United Continental ushered in a new era for composite-plastic aircraft with its inaugural flight using Boeing's 787 Dreamliner jet.

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United Airlines landed its inaugural flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner at Chicago O’Hare on Sunday morning to the cheers of passengers, which included many aviation enthusiasts who took the flight just to say they were there.

The twin-aisle plane, delayed more than three years by Boeing production problems, is said to be far more fuel efficient and less costly to maintain while offering a new level of passenger comfort. Half of the plane is made of strong and light composite materials, including the fuselage and wings, instead of aluminum.

“If you want to be the world’s leading airline, you need the world’s leading airplane, and this is it,” said United CEO Jeff Smisek, noting he hadn’t flown on a 787 until Sunday. “It been a long haul to get here,” he said.

United is the first North American airline to receive a 787, and Sunday marked its first commercial flight of the craft.

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The flight also marked a big moment for the two companies, United and Boeing, whose headquarters are a few blocks apart in downtown Chicago.

It was important for United, which has had a rough year, with widespread delays and cancellations after a reservations system switch-over in March and intermittent strife with its unions, especially pilots — although both of those problems have abated in recent weeks.

The airline is still working through merger hassles, some two years after United and Continental combined.

Some observers say the halo effect of being the first North American carrier to fly the Dreamliner is a much-needed boost to the reputation of the world’s largest airline.

More tangibly, the plane is far more fuel efficient than planes it will replace; Boeing claims 20 percent more efficient for some replacements. Fuel is a huge cost for airlines, so that’s savings that can fall to the bottom line.

For Boeing, Sunday’s flight represents another step toward repairing its reputation surrounding the 787, which started deliveries more than three years late due to design and production problems.

The near-constant delays were so rampant the plane earned the snarky nickname, 7-late-7.

However, Boeing may have the last laugh. Dreamliners have sold like hot cakes, and early reviews are glowing from customers who have flown the plane on foreign airlines over the past year and from those who flew from Houston to Chicago on Sunday.

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