The Flight Experience

What it’s like to fly on a Dreamliner, in high luxury, or 12 inches from a floatplane pilot.

By Allison Williams February 20, 2013 Published in the March 2013 issue of Seattle Met

Just a Dreamliner
The Struggling Boeing 787 from Seattle to Tokyo

The Dreamliner was having a nightmare—the naked-on-the-first-day-of-school kind of nightmare. To mark Seattle’s first commercial flight of the revolutionary Boeing 787 last October, Sea-Tac’s South Satellite was festooned with balloons. ANA, the Japanese carrier that served as the 787’s launch customer, served spring rolls to passengers while they posed for thumbs-up pictures in a cockpit mockup. 

And then the Dreamliner broke. It wouldn’t be the last time.

The 787 is the first airplane made primarily of lightweight composite materials, smaller than the jumbo 747 but ruthlessly efficient. One million holes are drilled into the fuselage of a 747 during construction, while the 787’s premolded pieces get only 10,000. In air travel, where fuel is everything, each rivet saved means burning a tiny drop less. 

Plus, the 787 can ride, not fight, the turbulence—more fuel savings. Its computer system diagnoses maintenance issues midair, letting crews order and schedule repairs before the plane is even a dot on the horizon.

That day in October, the problem was a faulty valve in the cooling system. Jump three months to January 2013, when the lithium ion batteries in two of the 787s started smoking and the FAA grounded all 50 planes in service. The incidents come after not only October’s hiccup but years of delays and frustrations over elements manufactured in South Carolina and overseas. Boeing may have shipped sections to Everett for final assembly—or “dreamlifted” them, in specially made 747 Dreamlifters—but around Puget Sound, that outsourcing stung. 

For all its failures and frustrations, the 787 “is a revolutionary plane,” says Seattle aviation blogger David Parker Brown, an advancement he says rivals the jump from propeller planes to jets in commercial service back in 1952. That groundbreaking De Havilland Comet, for what it’s worth, had its own launch issues, coming apart midair and crashing. Several times. Is a smoking battery or two so bad? 

But even as Boeing promised a quick fix in January, the Senate announced hearings on the FAA’s approval of the batteries. It reportedly cost Boeing $32 billion to develop the plane, and the cheapest model has a $206.8 million list price. Even before this hurdle, the program wasn’t likely to see profits until at least 2020.

As the 787 grounding stretched from days to weeks airlines asked Boeing for millions in lost revenue. The blame game began: Engineers eyed the outsourcing and the NTSB pointed to the FAA. Outside the Everett factory, the largest building by volume in existence, Dreamliners were parked nose to tail. It was as if the world’s flashiest smartphone had lost its power cord. 

From inside the cutting-edge fuselage on that delayed October trip, the Dreamliner sure didn’t look broken. Passengers saw the plane’s hooked wings, the extra-big dimmable windows, and the LED rainbow lights on the cabin ceiling. They tested the air, wondering if the improved pressurization really does make it less stale. Even the flight path itself—Sea-Tac to Tokyo’s Narita airport—owed thanks to the Dreamliner; like Houston to Auckland or Boston to Tokyo, the route is suddenly feasible thanks to the lower fuel cost per passenger.

That Dreamliner may have been mortified that day in October—or rather Boeing and ANA were—but when the flight took off for Tokyo the next day, it got a celebratory cascade from Sea-Tac’s water cannon. As it crossed the tarmac in a one-plane parade, Southwest Airlines baggage handlers set down suitcases to grab their camera phones. Even when it’s screwing up, the Dreamliner is undeniably a big deal.


Indulgence Goes Airborne
The Posh Route from Seattle to Dubai 

How fancy is first class on Emirates Airlines? Even when no one’s purchased a seat, every one has a fresh vase of flowers, and bottles of 2000 Dom Perignon are on ice. Economy gets live flora, too, just in sconces mounted on the bulkhead walls; the bubbly is Moët and Chandon. Talk about roughing it. 

It’s been a full year since the UAE-based airline came to Sea-Tac, offering daily service to its home in Dubai, a mere 14 hours and 7,400 miles away. But more than its desert destination, Emirates brought airborne luxury to the Northwest.

Miss the golden era of flight? The Emirates cabin is more spa than cattle car: The toiletries are Bulgari and the silverware isn’t plastic. On leather seats, passengers face a TV screen with 1,200 channels, just in case you want to spend a few of those 14 hours on Herbie Goes Bananas. 

English is the airline’s base tongue, but on one flight out of Seattle, it is announced over the loudspeaker that “Languages spoken by our flight crew today include Serbian, Malay, Malti, and Indonesian.” Emirates is a regular United Nations of the air, with 132 nationalities on its employee roster. “When we walk through the airport, everybody’s head turns,” says Erin Edrosolen, a California girl turned Emirates stewardess (and yes, she still calls herself that).

Emirates uniform training

Only 4 percent of the crew members are Emirati, but the airline refines its ethos of extravagance in Dubai. In a building in the shape of an airplane, trainees practice the strict makeup requirements—foundation, concealer, powder, mascara, eyeliner, eye shadow, lip liner, and lipstick for women, plus a vaguely Middle Eastern beret-and-scarf combo. 

For the Seattle route, round-trip economy tickets—for those seats where the flowers are shared and the scotch is a childlike eight years old—start around $1,350. First class and its 18-year-old scotch runs about the same as a new Ford Fiesta: $15,500. 

But for all the bells, whistles, and gourmet breakfasts of aloo bhaji, luxury isn’t what fills the seats in Seattle’s newest long haul; it’s the access to the world’s fast-growing hub of Dubai. Emirates’ 14-hour route around the globe—right over the North Pole—makes it Seattle’s quickest connection to India and western parts of Asia. Europe is no longer the default pivot point of international travel for Seattleites; the route makes the world a little smaller. And a little fancier.


The Float View
Kenmore Air from Lake Union to Friday Harbor

Legroom is a problem. Dozens of switches and dials and aeronautic gizmos sit just inches from the front-seat passenger’s knees in a floatplane, even though the pilot assures me that an errant knee won’t do any real damage. It’s worth it to fly shotgun in a Kenmore Air floatplane.

Founded just after World War II on the north tip of Lake Washington, Kenmore grew to a 25-plane operation that does charter and scheduled service to the San Juan Islands, Victoria, and remote locales between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland. At their base in the neighborhood also called Kenmore, crews rebuild 50-year-old De Havilland Beavers and Otters because commercial floatplanes are simply not made new anymore; they even constructed a plane for Harrison Ford, then taught him to fly it. “We’re like Boeing” for floatplanes, says chief pilot Chuck Perry.

The view from a Kenmore front seat

Competition to become one of the airline’s 52 pilots is fierce; some are pilots of major big-plane airlines who use their vacation time to fly Kenmore floats—it’s that fun. “Flying to an airport is boring,” says Perry. “The runway for us is organic. You are making it up as you go every single time.” He takes off and lands on strips of water on Lake Union, in Friday Harbor, or on secluded bays that barely appear on a map. Float pilots are one-man or one-woman shows; they act as boarding agent, flight attendant (“Want some earplugs?”), navigator, and ground crew—whenever the plane leaves the dock, the pilot must untie the mooring knot, shove off, and leap onto the plane. Once in the air, there’s no autopilot, and there’s no stopping to ask for directions. 

There are as few as three passenger seats in the smallest Kenmore planes, and one of those is next to the pilot. Who scores it depends on weight distribution, but it doesn’t hurt to ask. Look down from the front seat to see everything in the downtown skyline, the field at Husky Stadium, and even an abandoned shack on remote Smith Island in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, where the Navy once conducted bombing tests.

You can also see what the pilot is listening to in the headphones that fit under his flight headset (“Friday” by Ice Cube on this trip, then some Offspring). You can see that the pilot only uses one hand to steer, that he fishes a travel mug of coffee from under his seat, and that the windshield is defogged using a regular paper towel. As long as you keep your knees tucked and your shoulder away from the rudder trim knobs, it’s the best seat in the house.



Published: March 2013

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