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United Pilots: We Flew to Chengdu on a Boeing 787 and Loved It

CHENGDU, China (TheStreet) -- Dale Harlan, a United (UAL) pilot for 27 years, wanted so badly to fly the Boeing (BA) 787 Dreamliner that he gave up a dream job as a high-seniority 737 captain to fly as a first officer on the new airplane.

That sacrifice got him a spot on a historic flight on June 9, when United Flight 9 became the first non-stop commercial flight ever from North America into the interior of China, perhaps the clearest indication since the 787 began flying for ANA in 2011 that the aircraft's highest and best use is to open new frontiers in air travel.

For the moment, at 6,857 miles, San Francisco/Chengdu is the longest 787 flight to operate non-stop in both directions.

"I wanted to fly this thing," said Harlan, who was a captain for 14 years, as he ticked off some of the airplane's advantages. Among them, lower cabin pressure, higher humidity and reduced noise make the 14-hour Chengdu trip far less grueling for passengers and crew, while technological improvements enable the airplane to fly higher, faster, and more efficiently than predecessor aircraft.

On the first Chengdu flight, "We got to 41,000 feet in 13 minutes," said Andy Raymer, the captain and a 31-year United pilot. "Everybody else is at 32,000, 34,000, 35,000. We're up here by ourselves for now."

That will change. Boeing has taken orders for 1,031 B787s and has delivered 151 of them. United alone has 65 orders, the third highest individual airline total, and has taken 10. The first 25 are to be flown by former Continental pilots, because Continental ordered them.

Over time, rising 787 usage could benefit shares of both Boeing and United. Boeing shares closed Monday at $132.54, down 3% year to date. They took a hit last week, declining 4% due to the primary defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Cantor backs a deal to save the Export-Import Bank, which makes below-market loans to Boeing customers and now faces an uncertain future. But over the past few years, Boeing shares have more typically reflected the prospects for the 787.

United, meanwhile, has underperformed its peers: this year, its shares are up 12%, while American (AAL) is up 63% and Delta (DAL) is up 41%. Neither competitor flies the 787, and Delta will not take its first delivery until at least 2020. Conceivably, the aircraft could make United a preferred carrier on long-haul flights.

I didn't perceive any advantage on my first 787 flight, United's Houston-Chicago service inaugural, but the benefits were striking when I flew the San Francisco/Chengdu inaugural.

The SFO-CTU flight path took the aircraft north to Alaska and over Russia before it entered Chinese airspace for several hours, an unusual experience for a U.S. crew.  Chinese airspace is almost entirely controlled by the military. Civilian ATC jurisdiction extends only about four miles on either side of the airways.

Weather deviations due to thunderstorms or turbulence are common and usually uncomplicated in the U.S, but a deviation in Chinese airspace requires coordination between civilian and military air traffic control agencies --- which provides one more thing for pilots to think about.

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