A pilot's view of the Boeing Dreamliner: “It’s really nice to fly”

Flying in Air NZ's new 787
Photo of Geoffrey Thomas

The reasons for the 787’s popularity are many — lower cabin altitude, higher humidity, quieter engines and better fuel economy among them.

After years of all the wrong headlines related to delays and battery problems, the Boeing 787 is impressing passengers and flight crews alike.

Since the first 787 was delivered to Japan’s All Nippon Airways late in 2011, Boeing has delivered 363 Dreamliners and is adding to that at a rate of 10 a month.

The 787 fleet is operating on 350 routes and is performing 600 flights a day, and has carried more than 70 million passengers over 850 million miles.

The reasons for the 787’s popularity are many — lower cabin altitude, higher humidity, turbulence-suppression system and quieter engines.

But it’s the fuel economy that is most impressive. As Air New Zealand’s 787 technical pilot Philip Kirk told Travel, on an Auckland-Shanghai-Auckland return flight the 787 will burn 50,000 litres less fuel than the Boeing 777 it replaces while carrying the same payload.

“We are incredibly pleased at how the introduction has gone and the 787 has outperformed our best expectations, ” he said.

The airline has achieved 98.5 per cent dispatch reliability and wants it to be 99.5.

“We are after the best reliability in the world and Boeing is working very hard to help us achieve this. Often it’s just software changes, ” Captain Kirk said.

Air NZ and the 787 delivery crew may have been smiling about the 787’s performance but I was not all smiles as, before our take-off, I was “forced” to watch the Rugby World Cup thanks to the efforts of the team at the Boeing delivery centre.

But at least I had a happy Kiwi crew for company on the way home.

For our take-off on October 31 from Paine Field in Everett, just north of Seattle, the weather was bleak .

Our three pilots — captains Kirk, Ian MacDonald and Peter Mouat — quickly had the small group of Air New Zealand and Boeing staff airborne. We turned west moments after lift-off to avoid the worst of the weather, which burst into glorious sunshine within 15 minutes.

After a few right and left turns, the route was virtually a straight line to Auckland.

And this flight was different to most transpacific crossings, as it was a daylight flight. The weather was great, with deep- blue skies, mirror-still seas bathed in golden sunshine and the occasional towering thunderstorm, which we slipped around without noticing.

It was amazing to fly for 13 hours and see nothing but water.

Meal service on this delivery flight was very different. None of the glamorous Air New Zealand in-flight service — the meals themselves were supplied by Boeing catering.

Air New Zealand’s on-board engineering staff had prawns with Alaskan king crab as a starter followed by a nicely done steak. As I was spending time in the cockpit, there was no alcohol.

Away from the technical aspects, Captain Kirk told me passengers were giving the 787 an “overwhelming” thumbs up.

“There is an incredibly positive reaction and passengers are going away very happy. Also there is strong interest in engaging with the crew about the 787, ” he noted.

Air New Zealand is using the 787 on routes to Perth, Tokyo, Shanghai, Nadi (Fiji), Sydney, Brisbane and Singapore, and will receive another this year, with the balance of 12 to be delivered in 2017 and 2018.

The additional three will see the last 767 retired, additional frequencies to some routes such as Perth, with Melbourne and Honolulu to be added to the 787 network.

Captain Kirk waxed lyrical about the 787’s performance.

“There is just nothing negative about this plane — it’s really nice to fly, ” he said.

“You can tell a lot about an aircraft’s aerodynamic efficiency when it comes time to descend. With engine thrust at or close to idle, one gets a real feel for the airframe during descent operations. This aircraft is one incredible glider, which underscores how good the wing really is.

“And on climb, it really is a Dreamliner.”

Captain Mouat said the pilots loved the fact the plane reached a higher altitude much quicker than other commercial aircraft.

“For instance, out of Narita (Tokyo) in an evening we get right above the muddle, which is at 34,000ft, and we are at 36,000ft, ” he said. “ATC gives us priority as we control the game because we are more capable. Life is so much easier.”

Chasing the sun on our delivery flight from Seattle, our sunset seemed to last for hours and provided a kaleidoscope of colours as we discussed the virtues of the new 787.

Our “six hour and eight minute”-old 787 didn’t miss a beat, although our delivery flight added 13 hours 52 minutes to its logbook.    

The 787 is giving the airline both dramatic improvements to the bottom line and also a new flexibility to develop fresh routes and expand others.

Boeing has sold well over 1100 787s, with options for about another 500 and production is booked out until 2020.

Qantas will get the first of its eight orders next year.

Perth travellers who want to sample the 787 can choose from Air New Zealand, Thai Airways, Scoot and China Southern.


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