Does United's First 787 Symbolize a New Beginning?

CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- It's finally here.

United ( UAL) Flight 1116 arrived in Chicago from Houston on Sunday morning, the first intra-U.S. revenue flight by the Boeing ( BA) 787.

One could say, snarkily, that it arrived three years late. But that would miss the point of a long-awaited aircraft's inaugural flight, which in the airline industry is always a joyous occasion. Nothing better symbolizes an airline's hope and promise and pride than a new-model widebody aircraft with the ability to fly 8,000 miles and to bring together people and open trade throughout the world.

One recent example came on Feb. 29, 2008, when Delta ( DAL).took possession of the first Boeing 777-200ER (extended range). At a ceremony in Everett, Wash., about 150 Delta employees hugged one another and took pictures, and Delta President Ed Bastian, who himself seemed to choke up during an acceptance speech, said some were crying.

In that case, the delivery of a new airplane clearly symbolized Delta's emergence from a difficult bankruptcy.

United too is coming off a problem-plagued period, one where a botched merger integration caused operations to suffer and many passengers to flee, at a time when negotiations over a new pilot contract seemed to be dragging. The carrier's on-time arrival rate plunged to 64% in July, an industry low, and its unit revenue numbers also dropped. Now, analysts say the carrier is starting to improve, although the timetable for that is uncertain

"One airplane is one airplane, but we're doing a lot to improve the quality of customer service," said United CEO Jeff Smisek Sunday, in an interview in the rear galley of the 787 during the inaugural flight. He said the positive impact of the airplane's arrival would be felt by employees: "Having the world's leading airplane (and) working onboard that airplane is a great experience," he said. "The 787 is emblematic of the investments we're making."

Asked if Sunday was his best day since he became CEO of United following the merger, Smisek didn't' say no, but he immediately recalled the flight he made with United employees to pick up the first 787 from Boeing in Everett in September. "These are exciting (days) as well,' he said. It seemed clear that the shared experience had moved Smisek, just as a similar experienced had moved Bastian.

One place where the positive glow from the 787's arrival flows through to employees is Houston, where many residents have been angry that the 2010 merger resulted in the loss of Continental's headquarters. United has said the 787s will be maintained at its Houston maintenance base. The carrier has about 12,000 employees in Houston.

"This sends a very good message to the community how important Houston is to United," said Stephanie Buchanan, the United vice president who oversees the Houston hub. "That's good for employees. It was hard for them to read the negativity. It felt to a lot of employees as if the city had turned against them.

The 219 passengers on the inaugural flight were a mix of media, airplane buffs, a few passengers flying standby who had somehow ended up on the flight, and United employees including Aram Gibson, a Tampa, Fla.-based reservations agent, who arranged his travel from Houston to Tampa so that he could make the inaugural flight.

"A merger can have growing pains, but we are working through them," Gibson said. "I've been with United/Continental for 24 years, and I've never been on an inaugural flight. Now, when I retire, I can say I was on this one."

In Houston, United Captain Michael Barksdale, a 34-year United employee who was scheduled to fly flight 1116 on Monday, came to the airport for the ceremony. Asked "how long have you been waiting to fly this airplane?" he responded, "Since I was a little boy."

-- Written by Ted Reed onboard the inaugural Houston-Chicago 787 flight

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