Flashback: United Airlines Boeing 787 Inaugural
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Flashback: United Airlines Boeing 787 Inaugural

DALLAS – 10 years ago today, the first Boeing 787 in America entered service with United Airlines (UA). Airways was there for the occasion.

We take you back to that special flight in this flashback post.

It is 5:00 am on Sunday, November 4, 2012, and the whisper-quiet ticketing hall of Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport’s (IAH) Terminal E does not offer any clues that anything special is happening this morning.

But nothing could be farther from the truth as I, along with a coterie of bloggers and journalists including “Airways Magazine” correspondent and director of social media, extraordinaire Jack Harty make our way over to Gate E5.

Despite the obscenely early hour, our collective adrenaline is surging. This is my 4th inaugural with the Singapore Airbus A380, ANA Boeing 787, and Lufthansa Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental under my belt. The experience is never the same, never gets old. 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 the circumstance of other launch flights does little to dampen our enthusiasm for the inauguration of the first Boeing 787 to be operated by a U.S. carrier.

We are being escorted through security by United PR executive Rahsaan Johnson, himself a fellow enthusiast who is as giddy with excitement as we are, as we only have 10 minutes onboard to jockey for photographs before the brief 6:25 am ribbon-cutting ceremony with Jeff Smisek, United’s President and CEO, and crew. Rounding the concourse to Gate E5, we are pleasantly surprised.

The gate is already buzzing with activity, a large press contingent, festooned with party decorations, and a generous buffet breakfast. A hip-hop soundtrack wakes up the crowd. The message is clear: this is no ordinary flight and after weeks of seemingly downplaying the event, United wasn’t going to let this historic moment pass unnoticed. 

We quickly board the United’s Dreamliner for our 10 minutes of photo opportunities before we are required to exit the plane, even though we would re-board in just a few minutes.

As we emerge, Smisek and the flight crew are already on a stage emblazoned with a “Proud to Fly the 787” backdrop to make a brief 5 minutes of remarks welcoming everyone to this historic morning. Poignantly, he first offers his best wishes to all the people and United employees affected by Hurricane Sandy and his appreciation for all they did in the face of the challenges of the previous week.

Switching to an optimistic note, the CEO’s 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. If you want to be the world’s leading airline, you need to have the world’s leading airplane. We have that today in the new Boeing 787.”

Beyond all the usual groundbreaking features of the 787 normally mentioned: efficiency, lower cabin altitude, larger electronically-tinted windows, dynamic LED transforming lighting, cleaner air, gust suppression technology to smooth the ride, 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.”

Any frustration with the delays, schedule changes, or talk of compensation is not present on this morning.

With an on-time departure at stake, the United team hustles over to a balloon arch in front of the gate, where a ribbon-cutting ceremony that seems worthy of a theme park opening draws uproarious applause from the crowd. Smisek draws some laughs when he remarks that the giant ornamental scissors that he and today’s Captain Jim Starley are wielding, are not permitted on board due to obvious safety concerns.

With that remark, the ribbon is cut and boarding of the approximately 200 passengers begins promptly at 6:50 am.

Flight 1116 from IAH-ORD, typically operated by a Boeing 757-300, is a normal operating flight number with many paying passengers, some press, United high-status customers, and of course a number of aviation enthusiasts. Many passengers, unaware of the historic significance of the flight, are completely but pleasantly surprised at the ebullient party-like atmosphere at the gate.

Unlike other airlines that undertake special enthusiast and press flights, United takes the bold decision to immediately press its one-and-only in-service 787 into scheduled service on the line with four flights on Day One. For a carrier that had experienced a challenging last few months, this flight was as much about immediately generating revenue and operational experience, as it was a PR event.

A previously scheduled PR hub tour and employee delivery flight using United’s 2nd 787, scheduled for November 1, had to be scrubbed, due to that aircraft’s delay. Therefore, a perfect flight would be critical on this day.

Upon boarding the Dreamliner, my impressions of the cabin are positive. Though lacking the capacious stand-up bar entryway of other airlines’ 787s, the entry through door L2 and the gallery is still a major improvement over other aircraft, particularly with United’s blue LED boarding lighting program on display. I settled into my spacious lay-flat seat, 6A in United BusinessFirst.

United wanted to leave nothing to chance to ensure an on-time departure at 7:20 AM. At 7:12 am the doors were closed and 6 minutes later at 7:18 am, we pushed back as the twin GE-nX engines began their almost imperceptible spool-up. Strangely, there was no water cannon salute scheduled on the departure but the custom-produced Boeing 787 promotional and safety video received huge applause.

With the clicks of cameras, cheers, and waves from the ground crew, we were on our way. As we taxied out to runway 9 I thought to myself what a long, strange trip it has been for United and Boeing to get to this historic moment.

United has been the launch customer for many significant airliners over the years, dating back to the Boeing 247 in 1932 (often called the first modern airliner), the Douglas DC-8 in 1959 (along with Delta), the Boeing 767 in 1982, and most recently the Boeing 777 in 1995. In the case of the Dreamliner, ANA was the launch customer.

ANA, along with JAL, Ethiopian, LAN, and Air India preceded United in receiving their Dreamliners and introducing them into service. In fact, United’s first 787 is the 23rd delivered. Why then is United’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner EIS (entry into service) such a significant event?

Though other U.S. carriers, including Delta and American, have ordered the 787, United is the first U.S. carrier to introduce it into service. In fact, Delta and America’s 787s are a few years away from delivery. Up until not only have there been no domestic 787 flights within the U.S. but also there has been only limited Boeing 787 service to the United States: JAL at Boston to Tokyo/Narita and ANA from Seattle to Tokyo Narita. LAN has announced LAX as one of its first 787 destinations but that hasn’t launched.

United’s first announced bookable 787 flight and new 787 exclusive route was the March 31, 2013 launch of Denver to Tokyo Narita, Japan. Today, November 4th marks the first significant operation of 787s in America by a North American carrier. United initially chose to “go big: with a remarkable 8 flights scheduled on Day One involving 5 of United’s hubs: Houston Intercontinental, Newark Liberty, Chicago O’Hare, San Francisco, and Los Angeles.

These flights were to use United’s first 2 Dreamliners operating from the 787’s Houston base. United’s planned to temporarily rotate the 787-8 through all of its domestic hubs with domestic promotional and familiarization flights before the 787 begins its shift to international operations on December 4th

The journey to this day has been over 8 years in the making. United’s merger partner, Continental, was the first airline in America to place 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 Dreamliner would allow Continental to open up new long-range/thin routes such as Houston-Auckland, New Zealand (which was subsequently canceled before launch) and Houston-Lagos, Nigeria, as well as replace the airline’s elderly 767s and eventually the 757-300s.

Continental was so bullish on the plane that it ordered additional 787-8s over the next few years: In 2007, Continental ordered 5 of the larger and longer-range 787-9s and converted an additional 12 787-8s to the 787-9 model.

The 787 would never fly under the Continental brand as United and Continental announced their merger in May 2010, which became operationally effective on March 3, 2012. As everyone knows that while the United name would survive, the Continental “1964 World’s Fair” Globe logo would carry over in the merger, replacing United’s beloved Sal Bass “Tulip” – a visual nod that this was in fact a merger of equals.

However, for a variety of reasons, United’s 787s are based at Continental’s former headquarters base of Houston George Bush Intercontinental and flown by the former Continental pilots as the two work groups continue to remain separate. 

United itself ordered its first 787s in December 2009, when the Chicago-based carrier placed a firm order for 25 Dreamliners (also powered by the GEnx-1B) and 25 of the larger Airbus A350-900s, with deliveries of these scheduled to start in 2016 and continue through 2019. The 787-8s and 9s are pegged as 757 and 767 replacements. The Airbus A350-900s are Boeing 747-400 and, in some cases, 777-200 replacements.

The A350-900’s range is 11% greater than the existing 747s and older A-market 777s. The 787-8 can fly 32% farther than United’s existing 767s. The carrier has firm orders for 36 787-8s and 14 787-9s, with options for 10 additional 787-8s and a letter of intent covering 50 of either variant, according to Flightglobal’s Ascend Online database.

Though never officially announced, United and Continental both originally intended for the 787 to enter service years before. The 787 launch customer ANA inaugurated the world’s first Boeing 787 service just slightly over a year ago on October 26, 2011, and they had announced an initial EIS of May 2008. United is scheduled to receive 4-5 787-8s before the end of 2012, according to the airline but with deliveries slipping, this isn’t completely guaranteed at press time.

An interesting side note is United’s first 787, L/N 45, which I photographed a year before almost complete in Everett was still undergoing factory rework as are many of the 787s.

To prepare for the delivery of United’s first 787 Dreamliner, the airline set up its Houston hub with a full-motion flight simulator, where 70 pilots were trained to operate the aircraft. At this time, more than 7,000 flight attendants have already received extensive 787 systems and operations training and are qualified to fly on the aircraft as well. In addition, the Houston maintenance base is geared up to house more than 1,180 different 787 parts and train their technicians in the new ways of this composite / highly-electrically driven marvel.

Ian Hankin, the Principal Engineer in Product Engineering, points out in United’s 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.”

Hankin drills down further into preparing the Boeing 787 to be service ready, “Here are just some of the sections that the list covers: pre-application and FAA milestones, formal application; cabin, and seat configuration development; maintenance and technical manuals; flight operation manuals, training manuals, and delivery documents; ground infrastructure, engine data management; delivery process; security process; and ground operations; maintenance programs; and dining services. In addition, Boeing must complete a checklist of processes and steps as well.“

United’s first Boeing 787-8 (N20904, LN53) rolled out of the paint shop in the early morning hours of July 31, 2012. The roll-out was webcast and took on the appearance of a Hollywood premiere as United’s newest airliner emerged from behind the massive doors at Everett to spotlights set to the strains of the airline’s trademark, Gershwin-composed “Rhapsody in Blue” theme song.

Like ANA, United surprised everyone by commissioning a special livery for its Boeing 787 fleet, a crowd-pleasing unique special livery with a yellow, swooping cheatline. The press was invited onboard to view UA’s new flagship. The new BusinessFirst Cabin was initially to debut on the 787, but due to delivery delays; it debuted on the 777 instead. Initial reactions to it were mixed, but in United’s defense, it had been designed to enter service much earlier.

Personally, I found it quite attractive and ergonomic and didn’t subscribe to some of the criticism heaped upon it. United’s 787s are configured with 36 seats in BusinessFirst 2-2-2 abreast with 60” of pitch and 22” in width. United has chosen a tighter seating layout than some 787 operators such as ANA and JAL opting for nine seats abreast in the economy cabins, instead of eight across; 72 Economy Plus with 35-36” of pitch and 17.3” in width in a 3-3-3 abreast configuration, and 113 seats in Economy with 31” pitch.

Briefly jumping ahead, on the post-inaugural return flight back to Houston, I sampled Economy Plus and was pleasantly surprised at how roomy it was. Panasonic’s eX2 provides the in-seat in-flight entertainment system 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 their, nor any other operator’s 787s save Qatar’s. Reportedly, United is very unhappy with this.

A few weeks later, on August 20, 2012, United’s first Dreamliner took off from its birthplace at Paine Field for its maiden test flight. The three-hour sortie took the 787 over Washington state and northern Oregon before heading back to Paine Field. During the flight, Boeing crewmembers put the 787’s systems through multiple tests.

On September 1, 2012, at precisely midnight, United announced their first domestic Dreamliner flights and officially loaded them for sale on their CRS. I dialed in just before midnight and 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. I couldn’t help but tweet this out to my AvGeek tweeps.

I was almost immediately met with responses questioning whether this and the other November 2nd flights would in fact be the official first flights, or whether there would be special flights earlier. Even United’s press releases hinted at this possibility, but with the program evolving on a daily basis, no one at least on the outside really knew for sure exactly what United’s intentions were.

Unlike other airlines that chose splashy delivery ceremonies, United took delivery of its first 787 in a low-key manner on Saturday, September 22. 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 almost surreptitiously on Friday, September 28, 2012, from Boeing Field, instead of the usual Paine Field, as flight 7708 operated to Houston.

There would be no fanfare upon departure. In fact, the press was notified a few days after contractual delivery, and only 24 hours in advance of the actual delivery flight. With 787 Fleet Standards Manager Captain Dave Lundy and Boeing 787 Assistant Fleet Manager Niels Olufsen on the flight deck, the journey between Seattle and Houston took approximately four hours departing at 9:56 am PST and landing at IAH at 3:56 am CST at an altitude of 41,000 feet. 

Upon arrival at 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.

United then began a busy month of October, proving runs of 100 hours of flight time for FAA certification and the arrival of its second 787. According to United’s Hankin “As the North American launch customer for the 787 Dreamliner, we are required by the FAA to do more proving runs and log significantly more hours than is standard. As an example, we must do 12 proving runs instead of just one. Hankin explains that a proving run is exactly what it sounds like… You prove to the FAA you know how to fly the plane from A to B.”

Wednesday, October 10 brought the first proving run as United flight number 7708 operated a round-trip operating from IAH to United’s Newark hub. The aircraft was on the ground for about 2 hours before returning to the 787 base at Houston. A proving flight to Chicago followed the next day. Additional proving flights, all under the flight 7708 designation continued to other United hubs: San Francisco, Denver, Washington Dulles, and Los Angeles, with long-haul proving flights the week of October 22nd first to Tokyo Narita and then Houston-Amsterdam-Houston as well.

Reportedly most flights were uneventful, though there were some rumors of minor issues with a ground power connection at some stations and IFE glitches. The FAA put the flight crews through their paces with over 100 hours of proving flights, including a diversion to Keflavik, Iceland on the return from the last proving flight, which was from Amsterdam.

He continues: “Completing the induction process for the first aircraft means doing a series of conformity checks with the FAA. We do an evacuation test, a test of the inflatable slides, and a test of the emergency exits – everything down to testing a catering truck driving up to the plane. It’s the first time that any of our employees can get a real feel for what it’s like to be in and around our new 787.”

United’s 2nd  787 (LN 77, N26906) flew for the first time on Friday, October 19, 2012. This second stablemate of the Dreamliner fleet was intended to be delivered with enough advance notice before beginning line operations on November 2nd, but due to undisclosed technical issues and weather delays to the flight program, it was delayed to October 31 and then November 1, too late for the original November 4 flights. Its official EIS is on November 6.

Further, there were two special employee flights planned but these were scrubbed due to Hurricane Sandy as many United employees around the system were dealing with the storm’s aftermath. from Now with just one 787 ready to enter service and just a week before United’s 787 November 2nd launch date, United reverted 4 of the Day One launch flights back to their original equipment Houston-Newark-Houston (IAH-EWR-IAH), Houston-San Francisco-Houston (IAH-SFO-IAH).

The Blogosphere and Twitter-sphere were again abuzz with rumors that the remaining 4 flights on November 4th would be delayed as well. Luckily, they weren’t. However, this additional delay would have further ramifications on the international long-haul scheduled launch.

The next big United 787 event, its first long-haul flight, was originally scheduled for Dec 4 from Houston – Amsterdam. This coincided with my birthday and a few friends of mine and myself who booked this flight, were enormously disappointed at its delay. Amsterdam, along with Houston to London Heathrow, scheduled to operate on a temporary basis, were pushed into 2013.

At press time, Los Angeles to Tokyo Narita is the newly announced first United long-haul 787 flight beginning January 3, 2013. Other announced routes, in addition to the first-announced 787 flight, Denver-Tokyo Narita on March 31, 2013 (which will be inaugurated with a 787) include Houston to Lagos, Nigeria beginning January 7, 2013 (replacing a 777), followed by Los Angeles to Shanghai, beginning March 30, 2013.

This morning, Sunday, November 4, there are four flights operating on the inaugural: Our flight, 1116, is the first scheduled to depart early at 7:20 am with arrival into Chicago’s O’Hare at 9:51 am. 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.

As noted previously, originally there were 8 flights scheduled, but now just 4 remain today: Houston-Los Angeles-Houston (IAH-LAX-IAH). United hubs at San Francisco, 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 truly service ready. These domestic revenue and familiarization flights are scheduled to continue into early 2013.

Finally, the moment we had all waited for arrived. The first revenue flight of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner operated by a US carrier taxied out to Runway 9 at IAH, and at 0727 began a very quick and quiet 27-sec takeoff roll.

The aircraft weighed only 375,000 lb (170,135 kg)—with a 55,000 lb (24,955 kg) payload—out of a possible 502,000 lb (227,755 kg) maximum. In what was obviously a sprightly performance, VR came at 140 kt. A few seconds later, we were airborne to another round of applause, as is de rigueur on these occasions.

We encountered light turbulence climbing to 41,000 ft, which allowed a brief demonstration of the 787’s vertical ‘gust-suppression’ software technology, which smooths the bumps by commanding symmetric deflection of flaperons and elevators. The 787 is noticeably smoother than airplanes of 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 to the east of Dallas, TX; over Tulsa, OK; Springfield, MO; just north of St. Louis, Joliet Illinois right into Chicago. We would peak at 504 knots and 580 mph. Our lightly loaded 787 didn’t have to step up to its maximum cruising altitude, thus at barely 19 minutes after take-off, we leveled off at 41,000 feet. With that, champagne (or was it sparkling wine?) began flowing in all cabins.

At 7:54 am, United CEO Jeff Smisek came up from the back. Yes, the egalitarian CEO of the world’s largest airline was seated in Economy. Smisek stood between the 2 BusinessFirst cabins, grabbed the PA, and offered a champagne toast to everyone aboard, which was met with cheers. The seatbelt sign came off, and the party began as many of us wandered the cabin to photograph and mingle.

Simultaneously, the nonplussed crew began their service. The signature Dreamliner LED lighting changed from the light blue cruising hue to a warm orange-ish tone, which supposedly accentuates the appearance of food and beverages. Apart from the commemorative Dreamliner souvenirs, first flight certificates, the complimentary bubbly, and cute custom 787 cookies, the service was fairly typical in both classes.

In BusinessFirst, we were offered tasty Egg McMuffins or cereal with fruit, yogurt, and croissants. In Economy, somewhat inauspiciously, Buy-on-board meals were offered. The 8 Flight Attendants (11 FAs are on international flights) who had especially bid for this trip, conducted a gracious, patient service while navigating around all the press, photographers, and enthusiasts who had monopolized the aisles, turning the N20904 into an airborne party.

After breakfast, I had an opportunity to check out the comfortable new lie-flat seats, which are 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 annoyingly United’s famous “Channel 9” for listening to the pilot’s communications is missing.

My favorite feature was the smartly lit buffet/bar at the front of the forward BusinessFirst cabin. United’s version seems aesthetically better designed and more properly scaled than the ‘galley bars’ on other 787s. On international flights, this buffet is stocked with snacks and beverages between meal services.

With little over an hour of flight time left, the lighting subtly changed to a new light-blue scheme as we cruised along with nary a cloud in sight—dare I say ‘Friendly Skies’?

The party atmosphere continued as we chatted with old friends and veterans of first flights, including Thomas Lee, whose well-known ‘Plaque of First of Flights’ had expanded to include flight certificates from his participation in the 747, A380, and 787 inaugurals.

Other enthusiasts included Darren Booth (who was on the 777 inaugural in 1995), and Dean Wood, with whom I have flown three inaugurals.

Forty minutes from touchdown the airbrakes were deployed and we began our initial descent. Capt Starley announced that we were burning only 9,000lb (4,100kg) of fuel per hour and that with a 55mph (88kph) tailwind we were flying at Mach 0.833.

He termed the 787 as “a generational step forward,” adding “it still flies like a Boeing and it’s a ‘pilot’s airplane’.” Starley, whose history spans Braniff, People Express Airlines, and Continental, has been flying with the airlines since 1973, starting on the Douglas DC-8.

He asserted that “the 787’s enhanced fuel efficiency is not only good for the environment and passengers, but it also equals security for airline jobs as it allows airlines to fly more profitably at lower costs.”

Capt Starley turned the autopilot off at 4,000 ft, and at 0936 CST ‘greased’ the new airplane onto Runway 10, to cheers and clapping. We quickly vacated the runway, and as we taxied the first words heard over the PA were “It’s a dream come true,” to more applause. The obligatory grand finale, a water cannon salute, followed as the 787 was sprayed from both sides.

At Gate C20, I deplaned behind Jeff Smisek to a throng of United employees, spectators, and press—all applauding heartily. Smisek revealed that this was his first flight aboard the Dreamliner, summing up the experience: “Just awesome!” After a short arrival ceremony, along with 200 or so other passengers, I boarded UA1510 for its on-time departure to Houston.

This flight was devoid of the ceremony of the inaugural. In fact, apart from being on the newest airliner of the 21st century, it felt utterly normal. The Dreamliner dream immediately became not only reality but also routine—and that was the point of the exercise.

(Special thanks to Jack Harty for his support for this article. For more photos of the inaugural flight, visit theirchive.net.)

Featured image and all photos: Author

Chris Sloan is a curious human with far too many passions and advocations: a long-time aviation journalist, television producer, philanthropist, entrepreneur, photographer, businessman, drone operator, wanderluster, storyteller, and dad. On the side, he runs the webseum of commercial aviation, TheAirchive.net.

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