When Boeing rolled out its 787 Dreamliner Sunday in Everett, Wash., the public got its first look at a new plane that's already a success even though it has yet to fly.
More than 40 airlines and leasing companies have bought 640 787s -- the most ever for a plane before it enters service -- worth a tidy $100 billion. And if all goes well in mass production, Boeing will ride the Dreamliner back to dominance in civil aircraft manufacturing after more than a decade of turbulence at America's biggest exporter.
"There's a real feeling among the airlines that this is a revolutionary product that's going to transform the industry," says Richard Aboulafia of the aerospace consultants The Teal Group.
Aboulafia believes the plane marks a major technological change in the way a plane is made and the way it operates. Other analysts say it could be as important as Boeing's 707, introduced in 1958, which truly brought the jet age to passengers and allowed the public to fly longer distances in a shorter time. The 707 also made air travel affordable for the average passenger.
What makes the 787 revolutionary is that it is the first airplane built mostly not of metal, but rather mostly of high tech composite material, a type of reinforced plastic.
Mike Bair, the Boeing executive charged with bringing the 787 from the drawing board into the sky holds a model of the new plane and traces where Boeing has used composites for the first time.
"The whole structure of the fuselage," says Bair, "all the wings, the horizontal and vertical stabilizers, the nacelles that wrap the engines -- all composite."
In Boeing's massive Everett assembly building, workers maneuver four huge pieces of the fuselage, each about 19 feet in diameter. They are all plastic and then snapped together like a Lego toy. But unlike a Lego toy, this plastic will carry 250 passengers.
Bair quickly points out that this plastic is stronger than aluminum, traditionally used to make airplanes. With the super aerodynamic wing and new engines, Bair says airlines have bought so many because of two words -- operating efficiency.
"It will be the lowest operating cost per seat of any airplane flying," says Bair, "and in today's environment, with the business struggles airlines have, that's a big, big thing."
Its efficiency comes in large part from the composites. They are lighter than metal, which means the 787 will use 20 percent less fuel -- which means lower costs and less pollution. Boeing also promises dramatically lower maintenance costs because the plane has fewer parts and will experience less corrosion.
But what about the passenger? Boeing's mockups of the interior are roomy with bigger overhead luggage bins and bigger windows. The windows look straight out, not down. Bair says a Boeing study showed passengers wanted to look at the horizon, not down at the ground.
As for seat width and legroom, Boeing says that's up to individual airlines. Purchasers include Northwest and Continental in the United States.
But the biggest thing passengers are likely to notice is the atmosphere on board the 787 and how better it will make them feel on a long flight. And again, composite material plays a big role.