Boeing’s 787 grounded: My report from Tokyo

The view from the 47th floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

The view from the 47th floor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

(TOKYO, JAPAN) Here I sit at the Park Hyatt, Tokyo (the Lost in Translation hotel) watching the morning sun hit Mt Fuji, and watching the headlines and emails about the FAA’s grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner spew forth from my laptop.

As you may know from previous posts, I flew to Tokyo last Saturday aboard one of the first Dreamliner flights to depart San Jose International airport. While there were operational issues with the aircraft at that time,  passengers I spoke with felt confident about flying the brand new 158-passenger bird across the Pacific. Our 10-hour flight to Tokyo was delightful and without incident.

I was traveling with a group of travel media, and during our interviews with ANA executives on Tuesday, we were assured that these were “teething issues” that fell within the band of normalcy for any new aircraft. They were still very excited about the aircraft with plans to buy several more.

While new at San Jose, ANA has been flying the 787 for a year and a half, with rave reviews from passengers, pilots and the media in general. We had heard US Transportation secretary Ray LaHood state a few days earlier that he’d feel confident flying on a 787.

Then, on Wednesday morning here in Tokyo, we heard that a Dreamliner had made an emergency landing at an airport in western Japan, and that all passengers had been evacuated. Apparently, an indicator light told pilots that there was a battery issue, and that there was an unusual odor in the cockpit. After that incident, ANA immediately grounded its fleet of 17 Dreamliners and launched an investigation into the cause. At that time in the US, the FAA said that it was looking into the incident.

Inspecting ANA's maintenance hangar at Haneda Airport on the day before the 787 was grounded. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Inspecting ANA’s maintenance hangar at Haneda Airport on the day before the 787 was grounded. (Photo: Chris McGinnis)

Half of our media group had reservations to fly out of Tokyo bound for San Jose on the 787 on Wednesday afternoon. However, thanks to the slower winter travel season and quick action on the part of ANA staff, there was enough room on Wednesday’s ANA flight to San Francisco to accommodate the group and they all got home safely. I was glad I had already booked my return trip to SFO on an ANA Boeing 777 (instead of the 787 into SJC) for later this week.

Last night, I pondered what all this meant as I sat having a meal in the Park Hyatt’s New York Grill & Bar, thinking about Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation drinking Suntory whiskey, listening to a “Sausalito”-like chanteuse croon while the Tokyo skyline twinkled 52 stories below.

I had a great night’s sleep (almost no jet lag on this trip…maybe due to the 787’s new cabin pressurization … or the Park Hyatt’s comfy beds?) and awoke to another bombshell: The US Federal Aviation Administration had grounded the 787 until it could determine the cause of the incident.

With sketchy information and investigations underway, it’s too early to conclude that the aircraft is fundamentally flawed. But the recent rash of incidents and media hype around them are certain to cause concern…

Here’s a list of what is swirling around in my head about this now. Conclusions will come later….

>First, I’m grateful to be safe and sound in a nice hotel in Tokyo, and not stuck at an airport due to a flight cancellation. I’m glad to have the chance to ride on the 787… and equally glad I have a reservation to get back to San Francisco an ANA 777.

>It’s tough to speculate on what this means for ANA’s new 787 flights between Tokyo and San Jose. The 158-passenger Dreamliner is perfect for a “long, thin” route like Tokyo-San Jose. I think it’s unlikely that ANA will substitute another aircraft on the route—such as a Boeing 777 or 767 because they are simply too big—there is not enough demand in the South Bay to keep a 200-300 seat aircraft full. (American Airlines used to have a 777 on the route, but discontinued the flight in 2006.) So if the grounding of the 787 is short term, the outlook for the route should be okay… is it’s a long-term affair, the future of the route is cloudy.

>ANA is handling cancellations on a day-to-day basis– for example, I’ve just learned that Friday’s flight between Tokyo and San Jose has been canceled, but no decision has been made for Saturday’s flight. On ANA alone, Dreamliner cancellations affect the plans of 4,800 passengers per day, according to a spokesperson.

>The impact of the controversy is likely felt most acutely here in Japan– ANA has a fleet of 17 Dreamliners, most of which are used for domestic flying, so re-accommodating passengers is causing some pain. Japan Airlines has grounded seven 787s. In addition, the lithium ion batteries in question are made in Japan. It’s difficult to watch all this come down on the gentle, polite Japanese who feel deeply embarrassed and apologetic about the whole affair.

>The current FAA grounding will affect flights on United’s 6 Dreamliners, however, none of them now fly into the Bay Area, so the local impact is minimal. United is the only US carrier now operating the plane.

>For perspective, I think it’s important to look at a similar incident regarding the giant Airbus A380 last year. If you recall, serious structural and mechanical issues (cracks in wings and an engine fire) forced Australian authorities to ground the plane until remedies were in place. The grounding was temporary, and the A380 was quickly back in the skies. Hopefully, engineers will be able to find a similar fix for the Dreamliner’s lithium-ion batteries, which seem to be the cause of the jet’s most severe problems at the moment.

>Even if the 787 gets back in the skies quickly, some business travelers will likely book away from 787 flights out of fear that future groundings or reliability issues could foul their travel plans.

>Regarding how the airlines might get this fixed, Hudson Crossing aviation analyst Henry Harteveldt told The BAT: “It’s possible the correction may be a multi-step process — a short-term ‘tactical’ fix followed by more in-depth corrections, which may be more complex. Short-term, we may see the FAA recommend airlines limit the types of routes where they operate the 787 — for example, flights that last no longer than a certain number of hours, flights that operate only over land (or close to it), or both. Longer term, the FAA may recommend adding a fire suppression system to the battery bays, replacing the lithium-ion batteries, or something else.”

>The big question remains: Is this plane truly safe to fly? At this point, no one really knows. It’s going to be interesting to watch this pan out.

I’m firmly in the “wait and see” category when it comes to the idea of booking flights on the 787 in the near future. What about you? How do you feel about the 787? Do you trust the airlines, manufacturers and government regulators to keep you safe? Please leave your comments below.

–Chris McGinnis

Inflight: ANA’s Boeing 787 from San Jose to Tokyo [PHOTOS]

IMG_1158 IMG_1181 IMG_1224 IMG_1228 IMG_1327 IMG_1251 IMG_1291 IMG_1335 IMG_1232 IMG_1258 IMG_1273 IMG_1313 IMG_1303 IMG_1304 IMG_1346
Checking in at SJC-- 40 minutes south of SFO (without traffic)
Since the 787 holds only 168 passengers, check in is fast and easy
11:45 am departure from San Jose
First stop: SJC's new business class lounge
The lounge had Japanese newspaper and mags, but no miso soup for breakfast
Time to board the shiny new bird
Note the slight curvature of the wing's edge
46 of the plane's 168 seats are in business class-- all full on this flight
Pre-flight champagne or cold green tea
And we are off! Arcing out over Moffett Field, north over SFO and The City
Business class seats are staggered 1-2-1 or 1-1-1-- all on an aisle
If working, the center single seats are best-- look at all that space to spread out
Space is a little tighter on the center aisles in the 1-2-1 rows...but still...fine
This is a window-side aisle seat-- large workspace to the left, and then window
I had a center aisle seat-- with a shelf for in-flight parapernalia
tray tables fold out into enormous work spaces...
My tray table was large enough for my food tray and iPad
Plenty of storage space for reading material, menus, etc
Nice view from a window seat of the wing's elegant bow. See the Japanese red sun out there?
Here's the money shot: lav with a view! See the big Rolls-Royce engine out there?
Japanese-style toilet with seat warmer and sprayer (seriously!)
Sprayer controls! Front or back?
Economy class seats configured 2-4-2
Excellent inflight entertainment options and large screens
Economy seats get a generous 34" of pitch, compared to 31" or 32" on US carriers
In the middle of the middle in economy there are TWO armrests.
Back at the front of the plane, it's time for champagne.
3 types of sake on the menu
I chose a sake Hakkaisan Ginjo, from northern Japan
A nice starter-- chicken salad tart, melon wrapped in prosciutto
I chose from the Japanese menu-- seabream and octopus sashimi
assorted cold fish
excellent miso soup
European style cheese offering
With a robust Selene Cabernet Sauvignon
ice cream, too
All biz class passengers get Sony noise canceling headsets- leave the Bose at home
Plenty of power-- with outlets at every business class seat
For sleeping, seats recline into true lie-flat position
ANA's expansive true lie-flat business class seat on its Boeing 787 (Photo: Chris McGinnis)
Now that's one very flat surface.
I'm 6'1" and fit comfortably-- but found the seat cushion a little hard
Our flight path-- 10 hours in the air
My favorite course: mid-flight bowl of warm udon noodles
Tint can be adjusted electronically on oversized windows- like transitions lenses
Sweet note from flight attendants helping me with key Japanese phrases
Almost there!
Deplaning onto a tarmac bus offered a nice photo opp
Wow! What a flight. I did not want to get off the plane.

(Tokyo, Japan) Wow. I’ve just flown across the Pacific on the world’s most advanced commercial jet– the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It is the  only 787 currently flying out of the Bay Area (United’s 787 to Houston was only temporary), and the only transoceanic flight out of San Jose International Airport. And despite the recent concerns about the 787, I felt completely safe on this plane, as did all other passengers I spoke with.

Now I’m sitting in a Tokyo hotel loading up some great slideshow photos of the trip and recounting the flight. Some thoughts:

>I live in San Francisco, so I imagined that the 45-60 minute drive (depending on traffic) down to San Jose would be a pain– however, the quick and easy check-in, security and boarding process at SJC made up for time I felt I’d lost on the trip down.

>The windows on the 787 really are bigger (by 20%)– it’s the first thing you notice when stepping on the plane. Instead pulling shades up and down, window seaters can adjust the tint electronically– sort of like Transitions Lenses.

>Lower pressure and higher humidity in the 787 cabin are detectable– for one thing, your eyes and lips don’t dry out as fast. I’m not sure how to describe the feeling other than to say that cabin air just felt softer. And I felt better when I got off the plane.

>I felt slightly more vibration from the engines on this flight, likely due to the plane’s composite structure. Also, seat cushions seemed harder than average.

>The plane exudes spaciousness with higher ceilings and a wider fuselage– there just feels like there is more space, even in economy class. The extra-large business class section (46 seats) seems to take up half the plane.

>Seatback inflight entertainment screens are big– 17 inches in business, 11 inches in economy. Both classes have 160 channels to choose from.

>In business class, the BEST seats are odd numbered window seats, and even numbered center seats– check out the slideshow and you will see how a center seat on this plane is like sitting at the helm of Starship Enterprise. If you can put up with the commotion around the galleys and lavatories, bulkhead seats are the best of the best seats on the plane in terms of personal space.

>Inflight dining in business class blew me away– the food and drink menu is 24 pages long (!), well suited to both western and Japanese palates. (I went native and ordered off the Japanese menu…See the slideshow above to learn which was my favorite dish. Oishii!)

>The Dreamliner is relatively small plane: Only 158 passengers (46 business, 112 economy), which makes it the right size for smaller markets like San Jose. Compare that to a Boeing 747 which holds 350-400 passengers. End result? Boarding is fast and easy– it feels like a less crowded domestic flight.

>ANA’s roundtrip coach fares between SJC and NRT are about $1,500… Business class fares are in the $4,000 range,  pretty much the same as Tokyo fares out of SFO. ANA is a Star Alliance partner, which means opportunities for earning and burning Mileage Plus miles on these flights.

>Finally, there’s a window in the lavatory– and the Toto toilet has a heated seat with sprayer–  you’ve got to flip through the slideshow above to see it!

So whaddya think? Would you be willing to drive down to San Jose to give ANA’s 787 a try? If you live in the South Bay, will you be able to break out of your habit of driving to SFO to fly to Asia? Would you consider flying ANA to points beyond Tokyo? Please leave your comments below! 

Disclosure: ANA covered the cost of my trip to Tokyo.

 

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