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Better Living At 30,000 Feet


By Stanley Holmes

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Much of the hoopla over Boeing Co.'s (BA) new 787 Dreamliner has centered around its revolutionary lightweight design. Largely lost in all the chatter about its fuel efficiency has been another potential game-changing feature of the plane: its redesigned interior. The 787 has been fashioned to make flying a less exhausting, uncomfortable, headache-inducing experience. Boeing is betting that people will enjoy the new aircraft so much that they will actually seek out flights on Dreamliners—a degree of cachet few commercial airplanes other than the 747 have ever achieved.

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The Dreamliner's svelte skeleton, made of light but superstrong composite materials, makes it possible to lower the altitude in the cabin. That may mean fewer symptoms of altitude sickness, such as nausea or sluggishness. The plane's composite materials also eliminate the need to keep cabin air dry, since corrosion isn't a worry. An increase in cabin humidity will help reduce throat and eye irritation and other unpleasant effects from dry air. Sensors in the aircraft nose kick in to lessen bumpy moments, as passengers look out windows 65% larger than those in traditional aluminum-clad planes, each long enough to frame a view of the horizon. Blue LED lights lining the cabin are adjusted by the flight crew to simulate either daytime or nighttime. In the plane entryway, a vaulted ceiling and faux skylight help create a feeling of spaciousness.

Boeing's interior design team started exploring ways to enhance the in-cabin experience five years ago. The company formed a cross-disciplinary team of cultural anthropologists, design geeks, data trolls, marketing whizzes, aircraft builders, airline specialists, and engineers. The group brainstormed in Boeing's Payloads Concept Center near the company's Everett (Wash.) plant, trying to think up ways to reshape the flying experience from the inside out. The team took world tours to listen to grumpy frequent fliers, held focus groups, and consulted architects, tourists, business fliers, and backpackers. They studied, and paid for studies to be done on, the effects of altitude, humidity, noise, air contaminants, lighting, and space on passengers. Ultimately they hoped to come up with changes that would differentiate the Dreamliner cabin from those of its rivals and improve life at 30,000 feet.

Passenger surveys led to one of Boeing's most dramatic departures from traditional commercial aircraft design—larger windows. In an aluminum plane, enlarging windows adds too much weight because of the structures needed to support them. It still adds weight to the Dreamliner, but not as much. "We made a conscious decision to take that weight savings from composites and give it back to the passengers with larger windows," says Blake Emery, director of differentiation strategy. "It will be a noticeably different part of the experience." A more typical use of weight savings would be to leave the plane lighter and give airlines an even greater fuel advantage.

Boeing also set out to upgrade the quality of cabin life in less visible ways. Commercial jets today are pressurized at 8,000 feet—about 1,000 feet higher than Mexico City. Because the composite material on the Dreamliner doesn't wear as much as aluminum does when it expands and contracts, Boeing can pressurize the Dreamliner cabin at 6,000 feet, or even lower. By increasing the pressurization, Boeing found that 12% fewer passengers complained of symptoms of altitude sickness. Research funded by Boeing at Oklahoma State University, and published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that below 6,000 feet, passengers experienced virtually no symptoms. "One of the stunning findings is that we as a species had no idea what our reaction was to altitude from 8,000 feet down to sea level," says Klaus Brauer, director of passenger satisfaction at Boeing.

SO LONG STUFFINESS

Another change that stemmed from research findings had to do with airplane humidity and air purification. In a Boeing-sponsored study, the Technical University of Denmark found that a lack of moisture in the air is not the only contributor to symptoms linked with dryness, such as throat and eye irritation, headaches, and occasional dizziness. Improved air filtration was important, too. So Boeing decided to boost cabin humidity from next to nothing to 10%, and to use a new gaseous filtration technology that scrubs the recycled air at the molecular level, rather than at the more common particulate level. The study showed that the combination of additional humidity and the new filtration technology reduced symptoms associated with dryness by 50%, and also reduced odors.

With some of the most basic aspects of the passenger experience improved, Boeing looked for a way to convey a feeling of spaciousness while working with a basic shape—the tube and wing airplane. The designers had slightly more space to work with than on widebody planes of similar size, since the Dreamliner's fuselage is 15 inches wider. To try to keep passengers from feeling cramped, Boeing and its design partner, Seattle-based Teague, separated the different passenger cabins with arches. "We wanted to create an interior that doesn't look like a large tube," says Ken Dowd, vice-president for Teague. "There's a more room-like scale to provide a sense of comfort."

The hard dollars-and-cents question is whether airlines will actually sacrifice revenue-producing seats for some of the cushier optional elements of the Dreamliner design. The faux skylight and the stand-up bar between business class and economy class sound nice in theory, but if the past is any guide, airlines are going to opt to cram in more seats. And while passengers will notice bigger windows and overhead bins, and possibly suffer fewer altitude-induced headaches and the like, they may not really care much about all of the fancy architectural flourishes—at least, not enough to pay more for them. "The new interior looks impressive, and we should feel better, too," says Richard Aboulafia, a longtime aerospace analyst for the Teal Group. "But how impressive will it be when airlines fill every space with more seats? Those inspiring arches might not look so inspirational."

Holmes is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Seattle bureau


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