began 787 flights between IAH and SFO on November 7. This makes my flight only the fourth passenger trip for this new plane, N26906! I guess it isn’t surpassing then that the plane was immaculate. The crew seemed proud of their new bird, and the passengers were as excited as could be expected before a midnight redeye to Houston! Alas, there were no festivities.
Once the engines began to spin, I was shocked by a serious and lasting vibration throughout the cabin. It was a deep resonance that churned my stomach! But it passed and the engines were noticeably quieter than normal throughout the rest of the flight. I have no idea what this was.
Climbout from SFO was typical, but we performed an odd graceful arc over the city after taking off. I wonder if this was something special for the flight or just an abnormal takeoff. The plane definitely felt smooth and quiet over the typical SFO bumps, and continued this way over the Rockies.
I didn’t really notice the higher cabin pressure, but the increased humidity was immediately apparent. It wasn’t like a swamp or shower, but I could tell that there was much more water in the air than normal. The windows even fogged up on the inside near the end of the flight!
Landing was graceful as well, with the long, thin wings flexing more than I had ever seen on a plane. The tips must rise above the fuselage! It’s really something to see!
It turns out that my flight to Cleveland (United 77) would have been a special one-off 787 jaunt as well had Boeing delivered United’s third Dreamliner on schedule, giving me an all-787 itinerary. But this was not to be.
Although United’s 787 experience isn’t as good as it could be, I definitely enjoyed my flight. Apart from the surprisingly confining seating and aisles, in-air comfort was noticeably better than other large jets. I am concerned about the longevity of United’s interior materials, though, and that resonance on startup was awful. On the whole, I’ll definitely be excited to ride a new United 787 rather than their ratty old 767s, though it doesn’t seem much better than the 777 or 747.