The A350 and B787 Dreamliner are the world’s most advanced airplanes, produced respectively by Airbus (Europe) and Boeing (USA). The latter was the first of the two companies to introduce the concept of a revolutionary new and fuel-efficient plane. The first B787 was unveiled in 2007 during a roll-out ceremony at Boeing’s factory near Seattle, although it took another 2 years for the maiden flight (2009) and 4 more years for the first commercial flight (2011, All Nippon Airways) since the prestigious project suffered a series of massive delays. The A350 was originally conceived in 2004 as an improved version of the A330, featuring the same fuselage albeit paired with new aerodynamic features and engines. However, in 2006, Airbus was forced to rethink its aircraft model in response to Boeing’s B787 project and consequent criticism by the airlines that the new Airbus plane was not revolutionary enough. After a complete redesign, the first A350 took off in 2013, while the first A350 entered passenger service two years later with its launch customer, Qatar Airways. I have been lucky to fly on both aircraft types, and I have previously published several trip reports about these experiences:
While they are not direct competitors – the A350 competes more with the B777 than the B787 – the two long-range, wide-bodied, twin-engine aircraft are often compared one to another since they feature the aviation industry’s newest gadgets and technologies. They both offer a big saving in fuel costs relative to the number of passengers they carry, which makes them very popular with carriers: as of today, Boeing has orders for more than 1,200 B787 Dreamliners from 67 customers, while Airbus had received more than 800 orders for A350s from 46 customers worldwide, already making both plane types two of the most successful widebody aircraft ever. The most revolutionary features shared by both planes can be summarized as follows:
- The A350 and the B787 are the first large commercial aircraft to be constructed extensively from lightweight composites. Airbus and Boeing use reinforced plastic composites in respectively 53% and 50% of the A350 and B787 fuselage respectively. The main advantage of composites is that these components are lighter than similar parts made of aluminium (which means a lighter aircraft and thus less fuel burn). In addition, carbon-fibre reinforced polymers or plastics have increased resistance to corrosion and don’t suffer from fatigue to the same extent as aluminium, which translates into more durable airframes and lower maintenance costs.
- Carbon fibre composites are also stronger than aluminium, which allows the skin of a B787 or A350 to tolerate a higher degree of pressurization. At high altitudes, there is less pressure in the outside air and thus less oxygen available in a given breath, hence why conditioned air is pumped (or ‘pressurized’) into an aircraft to simulate a lower altitude inside the cabin and create a survivable and comfortable environment above 14,000 ft (4,300 m). While conventional aircraft are pressurized at 8,000 ft (or 2,400 m), the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and the Airbus A350 are pressurized to 6,000 ft (or 1,800 m). This 2000 ft (or 600 m) in difference means that there is more oxygen and moisture in the air inside a B787 and A350, resulting in a noticeable increase in passenger comfort. This higher cabin pressure reduces the risk of dry eyes and skin, headaches, severe jetlag, respiratory problems, and the formation of blood clots in deep veins (deep venous thrombosis).
I am not an aviation expert, but having flown several times on both aircraft types and often getting the question which one I like the most, I decided to share with you my opinion and preference on the A350 vs the B787. IMHO, both planes offer a very similar experience from a passenger’s perspective, which far exceeds that offered onboard older, more conventional aircraft types (except for the A380, which is still my favorite aircraft), although there a few subtle difference. You can share your own opinion in the comments section or take my poll below.
- The A350 has a tail camera while the B787 doesn’t have one. I am one of those passengers who likes to follow the plane’s movements on the screen as it takes off or lands, so the A350 is clearly the winner here. In addition, I am a nervous flyer, and having a wide, frontal view via the tail camera instead of the narrow, side view via the window eases my anxiety and makes me feel more relaxed. It has to be noted that the A350 tail camera is offered as an option by Airbus to its customers, and Singapore Airlines is so far the only airline that somewhat incomprehensibly decided not to install one.
- The B787 features the largest windows in the industry, about 65 per cent bigger than a standard airline window. And Boeing took it even one step further by providing first-of-its-kind electronic touch pad controls to electronically dim the windows on the B787. Despite this fancy feature, which is fun the first time you try it out, I am not a fan of the B787’s electro-chromatic dimmable windows and prefer the A350’s old-fashioned, pull-down blinds (albeit the A350’s windows are not as large as on the B787). The problem with the Dreamliner is that it can take up to 5 minutes to dim or brighten your window. Also, in some airlines (such as British Airways) the cabin crew has the option to electronically dim all windows at once and you can’t override that command at your own seat when you would prefer to watch the outside world pass by. In addition, the shutter-less windows remain translucent at their darkest setting, although they can be dimmed sufficiently for sleep and watching videos. Apparently, I am not the only one who dislikes the B787’s dimmed windowd, since some airlines have retro-fitted pull-down blinds over their Dreamliner’s windows.
- The fuselage of an A350 is around 5 inches or 13 centimeters wider than its counterpart of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It may not sound like a major difference, but with nine seats abreast in Economy Class – the current standard configuration in both aircraft types – the extra half inch or 1,4 cm per seat in the A350 does make the flight experience more comfortable. However, that difference may soon turn out in the favor of the Dreamliner since Air Caraibes will be the first airline to install 10 seats per row in its A350 planes, which will be worse than 9 abreast on the Dreamliner and might be the new trend for the A350. Nevertheless, IMHO, the A350 feels very spacious – even in Business Class – because of its straight side walls almost flat ceiling – the tallest ceiling of any commercial aircraft – with extra large overhead bins, especially when compared to the B787’s visually relaxing but more cramped design with sweeping archways.
- Both the Dreamliner and A350 have far quieter cabins than conventional aircraft. Whilst hard to believe, the A350 is even more quiet than the B787 Dreamliner, thanks largely to the Automatic Noise Abatement Departure Procedure (NADP), which optimises the thrust and flight path to reduce noise, and to its giant low carbon emission custom-designed Rolls Royce Trent XWB, the most fuel efficient and cleanest (in terms of emissions) engine flying today. In fact, the A350’s cabin is the quietest of any twin-aisle aircraft, with a typical noise level of 57 decibels in the cabin at cruising altitude, about equal to the volume of a normal conversation. It has to be noted that the A350’s big brother, the A380, has an even quieter cabin, which is especially noticeable when you are seated on the upper deck.
- When you are a First Class addict, you have to avoid at all costs to fly on a A350 since none of its operators (e.g. Sinagpore Airlines, Qatar Airways, Finnair, LATAM, Cathay Pacific and China Airlines to name a few) has installed a First Class cabin onboard the plane (and it doesn’t look like they will any time soon). In contrast, the B787-9 Dreamliner aircraft that are part of the fleet of British Airways and Etihad Airways do feature a First Class cabin.
- If you are a nervous flyer, you better stop reading. Boeing decided to install powerful lithium-ion batteries on its B787 Dreamliner aircraft, which offer greater capacity for less weight and, if required, more opportunities to power aircraft systems. However, this new and rather immature technology caused major safety problems. In 2013, all 50 B787 Dreamliners in service were grounded for multiple months after fires broke out on an All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines Boeing B787 in two unrelated incidents, both caused by thermal runaway events of the lithium-ion batteries. The USA’s National Transportation Safety Board investigated the incidents and assigned blame to several groups, including the Japanese battery manufacturer and Boeing for not catching the problem earlier. To make the B787 airworthy again, Boeing redesigned the battery and charger and designed a steel box to contain fires and vent hot gasses outside the plane. However, following another battery fire incident onboard a Japan Airlines B787 during routine maintance in 2014, there is concern among some aviation experts that the solutions put in place by Boeing are not able to cover the full range of possible failure modes and that Boeing does not understand the root cause of the battery failure. It’s an uneasy thought that always pops up in my mind when I have to fly the B787 across a large body of water or wilderness, where no airport is immediately available in the case a battery fire happens. In the wake of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s battery fires, Airbus decided to drop Lithium-Ion batteries and switched to traditional nickel-cadmium batteries for its A350 passenger jet (though the first three test A350s used lithium-ion batteries).
In summary, I clearly prefer the A350 over the B787, mainly because of the quieter, wider and taller cabin, but also because of the plane’s old-fashioned, pull-down blinds and lack of documented battery problems.
What’s your favorite aircraft: the A350 or the B787? You can leave a comment below or take my poll.