Free Flight update #2: Bring on the Dreamliner

This week Boeing unveiled its "Dreamliner," the 787, to bulging order books and widespread acclaim.

Yes, it could seem strange to include a $160-million-per-copy airliner as part of the revolution that may lead to more convenient air travel via smaller, less expensive airplanes. But the Dreamliner qualifies as an honorary part of the "Free Flight" movement in two ways:

First, its concept is the antithesis of Airbus's big and apparently misguided bet on even huger airplanes serving an even more concentrated hub-and-spoke system. The Dreamliner carries only half as many passengers as Airbus's ponderous A380 but is designed to serve more direct-flight, non hub-and-spoke routes. (John Newhouse lays out this epic struggle in his recent book Boeing versus Airbus, with this caveat.)

Second, and the real reason I'm writing: the Dreamliner was designed by people who wanted passengers to realize that they were sitting in an airplane, up in the sky , not in a conference room at a Holiday Inn.

Four years ago I got to interview the plane's designers, for an article in Travel and Leisure. Here is part of what they told me about the plane then known as the 7E7 (for "experimental"):

"Passengers have articulated needs—things they know they would like to be different," says Klaus Brauer, who is working on the Dreamliner's interior. These needs boil down to a desire to have two seats' worth of space for the price of half a seat, which of course isn't going to happen. But even more powerful, he says, are "unarticulated needs—aspects of flight that passengers may not notice on a cognitive level but that will let them walk away feeling great."...

The 7E7 will adjust the color of ambient cabin lighting, in a way that is supposed to re-create the sensations of sunrise and sunset and help people adjust to jet lag...And it will reverse a dominant trend in airplane design by emphasizing, rather than concealing, the fact that passengers are tens of thousands of feet up in the sky. "People say how bored they are with flying," Brauer says. "It's sophisticated to say you hate it. But our research shows that, very deep in the subconscious, almost everyone—young and old, in any part of the world—loves the idea of flying." The practical consequence, he says, would be a variety of touches in the 7E7's interior that make travelers aware that they are in a flying machine, not an anonymous hotel corridor...

Yes, you can make any airplane look great, as in this picture, with big seats and lots of leg room. We all have a sense of how the interior might turn out if, say, Northwest got hold of it. And for another time is the topic of what the Dreamliner means for American industrial strength: more than with any airplane in the past, Boeing has delegated crucial parts of the Dreamliner's design and construction to firms in Japan. Still, the arrival of the Dreamliner is good news. Welcome and congratulations.