Updated Monday, December 3, 2012 at 06:22 AM
Have you seen the toilet?” said the man next to me. “You have to see the toilet.”
Airplane bathrooms are hardly conversation starters, and if they are, it’s generally not a conversation one wants to continue. But I had just boarded the Dreamliner — Boeing’s new 787 that is outshining its ancestors with roomier overhead bins, larger windows, power for smartphones, a quieter cabin, more humid air and, as it turns out, a toilet that’s a crowd pleaser.
A vision in white, it has plastic tabs on the sides of the lid and the seat so you barely have to touch them, a sensor instead of a flush button and, according to some users, a more subdued whoosh when flushed.
“It’s very refined,” said my seatmate, Joe Nevin, a former executive at Apple turned Aspen ski pro. “It doesn’t sound like it’s going to take your clothes off.”
Nevin was among some 200 hard-core frequent fliers on board United Airlines Flight 1807, the first North American charter of the Dreamliner. And over the course of a few days in November, they — and I — would flit from San Francisco to Houston to Chicago, all the while racking up miles and exploring the plane from nose to tail.
They were bankers, lawyers, programmers, film distributors, entrepreneurs and all-around aviation buffs or, as they lovingly call themselves, geeks. Most were men. All of them had signed up for a MegaDo, a retreat organized by and for travel fanatics who scour websites like Milepoint, particularly frequent fliers for whom it is a hobby to accrue miles and learn every last detail about their preferred airline.
The first MegaDo was in 2009. This one, Star Alliance MegaDo 4, had a European leg that wasn’t on a Dreamliner and a domestic leg, and sold out in two minutes. Tickets for the U.S. portion were $999 to $1,999 and included meals and behind-the-scenes talks and tours with airline and hotel executives. All the proceeds go to charity. Those who did manage to score a Star Alliance MegaDo 4 ticket would ultimately fly on a Dreamliner, party in an airplane hangar, learn how to de-ice a plane, visit United’s headquarters, barely sleep and consume copious amounts of alcohol.
The average traveler has probably never heard of MegaDos, but they have become so significant within the travel industry that, as one of the founders, Tommy Danielsen, put it: “United gives us this plane a week and a half after they introduce it.”
But even occasional fliers will find themselves on Dreamliners in the coming years as more airlines integrate them into their fleets. United, the first domestic carrier to receive the Dreamliner, has two so far and at least another 48 on the way. International carriers including Japan Airlines and Air India have been flying the planes for months.
For a taste of the future, I plunked down a credit card and tagged along for the 41,000-foot high.
It wasn’t looking good. The night before we were scheduled to fly to Houston from San Francisco, Danielsen said the Dreamliner “broke down.” He didn’t elaborate.
“We have a 767 scheduled to be here just in case the thing goes down the crapper,” he told the crowd during a reception at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport.
But the next morning at Gate 82 in San Francisco International Airport, MegaDoers were streaming onto the Dreamliner. No one looked the least bit concerned. Rather, they were pausing in the aisles for photographs as if they had never been inside a plane before.
I let their giddiness wash away my trepidation. At first, the Dreamliner’s interior didn’t appear to be all that different from those of other planes. But when taking in the view from my economy seat, the plane felt airier and, dare I say, almost soothing thanks to a cool indigo glow emanating from the ceiling.
LED lighting sets the mood for various phases of flight: ice bluish-purple for boarding; a dimmer version of that for cruising; deep purple for relaxing; copper during meals; dark, bat-cave blue for sleeping; and a warm blend to help wake passengers for landing. On long flights, the lighting can be used to simulate a full day to help combat jet lag.
The Dreamliner also feels more spacious, thanks to windows that are 30 percent larger than those on other similarly sized airplanes. That means even passengers not seated at a window are able to see outside. Instead of shades, there are window tints that passengers control with a dimmer button.
Gilles Goudreault, president of a Canadian multimedia company, calls the tints one of the Dreamliner’s best features.
“You feel like it’s a tomb with the shade down,” he said.
The tints satisfy more people, preventing sunlight from blasting passengers who are sleeping but still enabling the person by the window to enjoy the view.
And then there is the new overhead bin design which, while providing more room for bags, cuts into less of the overhead space.
“I wasn’t as concerned about standing up and bonking my head,” said Joseph Winogradoff, an entertainment producer from New York.
Something else to look forward to: that high-pitched “cheep” sound your iPhone makes when charging. On the Dreamliner you can plug it into a USB port on the back of the seat in front of you or into power outlets beneath the seats. (There is no Wi-Fi yet.) As for the seats, they feel narrower than one might hope. Some 787s have eight seats a row in economy, but United added another seat, creating a 3-3-3 configuration. Bummer.
On the back of each headrest is an iPad-like screen. Once I managed to get the system into English (for a while I was stuck in Japanese), I found audiobooks like Joan Didion’s “Blue Nights.” There were language-learning games in Hindi, Greek, even Malay. And the movie category had a classics section with “2001: A Space Odyssey” (although I question whether “Beverly Hills Chihuahua” is a “classic”).
Not that it mattered. No one watches movies on MegaDo charters. By the time the Dreamliner had reached a cruising altitude of 41,000 feet, everyone was mingling in the aisles, glass of wine or cocktail in hand. Some were wandering the rows playing Mileopoly, a game in which each person is given a card with a number on it and must then find the passenger with the matching card to claim prizes like an iPad mini.
Upon landing in Houston, we posed for photographs beneath the plane’s belly, felt the heat waft off its engines, and climbed atop its mighty wheels. In a nearby hangar, there was Texas barbecue and a band. Almost no one slept more than three hours before we were back on the Dreamliner, bound this time for Chicago.
On our last day together we gathered at United’s headquarters there to hear its chief executive, Jeff Smisek, discuss the business and whether he actually drinks the airplane coffee (he does). In a conference room, I stood with Goudreault, Larry Gitnick of CBC News in Canada, and Daniel Metziga of Oregon Public Broadcasting. We were bleary. We were rumpled. We were discussing how insane it was to fly every day and be out of touch with the world thousands of feet below. But, Goudreault said, it is also wonderful. A boyish grin broke across his face and infected the rest of us. We raised our foam coffee cups and gently pressed them together.
“To jet-setting,” we said.
United Airlines / New York Times
Frequent flying travelers take pictures beneath the Dreamliner, Boeing's new 787 airplane, during the first North American charter of United Airlines's Dreamliner going from San Francisco, to Houston and ending in Chicago, in Houston, in early November.
United Airlines / New York Times
A selected group of frequent flying travelers took part on the first North American charter of United Airlines's Dreamliner, exploring the plane and celebrating while on the air and at a hangar after landing. (United Airlines via The New York Times)
United Airlines/ New York Times
Hard-core frequent fliers took part in a retreat called MegaDo that involved a flight on the Dreamliner and several stops across the country.