United: Boeing 787 Is A 'Game-Changer'

New jet is the first commercial airliner built using carbon fiber -- a strong, lightweight, high-tech plastic -- rather than the typical aluminum skin.

HONOLULU (AP) -- As Japan welcomes the first Boeing 787, the soon-to-be world's largest carrier is patiently and anxiously waiting for its order.

Jeff Smisek, head of the parent company for United and Continental airlines, on Thursday said he was last told by Boeing that the first of the 50 aircraft ordered by the company will be delivered to have in service in the second half of 2012.

"We ordered that aircraft in December 2004. So I've been a very patient person," said Smisek, the president and CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc.

The first Boeing 787 Dreamliner took off from Everett, Washington, on Tuesday morning and landed Wednesday in Tokyo, where All Nippon Airways is preparing the long-delayed aircraft for its inaugural commercial flight.

Chicago-based Boeing missed the initial May 2008 delivery target and had repeatedly delayed its introduction because of problems in development.

Despite the delays, Smisek called the wide-body jetliner "a spectacular and game-changing aircraft."

The new jet is the first commercial airliner built using carbon fiber -- a strong, lightweight, high-tech plastic -- rather than the typical aluminum skin. It is quieter and uses about 20 percent less fuel than a comparably sized aluminum aircraft.

"That's staggering," Smisek said about the fuel savings. "If you substitute them for an existing aircraft, your profits will improve like that. It will also permit us to fly routes we couldn't otherwise profitably fly. So it's really a homerun."

The 787s have an extended range and its cabin have bigger windows and larger overhead compartments. For improved passenger comfort, the humidity can be controlled and the air pressure during flights will be equivalent to an altitude of 6,000 feet (1,828 meters) instead of the conventional 8,000 feet.

"Customers will love flying in them," he said. "So it's good for us and great for the customer."

United Continental will be the first North American carrier to receive the 787s. The only route the company has announced for the 787 is non-stop service between Houston and Auckland, New Zealand -- a route that the carrier had hoped to begin in November.

Smisek said 787s will mostly replace existing aircraft instead of adding capacity because, "I don't see us growing our mainline fleet in any significant way under these current conditions."

Airlines have ordered more than 800 of the planes that will compete with the Airbus A350. United Continental has ordered 25 of the Airbus aircraft.

Smisek is in Honolulu this week meeting with company employees. He spoke with reporters after delivering a keynote speech at the 2011 Hawaii Business Magazine Top 250 luncheon, recognizing the state's leading companies.

The company, which brings in about 4 million visitors to Hawaii every year, continues to merge United and Continental airlines into what will be the world's largest carrier. He said the company has reduced its net debt by $1.4 billion.

"I think we're at the cusp of having an airline business in the United States that actually makes money (and) makes it consistently, sustainably, sufficiently."

More in Aerospace