Review: Lufthansa 747-8i

Right now, the Boeing 747-8i is one of the coolest, newest airliners flying. People who are into air travel should put this on their "must fly" list.

This October, I got to fly in a 747-8i to Frankfurt Airport from O’Hare Airport and back. Lufthansa was my airline of choice. And I know that air travel nerds like me will want to know what the 8i is like.

Lufthansa 747-8i
Our 747-8i parks next to another one.

What’s the Deal?

If you like air travel as much as I do, you probably already know what’s so cool about the 747-8i. But for the rest of you might need some background: The 8i is built on concepts learned from the 787 Dreamliner. It’s incredibly fuel efficient thanks to new engines and a wing that sweeps upward steeply, especially after takeoff. It’s also the longest passenger airplane flying.

Inside, it’s all slick modern goodness, from LED lighting to fairly spacious lavatories to huge overhead luggage bins. And on-demand entertainment at every seat, of course.

How Did I Like the 747-8i?

On both flights, I had seat 34A, right up against a bulkhead and behind the wing and engines. So this wasn’t a quiet place to be.

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A look at the 747-8i cabin.

Our choice of seat was based on getting a bassinet for our 9-month-old daughter. The flight attendants attached it to the wall after takeoff, and the little person got some quality sleep.

The on-demand entertainment worked perfectly and included some cool extra programming, like short documentaries offering looks inside Lufthansa operations, in addition to movies, TV and sports. I would’ve loved some German language lessons.

This was also a very comfortable slimline seat. Usually, my buttcheeks get achy and numb  starting at about 5 hour. I had no problems at all on these 8-and-a-half hour flights.

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The 747-8i has some comfortable coach seats.

Boeing wisely skipped the Dreamliner-style window dimmers and opted for traditional shades. There are also power plugs at every seat, including a USB port. The USB port did seem to have an oddly loose fit with our cables, though.

What Complaints Do I Have?

No plane is perfect, not even the 747-8i. It didn’t have air nozzles at the seats to cool you off. This could be a problem if one gets left in the sun to bake; this is a trait it shares with the Airbus A330.

There are also some problems with the bassinet and retractable video screens and tray tables. They can interfere with each other, and their appears to be some inconsistency: It wasn’t a problem on the first flight -- a minor bit of Tetris allowed me to move the tray and monitor without moving the bassinet. The second plane. though – the monitor didn’t rotate as far, so I was out of luck.

747-8i
These slots on the bulkhead are where the flight attendants can mount a bassinet. I’ve probably seen these on other planes, but never thought about it before being a dad.

I also have yet to find a plane like the Asiana 777 that has self-serve water fountains. That is so much better than waiting for shot glass-sized water cups from the flight attendants. Why every airline doesn’t do that is beyond me. One thing I noticed in Europe is that people don’t drink water like we do in the U.S., especially in Arizona. So this could be partially a culture thing.

Summing Up the 747-8i

This is a graceful, elegant aircraft in spite of its size. Generally, I think all aircraft are industrial art forms. But the 747-8i is especially pleasing to my eye. It extra-awesome when you see the wings flex upward as the plane lifts off.

747-8i
The small person tests the bulkhead-mounted bassinet – her review was pretty favorable.

Strictly from the passenger experience, though, the Dreamliner still has a modern, starship-like mojo that tops even the 747-8i. And there’s that aforementioned Asiana 777 that I love so much. I probably won’t make a huge effort to get aboard a 747-8i in the future since the Dreamliner and 777 (depending on the individual airline’s configuration and service, to be sure) are out there. And I have yet to fly an A-380, so my next Lufthansa booking will probably be on an A-380 of my schedule allows. And yes, I’d fly Lufthansa to Europe again in a second.

Be sure to check my other review for Lufthansa; it focuses on the airline’s kid-friendly flight attendants and amenities.

Chasing the Dreamliner – A Lesson in Aviation Photography

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Nearly everyone in aviation photography is trying to get nice shots of a Dreamliner in the air.

This is reason # 6,579 why my wife thinks I’m weird, I thought as I headed out the door, camera and monopod in-hand.

I had just explained to her that, on this sunny Sunday, I was off to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport to take a photo of an airplane. Well, not just any airplane – I’d heard that American Airlines was testing two of its shiny new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft out with practice runs. And that Sky Harbor was one of the spots.

aviation photography
Here I am trying to get artsy with a Dreamliner photo. This is the most-distant shot I got; but even from so far away, the huge upswing of the wings screams “Dreamliner.” The wings droop down considerably on the ground.

I consider the Dreamliner one of the prettiest commercial aircraft to ever fly. And Sky Harbor is unlikely to see many of them since it’s essentially an overgrown regional airport -- and the Dreamliner is made to fly far – I’ve flown San Jose-Tokyo, Shanghai-Los Angeles and Houston-Chicago on one (OK, that last one isn’t very far). This was a rare chance to see a Dreamliner in my home city.

Now, I’m an opportunist of a photographer. I’m the sort of guy who will hear about something, do a little bit of web browsing in sites like FlightAware.com, grab his camera and go. I imagine better-prepared people who truly think of themselves as aviation photography experts will dive into tail numbers and flight plans – maybe even tune into a scanner.

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The flag makes in interesting foreground object in this Dreamliner shot.

Me? I stepped outside my door, looked south to the Sky Harbor flight path a few miles away. Oh, and I grabbed my Pentax K50 and an old 70-200mm autofocus lens. This thing is old, cheap but very good – one of the reasons I started Pentax was because its cameras are backward-compatible with old lenses – and they have the image stabilizer in the body. One more thing before I pipe down about Pentax – the K50 is also weather sealed.

Anyway, I noticed that planes were landing from the west -- and muttered dark curses. That means I had to drive a bit further, and navigate one of the most unpleasant parts of Phoenix to get a shot.

aviation photography
The light poles, powerlines and billboards were making me crazy.

The area west of Phoenix is a study in blight. That, and it’s criss-crossed with tangles of powerlines, dotted with ugly building just tall enough to be in the way and infested with billboards. On the other hand, it traffic was landing from the east, I could: plunk myself on a bridge over Tempe Town Lake; sit atop a nice sandstone butte; maybe even scale A Mountain. The options are numerous, and far more scenic.

As it was, I found a decent place to park -- a fenced-but-unlocked mass of crumbled asphalt smack between the two southern runways, and the northern runway. This presented a bit of a problem – I wasn’t sure where the Dreamliner would land.

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My favorite one since it was so up-close and personal.

My gut feeling: It would come into Runway 8 since it’s the longest. But I wasn’t sure – I kept sprinting into good positions between the flight paths, trying to ID each aircraft as it came in to see if I could get in decent position for a photo. FlightAware gave me a good idea of the arrival time, but you know how that can go.

After a long parade of 737s, small Airbuses and CRJs, I finally saw something coming in with the distinctive upswept wing I associated with the Dreamliner. It was lined up for Runway 8 as I guessed -- and damn, was that thing graceful in the air – and noticeably bigger even from distance. I had the powerlines and billboards to content with, but that’s life. Maybe I’ll be able to catch a future Dreamliner landing from the east side.

Overall, I’m happy I caught a few shots of the American Airlines Dreamliner. I did some minor contrast correction, and got a bit artsy-fartsy with one of the shots. I don’t feel like any were spectacular, but aviation photography isn’t easy. I need to spend more time getting the shutter speed just right so all the details come in nice and sharp, but without being too underexposed. I’ll have to try another time for that perfect shot.

There are probably locals who know better places to catch some good photos. I hope they’ll read this and share a few tips with me.

All Nippon Airways Review: San Jose Mineta to Tokyo

All Nippon Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner
An All Nippon Airways Dreamliner at San Jose Mineta International Airport
Before my recent flight on All Nippon Airways, I’d only flown two Asian airlines before: Asiana Airlines and Jeju Air.

Jeju Air was a perfectly nice hour-long flight. Asiana, though, was the first Skytrax 5-Star airline I’d ever flown. It completely reset my expectations about how pleasant an economy-class trans-Pacific flight can be.

Recently, I added two more Asian airlines to my list -- All Nippon Airways and Vietnam Airlines. For today, I’ll focus on ANA.

On paper, ANA has much in common with Asiana. It’s also a Skytrax 5-Star airline. It also has a modern long-haul fleet and a reputation for dialed-in, highly polished service.

All Nippon Airways Review San Jose Mineta
A look inside the terminal a few steps away from the All Nippon Airways gate.

I had a ton of options to get from Phoenix to Vietnam. I chose All Nippon Airways Flight 1075 from San Jose Mineta International Airport to Tokyo Narita as our first leg for a few reasons. Let’s break it down:

  • It leaves mid-day.
  • San Jose Mineta is nowhere near as crazy as Los Angeles or San Francisco, my other main options.
  • It’s a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which I’d been eager to try on a long-haul flight.
  • I’d earn OnePass miles through my United Airlines account.
All Nippon Airways San Jose Mineta
The crew at All Nippon Airways in San Jose wishes Sarah an early happy birthday.

Another flight on Asiana tempted me sorely, especially since its Boeing 777 is a wonderful aircraft and the meals are way better than any airline meal should be. On the other hand, Asiana flies an Airbus A330 (or even an A320!) to destinations in Vietnam. That didn’t thrill me – the A330 I flew previously didn’t have air vents at every seat. That can make for a sweaty flight. All Nippon Airways would connect our 787 flight with a second leg on a 767, which I always find to be a nice aircraft with very few middle seats (generally, just one). The A330 was a deal-breaker, so I took a chance on the Dreamliner and the ANA 5-Star ranking.

Arriving at San Jose Mineta
Flight 1075 was just a few gates from the flight I took from Phoenix. Checking in was a breeze. We had plenty of time to wander and make our final few phone calls and emails.

Now, here’s where ANA shows what being a 5-Star airline is all about. As I strolled through the terminal, I heard someone behind me.

All Nippon Airways Review San Jose Mineta
Our All Nippon Airways flight to Tokyo left from Gate 15.

"Excuse me! Excuse me!"

It was a member of the ANA ground staff

"Do you know where I can find Sarah?" she asked (for first-time visitors, Sarah is my wife -- our departure date was the day before her birthday.).

"Sure, follow me. She’s right over here," I said.

She followed me to where Sarah is seated. And she handed Sarah a little bag and wished her a happy birthday. Inside the bag, there’s a bunch of chocolate truffles and a handwritten note.

Wow. Way to start someone’s vacation, ANA!

In the Air
You don’t have to be an aviation nerd to appreciate the shiny new All Nippon Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Big windows, high ceiling, quiet engines, USB ports at every seat -- they add up to a nice passenger experience.

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Sunset at Tokyo Narita – the All Nippon Airways Dreamliner.

I also like the ANA eight-abreast seating broken into a 2-4-2 configuration. There’s a bit of space between the two middle seats, which translates into extra armrest space. As for the seats, I have mixed feelings on the retractable footrest. They were kind of comfy until I decided to stretch out for some sleep. Then, it always rubbed against my shin when it was retracted. And I could never get the right angle with it in the down position. The seats don’t recline – the seat cushions slide forward. That means when the person in front of you wants to stretch out, their seat won’t come flopping back into your space. I’m also a little split on this; I felt like my knees got cramped when I slid forward.

All Nippon Airways 787 Dreamliner
The All Nippon Airways 787 Dreamliner is a good-looking aircraft from any angle.

As for meals, All Nippon Airways is above-average -- better than domestic airlines, but completely forgettable. (On the other hand, I can tell you that I had bi bim bap for dinner on my outbound Asiana flight, with spicy octopus over rice for breakfast. On the way back, bulgogi and an omelette.) I’ll give both meals credit for not being greasy or unhealthy feeling. The Haagan-Dazs vanilla ice cream for dessert was also nice.

ANA is also a bit weak on amenities. I stuffed my toothbrush into my checked luggage for some reason I can’t remember. ANA didn’t have toothbrushes, and only had mouthwash for the business-class passengers. The flight attendant was very apologetic about the situation.

ANA Boeing 767-300ER; JA622A@SIN;12.08.2011/618ay
All Nippon Airways Boeing 767-300ER.(Photo credit: Aero Icarus)

After the flight, I read on another blog that ANA has snacks in the aft galley, but I never ventured that way. Wish I would’ve known about that! I never shut up about this, I know, but I really wished other airlines would steal an idea from the Asiana 777 and its drinking fountains. I had a collapsible water bottle that I wanted to fill.

Connecting to the Next Flight
OK, I really rolled the dice here. ANA Flight 1075 was scheduled to land at 4:10. Our second leg, Air Japan Flight 931, was scheduled to push back at 5:25 p.m. We were off on-schedule from San Jose Mineta. And we landed on the money. We made the connecting flight with time to spare – unfortunately, that meant enough time to get stuck in the boarding line with a middle-aged lecher drooling over "cute Asian women."

NRT Narita Airport: Terminal 1
NRT Narita Airport: Terminal 1 (Photo credit: Matt @ PEK)

Obviously, an older-vintage 767 won’t hold up much to a 787 even with just one middle seat per row. But the service was still nice enough. I did some reading and got a bit of sleep before we touched down at Ho Chi Minh City Tan Son Naht International Airport.

Sorry, I know I gave that trip short shrift. But I am not at avgeek’s avgeek, so I sometimes get worn down on what’s a pretty Average Joe flight on an older airplane. You’ll get a hot Asian meal that tastes better than what’s on most US-based airlines.

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Daytime at Tan Son Nhat Airport (Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis))

Wrapping It Up
The seating on the All Nippon Airways Dreamliner wasn’t perfect. The in-flight meals weren’t as good as Asiana’s. Still, ANA is an excellent airline. You’ll definitely love the service, the on-demand entertainment and the shiny new plane. You’ll appreciate the decent food.

I’d probably pick an Asiana 777 over an ANA Dreamliner, but I’ll avoid an A330 painted any color -- even if it means a few extra bucks. But departure airport also plays a role – San Jose Mineta International Airport is a clear winner, and I’d be very likely to fly from it again.

Stay tuned for a review of United Airlines and its Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight from Pudong Shanghai International Airport to Los Angeles -- and how it compares to the ANA flight.

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787 Dreamliner – My Travel Highlight of 2013

Dreamliner Review
The 787 Dreamliner is a pretty airplane from any angle.

I usually get just one big international trip every year. So it seems too obvious to name my recent trip to Vietnam as my Best of 2013. I mean, that means my big trip would score the top spot every year.

Alright, then – if we go beyond the trip to Vietnam, what’s my most-interesting travel-related tidbit of 2013?

Easy. This year, I took my first flight on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The first was back in July, a short domestic trip from Houston to Chicago. But I logged two more flights, both trans-Pacifics, as the curtain closed on 2013. The first was from Mineta San Jose International Airport to Narita International Airport outside Tokyo – that was also my first flight on All Nippon Airways, which Skytrax rates as a 5-star airline. Next, I flew from Shanghai Pudong International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport on a United 787 Dreamliner.

I’ll review both flights in upcoming blog posts (NOTE: I am not an avgeek’s avgeek. So I won’t tell you what runway we took from, list the aircraft registration number or subject you to four photos of every meal/snack. That stuff just doesn’t interest me.). For now, let me focus on the 787 itself. Both airlines fly the 787-8 variant, which is the first launched. The 787-9 just made its first flight, so it’s not yet in service.

787 Dreamliner Review
Inside the United Dreamliner. Notice the LED lighting and the very high ceiling.

The ANA 787 holds fewer than 200 people seated eight across in the economy cabin. The United seems packed tighter at nine abreast.

Regardless of their configuration differences, each Dreamliner had some common features that make this a nice aircraft for a journey across continents.

You’ll notice amenities like on-demand entertainment at every seat. But here’s the really nice part – you can charge up your electronic gadgets with a USB port at every seat. That’s terrific convenience. The cabin is spacious, with lots of headroom for a tall guy like me.

787 Dreamliner Review
Notice the huge engines … believe it or not, they’re still very quiet.

There are some things that are harder to measure, like the higher air pressure and the higher humidity. Both factors are difficult to measure scientifically. And how do you account for an aviation nerd skewing his observations because he’s pumped to fly the latest and greatest in commercial aviation? You don’t.

Still, I think the complete package of the 787 Dreamliner makes it a better experience for all passengers. I hope much of what Boeing learned from the Dreamliner winds up in the 777X.

Here’s a suggestion I’ll pass along: If Boeing opts against using traditional window shades and uses the Dreamliner-style dimming windows, I hope its engineers can get the window to shift to fully opaque. If they don’t, each of them deserves to fly up against the window facing the sun for the rest of their lives. Seriously.

Still, I’m very happy I had the chance to fly on it three times. The 777 was in service for more than 10 years before I got my first flight, and I didn’t want to wait that long or a Dreamliner ride. Mission accomplished!

787 Dreamliner Review
When the Dreamliner takes to the air, its wing flexes upward. You won’t believe how much it moves.

787 Dreamliner: Regular Guy’s Review

787 Dreamliner
A United Dreamliner preps for a flight from Houston to Phoenix.

(UPDATE: I now have a more thorough 787 Dreamliner review for a nice, long US-to-Japan flight.) By now, just about every elite blogger has scored a free ride on the 787 Dreamliner. But what’s the Boeing wunderflugzeug like for a regular guy who pays for a cheap seat? Find out!

How I Caught a Flight
I needed to be in Chicago, and I was on my own for the flight. I could’ve caught a direct flight on any number of airlines, but I picked United Airlines since it flies a 787 Dreamliner from Houston to Chicago O’Hare. I paid marginally more for the flight than I would have for a direct flight. But hey -- I had to find out what’s up with the 787 Dreamliner. (If you want to fly the Dreamliner, check this list of airlines and routes using the 787.)

Step 1 involved a flight on an Embraer regional jet from Phoenix next to a couple of guys who sounded exactly like Boomhauer from King of the Hill. The flight had a particularly good flight attendant. This is just a small thing: She saw that I emptied the tiny cup of water from the beverage service into my 24-ounce sports bottle – and she offered to give me a second cup. I thanked her, but said I didn’t want to hog all the water. She promised to return if she had some left over. She stopped by awhile later and topped me off. Again, it’s just a small thing. But it was a nice thing to do.

787 Dreamliner
An unstaged look inside a working Dreamliner cabin. Notice the windows?

Boarding the Future of Aviation?
The 787 Dreamliner will catch your eye if you have any interest in design at all. Its nose is sleek. The wingtips rake up, but are not quite as dramatic in person. The engines are huge. The total package just looks modern and built to fly.

When I boarded, there was a "new plane" smell along with a very J.J. Abrams-era Star Trek flavor to the interior – clean white bulkheads, soft-colored lighting, smooth lines everywhere, a touch-screen on-demand entertainment system. I had to pass through first class on my way back. I got a bit envious, but I think the main cabin is the real test of any airplane or airline.

I noticed the on-demand system had a USB port – I presume you could charge gadgets from it. A label on the seatback said there was another outlet between the seats. I couldn’t find it, but I didn’t look very hard (a more thorough search may have seemed creepy to my neighbor).

787 Dreamliner
A look at the upswept wing and cool raked wingtips.

Oh, and how ‘bout those big windows? The 787 Dreamliner windows are notably bigger than any airliner window. It makes it easy to gaze out the window – especially for tall guys. The dimmer function is cool, too: Rather than a window shade to pull down, there’s a button to control the window’s opacity. Nice!

What about comfort? Well, my 34-inch inseam legs had a good bit of distance from the seat next to me. The adjustable head rest was also a nice touch. I managed to fall asleep for awhile and woke up refreshed.

Getting in the Air
The calm, automated voice for routine announcements adds to the Star Trek flavor of the 787 Dreamliner.

Then there’s the engine start and its high-pitched, electronic-sounding whine. It’s noticeable – but even sitting in the first row forward of the wing’s trailing edge, I could hear every word my two neighbors said to each other (Every.Single.One.Of.Them.).

787 Dreamliner
A look at the sleekest nose flying.

Boeing has a lot to say about one aspect of the 787 Dreamliner: its carbon fuselage allows it to have more humidity, plus the air pressure feels more like 6,000 feet rather than the 8,000 feet of most other airplanes. As much as I like flying, my head often feels fuzzy after flying. I had none of that feeling when I landed – I’d love to see if this holds up on a longer flight.

The beverage service was pretty efficient. The cabin crew was nice enough – nothing to stand out either way.

I didn’t get up to wander the cabin, so there’s one crucial bit of long-haul knowledge I didn’t acquire: Does the 787 Dreamliner have a place to refill water bottles like the Qantas 747 and the Asiana Airlines 777? I love being able to refill on my own during intercontinental flights.

What About Those Problems?
The 787 Dreamliner has had some niggles. But think about this: What if the 747 or DC-10 launched during an age when the news cycle never ends and every disgruntled customer could use social media as a cudgel against any perceived wrong? Yeah – it would be a lot like what the Dreamliner is going through.

The 787 Dreamliner and its technology will change the way we fly in some small but important ways. More fuel efficiency is good for the airlines. Lower carbon emissions benefit us all. And more comfort in the cabin is great for the passengers.

I’d happily sign up for a Dreamliner flight again knowing everything it’s gone through, whether it’s headed to Albuquerque or Auckland.

And here’s something else: If I have a choice between a 787 Dreamliner or any other plane, I’ll pick the 787 first.