Friday, December 14, 2012

Qatar Airways boss: why Boeing 787 Dreamliner has no first class

Exclusive: Peter Hughes caught up with Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, on the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight to London Heathrow. 

By Peter Hughes 

2:49PM GMT 14 Dec 2012

The world’s most advanced airliner touched down in London on Thursday, marking the start of the first long-haul commercial service into the capital using the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The plane has been in operation for just over a year, but the seven airlines that have so far taken delivery have used it on short-haul routes.

Qatar Airways used one of its three 787s to make the seven-hour journey from Doha, Qatar’s capital, to Heathrow. In doing so it gave passengers their first chance to test the biggest claims Boeing makes for the way it has improved passenger comfort. I was aboard the 787 on its inaugural commercial flight last year from Tokyo to Hong Kong, but in a four-hour flight one couldn’t be sure whether the lower cabin pressurisation and higher humidity had really made a difference.

On the flight to London, I was aware of the improvement. After an uncivilised 5am check-in in the Middle East I arrived in an icy London considerably less frazzled than usual after that length of time in the air. Undoubtedly the cabin atmosphere was a factor, but the general airiness also helped. A high ceiling – despite appreciably larger overhead lockers – subtle lighting and windows 30 per cent larger than on the 767 make the Dreamliner feel positively cavernous.

All this is made possible by Boeing’s use of composite materials. Fifty per cent of the airframe, including the wings, is made of what has been patronisingly and inaccurately called plastic. Lighter and stronger, it is cheaper to maintain and, thanks in large measure to a new generation of engines developed by Rolls-Royce and General Electric, contributes to 20 per cent better fuel consumption and less CO2 emissions than older aircraft of similar size.

Qatar eventually expects to have 60 Dreamliners in its fleet. It has firm orders for 30 and options on a further 30, but it was the airline’s bad luck to launch its 787 service exactly a month after a serious teething problem came to light. In November Boeing issued an alert about a possible leak from a fuel line caused by “improper assembly”. In the United States, where so far only United has a 787 in its fleet, the Federal Aviation Authority ordered a mandatory check. The fault, it said, could potentially lead to fire, engine failure or the aircraft’s running out of fuel. Boeing responded rather huffily that there were “multiple layers of systems to ensure none of those things happens”.

Speaking to me on the flight to London, Akbar Al Baker, chief executive of Qatar Airways, acknowledged that airlines took a risk buying a new aircraft type so early in its life, particularly one as technically innovative as the Dreamliner. He admitted Qatar had experienced several problems. “To a certain extent an airline can digest those problems, but of course we cannot accept it if those problems are persisting and are major. Qatar Airways has had a couple of major problems but we are going to overcome them.”

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