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Flying on United Airline’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner Inaugural Flight

United's first Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Houston. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

United Airline’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner in Houston. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

Chris Sloan, the man behind Airchive.com and is Executive Producer and Creator of Airport 24/7, was able to take the inaugural flight of United Airline’s first Boeing 787 Dreamliner. He agreed to share some of his photos and story with me and the rest of his story will be showing up on Airways Magazine in their February 2013 issues, hitting the shelves January 2nd. Here is his story, in his own words:

It is 5:00AM the morning of Sunday November 2, 2012 as I make my way over to Gate E5 at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport from a very quiet ticket counter, save for some journalists including Airways Magazine correspondent and director of social media, extraordinaire Jack Harty.

Despite the obscenely early hour, Jack and I are absolutely pumped with excitement and anticipation covering the story via live tweets, blogs, and for “Airways”. After foregoing a major development event, there is concern that this launch might be devoid of much of the pomp and circumstance of other launch flights, but this lack of showmanship, but this is doing little to dampen our enthusiasm for the inauguration of the first Boeing 787 to be operated by a U.S. carrier.

United's CEO, Jeff Sismeck and flight crew stand on stage. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com

United’s CEO, Jeff Sismeck and flight crew stand on stage. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com

On an optimistic note, Jeff Smisek, United’s President and CEO main theme is “The 787 is worth the wait and all of our guests and members of the press are about to find out why”. Beyond all the usual groundbreaking features of the 787 normally mentioned: efficiency, pressurization, large windows, LED lighting, clean air, gust suppression technology, the humidified cabin, the ultra-quiet flight experience; Smisek gets some laughs when he says that “you will all be very impressed with the lavatories”.

After the ribbon is cut, the boarding of the approximately 200 passengers begins promptly at 6:50AM. Flight 1116 from IAH-ORD is a normal operating flight with mostly paying passengers, some press, United high status customers, and of course a number of aviation enthusiasts. Many passengers are completely, but pleasantly surprised at the significance of this morning’s flight.

There have been many ribbons cut in the history of airline travel and this even was no different. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

There have been many ribbons cut in the history of airline travel and this even was no different. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

My first impressions of the cabin are positive. Though lacking the bar entry way of other airline’s 787, the entry through the gallery is still a major improvement over other aircraft, particularly with United’s blue LED boarding lighting program. I settled into my spacious seat, 6A in United BusinessFirst.

United initially chose to go big with a remarkable 8 flights scheduled on Day One involving 5 of United’s hubs: Houston Intercontinental, Newark, Chicago O’Hare, San Francisco, and Los Angles. These flights were to use 2 aircraft from the 787’s Houston base. United’s plan was to temporarily rotate the 787-8 through all of its domestic hubs that have a widebody service with domestic promotional and familiarization flights before it shifts to international operations on December 4th.

The journey to this day has been over 8 years in the making. United merger partner, Continental was the first airline in the America to placed an order for the Dreamliner shortly after the airliner was first offered to the market. Continental ordered 10 787-8s powered by the GEnx-1B.

The entry way in United's 787 is not as impressive as other 787's, but nice none-the-less. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com

The entry way in United’s 787 is not as impressive as other 787’s, but nice none-the-less. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com

The 787 would never fly under the Continental brand as United and Continental announced their merger in May 2010 and operationally on March 1, 2012. As everyone knows, the Continental Globe logo would carryover in the merger, replacing the tulip-a visual nod that this was in fact a merger of equals.

Ian Hankin, the Principal Engineer in Product Engineering points out in United PR releases that “getting the 787 ready for regular operations has been more complex than for any plane to date, and the checklist of tasks runs many pages long. The different sections of the checklist correlate with various divisions throughout the company”. Hankin says “This is due, in large part, to the advanced technology that makes up the plane’s structure (50 percent of which is composite materials) and the interior unique features.”

United's BusinessFirst seats on the 787 Dreamliner. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

United’s BusinessFirst seats on the 787 Dreamliner. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

United’s new BusinessFirst Cabin was initially to debut on the 787, but due to the delivery delays; it debuted on the 767 instead. It also does not feature the ‘Dome’ dramatic entrance of some other airline’s 787s at door no. 2. Passengers enter through the galleys. Other than that, all the other Dreamliner features remain in place: the electronic dimmer buttons for the massive windows, high-arched ceiling, dynamic LED lighting, and enhanced ventilation and pressurization systems.

United’s 787 is configured with 36 seats in Business First 2-2-2 abreast with 60” of pitch and 22” in width. United has chosen a tighter seating layout then some 787 operators such as ANA and JAL opting for a 9 seats abreast in the economy cabins: 72 Economy Plus with 35-36” of pitch and 18.3” in width in a 3-3-3 abreast configuration, and 113 seats in Economy with 31” pitch. On the return flight by the way, I sampled Premium Economy and was pleasantly surprised at how roomy it was. Panasonic’s eX2 provides the in-seat in-flight entertainment system on United’s 787 with Audio-Video on demand available at each seat. Power outlets are located at each seat in the business-class cabin and there are two for every three seats in the main cabin except for in the bulkhead rows where there are three outlets. Wi-Fi is not yet certified for the 787s. United is certainly not happy that their new flagship doesn’t have this capability, nor does any other 787 at this moment.

Economy is set up in a 3-3-3 format in United's 787s. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

Economy is set up in a 3-3-3 format in United’s 787s. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

According to the reservation agent, I was the first person to purchase a ticket on the first flight of Dreamliner service, the flight we are on today: United 1116. There was a lot of debate by #AvGeeks in the blogosphere and Twittersphere on whether this and the other November 4th flights would in fact be the first flights, or whether there would be special flights earlier. Even United’s press releases hinted at this possibility.

Unlike other airlines who chose splashy delivery ceremonies, United took delivery of their first 787 in a low-key manner on Sunday September 23rd. Rumors again swirled throughout the AvGeek world as to when the actual delivery would be and if there would be a large event. In the end, United chose to deliver their first 787 on Friday September 28, 011 from Boeing Field, instead of the usual Paine Field, as flight 7708 operating to Houston. There would be no fanfare upon departure. With 787 Fleet Standards Manager Captain Dave Lundy and Boeing 787 Assistant Fleet Manager Niels Olufsen at the controls, the journey between Seattle and Houston took approximately four hours departing at 9:56AM PST and landing at IAH at 3:56PM CST at an altitude of 41,000 feet. Upon arrival into United’s hub at stormy Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport, the 787 was greeted by a water cannon salute before taxiing over to a hanger with excited employees waiting for it.

The LED lighting really sets the mood on the 787 Dreamliner. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

The LED lighting really sets the mood on the 787 Dreamliner. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

This morning, Sunday November 4th there, are 4 flights operating the inaugural day: Our flight, 1116, is the first scheduled to depart early at 7:20AM with an arrival into Chicago O’Hare’s at 9:51AM. This plane is scheduled to turn-around and return back to Houston as flight 1510 after less than 2 hours on the ground in Chicago. Originally there were 8 flights scheduled, but now just 4. The remaining 2 flights of the day are: Houston-Los Angeles-Houston (IAH-LAX-IAH). United hubs at LAX, Newark, Cleveland, Denver, and Washington Dulles were scheduled to join the 787 Hub Tour throughout the month depending on the timing of the 2nd 787 being ready, with domestic revenue and familiarization flights continuing into early 2013.

We taxied out to IAH Runway 9, and at 7:27AM CST, began our very quick and very quiet 27-second take-off roll. With the aircraft only weighing 375,000 pounds (with 55,000 pounds of payload) out of a possible 502,000-pound max weight, Vr came at 140 knots in what was obviously a whisper-quiet take-off roll. A few seconds later we were airborne in a Northeastly direction to another round of applause, as is de rigueur in these occasions. We encountered a little chop in the climb to our FL41 cruising altitude, which gave a nice demonstration of the 787’s active aileron-driven gust suppression. The 787 is noticeably smoother than aircraft of its similar size such as the 767 and A330. Captain Starley came on the PA with some facts about the Dreamliner and today’s 2 hr, 9 min flight which would take us over to the east of Dallas, TX; Tulsa, OK; Springfield, MO; north of St. Louis, Joliet Illinois right into Chicago. We would fly at 504 knots and 580 mph. 19 minutes after take-off we leveled off at 41,000 feet.

Lighting really provides a nice atmosphere in United's 787 cabin. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

Lighting really provides a nice atmosphere in United’s 787 cabin. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

At 7:54AM, United CEO Jeff Smisek came up from the back (yes, he was seated in Economy) and led a champagne toast, which was met with cheers. The seatbelt sign came-off briefly, albeit as the crew began their service. The LED lighting changed from the light blue cruising hue to a warm orange-ish tone, which supposedly accentuates the appearance of food. Apart from the commemorative Dreamliner souvenirs, first flight certificates, and cute custom 787 cookies, the service was fairly normal. In Business Class, we were offered tasty Egg McMuffins or cereal with fruit, yogurt, and croissants. In Economy, Buy-on-board meals were offered. The 8 Flight Attendants (11 FA’s are on international flights) who had specially bid this trip conducted a gracious, proud service while navigating around what had turned into an airborne party.

After a quick breakfast, I had an opportunity to checkout the comfortable new lie-flat seats that were very comfortable and a big improvement over the previous BusinessFirst product. If there is any complaint, it’s that the AC power and USB connections are located rather inconveniently behind the passenger at the back of the seat. The Panasonic eX2 in-flight-entertainment system is chock-a-block full of music and video on demand, games, and a high-resolution airshow moving map, but sadly United’s famous “Channel 9” for listening to the pilot’s communications is missing. The IFE, while excellent, isn’t as cutting edge as some other’s but in United’s defense, it was state-of-the-art when initially ordered. My favorite, and previously unreported feature, was the smartly lit buffet / bar at the front of the forward BusinessFirst cabin. United’s seems somehow aesthetically better designed and more properly scaled than the “galley bars” on other 787s.

BusinessFirst seats in United's Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com

BusinessFirst seats in United’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Image by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com

With 40 minutes left in the flight, the air brakes came up and we began our initial descent. Captain Starley announced that we were burning an astoundingly low 9,000 pounds of fuel per hour, and that with 55 mph of tailwind were now flying at Mach .833. He termed the 787 as “a generational step forward”, yet “It still flies like a Boeing and it’s a ‘pilot’s airplane’”. Starley, who has flown commercially since 1973 and has flown everything from DC-8s to 777s, has the experience for his perspective to matter. Later to me, He offered that the 787s enhanced fuel efficiency is not only good for the environment and passengers, but it also equals job security for airline jobs as it allows airlines to fly more profitably at lower costs.

Captain Starley turned the 787 auto-pilot off at 4,000 feet and at 9:36AM CST executed a perfect “grease job” of a landing onto ORD’s runway 10, to cheers and clapping. We quickly exited the runway and as we taxied the first words heard over the PA, were “It’s A Dream Come True”, and yes you guessed it: there was more applause. What’s an inaugural flight without the obligatory Grand Finale: “The Water Cannon Salute”. These salutatory moments never get old as our 787 was given a bath from both sides of the jet. At United’s Gate C20, I deplaned right behind Jeff Smisek to a line of well-wishers and press. His remarks said it all: “Awesome! Just Awesome!”

United's first two 787's at IAH. Photo by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

United’s first two 787’s at IAH. Photo by Chris Sloan / Airchive.com.

After a short gate ceremony, United flight 1510 boarded for its on-time departure to Houston. This more subdued and conventional flight would be nearly devoid of all the ceremony of the inaugural flight. In fact, apart from being on the newest airliner of the 21st Century, it felt utterly normal. The Dream had become reality and that was the point.

See many more photos of Chris’ adventure on United’s 787 on his site Airchive.com.

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