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.
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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.