Can the cabin interior of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner deliver after all the hype? The passenger experience on launch customer ANA’s first few aircraft is a bit sobering, says Andreas Spaeth.
Some images of interior concepts for new aircraft become almost iconic. For years, the elegant bar underneath the main stairway in the forward part of the Airbus A380’s main deck was a statement of the grandeur promised for the cabin of the world’s biggest passenger aircraft. But it didn’t pass the reality check: airlines have to earn money, and cabin floor space is often referred to as being the highest priced ‘real estate’ in the world. So, among today’s seven Airbus A380 operators, just Emirates and Korean Air have provided a bar, though neither offering really reflects that proposed for several years by Airbus inside its cabin mock-up at Toulouse.
The Airbus A380 and, even more so, Boeing 787 both suffered technical problems that delayed their respective entries into service. Over three years behind schedule, the Dreamliner entered commercial service with Japanese launch customer ANA All Nippon Airways in November 2011 on domestic Japanese services, and in January 2012 on the intercontinental route from Tokyo-Haneda to Frankfurt.
For suppliers and manufacturers of cabin furnishings, such delays pose huge problems as the design has to be frozen early in the process – meaning an aircraft that’s three years late can’t have the latest innovations on board, but instead carries products that were cutting-edge three years earlier. In today’s fast-moving technology world, especially when it comes to on-board communications and in-flight entertainment (IFE), this can result in severe setbacks against the competition. That’s if there is any competition – and, in the case of the 787, there isn’t. As this edition went to print, with just five aircraft so far delivered, ANA remains the world’s only Boeing 787 operator. With about 870 firm orders, the backlog for Boeing aircraft is huge and, at the time of writing, there’s talk of new production hiccups and further delays. The next airline due to receive its first 787 is ANA’s direct competitor, Japan Airlines, with Ethiopian Airlines, Qatar Airways, Qantas, LAN, American Airlines, Air India and Norwegian scheduled to follow during 2012.
Boeing has repeatedly emphasised the new passenger experience the 787 brings. There’s been a certain amount of hype about its lower cabin altitude/pressure which – together with the higher on-board humidity level, lower internal noise levels and bigger, dimmable windows – is said to reduce travel fatigue. Passengers on the first flights were not sure it really made such a big difference, with some even indicating it might all be a marketing ploy. But what about the hardware in the cabin? “The iconic, vaulted ceiling with integrated mood lighting in the entry area is making the boarding process welcoming,” claims Boeing’s 787 spokeswoman, Lori Gunter. In fact, the architecture of the entryway at the number two door position is the signature piece of the 787 interior and has been shown in photos of the cabin mock-up as an ‘iconic’ piece of the 787 for years. But, once again, it doesn’t seem to pass the reality check. First of all, most passengers enter via the first entrance at the front of the aircraft rather than via the number two door, especially when boarding through an airbridge. And secondly, ANA has not really found a way to make the entryway shine and, on two of the currently three different cabin versions, it has not even been incorporated.
ANA had always planned to operate the 787 in three different cabin configurations, customised for domestic as well as short-haul and long-haul international operations. This has been a kind of trial-and-error approach since the aircraft’s first service late last year. The first aircraft was equipped with a demonstration cabin seating 264, including 12 not very sophisticated Sicma Majesty cradle-type seats in business class. Adjacent, there are three rows of economy seating. In all of ANA’s 787s, economy class is furnished with identical Sicma AIRgonomic FX seats, which only vary in seat pitch (34 inches [86.4cm] in the long-haul version and 31-32 inches [78.7- 81.3cm] in short-haul and domestic aircraft).
“By offering a generous seat pitch we wanted to enhance comfort for the passengers in economy class,” says Norihiro Kawate, ANA’s Senior Manager for Product Strategy. These three rows are followed – on the first two aircraft only – by the grandiose entryway with its light-sculpted high ceiling between the number two doors and incorporating a massive stand-up bar counter, which doesn’t really make sense in economy class. These two aircraft are supposed to be transferred to short-haul international routes when the first aircraft in the final domestic configuration arrive with a total of 335 seats (12 in premium class and 323 in economy) – and no ‘fancy’ entryway or bar provided.
The main short-haul international version will be equipped with 222 seats, including 42 cradle seats in business class and 180 economy seats. And then there’s ANA’s intercontinental 787, a unique aircraft to date. Its 112 economy seats (in a 2-4-2 arrangement per row) are confined to a back cabin plus a mid-aircraft section with just three rows. Over half of the cabin floor is dedicated to ANA’s newest and most sophisticated product, ANA Business Staggered, comprising 46 Sicma Skylounge III seats in two different sections. It has been introduced on a few Boeing 777-300ERs already, though in a different configuration due to the 777’s wider fuselage. In the 787, this product offers ultimate privacy, while not being really practical for people travelling together. A total of 13 rows are configured either in a 1-2-1 or even 1-1-1 layout. The normally ‘dreaded’ middle seats become the best seats in the house in ANA’s 787s, boasting massive tables to both sides, almost like thrones.
The single-window seats have alternating side monuments; half of them are installed between the window and the seat while the other half have tables facing the aisles. At night-time, the edges of the tables are very effectively lit by surrounding blue LEDs. When extended into fully flat position, the seats become 74.5in x 25.3in (189.2cm x 64.3cm) beds with fully retractable armrests, a privacy shell and even a dedicated shoe-drawer under the seat.
“We were thinking of the seat the way interior designers would, as furniture”, says Norihiro Kawate. A shortfall, however, is the IFE system, based on the Panasonic eX2 platform rather than the newer Android-based eX3 system. “That was not available at the time of the system implementation for our 787s,” explains Ms Kawate. Now passengers are often disappointed that the system doesn’t even offer audio CDs on demand, as most other modern IFEs do these days.
Also, on intercontinental flights, there are sadly no more grandiose entryways at the number two doors; instead, a galley occupies the space. There’s not even a stand-up bar where it’s needed most – on long flights. Instead, ANA has installed two mini-cabinets (displaying two bottles of wine each and a few other amenities) on both sides behind the fifth row, close to the number two doors. They are neither inviting nor do they provide any space to stretch one’s legs or gather for a drink. I definitely don’t think this is what Boeing’s cabin designers had in mind.
|787 Cabin Configurations Announced To Date|
|ANA domestic||12 premium, 323 economy||335|
|ANA initial regional||12 business, 252 economy –||264|
|ANA short-haul international||42 business, 180 economy||222|
|ANA long-haul international||46 business, 112 economy –||158|
|Air India||18 business, 238 economy –||256|
|Japan Airlines||42 business, 144 economy –||186|
|United Airlines||36 first, 63 economy plus, 120 economy||219|
|Qatar Airways||22 business, about 220 economy||c.242|