787 Dreamliner takes off at last. When can you jump aboard?

787 Dreamliner jet, Boeing's new fuel-sipping and passenger-friendly aircraft, left the US for Japan Tuesday, with executives of All Nippon Airways aboard. Commercial flights of the 787 Dreamliner start Oct. 28 – in Asia.

Anthony Bolante/Reuters
Boeing 787 Dreamliner is readied for take off at Paine Field in Everett, Washington, on Tuesday for delivery to the 787's first customer, All Nippon Airways (ANA) of Japan.

Executives with All Nippon Airways (ANA) snagged the commercial maiden voyage of Boeing's new 787 Dreamliner jet as Airplane 24, dressed in ANA livery, took off from Paine Field in Washington State Tuesday morning, en route to Tokyo. As crowds cheered, the plane tipped its wings in salutation after a 7:15 a.m. takeoff local time.

Political battles and supplier problems tied to a new global assembly program, which had delayed delivery of the first Dreamliner jet for nearly three years, may continue to dog Boeing. Yet the new aircraft may represent the most significant leap forward for commercial jet flight comfort since the commercial introduction of the Boeing 777 in 1995.

So let's cut to the chase: How soon – and where – will passengers be able to board the new 787, which includes blue-sky lighting to replace white fluorescents, wider seats, large windows with "sunglass"-like electrochromic shades, and a higher-pressure, higher-humidity cabin?

After making some limited test flights with the 787 in October, ANA, which flies internationally, will put the plane into service Oct. 28. But it will fly Asia-only routes, ANA recently announced. Still, given international business travel and new apps that allow passengers to select flights on the basis of airplane type, some American aviation enthusiasts are expected to make the trek to find a seat (make that an expensive seat) on board.

The first best shot for American travelers to fly in a 787 is likely to come in mid-2012, when United-Continental expects to take delivery of its first plane. It will fly a nonstop route from Houston to Auckland, Australia. United says the 787's fuel efficiency and "modest passenger load" make the route possible.

“That market is dependent on the 787 – we will not fly that route without the 787,” United CEO Jeff Smisek told Australian Business Traveller magazine last year. “But with the 787 we can make money on that route.”

Despite its delays coming to market, the composite-built plane has become a cornerstone for airlines who want to gain market footholds across the globe. With a 20 percent fuel savings and creature comforts for passengers, the 787 will mostly be used as a long-haul carrier for nonstop flights to leapfrog the commercial air hub system. So far, airlines have ordered 832 of the planes, which cost $200 million each.

But the 787 is also carrying some political baggage in the US.

Earlier this year, the National Labor Relations Board questioned Boeing's decision to move part of the Dreamliner assembly to right-to-work South Carolina, alleging retaliation against unions. The NLRB's actions infuriated many congressional Republicans, who have introduced a bill to strip the NLRB of much of what some call its "radical authority" on grounds the board is hampering job creation. The case is now before an administrative law judge in Seattle.

After struggling to fine-tune a new global supply chain, Chicago-based Boeing will also be challenged to boost production of the new plane to 10 a month to fill its current order list within the next half-decade.

But on Tuesday, those problems seemed far away for ANA and airplane enthusiasts like Lori Gunter, a spokeswoman for Boeing.

Ms. Gunter, who apologized for being "emotional" after watching Airplane 24 take off at 7:15 a.m. PDT, said she recently flew on an ANA-configured plane. She picked a center aisle seat in the very back, from where she could still see through the large, specially shaped windows made possible by the plane's composite structure. "It was amazing," she says. "For a lot of people, the flying part of travel is still really cool."

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