United launches Boeing Dreamliner on time, without a hitch
BY LORI RACKL Staff Reporteremail@example.com November 4, 2012 7:26AM
Updated: December 6, 2012 6:18AM
Boeing’s Dreamliners have been notoriously late coming off the assembly line. But United’s first commercial flight aboard the state-of-the-art aircraft landed without a hitch Sunday morning at O’Hare Airport nearly 15 minutes ahead of schedule — and with a hearty round of applause from the passengers and crew who got to be a part of the historic day.
Water cannons christened the 787 as it pulled up to its gate in Chicago, home to both the company that makes the sought-after Dreamliner and United, the first North American-based airline to get it.
The mid-size, wide-body jet flew in from Houston, where United decked out the boarding area with festive blue and white balloons and passengers helped themselves to cookies adorned with Dreamliners. A champagne toast followed shortly after take-off.
“It’s like walking onto a spaceship,” said Clarendon Hills resident Bob Flanigan as he entered the airplane, its high ceiling illuminated by soft, blue LED lights. “It’s just a whole different feel. I love the windows, the overhead space. Feels much more open than typical planes.”
The Dreamliner is anything but typical. Extremely fuel efficient, it’s the first mid-size plane capable of flying big-jet distances. This makes it possible — and profitable — for airlines to offer a plethora of new, non-stop routes. The twin-aisle jet is equipped with a host of features designed to raise the bar on the flying experience. And anyone who’s flown recently can tell you that bar needs raising.
“If you want to be the world’s leading airline, you need to have the world’s leading airplane and we have that today with the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner,” United CEO and President Jeff Smisek told passengers in Houston before he joined them aboard the airline’s maiden 787 flight.
Many of the plane’s 219 seats were filled with media and aviation buffs eager to experience the long-awaited jet, which promises a hefty cost savings on fuel and upkeep for cash-strapped airlines.
“Just as importantly, it’s going to have a consumer preference,” said Ray Neidl, an airline industry analyst at Maxim Group. “This will be the first airplane in a long time where some business travelers may pick their flight based on equipment type, at least for long-distance flights.”
As passengers filed into the plane for a 7:20 a.m. take-off, there wasn’t the typical mad scramble to stow carry-on bags. The 787’s overhead bins are larger, so everyone has space for a roll-aboard, as well as plenty of head room.
The Dreamliner’s windows — bigger than those on any commercial plane — don’t have pull-down shades; they go from transparent to dark with the touch of an electrochromatic dimming button. They’re also positioned higher, so even folks stuck in middle seats were able to get a view.
The seats — 36 in business class (with lie-flat beds), 70 in “economy plus” and 113 in economy — don’t look all that different, but each one has its own built-in, in-flight entertainment system and electrical outlet. The plane’s lavatories are still on the small side. One difference is that a single push of a button lowers the lid and flushes the toilet.
Other enhancements on the aircraft are meant to be felt, not seen.
Sensors on the plane help reduce turbulence — and the need to reach for the motion-sickness bag.
The cabin is pressurized to a lower altitude, meaning there’s more oxygen. Humidity levels are higher and a gaseous filtration system pulls irritants out of the air. All of this combines to alleviate the headaches, dryness and other discomfort that isn’t so noticeable on a short jaunt from Houston to Chicago, but can be an unwanted side effect of a long fight.
“Having just flown from Buenos Aires on a much older plane, my nose is all stuffed up,” said Flanigan, whose flight from Argentina to Houston arrived early, so he lucked out and got a seat on United’s inaugural 787 trip.
“I think this plane is going to be a very different experience. It’s just more comfortable. And quiet.”
The 787’s engines don’t roar as loudly, making for a more peaceful ride.
Those are some of the reasons passengers like the Dreamliner. Airlines are smitten because the 787 doesn’t guzzle as much pricey jet fuel as similarly sized planes.
Made primarily of carbon composites instead of traditional aluminum, the Dreamliner’s lighter weight, improved aerodynamics and advanced engine technology mean it uses about 20 percent less fuel than other mid-size aircraft.
That won’t necessarily translate into cheaper ticket prices for consumers.
“I think customers will prefer it, which will mean less discounting for seats,” Neidl said.
What will go down: environmentally unfriendly carbon dioxide emissions thanks to the Dreamliner’s decreased fuel burn. The plane also creates less sound pollution on the ground, with a noise footprint 60 percent smaller than comparably sized aircraft, like the Boeing 767.
“We’ve got just tremendous demand for this airplane,” said Jim Haas, director of product marketing for Boeing, which has orders for 838 Dreamliners from more than 50 airlines around the world. The list price starts at $207 million. “We hit a record number of sales when we started offering the plane.”
It’s been a long, bumpy road getting the Dreamliner airborne. The 787 has been dogged by cost overruns and multiple delays, including one that occurred after an on-board electrical fire forced Boeing to temporarily ground all test flights in late 2010.
Launch customer All Nippon Airways (ANA) received the first Dreamliner late last year, three years behind schedule. United’s parent company, United Continental Holdings Inc., has endured a similar wait to get the first of the 50 Dreamliners it’s ordered.
United is supposed to have five 787s by year end. For a brief period, it plans to fly the Dreamliner domestically — including regular trips between O’Hare and its Houston hub — before starting international service.
Boeing recently began stepping up deliveries of its 787s, helping the company report rosier third-quarter profits than analysts had expected. The plane-maker also raised its 2012 earnings forecast last month for the third time this year.
With its 787 assembly plant in Washington State and a new South Carolina facility that opened last year, Boeing plans to soon be churning out five Dreamliners a month. The company’s goal is to double that to 10 a month by the end of 2013.
Morningstar Inc. aerospace industry analyst Neal Dihora said he’s skeptical about the plane-maker’s ability to ramp up production levels that quickly, but he understands the urgency.
“They have a massive backlog,” Dihora said. “You’ve got over 800 aircraft that still need to be delivered.”
Positive feedback from those precious few airlines who’ve already received their 787s has been crucial, Dihora said, in convincing more carriers not to cancel their repeatedly delayed orders, like China Eastern Airlines did last year.
Boeing’s launch customer, ANA, seems to be a satisfied customer. ANA President and CEO Shinichiro Ito said in a statement last week that his company is “delighted” with the aircraft, which has been “well regarded by our passengers” and has turned out to be even more fuel efficient the airline had expected.
The Japanese carrier, which has 16 Dreamliners in its fleet, put its first 787s into commercial service one year ago. An ANA in-flight survey found that 40 percent of passengers chose their flights specifically to fly on the Dreamliner, while 98 percent said they’d like to fly on a 787 again.
“It really is a dream come true,” United’s Smisek said after landing Sunday at O’Hare. “It’s an exciting day for United. It’s a day we’ve waited a long time for. And I will tell you, the wait was absolutely worth it.”