Flying ANA's Dreamliner to Tokyo


Does the 787 Dreamliner represent the great new era in travel Boeing would have us believe?

My first impression on boarding the plane for All Nippon Airways' inaugural flight to Tokyo Tuesday was not a good one. Sure, the ceilings are high, but the business class seat to which I was directed—I’m told the tickets cost upward of $5,000—certainly didn’t seem to match the price. The slimmer baggage bins overhead and high ceilings make the cabin seem more spacious, but look down, and the cabin seems to be covered with rows of tiny office cubicles placed back to back. Sitting down in my window seat, I felt a little squeezed between the high tray on my left and the window on my right.

But once the plane took off, I began to feel the difference. The sun coming through the unusually large window was blinding as we took off, but rather than close the shades, I was able to darken the glass at the push of a button, cutting the glare yet still allowing me to enjoy the view as we flew north along Lake Washington, then curved left toward the west.

My seat was right above the engine, yet even as the plane climbed steeply to reach cruising altitude, it emitted little more than a muffled roar. Above the engine, the wing fluttered gently like a bird's. I never felt my ears pop, thanks to the composite structure of the plane which, I’m told, allows the cabin to be pressurized closer to what humans prefer. My sinuses still seemed dry, but I didn’t get the parched throat that often bothers me on flights. 

So is this a revolution in travel? That’s asking an awful lot of a new-model airplane. I was born and raised in Japan, and I’ve seen some pretty amazing advances. As a child, I often traveled by ocean freighter to visit my grandparents in California, a trip that took a week to 10 days, depending on the weather. The first Boeing 707 aircraft allowed us to make that trip in a day, stopping in Hawaii to refuel. Of course, the planes were noisy and shook so much in turbulence you thought they were going to come apart. It was almost always a pretty unpleasant flight, though preferable to being on stormy seas aboard a freighter. Things kept improving until the arrival of the Boeing 747, when it felt to me like travel had hit its zenith, with attentive flight personnel and relatively spacious seating.

The arrival of in-flight movies made travel a lot easier to bear. Perhaps that’s what allowed airlines to cut back on the service and the quality of the food to the point where air travel seemed more and more like traveling on a Greyhound bus. Even on the rare occasion when I traveled first class, while I felt pampered, the food and service were never at the level of luxury of the late 1960s.

So what of ANA’s 787 Dreamliner service? Well, the business-class cubicles looked awful, but once I’d settled into mine it felt pretty special. It was as if I had my own private pod, complete with a place for my shoes, a spacious side table for my papers, lots of room for my legs to spread out under the side table in front of me, and a screen on which movies were a pleasure to watch. There was an outlet for my laptop and a USB port to charge my iPhone. If you’re the gregarious sort who likes to chat up strangers, this setup is not for you. If you prefer being in your own world to do your work, read or watch movies as you please, it is ideal. 

When I felt like napping, I fussed with the buttons until I found the one that reclines the seat until it lies flat. It seemed as if I was in a cozy cocoon—a nice feature that might be common in first class but is still rare in business class.

It’s the service that truly stands out on the ANA flight. Immediately upon boarding, I had a choice of cold green tea or champagne. Once we were airborne, I was offered a wet towel and an enticing selection of drinks that included a Jacquart Brut 2005 Champagne, an excellent Pinot Noir from Marlborough, New Zealand, and a pair of superb sakes.

Dinner was a choice between Japanese and Western. The Western meal started with marinated sea bream flavored with wasabi, a scallop with yuzu (a Japanese citrus fruit) and a filet of beef with mushroom-pepper sake sauce that I’m told was excellent. I chose the Japanese dinner, which began with an assortment of appetizers, including seared blowfish in a vinegar soy sauce, some slices of duck and a grilled scallop. The entree was grilled yellowtail marinated in a sweet miso sauce served with rice and miso soup. The food was outstanding, which is amazing, since the flight attendants have to put it all together in a galley that’s impossibly small. I'm told the Japanese food will be even better on the way back since it will be prepared in Japan by ANA's catering operation rather than in Seattle.

The strong Japanese flavor extends to the movie selection: There were a half-dozen Japanese movies, many other international films and only a few good selections from Hollywood. For the obsessive compulsive, there’s also a high-tech toilet. Pass your hand across a sensor, and the toilet lowers the lid and flushes itself. No need to touch anything.

Perhaps ANA's Dreamliner service doesn’t represent a revolution in travel. But it's a worthy evolution that combines best-in-breed comfort with a return to the kind of service I recall from the heyday of air travel. In ANA business class, there’s a sense that you are experiencing a special luxury, the kind you expect at the very best Japanese hotels and restaurants, the sort of hospitality that represents Japan at its best. Delta and United are going to have to up their games if they want to keep up with ANA on 10½-hour flights from Seattle to Tokyo.

Reaching Higher at Genie Industries

Reaching Higher at Genie Industries

On its 50th anniversary, Redmond’s aerial-work-platform specialist celebrates by seeking new opportunities.

As the development surge continues apace in and around Seattle, aerial booms and scissor lifts crowd every construction site — and a local company quietly thrives.

Redmond-based Genie Industries, named 2014’s No. 1 aerial platform manufacturer by Access International magazine, is not only growing in the United States, but the maker of the ubiquitous blue and gray lift machines is also aggressively expanding its reach across more than 80 countries on almost every continent.

From one man who bought the rights to Genie’s original technology in the 1960s, the company has grown to employ 1,800 in Redmond and more than 3,800 worldwide. The equipment rental industry makes up most of Genie’s business, with 90 percent of its domestic sales going to rentals and 80 percent outside the United States.

Celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, Genie appreciates Seattle’s continuing boom in real estate development but sees its greatest growth potential occurring in China and South America as developing countries abandon bamboo scaffolding and tighten safety standards with modern lift technology such as Genie’s.

“There’s a lot of pride locally,” says Matt Fearon, president of Terex Aerial Work Platforms, “but traveling around the world, you cannot believe where you see these machines.”

Genie’s roots go back to 1966, when Bud Bushnell started working for Seattle Bronze, a company that produced hoists in Kent. The business faltered, so Bushnell bought rights to the technology and started Genie — its name inspired by the hissing sound of the compressed air used to raise the machine’s operator, like a genie rising from its bottle.

Beginning a history marked by impressive in-house innovation, Bushnell acquired the patent for the first Genie hoist in 1968. It was the same year Genie’s business got a big boost from a Japanese ironworks company representative who visited the Seattle area and ordered 15,000 hoists on the spot.

Based in Kirkland at the time, Genie traced much of its early growth through the 1970s to the emergence of the equipment-rental business. The swelling demand fostered a spirit of innovation and improvement that Fearon calls “part of our fabric.” In 1974, it introduced the Genie Teletower, which carried more weight than previous lifts. In 1984, it brought out the Z-Boom, which became the world’s most popular lift by carrying workers up and over other structures and obstacles to reach a work area, thereby improving workers’ reach and flexibility with a single machine.

The Z-Boom was a “groundbreaking innovation” that was soon adopted by other manufacturers, says Karen Stash, Genie’s senior director of global product management and marketing. Another Genie innovation is the X-chassis, which allowed the company to build a machine with a larger base that provided stability and also included an expanding axle design for flexibility in storing the booms. Too, Genie was first to introduce the world’s tallest self-propelled boom and hydraulic material lifts.

Bushnell emphasized customer service, Fearon says, making personal visits to clients to see how Genie’s equipment worked in the field and how it could be improved upon, as well as identifying unmet needs at construction sites.

In addition to maintaining a research and development department, Genie encourages ideas from the shop floor and has adopted much of this input, Fearon says.

Genie moved to Redmond in 1982 and grew during the next 20 years to nearly 1,500 employees. In 1998, it opened an additional manufacturing facility in Moses Lake, making Genie the largest employer in Grant County, according to the Grant County Economic Development Council.

In 2001, construction screeched to a near halt amid the turn-of-the-millennium recession, necessitating a different path to growth. Connecticut-based Terex Corporation, a maker of cranes and other massive manufacturing equipment, bought Genie in 2002, providing an infusion of cash, technology, new factories and global markets.

Terex opened new Genie-owned factories in China, Italy and the United Kingdom, not to outsource work but to get equipment to international customers faster, says Chad Hislop, one of two engineering directors at Genie. The Terex acquisition also brought with it a factory in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

The factories are strategically situated so international customers can receive the products they order at the same speed North American customers do — in about two weeks. That helps the company offer the same level of service in each market. “You have to have local people who are building in the local markets,” Fearon explains.

Developing countries remain Genie’s biggest area for growth, he adds. In addition to the move to better safety standards, there’s an uptick in building projects. Meanwhile, the North American market is cooling off from a manufacturer’s perspective. Terex reported first-quarter sales in its Aerial Work Platforms business were flat, at $520.2 million, compared to the same period in 2015.

The rising markets today are in China and Western Europe, Fearon says, but Genie also hopes to capitalize on South American markets where developing countries are improving infrastructure, building airports and modernizing ports.

Genie has three factories in Redmond, where the company builds scissor lifts and other products. Workers operate under a regimented lean manufacturing schedule, performing assigned tasks in 10 minutes before moving on to the next machine. A total of 10 hours of work goes into each machine. Genie’s international factories employ the same Lean approach.

“The sun never sets on the Z-45,” Hislop quips, referring to a Genie boom that lifts workers nearly 52 feet in the air.

Genie remains headquartered in Redmond to maintain the small-business spirit the company was founded upon and to retain the talent and loyalty of workers, many of whom have stayed with the company for decades.

“You can’t easily duplicate years of experience,” says Fearon, who believes the Pacific Northwest culture draws many employees and clients to Genie. A new administration office, which opened in Redmond within the past year, is a nice addition. Overlooking hills of evergreen trees, Fearon calls it “a fantastic place to bring customers.”

New digs or not, Genie’s customer base is loyal and enthusiastic. Tom Hammerslag, the owner of Great Lakes Access, an aerial-lift dealer in Grand Rapids, Michigan, likes Genie products because Genie genuinely likes his patronage. “The Genie guys care,” Hammerslag says. “You go to the factory [and] people hug you. They’re warm and welcoming because Genie always knew they needed their customers more than their customers needed them.”

Paul Zaremba, principal at SkyKing Lift Rentals in Bloomingdale, Illinois, adds that Genie stands above the competition because of its history and its innovation. “It’s real simple,” he says. “They make stuff that other people don’t. We tell other vendors, ‘If you don’t want us to buy from Genie, then you need to compete with them, and you don’t. You don’t make a 3232 [scissor lift], you don’t make a push-around [aerial work platform] and you don’t make a Z-30 [self-propelled articulating boom].’”

While Genie has expanded globally to remain competitive, Fearon insists “Redmond is an important part of our past and our future.” So much so that, when Genie engineers are offered positions abroad, they’re loath to leave the Puget Sound region.

Part of that attachment is no doubt attributable to living in such a geographically blessed place as the Seattle area. But Fearon believes Genie’s commitment to continuous improvement fosters a sense of community and loyalty that’s hard to match.

The philosophy, he says, is instilled in temporary and permanent workers alike in the hope that whatever they learn at Genie, they will apply to their work at Genie — or wherever they go next. “At Genie,” Fearon says, “we feel that anybody who sets foot in Genie will walk away with a higher set of skills than when they walked in the door.”

In June, Genie’s parent company, Terex Corporation, abandoned merger talks with China’s Zoomlion Heavy Industry Science & Technology Company. Terex had consented to an acquisition by Zoomlion for $3.4 billion, but talks fell apart, with both sides blaming the other for the failure. After terminating discussions with Zoomlion, Terex agreed to sell its Material Handling and Port Solutions business to Konecranes of Finland for $1.3 billion. That deal is expected to close next January. Terex had earlier planned to merge with Konecranes before Zoomlion came forward with a seemingly sweeter deal.