Commercial passengers exiting Boeing 787 in Hong Kong

Commercial passengers exiting Boeing 787 in Hong Kong (Photo courtesy Boeing / October 26, 2011)

The Boeing Co Dreamliner, the world's first carbon-composite airliner, flew to Hong Kong from Tokyo carrying its first paying passengers on Wednesday in a flight that could set a new benchmark in air travel.

Its takeoff into clear blue skies after a salute and shower by an airport fire truck came exactly 53 years after Boeing's first ever jetliner, the 707, began commercial services in the Pan Am colors.

The Dreamliner does not fly any faster than that first aircraft, but it is not supposed to. Instead, it is designed to make the hours aloft more pleasant for passengers and cheaper to fly for owners battling for profit amid the rise of low cost carriers.

The Dreamliner that flew Wednesday with 240 passengers is owned by All Nippon Airways Co and a jubilant Shinichiro Ito, the airline's president and CEO, described his brand new plane as a "game changer."

He acknowledged, however, that production hiccups that delayed delivery for three years had put his carrier "through hard times".

With its mostly carbon-composite body, Boeing's technological flagship offers a 20 percent improvement in fuel efficiency and a 30 percent reduction in maintenance costs.

Its cabin builders promise a flight with ambient lighting engineered to lull passengers to sleep. The cabin also boasts higher air pressure that will make the interior feel like 6,000 feet rather than the 8,000 feet on other jetliners.

Passengers on ANA's jet were treated to shifting hues of color, including a rainbow display as the aircraft lifted off from the tarmac in Tokyo, its engines a gentle whistle. The quiet engines and greater cabin air pressure might create a new problem in air travel: making conversations of fellow passengers easy to hear.

Its other bells and whistles include windows that are 30 percent bigger and which can be dimmed electronically, seat-to-seat e-mail, bidet-equipped lavatories with their own windows and bigger touchscreen entertainment panels.

Gino Bertuccio, an Italian cosmetic importer living in Miami, said he liked the windows, although he wondered how well they will work after wear and tear and curious children.

Bertuccio, who describes himself as an aviation enthusiast spent $30,000 in an auction to buy his ticket on the flight.

"I don't have a wife that might say no," he explained as the cabin dimmed to a mellow rainbow.

Boeing's focus on making the 787 more comfortable and lighter also points to the reality that faster, gas-guzzling air travel is not the industry's future.

The continuing squeeze on profits from budget carriers and soaring fuel costs have made the luxury of time-saving too rich for ANA and other airlines, and forced Boeing and European rival Airbus to adapt their products.

"For carriers with high operating margins, the 787 is critical for gaining a cost competitiveness," said Masaharu Hirokane, an analyst at Nomura Holding in Tokyo. "For ANA to be a launch customer is a plus."

The Dreamliner was originally conceived in 2001 as the "Sonic Cruiser," designed for a bygone era of aviation that quickly morphed into one filled with bankruptcies. It was a design that promised the first serious speed increase since the advent of the now defunct Concorde.

Most jetliners cruise at around eight-tenths the speed of sound. The Sonic Cruiser promised mach 0.98, lopping hours off long-haul flights between Tokyo and New York. But back then oil was a third of the cost and as it began a climb to near $100 a barrel, Boeing and its airline customers changed course.

Thus was born the Dreamliner, its only link to the shelved Sonic Cruiser proposal being the use of carbon composites.

JAPAN DOMINANCE

The Dreamliner's success or failure will depend much on Japan, the only major aviation market where Boeing clearly dominates its European rival.