Inaugural United Boeing 787 Flight: Pre-Departure

Trip Start Nov 03, 2012
Trip End Nov 06, 2012

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Flag of United States  , Texas
Sunday, November 4, 2012

United Airlines executives and employees, aviation enthusiasts, journalists, and passengers gathered early this morning at Houston Intercontinental Airport Gate E5 to celebrate the inaugural departure of the airline's first Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The event included a media preview tour of the aircraft, breakfast buffet, Boeing 787 cookies, two short speeches by United’s president and Houston hub director, and a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

I flew into Houston yesterday from Miami after disembarking Norwegian Epic at the conclusion of a 13-night trans-Atlantic cruise from Barcelona. Got up at 4:40 this morning at the Doubletree Hotel IAH. Shuttle van to the airport left at 5:02 and arrived 12 minutes later at Terminal E. I proceeded through the security checkpoint and made it to Gate E5 at 5:34.

A wide blue ribbon was erected at the gate stating "United Airlines 787 Inaugural Flight." An archway of blue and white balloons surrounded the ribbon. Passengers took turns posing for photos in front of the ribbon. A stage was erected in the gate area with a photo of the Dreamliner, the United logo, and the motto “Proud to fly 787.” United is the first North American airline to put a Boeing 787 into service.

Also in the departure lounge, attendees enjoyed a breakfast consisting of mixed fruit, muffins, pastries, sandwiches, orange juice, and apple juice. The favorite item appeared to be specially made cookies with an image of the United 787 airplane. TV screens around the gate displayed various facts about the Dreamliner including the interior, cabin configuration, 787 initial international routes, United’s order for 50 planes, and the composite materials used to construct the fuselage.

United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson invited the media and VIP customers to come on board the Dreamliner at 5:50 a.m. for a chance to take photographs and video of the interior before passengers filled the jet. I lined up with the second group and went down to the plane. I listed to stand by for the flight and it didn’t appear I would be able to get a seat since only a few weren’t reserved and I was well down the waiting list. I figured this would be my only chance to see the Dreamliner’s cabin today.

I stepped aboard the Boeing 787 for the first time at 5:54 and was on board for seven minutes taking photographs. The plane really does look brand-spanking new and you can see the spaciousness with higher ceilings and larger windows.

Seats are configured 2-2-2 in BusinessFirst Class (featuring flat-bed seats, the same style as those installed in recent years on the former Continental fleet’s Boeing 757 and 777 aircraft) and 3-3-3 in Economy Class. There are 36 BusinessFirst seats, 70 in Economy Plus, and 113 in regular Economy Class for a total of 219 seats. All seats are in a blue hue matching the former Continental interior color scheme. (These first 787s were ordered by Continental Airlines before it merged with United Airlines in 2010.)

Back in the gate area, a passenger named Thomas Lee was milling about with a large framed batch of three certificates showing he flew on the inaugural flight of the Boeing 747 on Pan American World Airways from New York to London on January 21, 1970; the Airbus 380 on Singapore Airlines from Singapore to Sydney on October 25, 2007; and the Boeing 787 on All Nippon Airways from Tokyo to Hong Kong on October 26, 2011. Awesome!

With 1 hour 6 minutes until departure, the gate screen showed 11 available seats and I was #23 on the standby list, so things looked bleak that I would be able to join Lee on United’s inaugural 787 flight.

The inaugural flight’s two pilots held a press briefing at 6:17 a.m. The crew then gathered on the stage for photographs, after which a very short ceremony took place with only two speakers. United’s vice president of Houston hub, Stephanie Buchanan, welcomed the crowd to the introductory flight and spoke for one minute.

“I am thrilled to have you join us all to celebrate our first revenue flight on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner,” she said. “This is a world-class aircraft in terms of operating performance and customer-pleasing features and I can’t wait for our co-workers and our customers to get to fly on it.”

United President & CEO Jeff Smisek then addressed the audience for one minute as well.

“This is a very exciting day for United Airlines, a day we’ve waited a long time for,” Smisek said. “We are delighted to have the 787 here. We’re the world’s largest airline, but we don’t care about that. We want to become the world’s leading airline. And to do that, we need to make investments in you, our customers; in our product, for example, flat-bed seats or Economy Plus or broadband WiFi; in our facilities, like the new Terminal B right here in Houston; in our technology … and in our fleet.”

Smisek continued, “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 Dreamliner.”

After Smisek’s remarks, he joined the flight crew and other United executives to cut the ribbon on the inaugural flight at 6:31. Boarding then commenced at 6:35. Smisek stood on the side of the boarding lane. Several passengers stopped to have their photo taken with him and/or to get their boarding pass autographed.

At 6:40 a.m., the computer showed nine unreserved seats. Since I was now #24 on the standby list, it looked hopeless that I would get on board. A total of 62 SAs had listed for Flight 1116 and 34 of those had actually checked in.

By 6:52, 15 standbys had been issued seat assignments. The gate screen indicated both cabins were now full. I was #9 on the SA list at this point, only 28 minutes until departure. I did not expect to get on the flight given this information, but was nevertheless excited to be there to witness the maiden flight pull away from the gate. 19 SAs remained on the list at this point (10 people were behind me in boarding priority).

And then in the next few minutes, a true miracle – gate agents began offloading the seats for customers who had failed to check in. Some more standbys were called to receive seat assignments and board the Dreamliner. The agents then paged for “the Jackson family, party of five.” No response. The Jacksons were called a second time. No response. After the final call, the agent passed over the party of five. I was fourth behind the Jackson party and suddenly I realized I was going to get on the plane. You could not imagine my exhilaration!

A few minutes later, I was called and issued Economy Class Seat 35B, a middle seat in the second-to-last row. Normally this would be a terrible seat assignment, but today it was golden – a ticket to board the inaugural flight of United’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner!!!! I can’t believe my good luck.

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