ANALYSIS: United's 787 dream

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United Airlines is set to make history with another Boeing widebody on 4 November.

The Chicago-based Star Alliance carrier will launch flights on its new 787-8 that day, marking the third Boeing aircraft type - after the 767-400ER and 777-200 - that it will launch in the USA. The first flight will be between its Houston Intercontinental and Chicago O'Hare hubs, with international flights from Houston to Amsterdam beginning a month later on 4 December.

"I'm excited to continue this tradition by adding the 787 to our fleet, several years ahead of our US competitors," said Jeff Smisek, chief executive of United, in an employee newsletter on 29 September. "We have a total of 50 Dreamliners on order, with five of them scheduled for delivery by the end of this year."

United took ownership of its first Dreamliner (N20904) on 22 September in Seattle, after which it conducted training flights with its crews over Washington state. The aircraft was ferried to Houston on 28 September.

The carrier has big plans to use the aircraft to launch new international routes where a 777 is too big - it has between 33 and 129 more seats, according to Seatguru.com, than the 219 on the 787 - and a 767 does not have the range, as well as on existing routes during off-peak seasons. United has already announced new service between Denver and Tokyo Narita on the Dreamliner from 31 March 2013.

John Rainey, chief financial officer, said that the 787 will allow United to fly the "right amount of capacity for the markets at the right time to meet seasonal demand changes", during an investor presentation in May. He cited travel between the USA and India and South America during the northern summer, as examples.

United Airlines

The Houston to Amsterdam flight on the 787 from 4 December to 29 March is an example of this off-peak right gauging in action. The Dreamliner replaces a 235-seat 767-400ER on the route.

Other international routes that will be flown are: Los Angeles to Tokyo (from 3 January 2013), Houston to Lagos (from 7 January 2013), Houston to London Heathrow (4 February 2013 to 29 March 2013), and Los Angeles to Shanghai (from 30 March 2013).

Domestic 787 flights will be few and far between. United will operate a number of temporary frequencies between Houston and its other domestic hubs to acquaint crews with the aircraft between 4 November and the end of March. From 31 March, the only route in the USA where you can expect to see a Dreamliner is between Houston and Denver.

Great Circle Mapper

United's crew bases for the 787 are in Houston, hence the concentration of flights on the aircraft to and from its Texas hub. This is due to the order originally being for Continental Airlines, which merged with United in 2010. The carrier plans to open crew bases for the aircraft at its other international gateways in the future.

The introduction of the 787 at United has not been without its bumps. Delivery of the first aircraft was scheduled for February 2009 when Continental ordered them in 2004 but subject to the numerous delays associated with introducing the type. Boeing compensated the airline for the delays, according to a stock exchange filing this July.

United's initial routes for the Dreamliner were then turned on their head due to the delays. Continental planned to launch Houston to Lagos followed shortly by Houston to Auckland on the type in November 2011. However, the delays required that Lagos be launched on a 777-200 and Auckland pushed back until after the first delivery. Flights to New Zealand were subsequently cancelled following the Houston city council's decision to allow the construction of an international federal inspection services facility at Hobby airport by Southwest Airlines this past May.

Denver to Tokyo Narita will be the first new international route United flies on the 787.

United also faced some criticism over the interior of its Dreamliner. Critics have called the cabin dated due to the fact that it looks almost identical to any other Continental metal widebody in the fleet and lacks any of the updates or interior flourishes seen on the 787s entering the fleets of other airlines.

Where the airline goes next with its 787 is up in the air. With only five aircraft slated for delivery by the end of the year, there are not many more places that United can fly the Dreamliner before the second or third quarter of 2013. At that point it could simply take over an existing service, for example Newark to New Delhi during the low season, or launch a new route, perhaps Auckland - a city that they have already expressed interest in wanting to serve - to its Asia-Pacific gateway in San Francisco.

United is scheduled to receive nine 787-8s from Boeing in 2013, according to Flightglobal's Ascend database. In addition to its firm order for 50 787s, which includes 14 787-9s, it has options for 10 -8s and a letter of intent for 50 of either variant.

"We have been awaiting this day for a while and it's worth every bit of the wait," said Dave Hilfman, senior vice-president of sales at the carrier, during the rollout of the first 787 in August. "It's going to be extraordinarily successful for United."