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
FROM THE TIME THAT BOEING unveiled the 707 in 1954, jetliners have come to look pretty much the same: swept wings, engines hung beneath them in nacelles, an aluminum tube for a fuselage, and a line of small windows marching down each side.
The only thing that set one manufacturer’s product apart from another’s was the deal the buyer could make with the seller.
Nearly a decade ago, when an increasingly aggressive Airbus started to bite big chunks out of Boeing’s market share, the U.S. manufacturer started looking for a way to distinguish its products from those of its rival and, perhaps, decrease the emphasis on the all-important deal. Blake Emery, a Boeing executive, remembers the discussions well. “That was a time period when airplanes were beginning to become a commodity, sales were based on price, and we had a competitor who was being subsidized substantially,” he says. (Airbus makes the same charge against Boeing.) “We decided that maybe we needed a different approach.”
The result of that mind-shift: The 250-passenger 787 Dreamliner, designed with the help of an airplane that never flew, a French cultural guru, and Time magazine’s Person of the Year for 2006: You.
Though the 787, according to Boeing, costs no more than a typical late-model airliner—about $150 million—a number of features set it apart from its predecessors. More than half of the wings and fuselage are made of carbon fiber to shave weight and reduce maintenance, and that, combined with fuel-sipping engines, Boeing tells its customers, will cut fuel consumption by 20 percent, compared with what current jets of similar size use. Those are differences that Boeing’s customers—airlines—will notice. But what about the airlines’ customers—you, the passengers? What you will notice is the Dreamliner cabin.
When most passengers board an airliner, they enter the tight space inside the door, squeeze past a flight attendant standing in the galley, head enviously through the first class cabin, and stop in the crowded aisles in coach. When they board a 787, they will enter a spacious foyer where two arches curve up into a ceiling that seems to disappear in a bright morning sky. The arches draw the eyes upward. The ceiling, washed with light from hidden LEDs (light-emitting diodes), almost glows, in stark contrast to the glare of fluorescent tubes that provide light in conventional airliner cabins. During the flight, flight attendants can change the brightness and color of the cabin light to create a sense of morning, dusk, and nighttime.
“It all lets your peripheral vision create a sense of space,” says Emery of the 787’s use of light and architecture. “Plus the ceiling creates a sense of infinity, of going up. We wanted to create a sensation of walking into the airplane and away from the hassles that went into getting there, so there is a feeling of ‘Ah, relief!’ ” He adds: “The 777 is 16 inches wider than the 787, but we have people come in here and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know the 787 was bigger [than the 777].’ ”
The journey from aluminum tube to a space filled with color and light started in 1997, when the best new idea at Boeing was a proposed update of the 747. Walt Gillette, an engineer and manager who had had a hand in every jetliner the company had designed since the 1970s, formed a committee to figure out how to make the updated 747 a compelling airplane. Chris Kettering, who had joined Boeing in 1986 and had helped design the wing for the 777 jetliner, was on the committee. “One thing became clear,” he recalled in an e-mail. “Differentiating your product was critical to long-term success.”
Kettering put together a team charged with the vague concept of creating a “differentiation” strategy. One member of his team was a psychologist Boeing had hired to design and launch work teams so they got off to a good start: Blake Emery.
“This was just a fascinating project,” recalls Emery, sitting in a conference room south of Seattle where Boeing shows interior mockups of the 787 and other airliners to airline executives. A trim man of 55, nattily dressed in a crisp white shirt and blue tie, Emery obviously relishes the memory of discussions that upended the customary engineering approaches to aircraft design.
“One of the things the committee came up with was the idea of ‘airplanes for people.’ What that meant was that everyone who came into contact with the airplane—crew, mechanics, or flying passengers—was going to say ‘Wow. Boeing has really thought of me when they built this airplane.’
“The company leadership at the time had this view that the flying customer didn’t buy our airplanes,” Emery recalls. “They’d say, ‘Our customer is the bean counter at the airline, and they’re not really people—they’re just robots. You’re trying to design an airplane that meets people’s emotional needs, but these people don’t have any emotions!’ ”
Still, with the support of key people such as Gillette, the concept gained traction. At the same time, Boeing started to face some hard market realities. In 1999 company executives began to think there weren’t enough customers for a new 747 derivative (Boeing abandoned the 747 update in 2001) and focused instead on a swoopy-looking bird called the Sonic Cruiser, a 250-seat airliner that was to fly at Mach .95—about 20 percent faster than many commercial jets. (The 747, one of the faster passenger aircraft, flies at Mach .85.) The Sonic Cruiser reflected a growing conviction within Boeing that the traveling public wanted jets that flew them to their destinations, not to giant hubs where they had to catch other airplanes home.
Moreover, the Sonic Cruiser’s radical look, with canards near the nose, a delta wing, and twin tails, seemed to have jarred something loose in the minds of what had been a bunch of fairly staid Boeing engineers. Emery, who by then had been named to a position he helped invent—Director of Differentiation Strategy—argued that “radical” was how Boeing needed to think about future aircraft. “That was one of the best things that ever happened to us,” Emery says of the Sonic Cruiser. “It showed the world that this company with a stodgy reputation can do something that’s really out of left field.”
Emery wanted to match the flowing, futuristic look of the Sonic Cruiser’s exterior with an interior that was equally appealing. And he wanted to do it based in part on his own training as a psychologist. He envisioned an interior that reflected what people wanted and needed when they flew, even if they couldn’t find the words to say what that was.
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.