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's 787 Dreamliner if the United-Continental merger goes according to plan.
The new carrier, which would retain United's name and be run by Continental CEO Jeff Smisek, would be the launch customer in the Americas for the much-delayed but potentially game-changing 787, sources said.
If the deal is derailed, that honor would go to Continental Airlines, which said last week that it will 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 late last year.
Billed as ground-breaking, the Dreamliner is designed to burn 20 percent less fuel than similar midsize jets and produce 20 percent fewer emissions. Its composite frame, more flexible than conventional aluminum fuselages, allows more humidity in its passenger cabins, lessening the effects of jet lag. Major fuselage components for the 787 are made in North Charleston.
Continental is scheduled to receive six of the 25 new jets it has on order next year, giving it a jump on other North American carriers with global ambitions. Continental plans to launch its first 787 service on Nov. 16, 2011, flying to Auckland, New Zealand, from Houston, the largest hub of the new carrier and the focus of its early expansion plans.
It's too early to know whether the 787s would arrive from Boeing bearing the Continental or United brand, said Continental spokesman Dave Messing.
Merging airlines typically don't begin to combine brands and repaint fleets until well after their deal closes, said aviation consultant Robert Mann. United and Continental executives expect to wrap up their deal by late 2010, provided their merger isn't subjected to lengthy scrutiny by antitrust regulators.
But it remains unknown whether the 787, more than two years late, will meet its latest deadline and perform as Boeing has promised, and the uncertainty has prompted some carriers to cancel orders or to take later deliveries after problems are ironed out.
Continental vaulted ahead of Delta Air Lines on Boeing's 787 delivery schedule after Delta gave up the early production slots that it inherited by buying Northwest Airlines, the original U.S. launch customer, sources said.
But 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 has 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," Mann said.
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 in 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.
Continental's jets will include the upgrades, said Boeing spokeswoman Lori Gunter, and should have the 787-8's maximum range of 7,650 to 8,200 nautical miles. The new Auckland route "is easily within the capabilities of the airplane," Messing added.
Delta, meanwhile, is exploring alternatives to the 787 to handle its overseas flights. Delta CEO Richard Anderson told analysts earlier this year that the Atlanta-based carrier is "technically" still a 787 customer but is "in negotiations with Boeing to figure out what's going to happen with those positions."
Some observers think Delta may be holding out for the next Dreamliner model, the 787-9, which will carry more passengers and travel longer distances.
"I suspect Delta is going to cancel or convert" its order, said aerospace blogger Jon Ostrower. He thinks Delta likely will add more Boeing 777-200LRs to its fleet.
The Post and Courier contributed to this report.