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When it comes to airplanes, you never forget your first love

Commentary: The Boeing Dreamliner is a tech wonderland, but the 747 -- the Queen of the Skies -- still has my heart.

Ethan Miller, Getty Images

When I was a kid, most of those my age were glued to the TV, watching cartoons or kicking a ball around in the garden. My activity of choice was plane spotting -- a geeky spectator sport I still partake in to this day.

Growing up in the English suburbs in the pre-digital era, entertainment options were limited. But I did have Manchester Airport close by and parents with a passion for planes. Together we spent many hours with our noses pushed up against the great glass windows in departures -- ah, the days before security -- to watch aircraft speed down the runway on their way to or from exotic locations across the globe.

Most impressive of all the beasts dipping in and out of the airport were the Boeing 747s with their bulbous double-decker front ends. Somehow these beluga humps were not ungainly, but instead gave the aircraft a proud and noble look -- think the Roman emperor effect.

It was only in the past few years that I discovered a cult following for the 747. This plane, which debuted at the tail end of the 1960s, is a favorite among many aviation enthusiasts, who refer to the model as the Queen of the Skies.

And so it was a real treat for this aviation geek when I had a chance to book a seat on the upper level of a 747 -- known to us enthusiasts as the "bubble" -- for my flight to the CES 2017 tech extravaganza. I was doubly excited that I would have a chance to ride on Boeing's flagship Dreamliner on the return leg.

The 747, which is facing retirement at many airlines, and the shiny 787 Dreamliner, which still feels brand-new, gave me a good sense of perspective on the differences between the classic experience and the high-tech ride in the skies.

Flying high on the Queen of the Skies

As I walked up the stairs to get to the second level of the Virgin Atlantic 747 flight out to CES in Las Vegas, I couldn't help but feel jazzed. It's silly that something so mundane can affect me, but it did, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

It turns out, it may have been my only chance. United Airlines said last week that it would retire its 747 fleet much earlier than expected. With the exception of British Airways, which is retrofitting the interiors of its 747s for more years of service, many airlines are following in United's footsteps. The 747-8, the newest version of the airliner, introduced in 2011, hasn't been a commercial success.

When I reached my window seat, I was pleased to find that the curvature of the fuselage treated me to my own storage compartment between me and the window.


My row, instead of being split into three, was just six seats across with one central aisle. The quiet upper-deck economy cabin seats just 18 people, compared to the 360 or so economy passengers sitting downstairs. It felt like a much smaller, more intimate aircraft without sacrificing any of the size and stability of a high-flying jumbo. With two dedicated cabin crew, we weren't left wanting when it came to service.

But when it came to tech, the 747 doesn't offer the most advanced options. My seatback touchscreen was fiddly to navigate, and over the course of 11 hours I was forced to develop a special finger waggle to make it do my bidding. In truth, I spent much of the flight on my iPad.

Most airlines want to fly newer and more efficient planes, and Boeing knows it, which is why it created the Dreamliner.

Dreamy tech for a peaceful flight

I have one word for my experience on Virgin's Dreamliner: wow.

The first thing that struck me as I boarded the plane was the roominess of the cabin and its high ceilings.

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The Dreamliner is all fancy mood lighting and lofty ceilings.

Katie Collins/CNET

With the eight-hour Newark to Heathrow hop being a night flight, I was able to experience the full force of Virgin's mood lighting on board the 787. The warm ambient colors change throughout a flight to help you sleep and wake at the right times.

Admittedly, I didn't fall asleep as the lights changed, as I was too engrossed in watching "Kubo and the Two Strings," but when I finally did pass out I found that I slept peacefully and came to with more ease than I am used to. On waking up after long-haul night flights, I typically feel groggy, disorientated and dehydrated, like a shriveled bean.

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The view I woke up to.

Katie Collins/CNET

On this journey, these symptoms were notable only by their absence -- and I had tech to thank. As well as the lighting, the higher air pressure in the cabin allows for the circulation of denser air with more oxygen designed to reduce the usual dehydrating effects of air travel. The aircraft's modern twin engines were extremely quiet, which lessened the ambient noise.

I set aside my iPad and embraced the in-flight entertainment, not because the options were any different from the outbound leg, but because of the tech itself. The Dreamliner replaced the 747's clunky resistive touchscreen with a shiny capacitive display that did my bidding with no objections. I charged my phone from the built-in USB port and even got a little taste of home in advance of touching down, thanks to the Dreamliner's ability to pick up a live feed of the BBC.

Torn between the future and the past

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Dreamliner: the future of air travel.

Kent German/CNET

With its cavernous cabin, mood lighting and huge, dimmable picture windows, the Dreamliner delivers an elegant experience that comes closer to the way flying looks in the ads than any other aircraft I've traveled on.

In the same breath, life in the 747 bubble with its personal service and intimate setting feels more akin to my preconceptions about the experience of golden-age travel.

So if I had to choose to fly one or the other? In truth, my loyalty still lies with the Queen of the Skies, but knowing that Boeing 747s are not long for this world does enhance my emotional attachment to this aircraft.

If, however, the Dreamliner is the future, as Boeing hopes it will be, it's a future I'm more than happy to embrace.

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