Inside Boeing Co.’s Everett aircraft assembly plant north of Seattle, a banner near one of the hangar doors reminds workers of the company’s dreamy goal: Flying into the Future.
This weekend, the manufacturer will hand over Air Canada’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner – more than nine years after the Montreal-based airline placed its order for a plane that appears to have finally overcome major teething and development problems that caused initial deliveries to be delayed more than three years beyond the original schedule.
The occasion has been a long time coming, so much so that Air Canada chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu will be in Everett to take delivery of the first plane, the 160th Dreamliner built by Boeing.
This is one of the most important deliveries in the history of Air Canada, although the equation is simple. The 787 has more seats than the aged Boeing 767s it’s replacing, carries those passengers farther and does it by using less fuel.
Deploying the right plane on the right route is crucial to the carrier’s growth strategy. The larger Boeing 777 doesn’t make sense on many long-haul routes, but the Dreamliner can be profitable because it has fewer seats to fill than the 777 for secondary aviation markets such as Tel Aviv, where there isn’t enough demand to fill the bigger aircraft.
The Boeing 787 allows Canada’s largest airline to offer flights to new destinations, upgrade existing routes and try to win back market share it has lost to international carriers and discount competitors.
It comes amid a strong turnaround for the airline, which has trimmed costs, all but eliminated a crippling pension deficit, and is pinning its hopes for continued growth on an expansion of its international operations. Its share price has risen almost 300 per cent in the past year.
“We fully expect this to be one of our grand-slam home-run type airplanes,” said Ben Smith, Air Canada’s chief commercial officer. “We have an aircraft with the economics, the range, the passenger comfort, the commonality with the 777, we have the right pricing on it, it’s coming at the right time. It’s hitting everything.”
Air Canada has had little growth in its wide-bodied airplane fleet for 12 years, which has contributed to significant market share loss, Mr. Smith said in an interview in the boardroom of Air Canada’s Toronto office, where he urges a visitor to examine a model of the 787 that graces one corner of the room.
He ticks off a list of European cities that competitor Air Transat effectively took over because of lower costs. The Toronto-Tel Aviv flight, where a 787 will replace a 767-300ER (extended range) provides an example of the difference the plane will make.
At the moment, the flight takes 12 hours, more than the 11.5 hours crews are allowed to work. So Air Canada had to take out 20 seats to make space for the pilots and flight attendants to rest. That means the current plane offers just 191 seats instead of 211.
The 787 that will fly to Tel Aviv has 251 seats. The new planes are 20 per cent more fuel efficient than the 767-300ER models they replace.
Anticipation has been growing at Air Canada as the first of 37 Dreamliners makes its debut. Based on original list prices, Air Canada’s embrace of the 787 program represents an investment from 2014 to 2019 that will total more than $6-billion.
The carrier held a Dream Big contest that will result in 50 airline employees joining Mr. Rovinescu for hand-over ceremonies on Saturday. They will then board a Sunday flight from Everett to Toronto for a staff event to welcome the Dreamliner, complete with a water cannon salute after landing.
For aviation buffs, it will be a feather in their cap to take a photo of Air Canada’s first twin-aisle Dreamliner with registration mark C-GHPQ, also known as Fin 801 within the airline. Air Canada’s first 787 will be deployed on flights between Toronto and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport – a new route the airline is adding to the more central of Tokyo’s two international airports.
For passengers, interior features include new designs for overhead bins to allow for more head room while larger windows have dimmer buttons instead of manual shades.
Travelling via the 787 should leave passengers less jet-lagged because the atmosphere on the plane is the equivalent of 6,000 feet (1,829 metres) above sea level, compared with 8,000 feet on older airplanes. Air Canada’s initial orders are for Boeing 787-8s, which are configured for 251 seats – 210 in economy, 21 in premium economy and 20 in business class.
“This will be a game changer for Air Canada,” said aviation industry consultant Robert Kokonis, president of AirTrav Inc. “A Dreamliner could potentially turn around a route from being either a loser or not that hugely profitable, into one that is robust and reasonably profitable.”
By next June, Air Canada will have eight of the new planes in service and will no longer fly 767s across the Pacific Ocean, Mr. Smith said. All trans-Pacific 767 flights will be converted to 787s or 777s.
“We will also be announcing new routes to Asia with the 787,” he said.
On a recent visit to Everett, workers put the finishing touches on two Dreamliners earmarked for Air Canada.
“We’re looking forward to working with Air Canada and introducing the Dreamliner into the fleet,” said Mike Fleming, vice-president of services and support for the Boeing 787.
The plane, which has suffered from parts problems including battery overheating that resulted in fires, was recently declared safe to fly by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
The long journey of the Dreamliner has involved a cast of thousands at Boeing. In Everett, employees are dwarfed by the massive size and scale of the plant. There are six enormous hangar doors, each running the length of a football field. The sprawling assembly plant itself covers an area the size of 75 NFL fields.
Looking up from the factory floor, workers can see a large U.S. flag on display just above the cafeteria windows for the Dreamliner Diner. As if anyone needs to be reminded, Boeing is the pride of the United States in the heated global battle against European plane maker Airbus.
Airbus opted for the double-decker A380 to distinguish itself in the world’s largest aviation hubs, but Boeing decided to focus its energies instead on smaller aircraft. “We zigged, they zagged,” said Blake Emery, director of differentiation strategy at Boeing Commercial Airplanes. “Airbus went for the big hub-to-hub type of flying experience. We went for point to point.”
The Dreamliner has been deployed by carriers worldwide since the plane’s commercial debut in late 2011. “On a long route with the fuel-efficient plane, you can begin to develop that route and grow your airline,” Mr. Emery said. “That’s an airline’s basic business proposition for 787s – save money and open up new routes.”
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