The 787 Dreamliner: Building US-Japan Connections for Businesses and Communities

by Grace Ruch
The world's first 787 Dreamliner received a warm welcome in Tokyo in September 2011. Photo by: Reuters

When the first long-awaited Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft arrived in Japan last September, it received a celebrity welcome as over 500 spectators, some traveling many hours and waiting overnight, flooded Tokyo’s Haneda airport to be the first to see the new passenger jet.  Japan’s All Nippon Airlines placed the order for the first Dreamliners in 2004, and according to the Nikkei Weekly, planned to put the first dozen of its 55-plane request to work this year as part of a new focus on international flights.

Beyond this initial order by Japan’s largest carrier however, the story of the 787 Dreamliner connects the US and Japan from assembly line to ticket line.

The New Jet: US Produced with Global Partnerships

The mid-size jet represents a departure from tradition in several ways.  Following an all-new design, it is the first airliner constructed of carbon-fiber composites and utilizes efficient new engines to give it the range of larger aircraft, but with 20% less fuel. Equally innovative is how the Dreamliner was developed and produced. Rather than completing nearly all aspects of the jet’s design, production, and assembly near Boeing’s headquarters in the state of Washington, the 787 team is comprised of partners spread across 16 US states and 7 countries. Of these, Boeing’s partnership with Japanese companies is prominent.

The 787s are assembled from components from across the country and the globe by Boeing in Washington and South Carolina. Photo by: BoeingWhile all of the Dreamliners have been produced at Boeing factories in either Washington or South Carolina, 35% of the 787 is built and co-designed by three industrial kingpins of Japan: Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, and Fuji Heavy Industries. For the first time in Boeing’s history, rather than making the crucial and complex wing structure in-house, they arrive at Boeing’s factories pre-built by Mitsubishi in Aichi prefecture. “The globalized 787 business model is meant to save money — not through cheap labor but through sharing the up-front investment with others,” explained industry analyst Richard Aboulafina in an interview with the Seattle Times. In the case the three large Japanese partners, their government provided them with up to $2 billion in loans.

Over the course of the project American and Japanese engineers worked in close collaboration. Early on in the development phase, 300-400 engineers from Mitsubishi, Kawasaki, and Fuji worked directly with their American counterparts in the US before returning to newly built faculties in Japan to begin production to Boeing’s specifications.  Overtime, a high-tech system called “Integrated Production Visibility” was developed to link engineers in Italy, Japan, Russia, and the US in real time, to track component progress and resolve issues right away- allowing the Boeing assembly lines to turn out 10 complete aircraft a month.

That impressive rate is needed considering that the 787 is sold out through 2019. A tenth of those planes will go to ANA and Japan Airlines (JAL), who have purchased a combined 90 Dreamliners. Boeing is a strong brand in Japan, which historically has spent more on Boeing aircraft than another other country.

New Routes for New Connections

The smaller size and increased efficiency opens up new opportunities for air routes that otherwise would not be profitable with the typical long range jumbo-jets. While the first 787 were deployments were Japanese domestic routes, connecting Okayama and Hiroshima with Tokyo, its first appearance in the Western Hemisphere is the brand-new JAL route between Boston and Tokyo launched in March 2012.

In addition to being to longest route for the 787, the new connection between Boston and Tokyo is the first non-stop route from the New England city to Asia. The establishment of a direct route is estimated to save a half-day or more of travel time between the cities, paying real dividends for increased business, tourism, and interaction.

Anticipating an increase of tourists with the new direct Boston-Tokyo route, restaurant-owner Frank DePasqcale is one of several Boston business owners who have made special accommodations for Japanese guests. Photo by: Brian Feulner, The Boston Globe.Preparations have been made throughout the city of Boston to welcome more Japanese travelers. Logan airport added Japanese-speakers to their customer service team and began offering airport and travel information on their website in Japanese as well. Employees at some hotels have gone through special cultural training, learning Japanese social etiquette for situations such as bowing and business card exchange. Japanese-speaking concierges have been hired to help guests find the best shopping or get baseball tickets to Red Sox games.

In the city’s North End district, famous for its Italian cuisine, restaurant owner Frank DePasquale has translated his menu, not just to the Japanese language, but Japanese tastes as well. His Japanese focused offerings feature smaller portions, more seafood and so on. “We’re trying to give them a dish that they would eat in their own home country,” DePasquale explained to Boston’s NPR.

This extra effort on the part of Boston businesses has the potential to pay off. As we reported previously, Japanese visitors bring more money into the US economy than most other tourists. According to the Department of Commerce, in 2011, Japan ranked second in expenditures after Canada, spending a total of $14.8 billion in the course of their stays, nearly 10% of total tourist dollars spent in the US.

Boston is just one of the communities to benefit from new US-Japan connections facilitated by the Dreamliner. United airlines has announced that while passengers on existing routes from Los Angeles to Tokyo and Shanghai, and from Houston to Amsterdam and Lagos, Nigeria will be able to experience the near aircraft beginning early next year, the carriers’ first new route with the 787 will be between Denver and Tokyo starting in March.

Next week we will feature an article from our friends at the Japan America Society of Colorado, on the new direct connection and its impact on the Mile High City.