Welcome to the 21st century world of air travel. The only problem is most of us are getting around in 20th century aircraft. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that, in 20th century aircraft like the 737 and the A320 and the 747 and the A330 and the 767, you are quite aware you’re inside a noisy, vibrating metal tube travelling at high speed.
The 21st century aircraft, on the other hand, are a much more refined experience. But on long haul routes, there are only two 21st century aircraft in the skies, the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787, with a third new plane, the Airbus A350, now flying and undergoing its final certification before entering airline service later this year.
However, between them, these three aircraft are said to have soaked up around $US85 billion in development costs, with the lion’s share booked by the 787 Dreamliner, which has had an especially difficult birth with its all-new lightweight fuel-efficient design.
It will take years for these new aircraft programs to repay their development costs – it’s estimated that, so early in the production phase with development costs being worked off, Boeing is losing $45 million per Dreamliner sold on the $US210-290 million sticker price, even though more than 1000 have been ordered – which means we’re unlikely to see new designs for the foreseeable future.
The early 21st century is all about low-cost flying and opening up the experience to as many people as possible. The equivalent of three billion of the planet’s seven billion humans are now flying each year and that number won’t be increased by development of a new time-saving supersonic successor to the Concorde, bluntly because it’s a fuel guzzler and can’t achieve the low costs per seat of the A380 and the 787.
So what the manufacturers are doing is improving the experience and I was reminded of how much a step-change it is to be riding on a 21st century jetliner while reading a 787 review at the new Australian website, airlineratings.com.
The occasion was the launch of United Airlines’ new 787 service between San Francisco and Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province (and the home of Sichuan food), China’s fourth-largest city in south-west China.
The journey is about 10,000 kilometres and gives passengers a sample of the experience in October when United Airlines begins six-days-a-week 787 service between Melbourne and Los Angeles.
The service goes daily next March.
With just 252 seats, the 787 service is roughly the same size as a 767, but it’s able to compete on such an ultra-long-haul route (12,700 kms – about 14.5 hours outbound and an hour longer coming back) because, courtesy of its lightweight composite air frame and therefore its low fuel consumption, it has roughly the same costs per seat as the 747 that UA operated via Sydney until recently.
As for the experience, take the word of the staff. “Your ears don’t ring after a 13-hour flight,” UA captain Andrew Raymer tells airlineratings.com.
“I feel comfortable getting off the aircraft after a 13-hour flight,” says flight service manager Steve Nauck.
“When I complete a trip, I don’t feel wiped out like I would if I was flying on a 777 or 747. I don’t have that same feeling.”
Flight attendant Joey Cheng can also notice the difference. “You can feel the moisture in your skin after a long ... sojourn,” she says. “It’s not…as dry as the other aircraft.”
Passengers reported the same step-change in the flying experience when the A380 became a common fixture in the skies flying to and from Australia: a quieter ride, less exhaustion from jetlag, fewer irritations after cabin moisture levels were tweaked.
Yet, despite my expectations to the contrary, there hasn’t been a stampede away from the older 20th century aircraft designs by travellers, just a measurable preference for the new ones when they’re available.
It seems that when it comes to booking a passage from A to B, price is still king.
How to the newer planes stack up against the older designs? Have you become an aircraft type discriminator?
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