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Is the Boeing 787 Dreamliner Truly a Game Changer?

Friday, 23 Sep 2011 | 3:54 PM ET

For as long as I have a covered Boeing and the long journey to develop the 787 Dreamliner, I have heard certain questions over and over: Is it a game changer? What's so special about the Dreamliner? Will it really change the flying experience?

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As we prepare for the launch of the 787, those questions are coming every day. I'll attempt to provide a few answers.

Is it a game changer?

Yes. The Dreamliner ushers in a new era of lighter (primarily made of lightweight carbon fiber composites), more fuel-efficient commercial airplanes. Boeing says it will be 20 percent more fuel efficient than a comparable mid-size wide body plane. If the plane lives up to that promise, it will be a huge benefit to airlines that are struggling with high jet-fuel prices. Could 20 percent savings in fuel be the difference between an airline turning a profit and losing money?

Boeing CEO Jim McNerney says, "It could be. Absolutely. If you're an airline that depends on these mid-size wide bodies, it could make all the difference." This is the reason airlines have ordered more than 800 Dreamliners.

What's so special about the Dreamliner?

Aside from the the fuel efficiency, the 787 will have a state-of-the-art flight deck. For pilots, that will mean head-up displays on clear screens so pilots can see the data while looking out the window. New electronic flight bags eliminate bulky paper manuals, charts and other data.

For passengers, the 787 includes technology to help ensure a smoother flight. Sensors on the plane measure and instantly adjust to turbulence, especially the vertical lifts and dips that cause motion sickness. This should allow the plane to have a smoother flight through turbulence. Also, Boeing's in-flight entertainment system has been tested to make sure it can handle however many electronic gadgets passengers plug in during a flight. The Dreamliner passed the stress test with flying colors.

Will it change the flying experience?

This is a tricky one. Not to be coy, but my answer is both yes and no.

Yes, larger windows that dim with the touch of a button and a cabin that has more oxygen and less dry air should make you feel better as you fly. The vaulted ceilings with softer lighting that adjusts on long, overseas flights are also designed to passengers feel better.

Blake Emery, who has spent his career at Boeing studying the psychology of passengers, says, "Most people are gonna say 'I really like the windows,' and they will. And that'll be true. But there's gonna be a lot more going on besides the windows that you can't even see that we did on this airplane. And you're just gonna feel better. And you're not gonna know why."

But here's why the Dreamliner may not lead to a dream flight. The airlines flying this plane. If you get on a Dreamliner (designed to carry 210-250 passengers) packed with seats at a steep pitch, you won't be happy. If the flight is late, and the crew gives you bad service, the Dreamliner won't deliver a great flight experience. Even Boeing knows this.

Emery tells me, "It's possible to be in a situation where the seats are so tight together that I don't care how cool I make the bins or the lighting, it's not gonna help. If a flight attendant treats you bad, I can't design a window that's gonna take care of that."

Watch the premiere of Dreamliner: Inside the World's Most Anticipated Airplane, Tuesday, September 27 at 9 p.m., 10 p.m., 12 a.m. and 1 a.m. ET.

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  • Phil LeBeau is a CNBC auto and airline industry reporter based in the Chicago bureau and editor of the Behind the Wheel section on CNBC.com.