PHOTO: A Korean Air Boeing 787. (photo by Paul Thompson)
On Friday, February 17th, our new president visited Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner final assembly facility in North Charleston, South Carolina. While doing so, he proudly proclaimed that this aircraft is built in America, which is what some might call an alternative fact.
I visited the same facility only three days later and found out the full truth, along with many reasons the 787 is a great plane.
It's Not Really "Built in America"
Not to get political here, but I’m a guy who presents facts. So, when I know something about planes is presented without factual structure, I’m going to go ahead and correct it.
The Dreamliner is, in fact, the world’s most technologically advanced commercial aircraft. It was designed here in America, but it’s actually a conglomeration of parts built in several countries throughout the globe. Boeing has over 20,000 suppliers around the world, and parts from the 787 come in from places such as Australia, Canada, China, France, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and South Korea.
So while Boeing does final assembly of all their planes here in the United States, I wouldn't say it’s built in America.
It's Easy on the Airline's Bottomline
What’s so great about this plane? From an airline’s standpoint, it’s much cheaper to operate.
The 787’s lower operating cost is accomplished through efficiency gains in the form of its structure, aerodynamics, and engines. More than half of the plane is made from composite materials, including carbon fiber. The carbon fiber laminate composes the entire fuselage of the plane and most of the wings. It’s lighter and much stronger than the aluminum used on older model planes. Being lighter, it saves fuel, which saves money for airlines. It’s also non-corrosive, so airlines don’t have to worry about the material breaking down due to exposure from the elements, which reduces maintenance costs.
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You'll (Literally) Breathe and Ride Easier
But what about us, the passengers? Well, airlines don't get all of the joy from the 787. First, and perhaps most importantly, the 787 has a special climate control system that simulates a lower altitude. For passengers, that lower altitude means the cabin has more oxygen and humidity, so the effects of jet lag are greatly reduced. I’ve flown twice on 787s—both times over 10 hours—and this is legit.
That carbon fiber mentioned earlier actually makes your ride smoother as well. The wings flex so much that they serve as a damper during turbulence. In addition to having a smooth ride, the engines (made by General Electric and Rolls-Royce) are extremely quiet. Compared to historic jet engines which produce more of a roaring sound, these sound more like a hum. This hum makes environmentalists and those who live around airports happy, thanks to their significant reduction in noise pollution.
As a passenger, one of my favorite things about the 787 is its windows. They’re the largest that you’ll find on a commercial jet. Boeing likes to say that every seat on the 787 is a window seat because even passengers in the middle section can still be able to see outside.
The 787 is also the only plane to feature dimmable windows. Instead of the traditional pull-down shade, each window seat has a button that allows you to have five stages of brightness, from complete daylight to nearly blacked-out. Being someone who loves looking out the window when I fly, I hate the all-or-nothing view on most planes. Being able to dim my window allows me to see outside while reducing the glare for those who might be trying to sleep or watch a show.
Space May Be At a Premium
Among all of these likable things on the 787, there is one small drawback. Many of the airlines who have added the 787 to their fleets have opted to add a 9th seat to each row in economy. So rather than the 2-4-2 rows that Boeing intended, many have a 3-3-3 row, with seat widths at or slightly below 17 inches. If you do fond yourself flying on a 787 Dreamliner, be sure to get a window or aisle seat, so you’ll at least have a little more room to one side. I can't imagine flying 10-plus hours in a middle seat here, but it seems pretty awful.
Unless you’re in that middle seat in the back, the 787 Dreamliner is a beautiful, quiet and comfortable plane that I have enjoyed flying. Here in the U.S. both American and United operate the 787, but you can also find several foreign carriers operating 787s nonstop from here to their foreign shores.