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Originally published October 26, 2011 at 8:44 PM | Page modified October 27, 2011 at 3:18 PM

Party at 40,000 feet: 787's first passenger flight

It's the plane that's supposed to change the experience of flying. No more stuffy noses, dry throats or severe fatigue. Larger windows.

quotes It would be nice if airlines would make some of the rows for adults only. Not asking... Read more
quotes It would be nice if airlines would make some of the rows for adults only. Not asking... Read more
quotes You know what would be truly revolutionary on a flight? Comfortable seats. Read more

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It's the plane that's supposed to change the experience of flying.

No more stuffy noses, dry throats or severe fatigue. Larger windows. Mood lighting that can either ease jet lag or turn the plane into a nightclub at 40,000 feet.

For the most part, the 787 Dreamliner succeeds, according to those on the first commercial flight of Boeing's newest plane.

Indeed, a sleek design makes the plane stand out the moment you step on board.

The cabin is 30 inches wider than a Boeing 767. A higher ceiling — at least the perception of one — reduces claustrophobia. Natural light pours in, creating a welcoming feeling.

Maybe that 10-hour flight won't be so bad after all.

Maybe.

All Nippon Airways' Flight 7871, a four-hour trip from Tokyo to Hong Kong, carried the 787's first paying customers Wednesday. While perhaps the plane's biggest benefit — features that fight jet lag — really couldn't be experienced by the 240 people, including 90 journalists, other upgrades were apparent.

For one, humidity is doubled, to 16 percent.

"My skin usually gets very dry when flying, and I have to put [moisturizer] on every hour or two," said Kiyoko Furusho, a 56-year-old housewife who flies to New York every year. "But here the air is much more humid."

A fuselage made of high-strength, carbon-fiber technology also supports a higher level of cabin pressure, reducing discomfort travelers can experience on takeoff and landing.

"My ears don't pop on this plane," said Tokyo office worker Tomoko Monjugawa, adding that the Rolls-Royce Holdings-powered 787 was quieter than an Airbus A380, which first entered service about four years ago.

"The difference in sound between the 787 and the A380 is very noticeable on takeoff. The A380 roars, while the 787's engines are just whispering."

While the flight seemed quieter, a handheld sound meter registered noise levels similar to Boeing's 777. (Maybe the soothing lights played tricks on the mind.)

The short flight couldn't measure the full impact of those fatigue-fighting LED lights, which slowly change color. The cabin lit up in a funky rainbow display, turning the plane into something out of "Saturday Night Fever." Add loud music and it's not too hard to imagine a party at 40,000 feet.

The lighting concept is being rolled out on other aircraft, including new models of Boeing's 737. Airbus offers something similar on new A320s.

Another feature on the 787 is the windows, 19 inches high and 11 inches wide, 30 percent larger than those on traditional aluminum-body planes.

But don't expect window shades. Boeing replaced them with an electronic tinting feature. Click a button and the window slowly starts to darken. It never becomes completely black — you still can see out — but enough light is blocked to make sleeping possible.

Not that anybody was trying to sleep during the boisterous inaugural flight.

The problem of crowded overhead bins was addressed. Putting bags into the bins, and opening and closing them when they are heavy and full, was easier than on any other plane.

Boeing says they are the largest bins on any plane, with enough room for one carry-on bag per passenger.

While bins are much larger, the only way that assertion seemed feasible was with identically rectangular bags stacked in optimal order.

The most-promising feature of the 787 will come on later models: a turbulence-dampening system. Accelerometers in the plane's nose will register a sudden drop and send a signal through fiber-optic cables to the wings. What would have been a 9-foot drop is cut to 3. No other plane has this technology.

Airlines have purchased almost 800 of the original 787 because of promised fuel savings and the ability to open up new routes.

All Nippon, which expects the 787 to save as much as $132 million a year in fuel costs from 55 planes, was the first to fly it. United Continental late next year will become the first U.S. carrier.

Boeing can't control some features. Airlines determine seating arrangements and legroom.

All Nippon will fit its long-haul 787s with 158 seats. The one that flew to Hong Kong had 252 seats in economy class and 12 in business.

Furusho, who usually flies business class to New York, said the premium seats on the 787 looked more cramped than on larger planes.

"The business-class seats for New York are very deluxe," she said. "I'd probably still opt to fly on bigger planes long haul."

Still, for Yohei Konishi, a 35-year-old systems engineer who said he flies most weeks, the Dreamliner was worth the wait.

"It's really comfortable, and my ears don't hurt," he said. "It would be great if I could do all my business trips on 787s."

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