Boeing's 787 Dreamliner engineered for comfort: Boeing's 787 uses modern technology in ways that passengers can feel

Aug. 29--Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner is clearly a marvel of modern engineering. But if you're hustling to catch a 7 a.m. flight to New York, struggling to jam another wrinkled shirt into your long-suffering duffel bag and dreading the dry throat...


Aug. 29--Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner is clearly a marvel of modern engineering.

But if you're hustling to catch a 7 a.m. flight to New York, struggling to jam another wrinkled shirt into your long-suffering duffel bag and dreading the dry throat you always get during long hauls, you may not care much about the advanced technology.

Maybe you should.

The new plane, scheduled to make its first commercial flights next year and built in part by Dallas-based Vought Aircraft Industries Inc., isn't just a boon for airlines.

The 787 -- thanks to its high-tech composite structure -- offers a menu of attractive features for passengers that aren't possible on traditional, mostly metal planes.

From bigger windows to a more pleasant ventilation system, the carbon composite structure of the 787 could make flying just a little less annoying.

"Passengers will see several benefits due to the composite material," Dr. Alan Miller, Boeing's director of technology integration for the 787, said in an e-mail interview.

"The most visible of these benefits is probably the bigger windows -- the windows on the 787 will be 65 percent larger than competing airplanes. The 787 will also have lower cabin pressure and higher humidity, making longer flights more enjoyable."

Composites have been used for years in smaller quantities in other planes.

But the crop of composite materials integrated into the 787 almost requires an advanced degree to even discuss.

As Dr. Miller describes them: "Polymer matrix composites are a class of materials that include fiber reinforcements made of glass, Kevlar, Spectra, Vectran and other fibers, in addition to carbon fiber, that are held in shape by a hardened resin like epoxy or bismaleimide.

"About four-fifths of the composites used on the 787 are carbon fiber reinforced by an epoxy resin" called carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, or CFRP.

What you end up with, though, is what aviation analyst Scott Hamilton calls the "plastic plane."

That's not a term of derision.

Composite's strength

The composite material is stronger than traditional aluminum, resistant to corrosion and lighter than traditional airframe structures.

The result, coupled with more efficient engines and other improvements, as Boeing notes with the 787-8 model, is an aircraft that uses "20 percent less fuel than any other airplane of its size."

At a time when jet fuel prices seem to be soaring almost as high as the jets themselves, that's a big deal.

For passengers, the extensive use of strong, light, anti-corrosive composites in the 787 means that the jet can include larger windows, the cabin can be pressurized to a lower altitude than on most planes (6,000 feet vs. 8,000 feet) and there will be higher humidity in the cabin air, which will comfort throats without increasing the risk of rust.

"Any passenger who travels farther than, say, Dallas to Austin notices that the nose and eyes will dry, and the mouth may dry," Mr. Hamilton said. "The higher humidity will mitigate that to some degree."

These improvements may sound long overdue to the average passenger but are the product of years of careful innovation and testing, said Doug French, who is the Dallas-based director of quality assurance for the 787 division.

Vought, in a joint partnership with Alenia North America, assembles more than 60 percent of the 787's fuselage at a facility in South Carolina.

Mr. French has worked on composite aircraft structures for years at Vought and its predecessor companies.

Simple concept

He noted that while the composite materials in the 787 are cutting edge, the concept is fairly simple.

"Composites is actually a broad-based term," he said. "It really is a material that combines two or more organic or inorganic materials together at a very basic level. Concrete is considered a composite.

"In aerospace, composites are pretty much anything except metallic in nature."

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