TOKYO All Nippon Airways' first Boeing 787 Dreamliner touched down in Tokyo early on Wednesday with hundreds of aviation fans welcoming the carbon-composite plane that its American maker is fielding, albeit three years late, to keep rival Airbus out of its best market.
The U.S. aircraft giant has had to cede ground to its European foe nearly everywhere else, including at home. Airbus has outpaced it globally in deliveries for the past nine years and in orders since 2008. Airbus has even had some success selling its A380 super jumbo to new carriers in Japan.
Japan remains, however, a fortress for Boeing, which it dominates with a 90 percent market share. Flag-carrier Japan Airlines has never bought a European jet, while the Dreamliner's new owner, ANA, has already phased out some of its aging single aisle Airbus A320s.
Some 500 spectators flocked to Tokyo's Haneda Airport to catch a glimpse of the first twin-engine, lightweight jetliner, which cruised in under a clear autumn sky before smoothly landing at around 9:04 a.m. (8:04 p.m. EDT).
Onlookers, many having arrived hours earlier to secure a good view, applauded and thronged to photograph the aircraft, whose blue and white fuselage had a big 787 emblazoned across its 58-meter (190 ft) body.
"I arrived at the airport around midnight and spent the night at the international terminal. I just couldn't sleep at all because I was too excited," said Shuichi Urakawa, a 19-year-old university student who skipped his classes to see the 787.
Boeing has a backlog of 821 orders for the plane -- nearly a 10th of them from Japan -- built up over three years of setbacks as its engineers dealt with glitches and parts hold-ups. It promises the plane will deliver a 20 percent improvement in fuel efficiency.
The twin-engine aircraft boasts the latest features aimed at giving passengers a more comfortable flight and winning over airlines trying to garner business in a fiercely competitive air travel market.
They include improved cabin air, larger windows that can be electronically dimmed and, in a nod to Japanese sensibilities, toilets with bidets.
"I am fascinated by the 787's design. It really makes me feel that I am living in the 21st century," said office worker Kenji Watanabe, 41, who took the day off work to see it.
Boeing needs to follow Wednesday's arrival with a steady stream of other flights from assembly plants in Seattle to guarantee the loyalty it counts on to keep Japan a satisfied customer, one of the few places it has fended off Airbus.
ANA, Japan's biggest airline by passenger traffic, inked the first order in 2004 and now expects to have 20 Dreamliners by March 2013 and receive all 55 jets it has ordered by March 2018 as it looks to lower fuel and other costs to better compete.
ANA's president, Shinichiro Ito, told Reuters this month that the company was in big trouble as it had to push back its business plans because of a repeated delay in 787 deliveries.
Rival Japan Airlines has ordered 35 Dreamliners and plans to launch a 787 service from Tokyo to Boston from next April.
Firmly planted in the American sphere after its defeat in World War Two, Japan could always be relied on by U.S. aircraft makers to buy American, particularly during trade friction in the 1980s and 1990s as Japan sought to calm American emotions by buying billions of dollars worth of made-in-America jets.
That incentive has waned as China became the target of American protectionism. Boeing, whose corporate headquarters are in Chicago, has industrial ties in Japan dating back almost six decades that now equate buying Boeing with buying Japanese.
More than a third of the Dreamliner is built by Japanese companies, including Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Fuji Heavy Industries.
The wings on the 787 parked on the tarmac at Haneda were made in Japan by Mitsubishi Heavy, the first time that a foreign contractor has built the most complex mechanical component of an aircraft for Boeing.
The ANA pilot who flew the 787 to Haneda said he found the jetliner "really easy to operate."
"This aircraft is the fruit of many years' and close cooperation between ANA and Boeing, and I am already seeing a big potential that this jet could change airline travel," pilot Hideaki Hayakawa, 52, told reporters.
Pride in Japanese aviation technology is helping fuel enthusiasm for the American aircraft. Tickets for the 787's first scheduled commercial flights to Hiroshima and Okayama in western Japan on November 1 sold out minutes after going on sale, an ANA spokesman said.
A special chartered promotional flight to Hong Kong on October 26 attracted applications from 25,505 people for the 100 seats made available to the public. A pair of tickets ANA put out on the Yahoo Auction site for charity sold for 890,000 yen ($11,652.265).
(Editing by Tim Kelly and Matthew Driskill)