After years of delays, United Airlines has conducted the inaugural flight of its new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which completed a flight from Houston to Chicago on Sunday. The journey represented the first time that an American airline company has used the composite-plastic jet, which United believes will make it a dominant player in an increasingly competitive industry. "If you want to be the world's leading airline, then you need the world's leading airplane, and we have that," proclaimed chief executive Jeff Smisek.  

What's so special about the Dreamliner? For starters, the casing of composite materials makes the plane lighter, speedier, and greener, says Mark Johanson at International Business Times:

Fifty percent of the 787 — including the fuselage, tail, and wings — is comprised of composite materials that create a structure that is more durable and does not corrode or fatigue like metal. Another 35 percent is made up of lightweight metals (20 percent aluminum and 15 percent titanium), while steel and other materials make up the rest of the body. The aircraft also eliminates some 60 miles of copper wiring, equivalent to the length of 880 football fields.

One of the Dreamliner’s biggest selling points is its fuel efficiency, a factor essential for airlines struggling to stay profitable amid skyrocketing prices. The aircraft hauls just 33,528 gallons of jet fuel, nearly half of the fuel carried by a 747-400ER (63,705 gallons), and still has a range of more than 9,000 miles with a full load of passengers and cargo.  

In addition, the Dreamliner features a host of "passenger-pleasing features that industry insiders say may become a new standard," says Kiah Collier at The Houston Chronicle. The ceilings are higher, and the windows and overhead cabins are larger. The plane can fly at a lower cabin altitude, giving passengers about 8 percent more oxygen, which should reduce fatigue, dry eyes, and headaches. The windows feature dimmers instead of blinds, allowing passengers to reduce glare if it's too bright outside. And in a huge step forward for hygiene, the bathrooms feature touchless faucets and toilets. For the most part, passengers have raved about the Dreamliner's amenities.

United will eventually boast a fleet of 50 Dreamliners, far more than what its competitors have planned. However, United first has to win back the allegiance of flyers, many of whom have ditched the carrier after its 2010 merger with Continental, says Gregory Karp at The Chicago Tribune:

The flight was important for United, which has had a rough year, with widespread delays and cancellations after a reservations system switch in March and intermittent strife with its unions, especially pilots — though both of those problems have abated in recent weeks. The airline is still working through merger hassles, months after United and Continental finished combining operations.