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United’s first Dreamliner ready for take off Sunday

United Continental's first Dreamliner is shown off.

United Continental's first Dreamliner is shown off.

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Updated: December 3, 2012 6:41AM

Fasten your seat belt, stow your tray table and adjust your seat to the upright position: After one heck of a delay, United Airlines’ first Boeing 787 Dreamliner is ready for takeoff.

At 7:20 a.m. Sunday, the Chicago-based carrier is scheduled to operate its inaugural commercial flight aboard the new 219-seat jet, departing from George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston and arriving at 9:51 a.m. at O’Hare.

It promises to be a historic day in aviation history, as United is the first North American carrier — and one of the first in the world — to add the long-awaited aircraft to its fleet.

Multiple production delays have made waiting for the Dreamliner a bit of a nightmare. United took possession of its first 787 in September, more than three years after its originally scheduled delivery date. On Wednesday, the airline received its second Dreamliner.

Carriers have been clamoring for years to get the mid-size, twin-aisle plane built by Boeing Co., headquartered in Chicago. The 787, made largely of lightweight composite material instead of traditional aluminum, costs less to fuel and to maintain than other aircraft its size.

All Nippon Airways received the first Dreamliner, which made its inaugural flight a year ago.

The first mid-size commercial plane capable of flying big-jet distances, the Dreamliner has the potential to open up hundreds of new non-stop routes between cities where customer demand hasn’t been high enough to justify the use of larger planes.

It allows people in mid-size cities such as Cleveland, for example, to fly directly to some international destinations without having to transfer to bigger planes at major hubs. That translates into less “pass through” traffic at busy airports like O’Hare.

United plans to fly the Dreamliner domestically for a couple of months before using it on international routes.

The 787 also makes the flying experience more pleasurable. It feels less claustrophobic than similar-sized planes, thanks in part to ample headroom and larger windows. Overhead luggage bins are bigger, which will help in the increasingly hostile battle to store carry-on bags.

The cabin boasts enhanced ventilation, higher humidity levels and air pressure commensurate with a lower altitude — reducing the potential for headaches, dry eyes and other discomfort that goes along with lengthy flights.

All of these factors have landed the Dreamliner, with a list price around $210 million, at the top of many airlines’ wish lists. Boeing has orders for more than 800 of the aircraft, including 50 from United Continental Holdings Inc., parent company of United Airlines.

United, which is supposed to get five Dreamliners by the end of the year, recently said that Boeing was running behind schedule on delivering its subsequent 787s. The news disappointed some aviation enthusiasts who’d booked Dreamliner flights that will now take place on different planes. United has been notifying those customers affected by the changes, “offering to refund or rebook customers who specifically intended to fly on one of the early Dreamliner flights,” a United spokeswoman said.

Wednesday’s delivery of United’s second Dreamliner was a few days later than anticipated. The Seattle Times, relying on a Boeing source, reported that two more 787s earmarked for United aren’t far behind.

“We understand and share our customers’ disappointment at potentially not being able to provide service with the airplane when expected,” Boeing spokesman Tim Bader wrote in an email. “And like them, we prioritize ensuring the safety and reliability of our products above all other concerns.”

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