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Getting ready to board

After a series of false starts, it’s game on for Air Canada’s game changer. Boeing confirmed the airline will take delivery of its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner in March.


November 14, 2013
By David Carr

Topics

After a series of false starts, it’s game on for Air Canada’s game changer. Boeing confirmed the airline will take delivery of its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner in March. Next month, the airframer will pinpoint the handover to the day, with the airliner expected to enter passenger service before May.

Calin-Flight-Deck  
Air Canada president and CEO Calin Rovinescu checks out the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s impressive flight deck.


 

“It is going to be almost immediate,” confirms Capt. Rick Allen, managing director for flight operations. “You can’t take an asset like that and have it stand around just so everyone can take pictures of it.” Allen is one of a team of approximately 200 throughout the organization, including lawyers, maintenance engineers and cabin service staff, plus 40 business partners and Transport Canada, who are charged with ensuring the seamless implementation of Air Canada’s first clean sheet airplane since the Boeing 777 was added to the fleet in 2007.

Air Canada has ordered 37 of the next-generation airliners, including 22 of the 787-9, which the airline expects to start taking delivery of in the third quarter of 2015. It is a $4.8-billion purchase that will make Air Canada one of the largest operators of the 787 in the Americas.

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The company was scheduled to take delivery of seven aircraft in 2014, but delivery of the seventh aircraft has slipped from December to January 2015. It’s a minor hiccup compared with the delays that dogged the program and pushed back Air Canada’s delivery schedule by four years. Deliveries will continue into 2019 at a pace of almost seven aircraft per year.

Given its extended range and attractive operating costs, which are estimated to be 30 per cent lower than those for a Boeing 767, the 787 is a vital asset in Air Canada’s sustainable profitability strategy. It will enable the airline to unlock new world markets with non-stop service deep into Asia, Latin America and some European destinations that are either out of reach for the 767-300 or not large enough to support a larger asset such as the 777.

The original plan was to phase out the Boeing 767 by swapping out one of the older airplanes for every 787 delivered. But plans change and the 767 have been granted an extended life with Air Canada transitioning to the recently launched Rouge low-cost leisure carrier.

It’s not clear when Air Canada opted to split the order between the 787-8 and the longer version 9. CEO Calin Rovinescu told Australian Business Traveller that the 787 order, “actually evolved as the aircraft was completed and we saw its capabilities: we needed to shift more to the 787-9 because the stretched Dreamliner had the capabilities we expected in
the 787-8.”

Air Canada was the first North American airline to order the Boeing 787, but not the first carrier to bring the airplane to Canada. On Sept. 1, Toronto became the inaugural destination for British Airways’ 787. “Toronto is an important and growing business hub and a recognized and thriving cultural centre,” says John McDonald, British Airways head of marketing for North America. “It was the perfect choice for our inaugural route.”

A new way of doing business
There are likely as many moving parts in readying the 787 for boarding as there are parts moving in the airplane itself. Allen’s group has done an impressive job of already nailing many of the pieces. “This is a new airplane, but it is also a completely new way of doing business,” he says. “The 787 is 50 per cent composite compared with the Boeing 777, which is only 20 per cent. We only have 12 per cent metals in the 787 compared with over 50 in the triple. That means getting ready for a big influx of inflight and maintenance training.”

image002  
The Dreamliner’s immaculate footprint sports truly state-of-the-art technology and design elements.
Photo: British Airways


 

Selection for the first batch of 25 captains and 30 first officers was completed in October through an “equipment bid,” a system that every two months allows pilots to bid by seniority on which aircraft they want to fly. A second equipment bid will take place in December. Michael Downey, a company 777 captain, was the first Canadian to operate the 787 and was certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in September 2011. Endorsement training for Captain Murray Strom, Air Canada’s chief 777/787 pilot, was completed at the Thomson Airways flight-training centre at London’s Gatwick Airport earlier this year.

The first CAE 787 simulator was certified by Transport Canada at the Toronto Flight Operations Centre this November. In addition to the full flight simulator, the airline purchased two CAE virtual maintenance trainers and procedure
trainers, the first in Canada to have fully moving flight controls and a Heads Up Display (HUD), which was first introduced by Air Canada on its Bombardier regional jets to support manual landing in extreme low visibility (CAT III Alpha) and has been added to the 787 after much internal debate.

HUD technology dates back to the 1960s. It has largely been a military application, with the commercial airliner business only now catching up. “There are added parts requirements and maintenance costs [with the HUD],” explains Allen. “We really pushed for it because it is the eyes in the skies for pilots. So, now the crews are looking out the window where they should be rather than looking down at the instruments, and not transitioning up and down.” Allen also points out that HUD technology will enable the 787 to perform the lower take-off and landing limits that the European Union is expected to impose.

Other standout features on the flight deck are the four large windows and avionic displays. “The real estate for the avionics is basically twice the amount that is on the 777-300,” Allen says.

Next generation of comfort
For pilots, Allen is expecting a smooth transition into the 787, especially from the 777-300. But the ultimate endorsement for the aircraft must still come from the rows of seats lined behind the flight deck door.

B787-and-Employees  
Air Canada employees take in the latest and greatest offering from Boeing. Photo: Air Canada


 

After more than a month flying the 787 between Toronto and London, British Airways’ McDonald confirms that the airplane is showing enormous passenger appeal. “We have received great feedback,” he said. “Passengers really seem to be noticing the difference when they land. The lower air cabin pressure and ambient lighting seems to be reducing tiredness on arrival. Overall, customers seem very happy with the new cabins and features on board, which definitely create a competitive advantage since we are the only 787 flying between Toronto and London.”

Passenger benefits will include roomier overhead bins, a noticeable quietness in the cabin, mood lighting and higher humidity. “Most jetliners today have an average cabin altitude of 8,500 feet above sea level in cruise,” Allen said. “The 787 will have an average cabin altitude of 6,500 feet. Boeing says the higher humidity level will produce more comfort for the passengers and crew on long haul flights.”

What will likely impress the passenger on boarding will be the cabin windows, which are one third larger than windows on the 777. Allen, who has flown 25 aircraft types and is checked out on the 777, draws on his experience at Calgary-based Time Air to illustrate the difference between conventional airliner windows and the 787. “We replaced the Twin Otter with the Shorts [330 and 360 flying boxcars] between Vancouver and Victoria. As opposed to the Twin Otter, you had these huge windows for
people to view from 1,500 feet. It was pretty cool for the passenger.” The 787 has also replaced conventional shades with a passenger controlled dimmer button that will adjust the tint of the window and block out light.

Still, these are all set pieces that will be featured on every 787 regardless of the colour of the fin. Air Canada’s defining moment will be with the unveiling of the 787 cabin interiors, which remain locked away in the marketing department’s boardroom. The airline is serving up few clues. British Airways is operating a 214 seat aircraft with three cabins, including its World Traveller Plus premium economy product. Replacing 777s and 747-400s on the Toronto service has meant adjusting the number of seats on the route slightly downward, but McDonald insists that the carrier has the right balance of seats to meet demand.

Air Canada began rolling out its own premium economy cabin, with larger seats, greater legroom and more amenities on its 777 aircraft last summer. The 787 will likely be a triple-class aircraft with extensive changes to both the economy and Executive First interiors. “With a new aircraft like this and with its sleek design, you are going to see the same thing reflected with the aircraft interior,” Allen points out. “It will be the next generation of comfort.”

The award-winning suite design aboard the airline’s Executive First cabin is approximately 10 years old. Business class travellers on the 787 can expect a new generation of suites that will continue to feature the fully flat bed. “It is a reflection of the competitiveness of the market,” Rovinescu told a group of journalists in Australia. The entire aircraft will be fitted out with a new wireless entertainment system with a broader range of movie and
music selections.

Rapidair 787
As more 787 implementation decisions fall into place, the question that continues to dangle is where the airplane is headed first. British Airways did not unveil Toronto as the inaugural destination until the first aircraft had been delivered. The economics of the airplane means that over the next two years, the 787 will open new doors for international experience from previous unlikely cities such as Halifax, Ottawa and Edmonton. But those expecting destinations such as Shanghai, Delhi or Sydney, Australia, out of the gate are certain to be disappointed. Despite the range don’t expect Air Canada to go deep, at least not for the first few months.

Indeed, the first customers to board revenue flights will be on the company’s Rapidair branded service between Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. “Every time you bring a new aircraft into an airline there is pilot training,” Allen explains. “We will be running it on Rapidair services to start because there are a minimal number of legs that are required by the pilots we are training. A new captain, of course will need more legs.”

Such a strategy is a common practice. Before the British Airways 787 ventured out across the north Atlantic, the airline operated the aircraft on numerous short-haul routes including Stockholm and Newcastle. McDonald points out that in addition to training, short-haul services helped the airline to ensure they “could integrate these aircraft without disruption and deliver a product in line with customer expectation.” British Airways placed its Airbus A380 on short-haul European services before launching its first flight to Los Angeles.

Transport Canada must also certify the 787 for Extended Range Twin Operations (ETOPS), the standard for twin-engine aircraft to operate on routes where the nearest airport is more than 60 minutes out. The regulator will typically grant a minimum 120 minutes for the first 90 days. Air Canada will require the maximum 180 minutes for operations across the Pacific. The airline is six months into an accelerated application process that will enable it to climb to 180 minutes “out of the box.”

“We go through an accelerated application on a case-by-case basis,” Allen explains, noting that Rouge was approved for 180 minutes after 30 days and 90 legs. “We are anticipating there will be no delay in polar or long haul ETOPS flying. This is what the airplane is designed for.” (The delivery flight from Seattle will count as a leg.)

Watch for the 787’s inaugural passenger flight to be London Heathrow (Air Canada’s busiest international hub) or a similar European destination.

Air Canada was scheduled to take delivery of its first 787 in 2010. In its absence, the airline tightened its operation, improved fleet utilization and became more efficient using existing assets, although some of the thin, long-haul markets that the 787 was planned for had to be put on hold. “We managed to grow capacity in each of the last three years, basically off the same fleet,” Rovinescu told Wings in an interview last year (see “Calin Rovinescu’s Entrepreneurial Legacy,” September/October 2012). For the most part, all efficiencies have been squeezed out of the long-haul fleet, and Rovinescu said that he would have preferred to take delivery in 2013 rather than 2014.

With the first three airplanes on the Boeing assembly line the launch is in sight.

“It has been a blank sheet of paper,” Allen says. “How can we provide better for the pilot, the flight attendant, the company, the ramp people and especially the passenger?” Most of these questions have been answered, and Air Canada’s first Boeing 787 will soon be ready to board.