It takes a lot to wow a road warrior. For months we have heard about United Airlines' new but much delayed 787 Dreamliner and how it would revolutionize air travel. Cynical group that we are, we rolled our eyes.
Mea culpa, United! I was wrong. I recently had the opportunity to fly from Newark to Houston on the 787 Dreamliner and I’m totally wowed by the new plane in both how it looks and how I felt when I arrived.
I knew something out of the ordinary was happening because passengers who usually fight over electrical outlets in the waiting area were standing by the terminal window oohing and aahing at the sleek lines of the big bird.
Boarding the plane was special because the entire flight crew were vintage Continental employees. Their pride in their new wheels was palpable and contagious.
Boarding the plane was special — especially for us Houstonians — because the entire flight crew were vintage Continental employees. Their pride in their new wheels was palpable and contagious.
After boarding, I asked if I could visit the flight deck. The captain graciously invited me in and was eager to show me his new workplace. He laughed and said, "We are the new kids on the block with the new Ferrari — everyone wants to see and drive it. I have flown 30 years and I am certified on every type of aircraft, and this is the best plane I’ve ever flown."
If the cockpit display was any indication, he was right. The 787 cockpit features dual head up displays (HUDs), a small transparent screen that drops down in front of the pilots in order to improve visibility during difficult flying conditions, while providing essential flight information. For United frequent fliers who like to listen to the pilots communicate with the tower on Channel 9, it is not hooked up yet but should be in the future.
The interior of the 787 seems roomier with higher ceilings and larger overhead luggage bins that raise and lower more easily. The lighting itself is recessed and in more subtle relaxing colors than the harsh white lights of older planes.
The windows are 30 percent larger, and instead of sliding plastic shades, they have adjustable tint that blocks out light with a touch of a button.
The most significant change the average traveler will notice is the windows. They are 30 percent larger, and instead of sliding plastic shades, they have adjustable tint that blocks out light with a touch of a button. And the flight attendants can regulate the degree of tint of all windows. For those of you who travel overnight to Europe, I can now envision you being awakened for breakfast by the shades gradually allowing the morning sun to shine in.
Now to take off. Hmm, not so fast.
Just as we were pushing back, a warning light came on that dictated the pilots conduct a few tests. Actually, no one seemed to mind because it gave the flight attendants time to extol the many benefits of their new workplace.
Precious 1, 2 and 3
We learned that the three 787s currently flying in the US are called "Precious 1," "Precious 2" and "Precious 3." Flight attendants told us that their favorite thing about the plane is that it is pressurized to an altitude of 6,000 feet rather than the 8,000 typical of most planes, so the passengers and crew arrive feeling less fatigued.
After an hour wait we taxied to the runway and quickly and gracefully lifted off. The engines were much quieter and it was a smooth three-hour flight to Houston, which passed quickly thanks to the entertainment system's 200 games, TV shows and movies to select from in both first class and economy.
As someone once said, “Restaurants can’t fly and airplanes can’t cook.”
Oh, and even the restrooms are nicer, with better lighting, touchless faucets and toilets, and mirrors that don’t accentuate every wrinkle.
My only letdown was that I was hoping even if the new plane didn’t have better kitchens, perhaps it would offer better food. Alas, it was not to be. I guess Jeff Smisek promised to revolutionize air travel, not the food service industry. As someone once said, "Restaurants can't fly and airplanes can't cook."
And Wi-Fi? Yep, a plane this advanced does not have it and probably won't until 2014, because the FAA has yet to certify the technological equipment for a composite material plane.
As passengers left the plane, the crew thanked us for joining them on the Dreamliner and wished us happy holidays. I was already thinking about my trip to San Francisco next week, wondering if I could pick up another Dreamliner flight before the planes are diverted to international routes in January.
Although Houston and United have had an uneasy relationship since Continental gave up their headquarters, there is talk that United will continue to fly one of the Dreamliners out of Houston on international routes. That would be a great olive branch for those of us missing the old Continental.