Welcoming United’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner Back Into Service

On Sunday, I set out on a journey spanning one hotel, two days, three cities, four flights and 787 reasons why it was amazing.

On Monday, May 20 — coincidentally the same day that Charles Lindbergh also took flight nearly 100 years prior — United Airlines became the first US airline to bring the Boeing 787 Dreamliner back into the skies, and I was determined to be on that flight.

With one call to US Airways, I used 50,000 Dividend Miles to book my business-class trip from Houston to Chicago and back on the same day. While definitely not the best use of my miles, it guaranteed me a spot in Business/First Class, whereas I’d have to buy a prohibitively expensive ticket to have that guarantee. That, and if I had bought a coach ticket, I wasn’t sure whether or not I’d be upgraded since my complimentary upgrades as a Premier 1K haven’t always been reliable lately. But the 787 Dreamliner is a magnificent plane, and I wanted to experience it “the right way”, and also to be able to compare it to my business class experience on Japan Airlines back in December.

The last few weeks up to the flight, fares in Economy were at an unusual high round-trip price of around $800. Too expensive for my blood (considering I still had to get to Houston from San Diego — $300), I bit the bullet and booked it.  Ultimately, that prices out to 1.6 cents per mile — not really a good deal — but other than taxes and fees, it was better than paying full price for that flight.

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Yes, you read that right: I got off the plane and, shortly after, got back on it.

 

Ultimately, Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner is a highly-advanced wide body aircraft that, until recently, was grounded for four months following a series of emergency events that led to the battery system on the aircraft being redesigned.

Leaving San Diego on Sunday, I flew out to Houston to spend the night to catch this momentous flight the next morning. Luckily, this meant I was able to visit some Houston-based friends and enjoy some truly Texas food — queso dip for lunch, and crawfish for dinner.

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Crawfish. Enough said.

 

But the magic really all began early on Monday. After checking out of the Sheraton North Houston at George Bush Intercontinental — an updated, yet distinctly still a very 1980s airport hotel — I set out for Houston’s Terminal E. (Starwood has a double-points special going on right now, so I wanted to take advantage of that.)

After clearing security (no TSA PreCheck for me- it’s in the other terminal), I can see there’s a stage set up for a press event. By this time, I’m there around 8:30am for our 11:00am flight — but I didn’t want to miss any of the festivities, especially since this really was a big deal for United.

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Photographers are on-hand to watch United CEO Jeff Smisek talk to a security dog handler.

Not long after, I spot Jeff Smisek, United’s CEO and Chairman. It’s definitely going to be a big event!

Reporters come and go throughout the next few hours, and there are cameras all over. I catch the eye of a reporter for Associated Press, and had the opportunity to give an interview about the 787.

Fast forward to 10:45 or so, and you can tell there’s a storm brewing — a storm of people, that is. On a big stage, several members of the crew stand behind United and Boeing executives, where, during a speech, the Boeing CEO apologies to United for the problems with the aircraft, causing United to lose millions of dollars (when an airplane — or a bunch of them! — sit on the ground not flying for months, it costs money).

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United CEO/Chairman Jeff Smisek speaks to the passengers and to the media, with Boeing CEO Jim McNerney on the right.

 

Then we board — and you can tell there’s a lot of excitement. Granted, there are probably a bunch of people who have no idea what they’re in for — they just booked a flight to Chicago from Houston, and didn’t know (or care) about the Dreamliner. But if those people weren’t excited, they became excited — with exception of the guy behind me in line who thought it was “just a damn plane.”

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Even the Dreamliner is smiling today (as it always does).

 

But it’s really not “just a damn plane”, it’s a marked enhancement in the passenger experience. Pressurized to a higher (lower) level, passengers step off the aircraft not feeling like one often does after spending hours at 40,000 feet. It’s got neat mood lighting, it’s quieter, the windows have electronic shades (push a button, the window dims), it’s more energy efficient, and it’s got that “new plane smell”.

Compared to my long-haul business-class flight from San Diego to Tokyo Narita back in December (100,000 points and around $100 in fees), this flight was very similar (although much shorter). The cabin is more or less than same (United’s gray colors on bulkheads is less attractive than JAL’s very white colors), minus the impressive walk-up bar that the JAL version has — as well as the more Japanese-style lavatories with, um, squirting water.

The one big difference: it’s all in the seats. The JAL flight has angled lie-flat seats, while United’s BusinessFirst product has a true lie-flat. Imagine trying to go to bed at night at an angle, with your head a few degrees above your feet! I realize that many who fly on this aircraft won’t experience United or JAL’s premium product, so I won’t go too much into it. But if you could take United’s seats and put them in JAL’s aircraft, it would be one heck of an airplane.

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A view looking back on the United 787 — showing United’s BusinessFirst product, a very comfortable, fully lie-flat seat.

 

Eventually, we finish boarding. As usual, I was offered a pre-flight beverage — and while my rowmate didn’t hesitate to order a Jack and Coke, I stuck with a double water on the rocks.

Door’s closed. We push back. And then the safety video comes on, which always starts with a short segment featuring CEO Jeff Smisek talking about United Cargo, United’s catering, United’s multilingual staff, or United’s pet handling services. It’s odd, because Mr. Smisek is only half a dozen rows behind me.

The Dreamliner’s huge, magnificent GEnx engines spin up, and the ever-slight roar of the engine is a great sign that everything is going to be great. We taxi out to the runway for a while — and for several minutes, we just sat there on the taxiway, but soon enough we hear “flight attendants, prepare for takeoff” from the flight deck. It’s time.

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The two huge, powerful GEnx engines start to spool up, getting ready for takeoff.

 

The engines roar as they likely reach towards their maximum, and we start rolling. Not long after, we rotate — meaning we begin to leave the ground (think wheels up, not rotating clockwise). And we’re off.

There’s an eruption of applause from behind me. Clearly, the flight deck isn’t going to be able to hear that, but for a few minutes there, everyone on the plane begins to realize just how neat it is to have this aircraft back in the skies again (though the “just a damn plane” guy was probably still thinking that).

We quickly head towards our cruising altitude of 40,000 feet, as there’s a god deal of weather and turbulence at lower altitudes, but eventually, the flight crew begin to prep for lunch — and those moments are the last moments that the flight crew has the galleys, aisles, lavatories, exits, exit rows and the airplane itself to themselves to move freely; not long after, the scores of media outlets with cameras, tripods, microphones, reporters and what have you start to gather wherever they can find space to film and interview the plane and United executives.

A few minutes later, Mr. Smisek gets on the intercom and begins to thank customers for flying United, and talks about how excited he and the team is for having the Dreamliner back in the air. While he’s doing that, media start to converge on him in the galley in front of me, but are quickly told to sit back down — there’s turbulence ahead.

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United CEO Jeff Smisek speaks to passengers on the flight over the intercom.

 

Eventually, lunch is served in the First Class cabin — the choice is either a chicken calzone, or a shrimp salad. I opt for the former, again, with a water on the rocks, and enjoy the red pepper bisque that comes with it.

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A little while after the trays were picked up, media began rushing all over the place again — cameras were rolling and interviews were given from aft to stern. I finish up some work, and begin processing some of my photos taken throughout the day.

A little later, I had a camera crew wanting my seat to peer out the window next to me.

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(a quick example of the windows in operation on the 787 — it’s pretty neat)

I happily obliged, and stood around in the galley for a few minutes, where Mr. Smisek appeared. Not one to miss a photo opportunity, he was gracious to allow me to get a few photos with him.

Although he’s often seen as a controversial figure in the commercial aviation world (read: frequent fliers), I didn’t care — it was a pleasure to meet him and shake his hand.

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But all this was towards the end of the flight, and the camera crew was still in my seat. At this point, we were already starting our descent into Chicago — and the flight crew were starting to get anxious for me to return to my seat. Eventually, one of the flight attendants shoo them away, allowing me to take my seat and to pack everything for landing.

We quickly descend to a mere few thousand feet before long and stay there for a while — for what reason, I’m not sure — but get a close-up view of some beautiful homes along our flight path. At one point, I could easily see our shadow on the ground — and the three news helicopters watching us land.

Then, after we do our extended tour of the Chicago area, we land — and just like when we rotated earlier, applause erupts. We’re on the ground in Chicago!

As we taxied towards the gate, it’s clear that the 787 returning is a big deal for Chicago, too: there are easily a dozen employees on the staircase outside the terminal, awaiting our arrival. They were visibly excited to be there, as were the news crews that were awaiting our arrival, waiting for passengers to deplane for interviews.

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After about an hour, I turned around and began my journey back home on the Dreamliner, stopping in Houston before getting on an ancient, disappointing 737-800 with none of the luxuries that the Dreamliner offers. Barcaloungers for seats. Ugly-colored walls. No entertainment. No superior pressurization. No power outlets.

And from now on — remembering this journey — it’s going to be hard flying on anything else. While I can’t speak for the fixes that Boeing and United made to this aircraft to resolve the battery woes on this aircraft, I have faith that the FAA and Boeing have done their due diligence in devising a workaround — and certainly, before we landed back on the ground, I’m sure my Mom was hoping they’d done their jobs too.

I can’t wait until the next time I get to fly this magnificent beauty again.

Also check out Matthew T. Hall’s article about the adventure in U-T San Diego