New 787s spare no expense

SEATTLE — Boeing Co. has snagged hundreds of orders for its new 787 with a sales pitch that leans heavily on the light, sturdy carbon-fiber composites replacing most of the aluminum on the plane to make it guzzle less fuel and cost less to maintain.

But Boeing says it's designed everything inside the plane, from air filters and electric generators to high-tech cabin lighting and in-flight-entertainment systems, with an equally steadfast eye toward cost-cutting and comfort.

The 787 will have much less wiring than the comparably sized 767 — about 61 miles compared to 91 — which will make it cheaper and easier for airlines to repair while opening up space for bigger overhead bins and more elbow room for passengers.

In-flight entertainment systems will be lighter and more simply wired and will feature seat-back monitors and handsets with tiny keyboards on the back so that someday — engineers aren't yet sure when — they can be used for things like instant messaging.

The plane will burn fuel more efficiently and sap less energy from its engines because its systems will be powered almost entirely by high-voltage electric generators, rather than the typical system that runs on air sucked through the engines.

Flight-control electronics, which run all the systems that guide the airplane in flight, are smaller than they've ever been before, less than a quarter the size of those on the 777, Boeing's last all-new plane, which airlines started flying in 1995.

In the cockpit, "heads-up" display panels suspended in pilots' line of sight will help them land the plane much more precisely, which some airlines have said saves them a surprising amount of money by limiting wear and tear on tires.

Some of the 787's new features have nothing to do with cost, just comfort. There's software that's designed to help the plane respond more quickly to up-and-down wind gusts in the frequency that most often triggers motion sickness.

The cabin lighting system will be able to simulate a sunrise, gradually shifting from deep blue to warm orange to soft white, sparing passengers from the jolt of bright lights at the end of a dark, overnight flight.

Instead of shades, cabin windows will have controls passengers or flight attendants can push to dim or brighten them. The windows will be larger than usual, a design Boeing chose after studies showed passengers felt more at ease if they had a clear view of the horizon.

And for the first time, Boeing has added an air purification system designed to scrub out contaminants released by things like hand wipes, hair spray, perfume and vinyl on luggage. The company made the move after surveys showed a strong link between passenger discomfort and high levels of volatile organic compounds in cabin air.

Engineers who designed all these systems worked in tandem much more so than they ever have before, said Mike Sinnett, director of systems for the 787.

"It's unlike anything we've ever done before, and as a result, I think we've hit the sweet spot in so many more areas than we would have otherwise," Sinnett said this past week as Boeing gave tours of the labs where it's testing the 787's systems.

In one lab, engineers test all the software that will run the plane so they can fix any bugs before the hardware goes out to manufacturers. Another lab is stocked with machines that mimic flight conditions, essentially fooling airplane systems into thinking they're part of a functioning jet. Each of the labs is crucial to Boeing's efforts to catch errors.

In the Integration Test Vehicle lab, nicknamed the "Iron Bird," engineers have pinpointed some 750 problems, solving most of them even as new ones crop up, said Pete van Leynseele, a flight control engineer.

Those problems are hiccups in the Iron Bird, but would've been serious, potentially costly headaches that might otherwise have threatened to delay the plane if they'd been discovered on the factory floor, said Len Inderhees, a flight control engineer who leads the Iron Bird team.

"This is where the lab pays for itself right now," Inderhees said, "by finding the problems early before the airplane gets a similar problem up there in the factory or in flight test."

Passengers will probably never notice many of the upgrades Boeing has worked into the 787, which is scheduled to enter commercial service next May.

For example, if the vertical gust suppression system works as it's designed to while the plane is cruising on autopilot, the ride will seem a bit smoother, but will people realize it's because of software and sensors? Probably not, but if it's something that makes a flight seem more pleasant, it's a worthwhile investment, Sinnett said.

"We've taken out the hills and turned them into bumps," Sinnett said in a cockpit simulator used for motion-related research.

People likely won't notice a fire suppression system designed to lower the rate of false alarms by using more sensors that can detect smoke more quickly. The same goes for a system that feeds nitrogen-enriched air into all the fuel tanks, not just the center one, to reduce flammability.

Boeing does hope passengers notice that the 787's cabin is more comfortably pressurized — though they may not know it's like being at 6,000 feet of elevation rather than the standard 8,000 feet. They'll probably also sense that cabin air is less dry; the goal is to keep humidity around 15 percent compared to most cabins today, which can dip as low as 2 percent, Sinnett said.

Boeing also has high hopes for its full-spectrum lighting system — perhaps a bit more than it should. Sean Sullivan, who leads the 787 cabin services team, said airlines will be able to change the color of cabin light to fit whatever mood they want to set — even to make the food look tastier.

He touched off a wave of disbelieving chuckles with that remark. "Trust me," he said, "your food will look great. If you do it wrong, you can make your food look really bad."

It's enough to make you wonder if they tried to figure out how to make the food taste better.

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