United's inaugural launch of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner Sunday was a memorable affair.
From a pre-boarding ribbon-cutting ceremony to a post-arrival water cannon salute, it was a spectacular event for the airline and passengers alike.
My day started early at 5 a.m. at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. I received a briefing on the planned festivities ahead of flight 1116's scheduled departure time at 7:20 a.m. The flight was bound for Chicago O'Hare International Airport. United's parent is United Continental Holdings .
The gate area was decked with balloons and banners while United's theme song, "Rhapsody in Blue," played from the speakers. All passengers had access to a free continental breakfast, which included Boeing 787 cookies in the United livery.
Many passengers, myself included, flew into Houston simply to be part of this historic event. They ranged from aviation enthusiasts to United employees. I booked my own tickets the day the flights went on sale on September 1. (Read more: United Debuts Boeing 787 Domestic Flight Schedule)
At about 6:30 a.m., United's president and CEO Jeff Smisek took to the stage. "This is a very exciting day for United Airlines," Smisek said. "(It's) a day we've waited a long time for." United was to originally begin flying the Dreamliner in 2011. But repeated manufacturing delays pushed the inaugural passenger flight until Sunday.
After a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Smisek, the flight crew and other United executives, it was time to board.
Shortly after our on-time departure, Smisek used the PA to offer a toast as all passengers received a glass of champagne or cider. Once the seat belt sign came off, the cabin buzzed with activity. The flight attendants did an amazing job serving the cabin, while members of the media and other enthusiasts filmed the action or snapped pictures. It was definitely a party atmosphere.
The airplane itself was very comfortable and quiet — and it definitely had that new plane smell. I flew to Chicago in BusinessFirst (United's hybrid premium class that's a cross between first- and business-class) and returned to Houston in Economy Plus, United's enhanced legroom section of coach.
The windows are huge, giving all passengers a stellar view outside. The windows darken electronically at the push of a button and feature multiple settings for the amount of outside light you want.
The overhead lighting system is a show in itself, with multiple settings and colors the crew can change depending on the stage of flight. Think brighter colors during meal service and softer tones for sleeping. All passengers have access to on-demand entertainment on their individual seatback monitors, though I didn't view anything other than the map showing our flight's progress.
Even the lavatories are pretty darn cool. The toilets automatically flush when you wave your hand near a sensor. And the sinks operate with the same hands-free mechanism.
Applause erupted both on takeoff from Houston and after we touched down in Chicago. And when we pulled into the gate, the airplane received a traditional water cannon salute from firetrucks on both sides of the aircraft. Upon deplaning, Smisek and the flight's captain spoke briefly during a post-arrival celebration.
The Dreamliner is a fantastic airplane and I'm looking forward to my next ride. United presently has two of 50 on order with Boeing. By early 2013, United's 787s will primarily be flying international routes.