Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Trans-Atlantic dream

I flew into Toronto from London Heathrow T5 last month on one of BA’s new Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners. Was it a better experience? Well, if you want my honest opinion, not as good as I had expected.

I’m certainly not griping about the environmental credentials of this new mid-size, twin engine jet because the aircraft is 20 per cent more fuel efficient than similar sized aircraft it is designed to replace.

But sitting in BA’s tightly configured World Traveller class it seems that the commercial benefits of cramming in extra passengers have negated many of the design improvements touted to improve the experience of long distance air travel.

In sales-speak the Boeing 787-8 is a mid-size, dual aisle aircraft manufactured by then giant American aerospace company, Boeing. In normal conditions the Dreamliner will fly at Mach 0.85, or about 650 miles per hour, at a typical altitude of 40,000 feet.

Composite materials make up 50 per cent of the primary structure, including the fuselage and wing. The engine housings have serrated edges designed to reduce noise levels both inside and outside the cabin - and the aircraft also features stylishly raked wingtips to further aid fuel efficiency.

The windows are 30 per cent larger than those on most similarly sized aircraft and, instead of pulling shades up and down, passengers can adjust the incoming brightness with a button.

Using an electro-chromic dimming system, they turn from fully transparent to completely dimmed in gradual steps so, if you are lucky enough to have a window seat, the novelty certainly keeps you amused for a few minutes.

BA is steadily rolling out the Dreamliner to its fleet, promising a host of benefits to flyers, as well as a number of technological goodies for travellers to experience. But does travelling on the brand new aircraft make a difference?

The passenger cabin focuses on four areas of improvement - noise, lighting, air and 'comfort'. All this, British Airways says, will make for a much better in-flight experience, and one that leaves you refreshed when you get off the plane.

Comfort is supposed to come by way of new seats and the air part via better air conditioning. A mood lighting system and bigger windows are definite improvements but the success of the air conditioning seems much more down to the skills of the cabin crew.

More consideration might have been given to the piercing LED brightness of the individual overhead reading lights. It’s a bit all or nothing and, like with the windows, some kind of adjustment would have been nice to avoid the glaring dazzle when the rest of the cabin is in darkness.       

With its new engine design and improved sound dampening materials, Boeing has worked hard to reduce noise. The 787 was, indeed, quieter on take-off but the experience was less noticeable when it came to in-flight noise levels.

Dehydration can often be an issue on long-haul flights and British Airways says it has tried to address this by pressurising the cabin 2,000 feet 'lower' than on other aircraft which, in theory, retains more moisture in the air.

Like many who have posted their own comments on various travel websites, I was disappointed with the new seating design. I am average build and height with no excess weight but still found the seats snug and the leg-room cramped.

And, as soon as the seat in front was tilted backwards slightly, my personal entertainment screen became much too close for comfort, providing me with neck ache and eye strain for most of the eight hour flight.

No such worries for TV personality Lisa Snowden (BA publicity shot)

All these improvements are supposed to help fight jet lag but that was lost on me. I’m wide awake and writing this in my Toronto hotel room at 4 am the next morning. It’s very dark outside and the illuminated CN Tower dominates the view from my window.

The Dreamliner is definitely not a cure for jet lag and, if anything, I stepped onto Canadian soil feeling more wiped out than normal. I’ll need convincing otherwise - or the offer of a seat upgrade - before I consider one of BA’s Dreamliners for my next trans-Atlantic flight.

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