Reporting from Chicago — —
United Airlines may have been the last major U.S. carrier to order new airplanes, but its passengers would be among the first to experience Boeing Co.'s 787 Dreamliner if the merger of United parent UAL Corp. with Continental Airlines Inc. goes according to plan.
The new carrier, which would retain United's name and be run by Continental Chief Executive Jeff Smisek, would be the launch customer in the Americas for the much-delayed but potentially game-changing 787, sources said.
If the merger is derailed, that honor would go to Continental, which expects to take delivery of its first 787 in August 2011. That's about five years before United is due to receive the first of 25 Dreamliners it ordered last year.
The Dreamliner is designed to burn 20% less fuel than similar midsize jets and produce 20% less emissions. Its composite frame is more flexible than conventional aluminum fuselages and the ventilation system allows more humidity in its passenger cabins, which lessens the effects of jet lag.
Continental has 25 of the new 787s on order and is scheduled to receive six of them next year, giving it a jump on other North American carriers with global ambitions. Continental plans to launch its 787 service Nov. 16, 2011, flying to Auckland, New Zealand, from Houston.
It remains unknown whether the 787, more than two years late, will meet its latest deadline and perform as Boeing has promised. The uncertainty has prompted some carriers to cancel orders or to negotiate to take later deliveries after problems are ironed out.
Continental vaulted ahead of Delta Air Lines Inc. on Boeing's 787 delivery schedule after Delta gave up the early production slots it had inherited by buying Northwest Airlines, the original U.S. launch customer, sources said.
The first planes off a manufacturer's assembly line frequently fall short of expectations, arriving heavier than anticipated. That lessens a jet's range or lowers fuel savings, analysts said.
Rumors about the 787's performance have swirled as Boeing has reinforced the jet's composite frame with metal in places, potentially increasing its weight.
"The view is it's been compromised, although nobody knows by how much," said aviation consultant Robert Mann.
Boeing has conceded it had weight issues with the first few 787s, but said it is resolving those problems with significant design improvements that start with the 25th Dreamliner.
The Auckland flight, the longest on Continental's schedule, would put the new jet to an immediate test. The 7,400-mile journey appears tailor-made for Continental's 787, which will seat 228 people. That route is unlikely to draw enough passengers to consistently fill a jumbo jet but is too long for other midsize planes.