United Airlines is the first airline in North America to fly the 787 DREAM)LINER (see their special 787 webpage). With the 787 being my favorite aircraft (at the moment ), I have decided that no matter where it went, I wanted to fly on the inaugural flight.
In August 2012, one month prior to their first aircraft delivery, United announced temporary domestic flights for the 787 between hubs in order to break-in the aircraft. November 4th was shown as the first day of service, but it noted that the official first commercial flight was to be sometime in October. However, that changed when the first aircraft got delivered in September when United announced that the inaugural flight would be on November 4th from Houston (IAH) to Chicago (ORD). The inaugural flight information was buried in that press release and I did not find out about it until the next day.
Second day after the announcement, seats were still available on the inaugural flight, but only in the highest fare classes and only standard awards (requiring more miles) were available. If you were not a Premier Member, you could not even see award availability. It was either pay over $1000 or 50,000 miles for the round-trip flight between IAH and ORD. Granted, my ticket was a same day return, making it more expensive to begin with, so I chose to use miles. And disappointingly enough, all the windows seats were gone, leaving only middle seats and some aisles open.
Between paying for and redeeming miles on two tickets (SFO-IAH-SFO and IAH-ORD-IAH), I was able to put together an itinerary flying on three different 787 segments on the first day. Sometime after purchasing my tickets, the 787 flight from IAH to SFO was cancelled due to United not receiving their second aircraft in time. United was kind enough to rebook me to the 787 flight from IAH to LAX without penalty or difference in fare. I did, however, pay $59 to upgrade to an Economy Plus window seat since only middle seats remained in the standard economy section.
I counted the days leading up to November 4th, all the while kept a close eye on the flight trackers on the FAA route proving flights. Per chance, I was in LAX when the United 787 came through on a route proving flight there. I would later fly on this same aircraft.
Photo © Ben Wang
Talk about cutting it close, on November 2nd, two days before the inaugural flight, United completed 787 certification with the FAA.
Leg 1: UA 1116, Houston-Intercontinental (IAH) to Chicago-O’Hare (ORD)
Aircraft: Boeing 787-8
msn/ln: 34824/53 (ZA288)
Delivered to United on Sept 22, 2012 (United’s first aircraft and Boeing’s 23rd delivery)
Scheduled Departure – Arrival: 7:20 am – 9:51 am
Actual Departure – Arrival: 7:18 am – 9:45 am
Takeoff IAH Runway 09: 7:28 am
Landing ORD Runway 10: 9:37 am
Cruising Altitude: 41,000 feet
I arrived at Houston’s E concourse at 5:30 am, plenty early ahead of the 6:30 am boarding time. I checked in at the Premier Access ticket counter kiosk to print out my boarding pass. After seeing the seat map unchanged for weeks, I was surprised to see one aisle seat in Economy Plus open. I quickly grabbed it.
I wanted to get there early to ensure I didn’t miss out on celebrations at the gate. It was still before 6 am when I arrived at gate E5 and there was already quite a crowd. The gate area was decorated with blue and white balloons. Monitors showing a 787 slideshow were setup throughout. There was a stage as well. A nice spread of pastries, sandwiches, juices, and coffee was available. 787 cookies were a nice touch.
An archway of balloons along with a “United Airlines 787 Inaugural Flight” ribbon led up to the boarding door.
Some pilots (not flying our flight) mingled with the crowd chatting about the 787.
This person was quite a hit with journalists and enthusiasts alike with his display of first flight certificates. He had flown on the inaugural flights of the Pan Am 747, Singapore A380, and the ANA 787. In case you are not familiar with your airline history, those were all first airlines to fly those respective aircraft types.
The star of the show, United 787 Dreamliner N20904 waiting to receive her first revenue passengers.
Information displays at the gate.
Our inaugural flight crew of two pilots and eight flight attendants gathered for a group photo on stage.
The pilots for our flight were Capt Jim Starley (right) and Capt Cliff Pittman.
United President and CEO Jeff Smisek made a short speech prior to ribbon cutting our inaugural flight with Capt Starley
Immediately thereafter, boarding started. There was no time to savor the moment.
Boarding was slow, people were taking photos next to the balloons or with Jeff Smisek while boarding.
I boarded at Seating 3. Stepping on board a 787 for the first time ever, I was happy to finally see for myself the famous entry archway that has been touted by Boeing since the aircraft’s inception
I went directly to my seat in Economy Plus, 21C. Seats were stocked with pillows and blankets (surprised to see that!), and each seat back pocket had a folder of commemorative items.
787’s windows are electrochromic, meaning they brighten and darken electronically with push of a button (albeit it takes a minute or so to fully brighten and darken). Here, you can see one window brightened while others remained dark.
Large overhead bins fit your rollerboard on its sides.
The mood on board was electric. Everyone on board was ecstatic. It also helped when most folks on board either worked United (like my seat mates) or were enthusiasts (like me). I estimated 50% of the passengers were employees, 30% enthusiasts, 10% reporters, and 10% “real” travelers who just happened to pick this flight. The two ladies in the row ahead of us had to ask a flight attendant walking by on the reason for the big hoopla.
Next time when you don’t get your upgrade, don’t fret. Even Mr. CEO himself couldn’t get upgraded on his own airline! He was number three on the upgrade list and in the end, did not get upgraded. Welcome to my club, Mr. Smisek . He was seated in the first Economy Plus bulkhead row, seat 17F, four rows ahead of me.
Capt Starley got on to the PA and welcomed everyone sharing this “moment in aviation history”. He announced the flying time to Chicago would be 2 hours and 12 minutes.
I flipped through the menus on my audio/video on-demand seat-back entertainment system to disappointingly find that there was no Channel 9 air traffic control audio. It seemed this original Continental Airlines aircraft order was still all Continental, from the seat design, seat fabrics, to the entertainment system.
After pushback, the now familiar “Jeff Smisek thank you for flying United video” started. There was bit of a chuckle because that guy on the video was right there on our plane! Everyone clapped. This video promoted all the goodness of the 787. At its conclusion a minute later, everyone clapped some more.
The 787 made different kinds of noise I was not familiar with during engine startup. One of my seatmates commented, “Welcome aboard the Starship Enterprise!"
We made a quick taxi from the E concourse to Runway 9. There was no delay to the runway. We rolled to the runway and when takeoff power was applied, I got pushed back into my seat. Rainwater from the previous night cascaded across the windows as we raced down the runway. After rotation, everyone applauded. Some guy said “she flies” which brought laughter all around.
The seat belt sign was quickly extinguished, a lot sooner than expected. Cabin crew was busily preparing to serve sparkling wine (and ginger ale for the non drinkers) for the toast.
Capt Starley got back on to the PA again and announced we would be cruising at 41,000 feet, and expects an on-time arrival at 9:51 am. Temperature is 40 degrees in Chicago. Here are some shots of the seat back display showing information and slideshow about the 787.
Jeff Smisek led the toast, thanking customers and employees joining in the inaugural flight. Unfortunately, there was a mob scene down in front of him, so no one other than some photographers actually saw him doing the toast.
Everyone raised their plastic wine glass, exclaimed: “cheers!” and applauded.
Jeff mingled with the passengers, shaking hands, posing for photos.
On the PA, everyone was asked to clear the aisles so flight attendants can start their service. While Jeff was trying to make his way back, folks ahead of our row stopped him for autographs. Not wanting to let this opportunity pass, my seat mates and I got stuff out for him to sign as well.
Service eventually got started. The first cart sold snack boxes (I commented snack boxes should have been free on this flight), with beverages on the second cart. I went with apple juice.
After service, I walked around to explore the aircraft, including the high tech lavatory. When unoccupied, the lavatory is lit with blue lighting until you lock the door. The auto facet water temperature is electronically controlled. At a wave of a hand, the toilet seat automatically lowered and flushed.
Capt Starley later announced some interesting statistics about our flight:
- Takeoff weight: 375,000 pounds (maximum takeoff weight is 502,000 pounds)
- Speed at rotation: 140 knots
- Cruising speed: Mach 0.833
- Ground speed: 505 mph
- Expected landing weight: 351,000 pounds
- Payload (passengers and cargo): 55,000 pounds
- Fuel flow: 9000 pounds/hour, both engines
He pointed out the fuel flow was amazingly low given this size of aircraft.
As we left cruising altitude, it was announced that the seat belt light will be left off a bit longer, and everyone should immediately take their seats quickly when it comes on. Soon we made a smooth touchdown on Runway 10 to the applause of all on board. We taxied past an American 767 and someone snickered “our plane is better than yours”. In the post-landing announcement, flight attendant thanked us for flying on the “world famous Dreamliner” and exclaimed, “dreams do come true!”
A pair of fire engines waited for us at gate C20. The pilot announced that we were to receive a water cannon salute to celebrate our arrival. From my aisle seat, through the tall windows, I was able to get a clear view of the fire engine and the drenching we received from ahead and behind my row (such great windows!). This was followed by more applause.
After arrival, I got in line along with a number of other people to visit the cockpit. I wanted to get my model and inaugural certificate signed by our pilots. However, everyone including the crew was asked to clear off the plane so it could be serviced.
Inside the small gate area, United’s Chicago manager personally welcomed everyone as they got off the aircraft. A stage and monitors showing 787 videos were setup. Between the passengers, journalists, and staff members, it got very crowded. Jeff Smisek made a brief remark, followed by Capt Starley. Capt Starley said on the flight in, he turned off the autopilot at 4000 feet and hand flew the airplane all the way down. He turned to Jeff and asked, “How was that landing, boss?” to the laughter of all. Afterwards, I managed to get both Capt Starley and Pittman to sign my certificate.
The food court next to our gate provided a nice view of our ride.
Leg 2, UA 1510, Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) to Houston-Intercontinental (IAH)
Scheduled Departure – Arrival: 11:21 am – 2:06 pm
Actual Departure – Arrival: 11:31 am – 1:56 pm
Takeoff ORD Runway 09R: 11:45 am
Landing IAH Runway 27: 1:50 pm
Cruising Altitude: 40,000 feet
Boarding was delayed by about 10 to 15 minutes due to the aircraft still being serviced. No doubt due to the extra mess we left from our party flight coming in.
Seats were still stocked with pillows and blankets, however, no more freebie commemorative items.
Out of three 787s legs on this day, my seat 25A on this flight turned out to be the best. Row 25, located at the trailing edge of the wing ahead of door 3, provides nice views of the wing and the ground below. This seat also has two windows, and you are not reclining into anyone sitting behind. The only drawback is this seat (along with the last three rows in this cabin) is not Economy Plus with the extra legroom.
I finally got to play with my own windows. First thing I noticed is the one button controlled both windows at my seat. If I darkened one window, the other darkened to the same brightness. Not sure whether I like this as sometimes I like to have independent lighting for each of my windows.
I figured out the strange electrical whirling noise that occurred at engine start was not the engine, but the electrical system or the motors powering the flaps. Nevertheless, the GEnx engines do not rumble or “moo” impressively as the GE90 on the 777-300ER.
The same pilots and cabin crew flew back to IAH with me. Even though it was not the party plane like the first flight, the feeling was still high energy. There was still the occasional applause during various phases of flight. When we reached to our 40,000 feet cruising altitude, the captain noted how much more quickly the 787 climbed to our cruising altitude.
After taking off Runway 09R turning south, I caught a glimpse of downtown Chicago.
With the sun slightly glaring on my side, I made full use of the dimming window, darkening a dot or two – enjoying the view of the wing while watching my seat back video.
After the first of two beverage services (I went with apple juice again), the flight attendant announced the service is complete, about one hour of flight time remains, and now is a good time to walk around the plane to take pictures. Wow – when was the last time you heard that on a flight? Like never!
While I was on my walk-around, one of the lead flight attendants offered to show me the crew rest in the ceiling. The forward crew rest has two bunks with one seat...
...while the aft crew rest has six or seven bunks.
The ceiling where the crew rest is located is noticeably lower and there are no overhead bins above those center seats.
He also showed me the cabin control panel where things like cabin temperature and lighting are controlled.
There are 12 different lighting modes!
With no one seated behind me, I also tried reclining my seat all the way back. The recline was generous, as expected for an international economy seat. Interestingly enough, the seat bottom also slid slightly forward providing a bit of thigh support while reclined.
We were soon on our descend and approach to Houston.
Like the first leg, Capt Starley announced some interesting statistics for our flight:
- Takeoff weight: 355,000 pounds
- Speed at rotation: 143 knots
- Expected landing weight: 334,000 pounds
- Expected landing speed: 135 knots
Once again, Capt Starley marveled at the amazing 9000 pounds per hour fuel flow rate.
Look at the clean wing and control surfaces!
After vacating Runway 27 (we took off from the same runway as earlier in the day, but from the opposite direction), we made a long taxi from the south to the north side of the airport, passed by the United hanger where we saw their second 787 parked, and arrived at gate C14, next to a Singapore 777-300ER.
A couple of my friends were on the top of the parking garage and took some excellent photos of my plane…and me in the plane!
Once again, I got in line again to visit the cockpit…this time with success. We were shuffled through quickly, so I was not able to get good photos, but did manage to get my 787 model box signed by all the pilots.
Leg 3, UA 1209, Houston-Intercontinental (IAH) to Los Angeles (LAX)
Scheduled Departure – Arrival: 4:06 pm – 5:47 pm
Actual Departure – Arrival: 4:03 pm – 5:29 pm
Takeoff IAH Runway 15R: 4:26 pm
Landing LAX Runway 25L: 5:22 pm
Cruising altitude: 40,000 feet
While photographing our plane at the gate with a bunch of other photographers, a passenger waiting next to the window was wondering what was going on…whether there was something he missed. I pointed to the 787 and explained to him today was the first day of service. The numbers “787” seemed confusing to him and he was generally unimpressed by my first day comment.
I would be flying with my friends on this flight. One of them and I each had a “L” window seat one behind another in Economy Plus, which we purchased when we switched from our SFO flight.
We got new pilots and cabin crew for this flight. One of the flight attendant was kind enough to grant my friend’s request to walk around and photograph the cabin before we pushed back (since everyone got on board early). Disappointingly, the pilots never made any announcements about the airplane or the significance of this flight. The flight attendant made a brief statement at the beginning and end of the flight, and that was it. It was a night and day difference from just hours ago! All of sudden, the 787 flight has become routine. Admittedly, I was getting blasé about it as well, having been on this plane for four hours and two flights, the 787 was starting to feel like any other plane.
My seatmate, however, noticed something was very different about this plane. She said she looked at booking this flight on the previous day and it was a 737...and this is no 737! I explained to her the inaugural service for the 787 and showed her the electrochromic window. She got all excited and started pointed this out to her travel partners and took photos.
We made a long taxi and held behind a few departures for Runway 15R. No more priority handling to the runway, I guess. After takeoff, we made a bank to the right, turning west with a great view of IAH.
With flying time expected to be three hours, I finally settled down for the first time and watched a couple documentaries on my seat back video.
There were two beverage services, first had a choice of snack boxes for purchase. Once again, I went with apple juice.
We hit turbulence for a short period during cruise. The wing flexed dramatically while the aircraft bounced…no doubt as designed to damp out the turbulence.
Soon, we were chasing the sunset over San Bernardino as we made a straight in approach to the south complex at LAX.
In the distance to our right, we followed a company 737 on approach to the north complex for the last 40 to 50 miles. We touched down on Runway 25L to the sound of one or two people applauding. We pulled up to gate 77 with a line of rampers and airport agents taking our photo while we taxied in.
Apparently, I had gotten used to those nice windows. On the flight home from LAX to SFO on board a 737-900, my first thought upon seeing the windows – they look so ancient and small!
Final thoughts and impressions:
There is no substitute for taking the actual inaugural flight (versus just on the first day of service). The level of excitement just cannot be matched.
Economy Plus legroom was impressive. Not sure what is the exact inches of pitch, as it is not published on the United website. I was able to squeeze out of my window seat without my seatmates getting out.
As I do not have broad shoulders, I really did not feel tightness with the narrow seats. Boeing’s concept for 787’s economy class is 8-abreast (2-4-2). In order to maximize revenue, United along with some other airlines, configured their economy class to 9-abreast (3-3-3) seats. The only exceptions so far are JAL and ANA with their long haul 787s.
The thin seat back, however, was not so good. My friend seated behind me shoved something bulgy (water bottle?) in his seat pocket and I felt the protrusion at my back. I asked him to remove it. Not good.
Inside the cabin, the 787 was noticeably quieter than the 767 and 747, some of the more noisy aircraft I have been on in recent memory.
Lower cabin pressurization altitude – I really cannot say whether I benefited from it or not. I certainly did not feel bad after any of the flights, but the flight durations were so short that I doubt it would have mattered. I will save my judgment until I fly on a longer distance flight on the 787.
Finally, here are the trinkets given away on the inaugural flight – including first flight certificate, signed by the pilots.