Traveling Through Life

“HOW WILL YOU travel through life?” ask the good people of Boeing in their promotional effort for the revolutionary new aircraft they are developing and fielding, the B787 “Dreamliner.”

Meet the Future of Flight

On Sunday, July 8, 2007 (or, 7/8/7, get it?), Boeing achieved a major corporate milestone by rolling out the first Dreamliner airframe at the company’s massive plant in Everett, Wash. About 15,000 people attended the event in the Everett hangar itself, with perhaps 50,000 more watching via video feed at the nearby stadium, where, on other occasions, the Seattle Seahawks play football. And there were simultaneous Internet and television telecasts of the gala event to a worldwide audience, including Dreamliner subassembly manufacturing facilities as far-flung as Japan, Italy, and South Carolina.

I had planned to travel to Seattle to see the Boeing event, but a death in the family and the need to go to a funeral diverted me to a more southerly part of the U.S. West Coast. As I am sure you know and understand, dear readers, you get no second chances to attend a funeral. “How will you travel through life?” Indeed. Some things, such as time and tide and the Will of the Almighty, just do not wait. So I wound up watching the Boeing proceedings on an Internet feed, from my perch in the Irvine Hyatt, overlooking the convenient, if not scenic, Interstate 405.

Dreamliner — More Than a Paper Airplane

I wrote about the B787 Dreamliner in two articles in Whiskey & Gunpowder last year (All Dreams at Break of Day, When Fuel is the Price of Champagne). But there is noting wrong with revisiting the issue now that we have real wings and real engines attached to a real fuselage, and now that the Dreamliner is more than a paper airplane.

The Boeing Dreamliner that rolled out on Sunday is just a beauty of a bird, using and incorporating large amounts of carbon fiber and other composite materials in its structure, including the fuselage and wing box, plus engine nacelles. Composite materials comprise about 50% of the aircraft by weight, versus 12% composites in the currently flying B777. The ultra-efficient engines developed to power the Dreamliner, products of the labs and shops of both General Electric and Rolls-Royce (with the aircraft purchaser having the final say), will burn 20% less fuel per passenger mile than similar-sized aircraft in current operation. The remarkable design and advanced technology of the new aircraft will provide passengers with a better flying experience, such as larger windows and wider seats. Also, inside the airplane, passengers will find cleaner air (cleaner than outside the aircraft, in fact), higher air pressure and humidity, more stowage space, and improved lighting.

The Dreamliner aircraft is, indeed, a system of systems that will provide operators with a far more efficient commercial jetliner requiring significantly less maintenance and lower total life cycle costs. Due to the use of composite sections in major structures, there are literally millions fewer fasteners in the B787, by comparison with previous generations of aircraft and their older designs. This will require literally millions fewer holes to be drilled in the structures, leading to millions fewer possibilities for fabrication mistakes and much less future water intrusion. Thus, there will be far less corrosion over time, which makes for a stronger, safer, more long-lived, more operator-friendly airframe.

Also, the B787 is designed to comply with a worldwide regulatory environment that is increasingly mandating lower engine emissions and significantly quieter takeoffs and landings. Thus, the Dreamliner offers operators a significantly larger number of potential airfields, also called “city-pairs,” for operations. Boeing estimates that the B787 will offer the world’s airlines at least 450 additional city-pairs. Among other things, this increased number of potential landing sites could lead to operators choosing to fly to cities with airports that charge lower landing fees overall. For example, the landing fee for a B747 at Tokyo Narita is above $9,000, and many trans-Pacific flights have no choice but to make this Narita stop to refuel. But the improved range of the Dreamliner means that many trans-Pacific flights will no longer have to stop at Narita for fuel and the airplanes can simply proceed onward to further destinations. So there will be fewer geese laying golden eggs at one of the world’s busiest airports.

Delivery Pipeline

The first B787 is scheduled for delivery to the first “launch” customer, All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan, in May 2008. To date, some 47 airlines and airplane leasing customers have ordered 677 B787s. The lengthy current delivery pipeline thus makes the B787 the most successful new commercial airplane in Boeing history. The total value of the orders is over $120 billion, or more than the gross domestic product of New Zealand. And Boeing estimates that it will sell at least 1,750 Dreamliners over the next 20 years, with the potential market for this type of airplane being 3,500 units. (The difference between potential sales and total market leaves room for Airbus to offer a competitive product, as well. Airbus has announced a competing aircraft, the Airbus 350. However, due to problems at Airbus, this new design is many years from even a first article, and the Airbus airplane as announced lacks many of the advanced features of the Dreamliner.)

Foreign Carriers

Of note, most of the Dreamliner aircraft currently under contract are scheduled for delivery to non-U.S. operators, or to leasing companies that will place the airplanes into operation with foreign carriers. The Boeing production line for the Dreamliner is booked through 2014. Of the major U.S. carriers, only Continental and Northwest have B787 aircraft under contract, and their “flight articles” (18 Dreamliners for Northwest and 25 for Continental) are not scheduled for delivery for several years. The implication of this situation is that the national airlines of such aviation powerhouses as Kenya, Vietnam, and Poland will soon be flying the most technically advanced, passenger-friendly, fuel-efficient intercontinental aircraft in the world. As will other foreign carriers such as Air India, Air China, Korean Air, Aeromexico, and even Ethiopian Airlines with its 10 Dreamliners on order.

This is a far cry from the earlier history of new and innovative aircraft designs. The first B747s, for example, were delivered to U.S. flagship carrier Pan American World Airways in 1969. But in this economically and politically misguided era, and for the foreseeable future that extends well into the next decade, the extremely crowded U.S. airway system and its immense domestic passenger base will still be home to earlier generations of aircraft, lacking in the fuel-efficient features and improved passenger comforts of the B787. Thus will the previous, well-known financial, management, and labor issues of the U.S. airline system perpetuate themselves, and resonate for many years into the future.

And if the Dreamliner really does prove to be 20% more fuel-efficient than the aircraft it is replacing, U.S. air carriers will have a built-in competitive disadvantage every time a pilot advances the throttles and spools the engines of an older model aircraft. Here in Southern California, for example, there are houses for sale in certain locales (ZIP code 90210, per an article in a recent edition of the Los Angeles Times ) for over $120 million, or almost the price of a new Dreamliner. So it is not for lack of funds in the broad economy that U.S. airlines will not have the opportunity, in the next few years, to recapitalize with new equipment. It is for lack of tax and industrial policies that encourage fundamental investment in productive assets.

Will People Still Fly?

As the so-called “Peak Oil” correspondent for Agora, I have received many emails over the past few years asking for my thoughts on whether people will still fly in commercial aircraft as the world’s oil markets tighten up and costs for basic jet fuel feedstock increase. My answer is that I believe people will still be flying for quite some time, Peak Oil or no. People want to fly, and for the most part have developed expectations for the speed and access that come with, at the very least, long-distance flight.

There are essentially no substitutes for hydrocarbon-based feedstock for the manufacture of jet fuel. Jet fuel is, and must be, uniquely energy dense, in a way that permits engines to deliver thrust and wings to deliver lift, so that an aircraft will move into the sky. I don’t doubt that one way or another, either through market mechanisms or government mandate or a combination of market and coercion, there will be jet fuel available for airplanes to fly. Whether the jet fuel is refined from conventional petroleum or is a synthetic product made from coal or another form of carbon, people, operators, and governments will still demand the ability to fly.

Flying will doubtless become more expensive in the future, however, and many short-haul airlines and routes, and what might be called “impulse” flights, will no longer be available. As conventional oil becomes scarce in the future, quite a bit of the world’s tourism industry will also probably begin to tighten up, if not simply contract dramatically. So enjoy it while it lasts.

But something like 40% of the value of world trade currently goes by airfreight (that is “value” of world trade, not physical volume). This includes high-value goods such as electronic components and medicines and pharmaceuticals, and even relatively valuable and rapidly perishable items such as certain foodstuffs. (Canada exports fresh tuna fish to Japan by airfreight, for example.)

Doubtless, the marketplace will sort many of these transportation matters out as fuel prices increase, and some goods will wind up traveling by ship or not get shipped at all in an environment of higher transport costs. But at the same time, the fact is that entire industries (electronic components come to mind) are now located in locales distant from the final markets for the finished or assembled items. Unless the U.S. or Euroland reconstitutes much of the basic electronic manufacturing base, for example, there will simply be far fewer electronic goods available on those two continents. This does not just mean things like iPods and kids’ toys and video games, but also means the critical electronic components that go into energy delivery and energy-saving devices. Without critical electronic components from factories in Asia, the energy systems of the West will simply burn out over time.

Traveling Through Life

This brings us back to the question posed by Boeing, that I cited at the beginning of the article. “How will you travel through life?” asks the plane-building company. Well, if we can travel through life on a Boeing Dreamliner, it might be quite a bit of fun. The B787 is a brilliant airplane, brilliantly executed, and offers a significant leap in technology, passenger comfort, and fuel-efficiency in a post-Peak Oil world. And none too soon, what with oil selling for near $75 per barrel in recent days.

But since almost all of the Dreamliner production line is obligated to foreign purchasers for the next seven years, we in the U.S. will have little opportunity to enjoy that new and efficient comfortable jet-setting lifestyle. Well, not unless we take to flying on Ethiopian Airlines or the like. But neither can we blame Boeing for this state of affairs. Boeing has done as much as anyone on the outside could possibly expect. Boeing, and its extensive team of suppliers and customers, has designed and developed a phenomenal new airplane.

It is not too much to say that with the Dreamliner, the modern, post-Peak Oil airplane and the Peak Oil moment have met. Oh, if only the rest of American energy policy and public consciousness and energy infrastructure were so well positioned. But this makes for another discussion for another time. Meanwhile, we all travel through life in our own way. So to each reader out there, please accept my best wishes on your unique journey.

Until we meet again…
Byron W. King

July 9, 2007