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Boeing kicks off the 787 era

At a flawless launch event, Boeing rolls out its first all-new plane since 1995, and one that it is counting on to stay atop the aviation heap.Photos: The Dreamliner debuts
Written by Daniel Terdiman, Contributor
EVERETT, Wash.--I'm standing underneath the world's first Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and I'm not even close to alone.

In fact, I'm surrounded by hundreds, or thousands, of others, and everyone is in a party mood since we're all here to celebrate the official unveiling of the new Boeing plane.

Whether by luck of the calendar, or careful planning, or a little bit of both, Boeing managed to pull off the official unveiling of the 787 Dreamliner on July 8, 2007, or 07/08/07. I'm guessing careful planning, since everything else about the event seemed perfectly staged and perfectly executed.

And what an event it was. I knew it would be big--after all, it was the launch party for the first entirely new Boeing plane since the 777 in 1995--but I'd had no idea just how big. In the end, thousands upon thousands of Boeing employees, many of them 787 team members, as well as hundreds of journalists from around the world and many other VIP types crammed into the Boeing assembly facility here. Of course, given that this is the largest building in the world by volume, there was plenty of room left over.

Dreamliner debut

Still, the sea of folding chairs that greeted me when I came to the end of the red carpet we all traversed to get to our seats astonished me.

For Boeing, the 787 is a huge play. It is its first plane made largely with composite materials instead of aluminum, and the company is promising its carrier customers that the plane will be far more fuel-efficient than today's planes. The commitment seems to be paying off, as the company has already taken 677 orders for 787s, making it the first plane to ever rack up more than 500 preorders. And this despite the fact that the first passengers won't get on a 787 until next May. (The debut flight of this very first 787 is expected in late August or September.)

It's no wonder that airlines are flocking to the plane. With fuel costs skyrocketing, they're desperate for a plane that will save them some money on the crucial "passenger mile" metric, even as it crams more and more people into a flying tube.

So the 787 Dreamliner, which can carry up to 330 passengers, depending on the model, and which can fly up to 8,500 miles, could well be a savior for the company as it tries to hold its own against a wounded, but still strong, Airbus.

Confidence running high
And it seems that Boeing is full of confidence based on all those early sales. For example, it got Tom Brokaw, the ex-NBC News anchor, to MC the launch event Sunday, and Brokaw prowled the stage with a cocky air that seemed to echo what the company is feeling as it attempts to move into the next stage of its storied history.

Company CEO Jim McNerney, too, was strutting his stuff on stage. He welcomed the thousands in the room, as well as thousands more watching the event live online and at other facilities around the world, and touted what Boeing feels is the game-changing nature of the 787 Dreamliner.

"The most important promise of the Dreamliner," McNerney said, "is to make the world a smaller place, and in doing so, bring us all together."

Maybe so. But there's no doubting that the thousands in the assembly plant for the launch were pretty worked up about the event.

So, too, were the employees of partner companies in several countries, who appeared on screen during the event, cheering and screaming on cue.

In fact, the event had a much more international feel than any other that I've been to. All around me were people speaking different languages, some I've heard before, others not. And no wonder, the 787 is truly a global product, which will be flown by at least the 47 carriers who have preordered the plane, and likely many more.

But the event also felt a little bit like a giant family picnic, and again, no wonder: thousands upon thousands of people worked on the plane, and this was their first chance to see their new baby.

And what a baby it is. When the gargantuan doors to the facility pulled open at the end of 45 minutes of talking, the plane slid slowly into view, and then stopped, sparkling in the sun light. It was a perfect moment that almost seemed too improbable until I remembered that everything else about the event had gone off seemingly just as planned.

The plane sat on the tarmac, and the thousands of people slowly spilled out and around it, and next thing I knew, it was as if we had all come to a giant barbecue party in the park, except that there was no sizzling meat, no grass in sight and a giant airplane dominating the view.

I wasn't sure how to feel about this. I'm not a regular part of the airplane industry, but I certainly do love airplanes. But for many of the people on hand here, this was the culmination of years of work, and they were there to soak it all in.

Everywhere you looked, you could see people touching the plane, knocking on it to see what composite materials feel like on an airplane. Here, someone's girlfriend was posing for a picture standing next to the landing gear. There, someone's father was pointing out how jet engines work by sticking his hand up and into the engine.

I stood under the plane and it was cool and shady, which was nice because it was hot and bright alongside the plane.

But the best thing was looking around, and everywhere I could see, it was nothing but smiles.

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