As I settled into my seat on board British Airways’ Boeing 787 Dreamliner, I put aside a niggling thought. I knew that one of these planes, operated by Ethopian Airlines, had caught fire seven weeks earlier while parked on the tarmac at London’s Heathrow Airport.
But on this trip – the second leg of BA’s first long-haul Dreamliner flight – all I wanted to do was play with the plane’s impressive features – such as the oversized windows that can be dimmed at the touch of a button and its entertainment system with more than 200 movies and hundreds of full albums instead of the Muzak-like audio channels you usually have to listen to.
As we entered the aircraft, there were gifts of leather luggage tags for every passenger and lots of chatter from staff about the plane’s superior air quality, quiet cabin and smooth ride. Missing was any mention of the aircraft’s well-publicized history of technical problems, including a string of fires caused by overheated lithium-ion batteries that grounded 787s around the world for three months this year – not something the airline was eager to point out to passengers on the Sept. 1 flight.
“We’ve got complete confidence in the aircraft,” said Simon Brooks, British Airways’ senior vice-president of sales for North America and Mexico. “We simply wouldn’t be operating it if we didn’t think it was safe to do so.”
Brooks is betting that passengers will be wowed by the new-generation aircraft’s innovative features and he is quick to point out that the airline’s fleet of 787s has been thoroughly inspected and meets all regulatory requirements. British Airways chose the London-Toronto route to launch its first Dreamliner, which is 20 per cent more fuel efficient than similar mid-sized aircraft.
Luckily for the airline, some of the 200-plus passengers on board the inaugural flight out of Toronto knew nothing about the Dreamliner’s troubled history, including Raeka Aiyar, a geneticist based in Heidelberg, Germany.
A blurb about the 787 on the British Airways website helped persuade her to book a seat. “Because I’m a scientist, I’m a bit nerdy and I wanted to experience all the new technology,” she said. She also hoped that the plane’s air-quality improvements – there is more humidity, lower cabin air pressure and better air filtration – would result in less jet lag. “To get there even a bit more refreshed would be really great,” she said.
It worked for me; after the seven-hour trip, I arrived in London feeling less dehydrated than I usually do after a flight of that length. The premium Club World cabin has 35 pod-like seats that can be adjusted to a flat bed, ideal for an overnight flight. The best seats are either beside the window or, strangely, in the middle of the three-seat centre section because they offer privacy on both sides; my aisle seat was a bit too close for comfort to trolley traffic in the narrow aisle.
The seat arrangement, which had me facing the front of the plane while the window-seat passenger faced the back, could make for some uncomfortable tête-à-têtes. With the privacy screen between the seats pulled down, you’d be hard pressed not to make friendly chit-chat with the neighbour facing you, whether you wanted to or not. Then, there’s that awkward moment when you debate whether to raise the screen and shut off contact with your new best friend.
At the back of the plane, the economy cabin offers fairly standard leg room, but I liked how the headrests can be moved up and down to accommodate short and tall passengers. Economy fliers have the same roomy overhead bins and extensive entertainment options as premium passengers.
Despite some initial trepidation, I landed without any lingering fears about the Dreamliner’s safety, a feeling reinforced by my subsequent short-hop flight from London to southern France on bargain carrier Ryanair. Shiny and new beats dated and creaky any day.
British Airways’ 787 Dreamliner flies daily from Toronto to London, Heathrow. Roundtrip economy fares start at $787, Club World business class starts at $2,787.
The writer travelled as a guest of British Airways. The airline did not read or approve this story.