Monday, May 18, 2015

Dream Big

Flying on the Inaugural American 787 Dreamliner



Prologue

In February, when American Airlines officially announced plans for their inaugural Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight, naturally I jumped at the chance to purchase my ticket on that historic flight.  I have been logging as many inaugural Dreamliner flights as I can - with my primary focus being the inaugural revenue flight on every U.S. and Canadian operator (100% successful so far) and the inaugural 787 route-opening flight from my home airports in the San Jose area.


AA’s inaugural Dreamliner flight would take place on May 7th from Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), between the airlines’ two main hubs.  Tickets went on sale over the February 14th weekend schedule update.  Demand was understandably high and AA’s reservation system was slow to show the 787 flight.  By the time I was ready for my purchase on February 15th, the price for the flight had gone up significantly (and all the window seats were taken).  Just like my inaugural United 787 flight, I ended up redeeming 30,000 miles (plus $5.60) for an Economy AAnytime Award ticket.


Pre-Flight

I wanted to get to the airport early, ahead of the 7:10 am departure, in case there was a special event taking place at the gate.  I thought chances were good since we were departing from the nicer Terminal D and using the same gate as the inaugural flight from DFW to Beijing, which would depart later in the same day.

On the way to the airport in the packed full hotel van at 5 am, I thought: “déjà vu”.  Why do these inaugural flights always operate so early, depriving me of my sleep?  Despite being the last person dropped off, I was checked-in, through security, and at the gate in 15 minutes.

Plenty of open kiosks at 5 am
Entrance to the security check point - wishing you a good flight!

Quite a large crowd had already gathered at gate D25 despite the early hour of 5:30 am.  I was happy to see banners, food spread, a green screen, and podium being set up.  This is exactly the reason why I love special commemorative flights - a cause for celebration and associated aura of excitement  - everyone from the airline, airport, to the enthusiastic passengers - everyone was having fun and enjoying themselves!


First thing that caught my eye was a small crowd at the podium.  People were looking at the jaw-dropping 75-person deep upgrade list.  It would be doubtful that any of the 28 seats in Business Class would open up on this special flight.


It was time to join in the fun.  I met up with my friend Justin and we got the line to the green screen photo started (you can see me in this photo from The Forward Cabin blog).

After receiving my photo and accompanying frame, I grabbed a pastry, fruit, and coffee with our Dreamliner awaiting us out the window. 


Approaching the departure minus one hour mark, the crowd grew, the lines got long, and everything started to happen quickly.  I noticed our pilots were preparing paperwork at the adjacent gate.  Unashamed (and knowing that they will quickly become celebrities and difficult to get to later), I rushed up and had them sign my American 787 Gemini Jets model box.  It will go nicely with my signed United 787 from that inaugural flight. 

It was a hurried breakfast.  There was barely enough time to swallow my giant chocolate croissant and down my coffee before the speeches started.  

Fernand Fernandez, American Vice President of Global Marketing kicked off the event.


Allan Smolinski, Boeing Director of Sales in the Americas, followed by showing off the company’s advertisement in the morning Dallas newspaper congratulating American's new airplane. 


DFW Airport Executive Vice President of Global Strategy & Development John Ackerman wrapped up the speeches.


Ceremony concluded with a group photo between the principal flight crew and executives.  The pilots on our flight were (left to right): Captain Mark Torres, Captain Charlie Savage, and Captain Bill Elder.


No rest for the weary, the main event got underway immediately thereafter. With all the attention, this flight must depart on-time.  With news cameras at the ready, an early boarding commenced.



The Flight

Flight:  AA 2320, Dallas-Ft Worth (DFW) - Chicago-O’Hare (ORD)
Scheduled Departure-Arrival:  7:10 am - 9:38 am
Actual Departure-Arrival:  7:10 am - 9:32 am

Takeoff DFW Runway 17R:  7:29 am
Landing ORD Runway 27L:  9:23 am

Distance:  935 miles
Flight Duration:  1 hour 54 minutes

Flightaware flight track:


Aircraft:  Boeing 787-8
Registration:  N801AC 
msn/ln (variable number):  40619/249 (ZA818)
Aircraft Delivered: 27 Feb 2015

Personal Achievement:  Fifth 787 Inaugural Flight
  1. United 787 Inaugural Flight
  2. ANA San Jose - Tokyo Inaugural Flight 
  3. Norwegian Oakland - Stockholm Inaugural Flight
  4. Air Canada 787 Inaugural Flight
  5. American 787 Inaugural Flight

See this excellent time-lapse video of the flight taken by another passenger.

While in line for boarding, Boeing representatives handed out 787 stickers and microfiber cleaning cloths.  At the boarding door, AA representatives handed out goodie bags.  I excitedly told the person, “this is so awesome!”.  My hands were now full.  Unable to take photos, I had to let others pass behind me in the jet bridge while I stuffed my new-found loot in my bag.  

Stepping through the L2 door, I was greeted by the familiar Dreamliner archway and AA’s Business Class snack bar, standard on their new aircraft.  


I quickly found my aisle seat, 16C, near the back of the first Main Cabin section.  I was not too disappointed missing out on a window.  Experience from my previous commemorative flights taught me that having an aisle seat gave me the flexibility of moving about to take photos whenever I wanted.  Plus, I will have a window seat on the return trip, thus giving me best of both worlds.


Our captain, Lead Check Airman Charlie Savage, thanked everyone for “helping us celebrate the inaugural 787 flight”.  Our cruising altitude was expected to be 39,000 feet, with some weather concerns around Oklahoma, which we would be going around. 

Surprisingly enough, most everyone took to their seat quickly.  Most were playing with their 9” Panasonic seat-back entertainment system or found the USB port or power outlet to charge their portable electronics.


The touchscreen and the software on the seat-back monitor was very responsive; I was impressed!  The interface can also be customized between a side scrolling album view to a vertical scroll small icon view, allowing more content to be displayed on a single screen.  


The seat cushion, unfortunately, felt very hard.  My initial BIS rating was “uncomfortable” but I forgot about it after a while.  Not sure whether this will be noticeable on a long-haul flight overseas.  

Legroom reference
Overhead Passenger Service Units

With a last “get off now” warning by the ground crew to those not flying on the flight, the door closed promptly at 7:10 am, pushback followed immediately thereafter.

Purser Angie Moore announced Captain Savage is joined by First Officer (and Fleet Training Manager) Bill Elder.  Flying time was expected to be 1 hour 49 minutes at 39,000 feet.  Weather in Chicago was partly cloudy with temperature of 55°F.  

After pushback and during engine start, I was reminded of the electrical whine and whirl unique to the 787 - which brought a big smile to my face. Yes, I am on board a Dreamliner again!

787 escape paths
You don't want to see a 787 doing this (or any plane for that matter)

With cabin lights dimmed for takeoff, a pair of DFW fire engines gave us a water cannon salute prior to taxi out to the east runways.  Unfortunately, the spray did not have much gusto and did not last too long - I was unimpressed.  

Bypassing MD-80s, 737s, and RJs holding short of Runway 17R, we were number two or three for departure.  At 7:29 am, the inaugural American Dreamliner flight took the skies with a thunderous applause in the cabin.  

Ten minutes later, the seat belt light went off.  The captain announced that our initial altitude would be 35,000 feet, later climbing to 39,000 feet (we ended up at 41,000 feet).  Despite going around some weather to our left, he estimated arriving in Chicago at 9:32 am, six minutes early.  Captain Savage then added some interesting statistics:  our takeoff weight was 357,000 lbs with 46,000 lbs of fuel, cruising speed was 526 knots or Mach 0.85.


With the seat belt light off, everyone started to mingle and hung out in the aisles.  Flight attendants announced that they needed to get carts down the aisle for service and asked everyone to stay out of the aisles.  This was moot, since we hit turbulence and the seat belt light came back on again.


It was beverage service only.  There was no champagne toast like on board the inaugural United 787.  Too bad.  

Flight attendant David

With beverage service complete and seat belt light off again, people started to mingle or walked around the aircraft.  It was quite a party atmosphere.  I estimate 80% of the passengers were either in the airline industry, aviation enthusiasts, or frequent fliers with deep knowledge of flying.  Literally everyone was sharing stories about airplanes and travel.    



I took a tour of the aircraft and got a peek of the crew rest in the back and chatted with flight attendants in the galley.  They were just as excited as we were!  One of them exclaimed, “I love you airplane nerds!”  I reminded her, we like to be called “avgeeks”, LOL.  


Mid cabin galley:


Last row in the second cabin, row 18 in the Main Cabin, is a double seat.  I sat here on my return flight.   There was plenty of legroom, surprisingly a lot of recline, but unfortunately, the seats were in front of the lavatories.  


Speaking of which…side cabin lavatory:


Mid cabin lavatory.  As I noticed from my flight on Norwegian, the toilet seat on these later 787s no longer lowers automatically after waving at the flush sensor.  


Business Class is in the 1-2-1 configuration and seats are forward and aft facing.  It is not as private as the all-forward facing Business Class on the new 777-300ER.  I did not try a seat out to see how it felt. 


The footrest can be used as a guest chair. 


Closer to the front, it got busier and more crowded.  There was a traffic jam at the forward galley. Feeling out of place, I quickly took my photos and went back to my seat.  


Captain Savage was moving about the cabin greeting passengers and providing interviews to reporters.  He joked, when he hears the gears come down, it’s time to head back to the cockpit!


Seated behind me was Star-Telegram’s Sky Talk reporter Andrea Ahles.  You can see the back of my head in her video report.

You can see me in the background on this American Airlines video.

Descending for Chicago, Captain Savage announced that our landing weight would be 335,000 lbs with landing speed of 143 knots.  After the seat belt light came on, it was a bit difficult to get the crowd to settle back into their seats.  It was not until the “flight attendants prepare for landing” announcement that everyone finally got seated.  


At 9:23 am, we made a hard touchdown on Runway 27L to the applause of everyone on board.  We then made the long taxi along the north side runways, providing opportunities for vehicles chasing us for photos.  During that long taxi, there was a bit of competition between everyone attempting to acquire signals on their mobile phones.  Everyone had trouble, but eventually, T-mobile and Verizon customers had success while AT&T failed to connect at all.  Accurate or not, we all blamed it on the new finagle composite material on the airplane.  

After turning the corner over I-190 airport roadway, we made our way to Terminal 3 and came to a stop at gate L10 at 9:32 am, arriving four minutes early.  


After the majority of the passengers deplaned, some of us hardcore enthusiasts stayed behind photographing the cabin and/or made our way forward to visit the cockpit.  The crew was very accommodating.  Additional pilots were in the Business Class cabin answering questions.  It was like an airshow - two queues formed down each aisle for cockpit visits.  Not wanting to waste my time in line, I said “goodbye for now” to the crew and went into the terminal.


Although the return flight back to DFW would be the second Dreamliner flight for AA, there was still a celebratory mood in the gate area.  A table with balloons was set up with popcorn and water,


And Capt Savage was being interviewed by news cameras. 


With two and a half hours before the return trip to DFW, there was plenty of time between flights.  I requested and received a ramp walkaround and a cabin tour of our aircraft.  


The long turn was scheduled so that aircraft familiarization training can be done by the ground crew. Chicago had not been receiving a lot of the 787 training flights there. 


The plane was so shiny...no greasy spots at all!


Engine exhaust tips still had a tinge of blue.  


Captain Torres explained various features of the Dreamliner cockpit.


Pilot (forward) crew rest:


Business Class aft facing seat:


Main Cabin Extra, with windows in varying states of dim:


Aft Main Cabin:



The Return Flight

Flight:  AA 2334, Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) - Dallas-Ft Worth (DFW)
Scheduled Departure-Arrival:  12:10 pm - 2:54 pm
Actual Departure-Arrival: 12:08 pm - 2:40 pm

Takeoff ORD Runway 28R: 12:31 pm 
Landing DFW Runway 18R:  2:28 pm

Flight Duration: 1 hour 57 minutes

Flightaware flight track:




Since I paid for this flight (as opposed to using miles on my previous flight), I was eligible for an upgrade. Although the upgrade list was "only" half of the previous flight, at 44 names deep and me at number 26, chances were extremely low that I was going to make it.  No matter.  I wanted to try seat 18L, one of the few double Main Cabin seats on this aircraft.  


Ordinary travelers definitely outnumbered enthusiasts this time around.  While in line - a few people asked what the big hoopla was.  I pointed at the banner next to the boarding lane and said we would be flying on that plane.  One gal was still confused - why make a big fuss over an airplane?  I ignored her. 


At the boarding door, we all received the same goodie bag again.  Score!

With things being less hectic, I examined more carefully into the contents of the goodie bag:  a tablet case, two different kinds of popcorn (which I assumed represented both Dallas and Chicago - one being “Life by Dallas”, the other being “Garrett Popcorn Shops - A Chicago Tradition”), a rechargeable USB power pack, headphones, and a commemorative AA inaugural flight coin.  Incidentally, I had received a different inaugural flight coin from Captain Elder after a little birdie told me it was being given away by the pilots to the crew and special passengers.  


My seat mate said he didn’t realize this was going to be a 787 flight until he saw the balloons at the gate.  I told him I was not surprised given what I heard in the gate area.  He texted his wife who didn't believe him. I helped him out by posing as photo proof for him. 


Captain Elder would be assisted by First Officer Savage on this, “American’s second Dreamliner flight”.  Captain Elder added, we would be receiving a water cannon salute from the airport’s fire department to celebrate the special occasion.  

We held a few brief seconds while the water arch was over the tail. ORD fire department did a much better salute than what we received at DFW. 

Photo:  Justin Cederholm

View of the water cannon salute from the ramp:  photos (1) (2) and video.

We held short of Runway 28R for a few minutes while letting RJs, A320s and 737s take off before us (wake turbulence concerns?).  Finally at 12:31 pm, we took to the skies and made a sharp turn south and then southwest for the Lone Star State.


After settling on an episode of “Mad Men” on my seat-back monitor, I dug into my Chicago-style lunch purchased in the terminal:  a giant char-dog.  Despite it being cooled off to room temperature, it was still very tasty.  I loved how the accompanying condiments lined up so neatly with the dog.  I imagined how much more delicious it would have been had I eaten it piping hot off the grill.  


Upon reaching our 40,000 feet cruising altitude, the captain got on to the PA and explained what made the 787 special.  He pointed out features such as fly-by-wire which allowed for a smooth ride and dampening of turbulence; and better air quality and higher humidity (6000 feet altitude versus 8000 feet in conventional aircraft) resulting in less fatigue.  


With my yummy lunch all finished, I left my seat and explored the cabin once again.  


The mood was definitely "normal" given our now-ordinary flight.  Although a few folks (mostly in Business Class) still stood in the aisles and socialized, I got a lot of stares while walking around with my camera and in-your-face 787 t-shirt.  I pointed that out to the flight attendants while hanging out in the aft galley (it was the same crew as the outbound flight), they just laughed.  

On approach to Dallas, we encountered moderate turbulence, which brought some cynical comments about how this plane doesn’t really do anything special in turbulence.  


At 2:28 pm, we touched down on Runway 18R, on the west side of the DFW complex.  We made a long taxi to our gate in Terminal A on the east side.  


At 2:40 pm, we came to a stop at gate A23.  


Once again, I waited until the end to deboard. I thanked our flight attendants that made the day so special for me. Unlike the outbound flight, there was no line for the cockpit, which provided me one last visit and a keepsake photo with Captain Savage. 


I want to thank everyone at American Airlines, as well as those involved at DFW and ORD airports, for going all out on the Dreamliner inaugural. Everyone at the airline was proud of their brand new baby and it showed. From the goodies given away to the friendly crew to all the avgeeks partying on the plane, and especially staff going out of their way accommodating photo requests - this was my best Dreamliner inaugural ever!  ThAAnk you!


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