The first new American commercial jetliner to be built in more than a decade won’t be the biggest or fastest passenger plane in the sky.
Nor will Boeing’s 7E7 Dreamliner stun onlookers with a radically different appearance. Rival Airbus sneers at the “little airplane” as nothing special, and the basic design is another “cigar with wings” — the shape that has defined jets for decades.
But the mid-sized 7E7, being tweaked and simulated in Boeing design labs and three-dimensional computer design images, should offer plenty to wow airlines and the first paying passengers in 2008.
Boeing says the new plane will fly faster, higher, farther, cleaner, quieter and more efficiently than any other medium-sized jet, using 20 percent less fuel. There’ll also be bigger windows, seats, lavatories and overhead bins, which the company shows off to prospective buyers and other visitors at a mock-up of the airplane’s interior not far from its sprawling Seattle-area manufacturing complexes.
Analysts say further 7E7 orders, which Boeing promises will be announced soon, could signal not only a successful new plane but a renaissance for the company.
“For the first time in a while, Boeing has seized the industry initiative,” said aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group. “When it comes to making a plane that’s more economical — it’s just a matter of time before everybody falls in line.”
It’s still a gamble. By adopting a sharply opposed strategy to that of Airbus, which thinks its superjumbo A380 will be the jet of choice following its 2006 debut, Boeing risks misgauging years’ worth of demand. That’s what happened with two projects it dropped in the past three years — the 747X, an enlarged jumbo jet, and the super-fast Sonic Cruiser, which was seen as pricey even before the economic fallout from Sept. 11, 2001.
“That was a case where we misjudged the market a little bit,” David von Trotha, Boeing’s chief engineer for product development, said this month. “What we thought would be attractive ... turned out to be different from what the market wanted.”
All signs are that the 7E7 — the ’E’ stands for efficient — is headed for a better fate.
Alan Mulally, chief executive of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, speaks of the plane with an evangelical fervor. He told reporters Boeing was in talks for deals involving more than 400 7E7s beyond the initial, record 50-plane order from All Nippon Airways last month, including more than a dozen firm offers.
“We’re getting great interest from around the world,” Mulally said. “The interest in this plane is going to be absolutely a game-changer” in the industry.
Here are some of the noteworthy features planned for Boeing’s 11th passenger jet series:
- Fuel savings. The 7E7 will be no slouch for speed, cruising at 560 mph — comparable to the largest jets. But the big appeal to cash-pinched airlines is Boeing’s promise that it will allow them to cut fuel costs and fly long, point-to-point routes between cities that can’t fill a bigger plane.
Like flying SUVs, airplanes consume an extraordinary amount of jet fuel — it takes 47,000 gallons to gas up a Boeing 747. But Boeing says the 7E7 will burn 20 percent less fuel than similar-sized planes thanks to advancements in technology.
New engines being developed for the 7E7 will be 10 percent more efficient and a supercomputer can design the plane with minimal drag, making it more streamlined. Advanced materials, a smaller wing area and improved on-board systems also will contribute to fuel savings.
- Cabin comfort. For most people, walking onto an airplane isn’t exactly pleasant: You’re immediately confronted by a dark metallic galley, narrow aisles and a jumble of passengers trying to cram their bags into overhead compartments and their bodies into tiny, well-worn seats.
With airlines struggling to eke out a profit, Boeing can’t promise luxury accommodations on the 7E7. But it is trying to create a more welcoming environment with a completely redesigned interior.
A visit to a mock-up starts with a trick of the eye: a ceiling designed to emulate natural light and create the illusion of more height. The design boasts a front galley that looks more like a kitchen island than the traditional tiny compartment. And there’s more room to see between seats, another change aimed at reducing the claustrophobic feel.
Boeing also is trying to sell airlines on jumbo-sized windows, complete with electronic shades to darken the panes more naturally. In addition, the design calls for slightly wider seats and bigger restrooms and overhead bins.
- Better air quality. There’s another reason to dread getting on an airplane: the dry, recycled air that can make your eyes sting, dry out your sinuses and add to flying fatigue.
With the 7E7, passengers will feel like they are at a maximum altitude of 6,000 feet, rather than the normal 8,000 feet. Boeing also is considering adding humidifiers to further reduce dryness. That’s feasible because the 7E7 will rely more heavily on composite materials — instead of aluminum — meaning there is less risk of corrosion from the added moisture.
The company also promises the latest air filters and is considering ways to reduce odors.
- More composites. The 7E7 will go far beyond any previous commercial aircraft in its extensive use of composite materials, such as carbon and graphite, which will comprise 50 percent of its weight.
Not only will that make it 15 percent lighter than comparable planes, trimming fuel and operating costs, but Boeing expects composites to be more durable, reducing maintenance and corrosion.
Still, some prospective customers have expressed concern that composite structures could be more fragile and that damage is harder to discern than it is with metals. Boeing intends to embed structural monitoring sensors in the fuselage and elsewhere to assuage such worries.
“Composites are used extensively on military aircraft but ... airlines want to see it proven out before they take a leap, because of liability concerns,” said JSA Research analyst Paul Nisbet. “But if they can withstand the rigors of fighter aircraft, they certainly would not be extended in a commercial aircraft.”
- Less Noise. Anyone who’s flown on an older Boeing 747 knows how annoying a noisy airplane engine can be. Boeing is isolating certain loud functions with the 7E7, such as pumps and motors, and using sound absorption technology to further reduce the noise to the cabin.
But it turns out just damping out the roar of the engine isn’t the answer. While most people might think they want an airplane that’s library-quiet, Boeing researchers have found there are certain noises people like. These include sounds that make people secure the airplane is operating normally, such as the reassuring clunk of the door closing.