Gregory Karp / Chicago Tribune

ABOARD UA1116 — In a trip that was years in the making, United Airlines passengers Sunday got their first chance to experience the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which made its inaugural voyage for the airline on a scheduled flight from Houston to Chicago.

The twin-aisle plane, which made its debut three years late because of production problems at Boeing, is said to be far more fuel-efficient and less costly to maintain for airlines, while offering a new level of in-cabin comfort for passengers. Instead of being made mostly of metal, half of the plane, including the fuselage and wings, is made of strong, light composite materials.

“If you want to be the world’s leading airline, you need to have the world’s leading airplane, and we have that today in the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner,” said United CEO Jeff Smisek, who said he hadn’t flown on one until the flight Sunday to Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

United is the first North American airline to receive a 787.

The start of Dreamliner service is a big deal for airline enthusiasts and also for the two companies, United Continental Holdings and Boeing Co., whose headquarters are a few blocks apart in downtown Chicago and who once were part of the same company.

Michael Phillips, 38, a meteorologist from New Jersey, spent $1,900 to fly first-class on four legs on the 787, starting with the Houston-Chicago segment. “It was a great flight,” he said after landing in Chicago. “It was a very quiet cabin. The quietness really stood out for me.”

He also liked the tall cabin ceilings. “It was like I could jump up and not hit my hand on the ceiling,” he said.

Phillips also found several “hidden gems,” like the way the air nozzles worked, the functionality of the seatback entertainment system and the hands-free features of the bathroom, such as the faucets. He said he was impressed by the lavatory doors, which rotate inward, away from people in the aisle.

“It was not a very airplane-y experience,” he said.

The flight was important for United, which has had a rough year, with widespread delays and cancellations after a reservations system switchover 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, months 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 United.

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.”

But Boeing may have the last laugh. Dreamliners have sold like hotcakes, 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.

“It’s a big deal for United and Boeing and, absolutely, for consumers,” said Aaron Gellman, professor of transportation at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “I think it’s well on its way to meeting all its guarantees.”

Aviation analysts had their criticisms, however.

“The plane is more a game-changer for United and the airlines that run the 787 than it is for passengers,” said Henry Harteveldt, cofounder of Atmosphere Research Group. “Only the most frequent of fliers will really notice and care about this.”

For example, people care about their seat space, and United chose to install nine seats across in economy class, instead of eight, as Boeing envisioned and other 787 owners, such as All Nippon Airways, use.

“It will be a nice plane, but it’s not going to blow anyone’s socks off, unfortunately,” Harteveldt said.