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Dream Machine

A behind-the-seams peek at Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner


Nearly every boilerplate air-travel article lists the following tips for making flying more pleasant: Bring earplugs or an eye mask to help you sleep, keep the moisturizer flowing so your skin doesn’t dry out, and throw in a few carbon-emission offsets to salve your conscience. These steps only go so far, however, which is why Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner (making its debut with United later this year) is such big news among frequent flyers, airplane aficionados and engineers alike. It’s constructed from a carbon composite that permits larger windows, a quieter cabin and higher humidity, and increases fuel efficiency to boot. Long in the making, it is, by all accounts, a technological marvel. Here’s how they did it.

1. The 787 is made primarily of carbon fiber-reinforced plastic (CFRP), similar in theory to steel-reinforced concrete. CFRP is lighter and stronger than metal, which reduces the weight of the aircraft. Combined with the 787’s state-of-the-art engine (either a Rolls-Royce Trent or a General Electric GEnx), this equals a 20 percent increase in fuel efficiency. CFRP is also harder to corrode than metal, which allows for higher humidity in the cabin.

2. On most modern airplanes, HEPA filters screen the air for pollen and pathogens but miss some organic compounds — from fabrics, paints, foods and passengers themselves — that can irritate your lungs and sinuses. The 787’s new gaseous filtration system absorbs these compounds, increasing the chances that you’ll feel better upon arrival.

3. The typical airplane interior is pressurized to create an “altitude” of 8,000 feet — any lower, and the difference between the cabin and the outside air would put undue strain on the walls. Because CFRP is stronger than metal, the 787’s interior altitude can be lowered to 6,000 feet, reducing the likelihood of passenger fatigue and headaches.

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