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 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."

Mr. French said that one milestone in the development of composite structures for airframes was the B-2 stealth bomber.

Pushing technology

One of Vought's predecessor companies, LTV, had a major hand in creating that revolutionary plane.

"Back in the early to mid '80s, LTV designed, developed, produced, assembled and delivered one-third of the structural design of B-2 stealth bomber out of Dallas," Mr. French said.

"That's where our company got really good on composite structure. We really pushed the technology and really came out with some innovative technologies that allowed that airplane to fly. You just could not build a B-2 out of metal."

Now composites are a big part of a lot of different military and commercial planes, including many of Boeing's previous jets.

Dr. Miller noted that the 737, 747, 757, 767 and 777 all use composite parts to varying degrees.

But the 787 -- and, eventually, competitor Airbus' A350 -- have taken the technology to another level.

There are three variants of the 787: the 787-3, the 787-8 and the 787-9.

According to Boeing, the prices on the planes range from a low of $146 million on some configurations of the 787-3 to $200 million for some configurations of the 787-9.

Those price tags put the 787 about in the middle of Boeing's current lineup of commercial jets: less expensive than the 747 and 777 families but a little pricier than the 737 and 767 jets.

No ticket price break

While composite materials can do a lot of things, Mr. Hamilton said one benefit passengers probably won't get from the composite structures is lower ticket prices.

The increased fuel efficiency is a bonus, he said, but rising fuel and labor costs will probably eat up most of those savings.

The 787 will also offer other technological upgrades for passengers that are unrelated to the composite structures, such as larger overhead luggage bins, sensors in the airplane's nose that automatically smooth the flight during turbulence and features in the engines that reduce noise.

The biggest advance in the design of the 787, though, is clearly the composite structures.

While Boeing is reluctant to predict an all-composite future for new plane designs, Mr. French at Vought said he expects the technology to become even more popular.

"The whole passenger experience is going to be greatly enhanced as more and more composite passenger-type aircraft fall into the industry," he said.

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