How Boeing Put the Dream in Dreamliner
When aircraft designers wanted to make passengers feel happy, they turned to psychologists.
- By Douglas Gantenbein
- Air & Space magazine, September 2007
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Starting in 1999, with Gillette’s backing, Emery convened some 50 focus groups in several countries with the goal of finding out what people really wanted in an airliner. “We’d hear the usual things—‘I can’t find my seat,’ ‘I don’t have enough room for my legs,’ ‘I went to the bathroom on an airplane once and I never want to do it again,’ ” he says. “We listened to all that. But we were looking for things that people really couldn’t articulate.”
To draw people out, Emery’s team would take 10 or 15 into a room and tell them that they were in charge of designing the world’s first jetliner cabin. No limitations. Or they would sit them next to the blank wall of a cabin mockup, give them a Magic Marker, and ask them to draw an ideal window. “Their deeper values began to come out,” says Emery. “Some things we couldn’t use, of course, such as elaborate overhead delivery systems for food to get carts out of the aisles. But one big lesson was the concept people have that as one walks down a jetway you’re feeling cramped because there are no windows, then you go through the door of the airplane and everything seems to get smaller and smaller.”
Boeing also hired as a consultant a French-born marketing expert and psychologist named Clotaire Rapaille (pronounced ruh-PIE). Rapaille, author of such books as The Culture Code: An Ingenious Way to Understand Why People Around the World Live and Buy as They Do, has made a name for himself analyzing how people in various countries perceive consumer products. Americans, he claims, view automobiles as a way to create an identity for themselves. A German buying a car thinks about engineering. Rapaille has consulted with 50 of the 100 biggest companies in the United States, from Daimler-Chrysler to DuPont, and is often credited with coming up with the design cues that have made Daimler-Chrysler’s PT Cruiser one of the most successful cars of the past decade.
Rapaille believes that what people really want out of life, out of their jobs, out of the products they buy or the airplanes they fly in simply can’t be articulated. “If you ask people what they want, they just tell you what they read in a book or magazine—they can’t really express their deep feelings,” Rapaille says. “You have to tap into the reptilian part of the brain, the old part of the brain. That’s where people really connect with the logic of life.”
Between focus groups and Rapaille’s advice, Boeing discovered not only how people view flight, but also what sorts of features in an airliner’s interior might have universal appeal. Those include…well, Emery won’t say. “We learned a lot of cool stuff,” he says, with a faint, satisfied smile. How to shape the space, manage lighting, build in details that would create a pleasant experience—all began to depart from the way Boeing had designed aircraft since the 707. Gradually the interior for the Sonic Cruiser began to appear—and then in 2002, the Sonic Cruiser itself disappeared.
Although it was an enormously appealing aircraft—“Airline executives would see the model and say ‘I’ve gotta have that in my fleet,’ ” says Emery—the Sonic Cruiser didn’t offer any improvement in airliner economics. It flew 20 percent faster than anything else, but also burned 20 percent more gas to do it. So when air travel dropped precipitously after the September 11, 2001 attacks, Boeing canceled the Sonic Cruiser. Nonetheless, much of what had been planned for the speedy jet—carbon fiber construction, a new interior design—translated nicely into the 787, announced in December 2003.
The luggage bins in the Dreamliner are bigger than those on traditional airliners, but are curved and flatter against the ceiling so they don’t bang into heads when people try to get to the window or middle seats. The windows, thanks to the carbon fiber fuselage, are almost 19 inches tall and 11 inches wide—as opposed to 15 by 10-plus inches in the 777. The larger windows not only brighten the interior but give passengers in middle seats a better view outside. In an added trick, the windows are dimmed electronically. Move a controller, and the window darkens as if by magic.
Making the 787 mostly out of carbon fiber (the aircraft fuselage is essentially “baked” in giant forms) created opportunities to indulge in other design niceties not possible with traditional aluminum. Aluminum airplanes can certainly have larger windows. But bigger window cutouts put more strain on the airframe. Carbon fiber handles the strains better than aluminum, so engineers could show a little flair and splurge on bigger windows without shortening the life of the airframe.
Also, because carbon fiber doesn’t flex nearly as much as aluminum during repeated pressurizations, the cabin can be kept at a higher pressure than is possible with older airliners. Typically, airliner cabin atmosphere is the same as what you’d encounter at an elevation of 8,000 feet. The 787 will have the same pressure as the atmosphere at around 6,000 feet. With more oxygen to inhale, passengers are less likely to feel the headache and other symptoms of jet lag caused by oxygen deprivation. Carbon fiber, moreover, is impervious to moisture, so cabin humidity can be set higher than in current jets. “People are really going to notice the difference—especially on longer flights,” says Emery.
There are other comfort features built into the 787. The engines—made by Rolls-Royce or GE, depending on what an airline specifies—are quieter, making for a quieter cabin and reducing noise fatigue. (The GE engine will be available on other airliners as well.) And the 787 is the first airliner to have sensors that detect turbulence, then send signals to the jet’s flight controls to dampen the bumping and pitching from vertical gusts that makes some passengers feel queasy.
For the most part, Boeing’s 787 design has dazzled airline analysts. “It could well be a terrific airplane—one that I personally think will outsell the 727,” says Doug McVitie, an analyst with Arran Aerospace in France. (Boeing delivered 1,831 727s.) “Airlines are responsible for customizing their aircraft, and with the 787, their starting point will be a highly appealing, feel-good blank canvas.” Adds Raymond Jaworowski, a senior aerospace analyst for Connecticut-based Forecast International, “Airlines definitely believe that passenger comfort will attract travelers, and I believe that’s largely true. You always hear travelers complaining about cramped conditions, not enough space for luggage, narrow aisles. Given a choice on the market, they might well gravitate to the more comfortable aircraft.”
But to a more comfortable-looking aircraft?
Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst with the Teal Group in Virginia and himself a frequent air passenger, figures that the real test will be what airlines do with the interior of the jet. That, he says, “is up to the seat manufacturers and the airlines themselves—and comfort is going to be outweighed by operational expenses every time.”
Even if there’s no improvement in hip and leg room, Boeing is promoting the idea that the 787 will be so popular among passengers, they will book with the airline that flies it. Airlines seem to be buying into that notion. Since its launch in April 2004, the 787 has racked up 677 orders, the first commercial airliner to reach that number so quickly. Says John Greenlee, managing director of fleet planning for Continental Airlines, “We were the first airline in North America to sign on for the 787, and we think that when we start flying them we’ll have a real product advantage, compared with other airlines.” Greenlee believes that while the 787 likely won’t allow an airline to charge more for a ticket, it certainly will draw more traffic.
Although neither Blake Emery nor Clotaire Rapaille will describe the psychology he believes is at work in creating a popular airliner, Rapaille does say one thing that provides insight. “The reptilian brain is about survival, so we go into simple biology. What is more important, drinking or breathing? Well, both are important, but you can go some time without drinking, but you can’t last very long if you don’t breathe.”
That seems to be one of the foundations of the 787. Literally, passengers will breathe easier.