The 787 Dreamliner (Parts 1-2)

by Colin Berkshire

Part1: I travel to Asia a lot. The journey takes about 12 hours and can take 16 hours depending upon where I am headed. It is arduous. I often think I would rather drink rat poison than sit in a horrid seat for one more trip. But I do it; that is my job.

I know trans-pacific airplanes well. I know every airline’s configuration. I even know which specific seats on which routes haven’t had working in-seat video screens for years. (How can an airline fail to repair a TV on an airplane for years?)

I have heard so much about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner that I have drooled over the prospect of flying on one. I had visions of a bright, cheery, comfortable modern cabin. I envisioned the luxury of flying in the PanAm days when it was comfortable.

So, when I learned that the 787 Dreamliner was being assigned to a route that I frequent I was ecstatic. I read all about the 787 Dreamliner, I lobbied to get assigned to the 787 Dreamliner flight and begged for a business class seat. And I was rewarded with one. Score!

I salivated over my ANA ticket and triple checked that yes, it was the 787 Dreamliner, really. I fantasized about not arriving in Asia exhausted and dilapidated.

So this next series of blogs are about the 787 Dreamliner experience. All my friends were dying to know: How was it? So now I can share with you what the experience was like. But here’s the spoiler: it ends badly.Part 2: I could hardly wait! I was about the fly on the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner. For years I had salivated over the marketing hype about how comfortable it would be, and about how high-tech the planes were. My expectations were that I would arrive refreshed, and that the experience would hark back upon the grand days of trans-oceanic flight.

Finally the day arrived. I had scored a Business Class ticket on ANA into Tokyo. It would be a dozen hours in an airplane only a month old. How cool is that!

Boarding the airplane was without fanfare. The interior was nice and open, with higher ceilings than most jumbo jets. I knew from the PR that the lighting was all LED based, the windows were huge, and that they had electronic shades, rather than pull-shades.

I found my seat, set out my reading materials and sat down. I usually board last, but I wanted as much time as possible in this experience, so I boarded early. I had half an hour to sit and savor the height of aeronautical engineering.

I decided to sit and read my book while watching the boarding. So I decided to turn on the overhead light. Before me, conveniently placed was this button:

It looked like a light-bulb over a seat, so I pressed ON. Nothing. No light. Nothing seemed to happen. How odd.

Then, I looked up at the light in the overhead compartment and noticed a push button:

OK, so the overhead lighting required reaching up and pushing a button. Fair enough. I pushed it.

Bonk! I was hit in the head by a pair of oxygen masks!

I’ve never seen oxygen masks before in real-life. But now there they were, hanging right in front of me.

My first instinct was to reach out and put one on. I knew that you have something like 10 seconds to do that before you pass out. But here we were on the ground. I looked around and saw that ONLY my seat had the masks hanging. And, then I realized in that same split second that the overhead lighting button I had pushed was not what it looked like: it was an oxygen mask release button.

Initially, I felt embarrassed. How silly of me. I was the only one aboard the airplane to have made such a silly mistake. And, there were these orange masks for everybody to see how inept I was. They just hung there:

I got a flight attendant and apologized, explaining that I just wanted to turn on the lights. She called maintenance. The maintenance staff showed up in like 3 minutes. They fiddled for a while with the masks.

They then pulled out a roll of surgical tape and stuffed the masks back into place and wound bands of tape over the compartment to keep it closed. Apparently once the masks open you cannot just put them back. They need to be re-certified and be tested. The seat was out of service.

Then, they informed me that they could NOT fix them and I would be reassigned another seat. No problem.

In my new seat, I felt embarrassed and a bit stupid. And, I just stared up at the lights and the button I had pressed.

I then started looking around. I saw no indication of how to turn on the overhead lights. The only logical switch was the one that I had pushed. I looked and looked and looked. No switch.

Could it be that the 3-year late, hopelessly over-engineered 787 Dreamliner had such a horrendous user-interface gaff that it is not obvious how to turn on the lights? Apparently so.

I pondered the light switch for several hours, wondering how all of the engineering mock-ups and experts had designed an airplane that had resulted in such an non-obvious way of turning on the lights. And, I pondered how many people like me would have to push the button next to the lights, popping open the flap that dumps the oxygen masks before Boeing is coerced into engineering a solution.

As I thought about this I realized that the light-switch design flaw was a function of big-company thinking. Boeing has been so committed to the 787 program that they all knew they just needed to make it happen. Anybody who found flaws or problems was unwelcome and would be considered to be an obstructionist.

Because of the immense political pressure, the last thing Boeing needed was real-world customers to find silly, obvious, serious flaws like I had. Boeing never desired to bring somebody in with the instructions: “find every problem you can so we can decide if they need to be fixed.” The need to get into production superseded any interest in quality design. This is a scary thought when it comes to an airplane.

Sadly, my experience with the overhead light wasn’t to be the worst of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner experience…more on that in my next posting.