Does the 787 Dreamliner represent the great new era in travel Boeing would have us believe?
My first impression on boarding the plane for All Nippon Airways' inaugural flight to Tokyo Tuesday was not a good one. Sure, the ceilings are high, but the business class seat to which I was directed—I’m told the tickets cost upward of $5,000—certainly didn’t seem to match the price. The slimmer baggage bins overhead and high ceilings make the cabin seem more spacious, but look down, and the cabin seems to be covered with rows of tiny office cubicles placed back to back. Sitting down in my window seat, I felt a little squeezed between the high tray on my left and the window on my right.
But once the plane took off, I began to feel the difference. The sun coming through the unusually large window was blinding as we took off, but rather than close the shades, I was able to darken the glass at the push of a button, cutting the glare yet still allowing me to enjoy the view as we flew north along Lake Washington, then curved left toward the west.
My seat was right above the engine, yet even as the plane climbed steeply to reach cruising altitude, it emitted little more than a muffled roar. Above the engine, the wing fluttered gently like a bird's. I never felt my ears pop, thanks to the composite structure of the plane which, I’m told, allows the cabin to be pressurized closer to what humans prefer. My sinuses still seemed dry, but I didn’t get the parched throat that often bothers me on flights.
So is this a revolution in travel? That’s asking an awful lot of a new-model airplane. I was born and raised in Japan, and I’ve seen some pretty amazing advances. As a child, I often traveled by ocean freighter to visit my grandparents in California, a trip that took a week to 10 days, depending on the weather. The first Boeing 707 aircraft allowed us to make that trip in a day, stopping in Hawaii to refuel. Of course, the planes were noisy and shook so much in turbulence you thought they were going to come apart. It was almost always a pretty unpleasant flight, though preferable to being on stormy seas aboard a freighter. Things kept improving until the arrival of the Boeing 747, when it felt to me like travel had hit its zenith, with attentive flight personnel and relatively spacious seating.
The arrival of in-flight movies made travel a lot easier to bear. Perhaps that’s what allowed airlines to cut back on the service and the quality of the food to the point where air travel seemed more and more like traveling on a Greyhound bus. Even on the rare occasion when I traveled first class, while I felt pampered, the food and service were never at the level of luxury of the late 1960s.
So what of ANA’s 787 Dreamliner service? Well, the business-class cubicles looked awful, but once I’d settled into mine it felt pretty special. It was as if I had my own private pod, complete with a place for my shoes, a spacious side table for my papers, lots of room for my legs to spread out under the side table in front of me, and a screen on which movies were a pleasure to watch. There was an outlet for my laptop and a USB port to charge my iPhone. If you’re the gregarious sort who likes to chat up strangers, this setup is not for you. If you prefer being in your own world to do your work, read or watch movies as you please, it is ideal.
When I felt like napping, I fussed with the buttons until I found the one that reclines the seat until it lies flat. It seemed as if I was in a cozy cocoon—a nice feature that might be common in first class but is still rare in business class.
It’s the service that truly stands out on the ANA flight. Immediately upon boarding, I had a choice of cold green tea or champagne. Once we were airborne, I was offered a wet towel and an enticing selection of drinks that included a Jacquart Brut 2005 Champagne, an excellent Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, and a pair of superb sakes.
Dinner was a choice between Japanese and Western. The Western meal started with marinated sea bream flavored with wasabi, a scallop with yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) and a filet of beef with mushroom-pepper sake sauce that I’m told was excellent. I chose the Japanese dinner, which began with an assortment of appetizers, including seared blowfish in a vinegar soy sauce, some slices of duck and a grilled scallop. The entree was grilled yellowtail marinated in a sweet miso sauce served with rice and miso soup. The food was outstanding, which is amazing, since the flight attendants have to put it all together in a galley that’s impossibly small. I'm told the Japanese food will be even better on the way back since it will be prepared in Japan by ANA's catering operation rather than in Seattle.
The strong Japanese flavor extends to the movie selection: There were a half-dozen Japanese movies, many other international films and only a few good selections from Hollywood. For the obsessive compulsive, there’s also a high-tech toilet. Pass your hand across a sensor, and the toilet lowers the lid and flushes itself. No need to touch anything.
Perhaps ANA's Dreamliner service doesn’t represent a revolution in travel. But it's a worthy evolution that combines best-in-breed comfort with a return to the kind of service I recall from the heyday of air travel. In ANA business class, there’s a sense that you are experiencing a special luxury, the kind you expect at the very best Japanese hotels and restaurants, the sort of hospitality that represents Japan at its best. Delta and United are going to have to up their games if they want to keep up with ANA on 10½-hour flights from Seattle to Tokyo.