Long, Thin Routes: Dallas to Beijing, Boston to Shanghai, Tel Aviv to San Francisco

From Business Journals

When a United Airlines flight left San Francisco last week to establish a nonstop link to Singapore, United not only capitalized on an ill-considered decision by Singapore Airlines, but it also highlighted what can only be called the Revenge of the Dreamliner.

United’s new San Francisco-Singapore nonstops, you see, are operated with Boeing 787s. You surely remember the Dreamliner. That’s the $200-million-a-copy plane prematurely pronounced dead by jittery experts three years ago after a panicked grounding and handwringing over the aircraft’s safety.

I never worried about flying the Dreamliner, but even I’m amazed at how quickly the Boeing 787 has shaken off its shaky start and become a mainstay of global aviation. The plane is literally remaking the world’s route map.


Photo: Bloomberg – Business Class in a 787 Dreamliner

View 20 Dreamliner Photos

More than 400 Dreamliners have been delivered since All Nippon Airways operated the first commercial flight late in 2011. Another 1,100 orders from 62 airlines and other customers are on Boeing’s books, the planemaker says. Nearly 100 million people have flown the aircraft and Dreamliners have flown more than 1.2 billion revenue miles without serious incident since the initial spate of trouble.

More than that, the Dreamliner is going where no other planes have gone before. Boeing says the 787 has pioneered at least 100 routes between cities that have never before had nonstop links. It thinks there might eventually be 400 such routes. Airlines like LOT Polish and Norwegian Air Shuttle already operate all-Dreamliner fleets across the Atlantic. Asian carriers such as Hainan Airlines of China are switching across the Pacific, too.

“We’re getting our first 787-9 tomorrow,” says Joel Chusid, U.S. executive director of Hainan, the fast-growing private Chinese airline. “We’ve already got ten 787-8s in service and 34 Dreamliners on order.” Hainan expects all of its U.S.-China flights will switch to Dreamliners by the end of the year. “We would have done it sooner,” he explains, “but we haven’t been able to get them quickly enough.”

To explain the jargon, the plane now designated the 787-8 is the original Dreamliner, the one that premiered in 2011 and caused the rash of initial bad publicity. It can carry 242 passengers as far as 7,355 nautical miles. The Dreamliner 787-9 is the first variant and Boeing says it can carry as many as 290 passengers as far as 7,635 miles. A third version, the 787-10, is due for delivery in 2018 and will accommodate 330 flyers.

I’m no plane geek, so those kind of stats rarely impress me. I’m a business traveler and, to me, planes are like staplers or photocopiers. If they do what they are supposed to do, I use ’em and forget ’em.

That said, though, it’s impossible to ignore how the Dreamliner is changing our lives on the road. Besides popping up on familiar long-haul routes — New York to Tokyo, Chicago to Shanghai, Los Angeles to Sydney — the 787 has made all manner of new nonstops possible.

Besides that San Francisco-Singapore run, the Dreamliner’s longest, United has also deployed the 787 on routes as diverse as Chengdu, China, and Tel Aviv, Israel. American Airlines flies the 787 nonstop from its Dallas/Fort Worth hub to Hong Kong and Beijing. Hainan put its Dreamliner on the new Los Angeles-Changsha route and connected Boston and Shanghai for the first time.

And LOT Polish claims the Dreamliner essentially saved the airline. A perennial moneyloser, LOT credits “the Dreamliner effect” for finally allowing it to profitably connect New York and Chicago with its Warsaw hub.

Airlines like LOT praise the Dreamliner and use virtually the same phrases to explain why the 787 works. For starters, they claim it is the right size: It carries about half the number of passengers as the double-decked Airbus A380 and is smaller than both Boeing’s 777 and its venerable 747.

The widebody’s long range allows airlines to run what the industry calls “long, thin” routes. In English, that means distant cities that can support nonstops only if there aren’t too many seats on the aircraft. The Dreamliner is also more fuel-efficient and cheaper to operate than competitive aircraft.

“And it’s a fast mother,” adds Chusid of Hainan. He says some 787 flights between the United States and China have arrived more than two hours early, so Hainan has tightened up schedules to account for the plane’s speed and reliability.

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