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First U.S. Dreamliner flight: United lands inaugural flight at O'Hare

(MCT) — United Airlines landed its inaugural flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Chicago O'Hare on Sunday morning to the cheers of passengers, which included many aviation enthusiasts who took the flight just to say they were there.

The twin-aisle plane, delayed more than three years by production problems at Boeing, is said to be far more fuel efficient and less costly to maintain for airlines, while offering a new level of comfort for passengers. Half of the plane is made of strong and light composite materials, including the fuselage and wings, instead of metal.

"If you want to be the world's leading airline, you need the world's leading airplane, and this is it," said CEO Jeff Smisek. Smisek said he hadn't flown on a 787 until Sunday's flight from Houston to Chicago. "It been a long haul to get here," he said. United is the first North American airline to receive a 787, and Sunday marked its first commercial flight of the craft.

Sunday's flight also marked a big moment for the two companies, United and Boeing, whose headquarters are a few blocks apart in downtown Chicago and who once were part of the same company.

The inflight experience aboard the Dreamliner was, indeed, better than most -- though incrementally better, not vastly different. Inside the cabin of the 219-seat jet, the noise level was noticeably quieter, especially compared with the similarly sized Boeing 767 I flew on the night before. The Dreamliner's high ceilings gave the impression of having more space and the added humidity was a welcome change compared to the usually dry air that has you yearning for the first beverage service. The larger overhead bins and in-flight entertainment options were nice, although other planes have those amenities too.

The much-hyped larger windows seemed only modestly larger and didn't affect the experience much, especially if you weren't in a window seat. However, the push-button tinting of the window -- instead of a pull-down window shade -- was fun to play with.

Some passengers noted how smooth the ride was. I didn't notice a big difference, especially when we hit temporary turbulence just outside of Houston. But I'll take the word of more avid fliers. And the in-cabin colored ceiling lighting, which changes during the flight, was nice but didn't seem to matter much on the short flight of just over two hours. To be fair, the plane is meant to fly much longer routes.

My seat mates in row 35 were Dave and Vicki Hardy, aviation fans from Oakland, Calif., who purposefully took a route through Houston on the 787 enroute to visit Dave's grandfather in Michigan. "It's all that I hoped it would be," said Dave Hardy, echoing Boeing and United officials by calling the aircraft "game-changing." 

Vicki, wearing a blue 787 Dreamliner T-shirt, said the plane was quiet and she didn't feel so closed in. "And my ears aren't popping," she said. Another feature of the plane, by virtue of its composite fuselage, is the ability to lower the in-cabin altitude, 6,000 feet instead of the usual 8,000. 

The flight was important for United, which has had a rough year, with widespread delays and cancelations after a reservations system switchover in March and intermittent strife with its unions, especially pilots -- although both of those problems have abated in recent weeks. The airline is still working through merger hassles, some two years after United and Continental combined. 

Some observers say the halo effect of being the first North American carrier to fly the Dreamliner is a much-needed boost to the reputation of the world's largest airline. More tangibly, the plane is far more fuel efficient than planes it will replace -- Boeing claims 20 percent more efficient for some replacements. Fuel is a huge cost for airlines, so that's savings that can fall to the bottom line for United. 

For Boeing, Sunday's flight represents another step toward repairing its reputation surrounding the 787, which started deliveries more than three years late due to design and production problems.

The near-constant delays were so rampant the plane earned the snarky nickname, 7-late-7. 

However, Boeing may have the last laugh. Dreamliners have sold like hotcakes and early reviews are glowing from customers who have flown the plane on foreign airlines over the past year and from those who flew from Houston to Chicago on Sunday.

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