United begins Boeing 787 era with toasts, water cannons

ON UNITED FLIGHT 1116 — United Continental ushered in a new era for composite-plastic aircraft with its inaugural flight using Boeing Co.’s 787 Dreamliner jet.

Flight 1116 to Chicago from Houston was the first by a U.S. airline with the plane whose fuselage is made chiefly from composite materials instead of the traditional aluminum, and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Smisek hailed it as “the best airplane in the world.”

“It doesn’t get any cooler than this,” Smisek said Sunday as he posed for photos and signed autographs at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport before a takeoff that industry data tracker FlightAware reported at 8:29 a.m. New York time. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

The Dreamliner, assembled in Everett, symbolically punctuates the 2010 merger creating the world’s largest carrier from former United parent UAL Corp. and Continental Airlines Inc. Continental committed in 2004 to buy the first U.S. 787s, and the new United is due to get 48 more of the jets under purchases by its predecessors, following the delivery of the second plane on Oct. 31. Smisek said he expects two more jets this month.

United will benefit from the plane’s 20 percent fuel savings compared with wide-body models of similar size. It also can promote the passenger comforts that Boeing says set the jet apart from other aircraft, such as dimmable windows and LED lighting that changes in different phases of flight.

The features were much on display as the Dreamliner cruised north to Chicago. Windows were dimmed to a hazy blue to block bright sunlight, the bird-like wings flexed as the 787 climbed and encountered brief turbulence.

Smisek kicked off the on-board party with a toast, and passengers thronged galleys and aisles, praising the aircraft’s quiet engines and lavatories, which feature toilets that flush automatically.

“I like the aircraft a lot,” said Mark Schiff, a Chicago lawyer who shifted plans to catch the early morning flight when he discovered it would be on the Dreamliner. “It’s a much nicer atmosphere.”

With the composite construction, the 787’s interior can withstand higher humidity, allowing cabin pressurization that puts more oxygen in the air to minimize traveler fatigue and headache. As configured for United, the twin-engine jet seats 219 people.

The one complaint on the flight was the lack of Wi-Fi on the most technologically advanced commercial jet in the world. Smisek said in an interview that Boeing was working with federal aviation authorities to certify communications equipment to maintain broadband on a composite aircraft, a process that could take until 2014 to complete.

Smisek said the Dreamliner is crucial to his effort to make United into a standard-bearer for the industry. Flight 1116 arrived at Chicago O’Hare International Airport at 10:35 a.m. Eastern time, and was saluted with water cannons as it taxied to gate C-20.

“We are the world’s largest airline, but we don’t care about that,” he said. “We want to become the world’s leading airline.”

Boeing’s struggles with the new materials and production techniques contributed to delays of more than 3 1/2 years in the Dreamliner’s commercial debut, which came in 2011 for All Nippon Airways. United received its initial plane in September, and the second one was several days late.

The 787’s sleek design and amenities drew aviation buffs from around the world to Houston for Flight 1116. Among those on hand was Thomas Lee, 60, who said he was on the first flights of Boeing’s 747 jumbo jet, the Airbus SAS A380 superjumbo and All Nippon’s Dreamliner.

“It’s an amazing airplane,” he said. “I simply had to be here.”

— With assistance from Mary Jane Credeur in Atlanta and Susanna Ray in Seattle.

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