By Max Kingsley-Jones
"You say you want a revolution," said John Lennon in 1968 and similar words may well have been uttered by Boeing's salesmen when touting their so-called "super-efficient airplane" to potential customers almost a decade ago.
The 787, launched as the "7E7" in April 2004 with an order from All Nippon Airways, promised 20% lower fuel burn and greater range than any aircraft in its size category, along with a new level of passenger experience through radical architecture and cabin pressure at a lower altitude than before.
However ANA, Japan Airlines and other 787 "early adopters" have had to wait much longer than expected to sample these promised delights, after production and development dramas created delays greater than a worst-case scenario. Boeing expects the Dreamliner's size, performance and range will combine to produce the perfect airliner for its much-touted "fragmentation" philosophy. It believes smaller, high-efficiency widebodies such as the 787 can operate profitably between secondary points, enabling passengers flying between city pairs previously served via hubs to fly directly from origin to destination. But will the promises be matched by reality?
ANA is in pole position for the 787, having received its first aircraft on 26 September - 40 months later than first scheduled. It is due to begin passenger services on 26 October. "As we say, a more difficult delivery can only make the baby more precious and adorable," says ANA chief executive Shinichiro Ito.
After ANA, the sequence and schedule for the next 787 operators is a little blurred, although other customers with early deliveries are known to include Air India, China Southern, Ethiopian Airlines, Hainan Airlines, JAL, Qatar Airways and Royal Air Maroc.
ANA, which has 55 787s on order, plans to receive its first batch of 12 through to 31 March 2012, with a further eight before 31 March 2013. The delays forced the airline to acquire additional Boeing 767-300ERs, as an interim lift, and cut back on some network growth.
"There was a great deal of frustration as our fleet plan has been forced to change for three years," says Ito. "But there would have been a bigger impact if we did not do anything at all. We modified our fleet plan and did not let the delay distort our business."
ANA's local rival, JAL, was another early Dreamliner customer, signing in December 2004 for 30 aircraft - since increased to 35. JAL was scheduled to receive its first 787 in August 2008 but says that after suffering a total of seven delays, deliveries should now begin at the end of the year. It hopes to have received five by the end of its current fiscal year, which closes on 31 March 2012.
JAL says in the wake of the delays it consulted Boeing on various adjustments, including the introduction of alternative aircraft, purchasing conditions and compensation, to minimise impact on its business plans. To bridge the delays, the airline introduced about 10 767s and 777s and postponed the retirement of several older 767s, as well as making changes to fleet schedules and maintenance plans.
Qatar Airways expects it will be roughly the sixth customer to introduce the 787, with its first of 30 on order due to arrive in the second quarter of 2012. When the airline announced its order in 2007, deliveries were due to start in the first half of 2010. Chief executive Akbar Al Baker says the delays "were very disruptive indeed" to route development plans and the resulting revenue losses "were far in excess of the compensation provided by Boeing". To make up for the potential capacity shortfall resulting from the delays, the airline postponed the return of leased Airbus A330s as well as the sale of its own aircraft.
Launch operator ANA will give the 787 its commercial debut on a charter service between Tokyo Narita and Hong Kong on 26 October. It is configuring its initial batch with 264 seats for regional and domestic operations. Later deliveries will feature a lower-density, 222-seat layout. "We are now going to get the 787 and have more expectation than anything else. We can now do whatever we wanted to do three years ago," Ito says. ANA's regular 787 services begin on 1 November, with daily services between Tokyo Haneda and Okayama and Hiroshima. International 787 operations start in December between Haneda and Beijing while, from January, the type will be used for a new service - three weekly flights between Haneda and Frankfurt. The airline also plans to use the 787 to connect Haneda with Itami, Yamaguchi-Ube and Matsuyama by the end of March.
In the longer term, the liberalisation of Japan's airline market will allow ANA to add new destinations in North America and Europe, where its 787 fleet can be best utilised.
JAL ordered its 787s to replace medium-sized aircraft such as older 767s and Airbus A300-600s that have since been retired. The Dreamliner acquisition also fits in with its overall fleet-management policy to reduce the number of types operated. "The 787 is a game changer. Previously, we used larger aircraft on long-haul routes as they had the range but the concept has changed with the 787," says JAL president Masaru Onishi. "The 787 allows us to be more efficient."
To maximise fuel efficiency, JAL will deploy the 787 on long-haul routes. The airline says "the range, speed and size of the 787-8 serves well to meet medium-sized demand for long-haul routes". It adds that these qualities contributed to its decision to launch services between Tokyo and Boston next year using the 787. The Boston-Narita leg will be JAL's second-longest routing - 13h 40min.
Like JAL, China Southern expects to receive the first of 10 Dreamliners before year-end, and plans to deploy them on international flights. "We will mainly use them to open up new international routes rather than on existing flights," says chairman Si Xianmin.
BETTER RANGE CAPABILITY
Qatar Airways sees the 787-8 as "an excellent route-development tool" and will use its fleet initially to develop new European points with widebody capacity that could not be economically sustained with its existing widebody types. "The 787-8 has been acquired primarily as an A330-200 replacement but may also replace the A321 on some denser, short-haul routes," says Al Baker.
"Although our 787-8s will have about 20 fewer seats that our [272-seat] A330-200s, we believe that the 787 has a lower total operating cost per seat over the A330 and a double-digit total-cost-per-trip advantage, when comparing new aircraft at representative net acquisition costs. The 787-8 also has a significantly better range capability than the A330."
Initial operations next year will see the type deployed on Qatar's intra-Gulf services to aid crew training. The fleet will then migrate progressively to longer routes, serving points in Europe and Asia. Qatar is one of a number of 787 customers that has also ordered Airbus rival, the A350, but the two types will have quite different roles in the Qatar fleet, says Al Baker. "At Qatar Airways, the 787-8 is principally a frequency-development tool, whereas the A350 is a capacity-development tool."
So after all the talk, the industry - and 787 customers - wait with bated breath to see if the Dreamliner is the game changer it is cracked up to be. It will not be long before we all find out.
Boeing's Dreamliner comes with a promise of a new level of passenger experience through radical architecture and cabin pressure at a lower altitude than ever before