United Continental Holdings Inc. 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 marks 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 today 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 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.
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.
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.
Smisek said the Dreamliner is crucial to his effort to make United into a standard-bearer for the industry. Flight 1116 is scheduled to arrive at Chicago’s O’Hare at 10:48 a.m. New York time.
“We are the world’s largest airline, but we don’t care about that,” he said today. “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 Co. 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, 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. Editors: Ed Dufner, John Lear
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