The Boeing Co 787 Dreamliner took its first paying passengers aloft on Wednesday, showing off a carbon-composite design its maker says is lighter, more economical to fly and more comfortable than its metal rivals currently plying the airways.
The special charter flight by the twin-engined jet landed in Hong Kong Wednesday afternoon after a delayed takeoff from Tokyo and came after years of delays as Boeing engineers dealt with glitches and parts delays, leaving some $16 billion (9 billion pound) of inventory at Boeing's plants.
Boeing's technological flagship is little faster than the 707, the first commercial jet it built more than half a century ago. Yet the first owner of the 787, All Nippon Airways Co, is just fine with the idea of delivering its passengers in same amount of time they always have.
Instead, ANA wants to get them there cheaper and happier, a formula that other carriers see as the key to surviving in a cutthroat global air travel market rattled by the rise of budget carriers.
For carriers with high operating margins, the 787 is critical for gaining a cost competitiveness, said Masaharu Hirokane, an analyst at Nomura Holding in Tokyo. For ANA to be a launch customer is a plus, he added.
The Dreamliner was originally conceived in 2001 as the Sonic Cruiser, designed for a bygone era of aviation that quickly morphed into one filled with bankruptcies and soaring fuel costs. It was a design that promised the first serious speed increase since the advent of the now defunct Concorde.
Most jetliners cruise at around eight-tenths the speed of sound. The Sonic Cruiser promised mach 0.98, lopping hours off long-haul flights between Tokyo and New York. The apparent end of cheap oil, with prices close to $100 a barrel, forced Boeing and other airlines to change course.
Thus was born the Dreamliner. With Boeing's rival, Airbus, also focussed on lowering its cost-per-passenger mile, the prospects for more speed any time soon are dim.
COMFORTABLE WITH PRODUCTION TARGET
Scott Francher, Boeing's head of the 787 programme, said on Wednesday that the company is comfortable with the production targets for its 787 Dreamliner. The company hopes to build 10 per month by 2013.
We are comfortable we have an executable plan, Francher told reporters in Tokyo ahead of the plane's first flight.
With its mostly carbon-composite body, Boeing's technological flagship offers a 20 percent improvement in fuel efficiency. Its cabin builders promise a flight with ambient lighting engineered to lull passengers to sleep and higher air pressure that will make the interior feel like 6,000 feet rather than the 8,000 feet passengers feel on other jetliners.
The aircraft's success or failure will depend much on Japan, the only major aviation market where Boeing clearly dominates its European rival.
More than a third of the Dreamliner is built by Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Fuji Heavy Industries.
Of Boeing's backlog of 821 orders for the Dreamliner, nearly a tenth of them are from Japan.
ANA expects its 55 aircraft by March 2018 and has so far stuck with Boeing despite three years of delays. That is a welcome commitment for Boeing after China Eastern Airlines on October 17 terminated an order for 24 Dreamliners rather than wait for production to pick up speed.
Air New Zealand voiced concerns over possible further delays last week. The carrier said it is seeking compensation from Boeing.
The plane builder on September 26 said it expects to break-even on the plane this decade. Boeing releases its latest earnings results in the United States on Wednesday.
Enthusiasm in Japan for Boeing has been undimmed by the delayed Dreamliner.
The 100 seats available to paying passengers on the flight sold out as soon as they went on sale, with 25,505 people scrambling online for the scarce tickets. A pair of tickets that ANA offered on the Yahoo auction site for charity sold for 890,000 yen (7,307.131 pound).
(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Matt Driskill and Miyoung Kim)