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Phil Covington headshot

Lighter and More Fuel Efficient, Boeing Delivers the First 787 Dreamliner

This week, US aircraft maker Boeing celebrated the delivery of it's first new-generation 787 Dreamliner to the Japanese carrier, All Nippon Airlines (ANA). This follows a series of setbacks which have beset the launch, delaying deliveries by around three years.

Despite the setbacks, Bloomberg reported in August that the 787 is the fastest selling aircraft ever. With the number of orders already secured, production of the 787 represents about 7 years of work for the company. These orders were all placed prior to 2011 however, and orders for 26 planes have been cancelled during 2011.

Still, the new plane continues the trend among aircraft manufacturers to increase fuel efficiency and reduce running costs for airlines, so the roll out of the 787 is an important one.

The 787 is often compared with Airbus's A380, mainly because both planes represent the latest generation of long-haul aircraft developed by the rival companies. The first A380 was delivered to Singapore Airlines in 2007.  Boeing's investment in the development of the 787, however, relies on a different philosophy than Airbus's over what type of aircraft the world's airlines will want to fly in future.

Airbus believes that carriers will want larger passenger-capacity aircraft, serving major airport hubs, and on this basis, they developed the A380 to be the largest passenger plane available; seating up to 525 people. By taking this approach, Airbus claims they have built an aircraft which achieves the lowest fuel-burn-per-seat ratio among airlines.

By contrast, Boeing declined to step into a capacity war. Instead they chose to bet that airlines will prefer medium-size aircraft that can nonetheless achieve long haul distances. As such, the 787 Dreamliner is closer in size to their existing 767 747.

Boeing also made a bet on a two engine platform as opposed to Airbus's four engine configuration. ANA's first plane was delivered with Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engines which Rolls Royce claims will provide the lowest fuel-burn over the life of the 787. General Electric is the other engine maker providing power plants for the 787.

To save weight without compromising strength, engineers designed the 787 Dreamliner's airframe to utilize a higher proportion of composite materials. As a result, it's 50 percent carbon fiber, while also incorporating 15 percent titanium and only 20 percent aluminum. The increased use of these materials has allowed Boeing to produce an aircraft that is 20 percent lighter than ones made chiefly from aluminum. Since the 787 combines efficient engines with a lighter airframe, the 787 is supposedly 20 percent more fuel efficient than existing planes of the same size. Furthermore, Boeing claims a 30 percent reduction in routine airframe maintenance than comparable aircraft, allowing airlines to enjoy both lower operating and maintenance costs.

So far, Boeing's bet on smaller aircraft seems to be more lucrative than their rival's larger Airbus A380. With 821 orders on the books, the 787 Dreamliner is gaining greater traction than Airbus, which by contrast has only secured 236 A380 orders. So, despite being three years late to market, the Dreamliner appears to have been a wise bet for Boeing commercially.

As reported here, the growth of air travel means airlines will contribute an increasing amount of CO2 emissions in years to come. Both the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787 claim to be leaders in fuel efficiency, and the use of composite materials helps to "lightweight" the planes, making them more fuel efficient. But from an environmental perspective, is the market choosing wisely? Does the world need fewer bigger planes, or more numerous smaller ones? And what of end-of-life implications? Older generation aluminum airframes are surely more recyclable than when these carbon fiber planes go to scrap - Things are never that simple!

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Phil Covington headshotPhil Covington

Phil Covington holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School. In the past, he spent 16 years in the freight transportation and logistics industry. Today, Phil's writing focuses on transportation, forestry, technology and matters of sustainability in business.

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