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United Airlines employees cutting the ceremonial ribbon before their inaugural nonstop flight to Sydney, Australia.

Image: Scott Vogel

Hard as it might be to believe, George Bush Intercontinental Airport turns 50 years old next year, and from the day it opened in June 1969, Houstonians of every stripe knew they'd experienced a watershed moment for the city. All over town, families like mine loaded up their cars and made the trip northward just to look at it. Miles and miles we drove, trekking far from the city lights, through darkness and desolation and pine forest—until suddenly there it was, a brand-new airport. Bathed in amber light, it sat with lonely majesty on the prairie, but glowed with promise of the city yet to come.

I thought a lot about my first trip to IAH Thursday evening, even as I crawled through traffic on my umpteenth trip to terminal E. The journey’s darkness and desolation were long gone, but the airport’s visionary spirit is as evident as ever, and its ambitions far greater. In an hour or so, in a place once dotted with cow pastures and UtoteMs, I would be able to travel 8,596 miles from Houston on a single plane, to the last inhabited continent on earth without nonstop service from our city to Australia.

For this I have the inaugural journey of United Airlines flight 101 to thank, a 17-and-a-half-hour journey to Sydney that felt much shorter. For one thing, it was shorter, more than an hour so, thanks to favorable winds. (Indeed, the flight’s scheduled 8 p.m. departure had to be delayed, not because of any mechanical difficulties, but so we’d avoid arriving in Sydney before the airport opened at 6 a.m.)

For another, I was given a lie-flat seat in business class, two multi-course meals, and a ridiculously comfortable pair of pajamas. That said, it was the many United personnel onboard that ultimately carried me through, from the 12 lucky flight attendants selected for the route (some of whom have been flying the friendly skies for more than 30 years) to the executives and route planners and schedulers, line standards managers and everyone else involved in the planning and execution of this daring daily enterprise.

Not unlike most large corporations, United inspires little love from many in the flying public, who tend to view the airline as a boorish, necessary evil, but that is not how most of its employees see themselves. Their main job, one which they embrace with evangelical fervor, is to make sure 143 million people get where they need to go each year, and that they do so in the most comfortable and least annoying of ways. Along the way, they create opportunities for cities—there were a number of chamber of commerce bigwigs from both cities on this flight, along with the head of the Houston Airport system, Mario Diaz, and representatives from several of our city’s largest firms—while juggling the needs of passengers who travel for an almost illimitable number of reasons. Here, as on every flight, there were people traveling for business and pleasure, for reasons happy and sad, to destinations they’ve dreamed of and places they never wanted to go. United's mandate is to satisfy them all. An impossible task, that, but on this flight at least, one which the airline accomplished it with ease.

Two hours before landing, after a mostly smooth flight, the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner we’d boarded for this journey entered a patch of bumpy air over the Tasman Sea. The turbulence, while in no way severe, was enough to remind thoughtful passengers of the audacity of what we’d all attempted. As safe as air travel is these days, stepping on a plane remains something of an act of faith, and something almost all of us take a chance on, never quite knowing the outcome. So it was with United’s decision to offer nonstop service from Houston to Sydney, the second-longest route among the zillions it flies. So it was with the visionaries who conceived and built IAH in the darkness north of town.

But when United 101 touched down at Sydney Kingsford Smith International airport at 6:22 a.m. on Saturday morning—Friday having been lost altogether—the collective faith of all involved was justly rewarded. The skies were bright, the city’s famous opera house blazed in the morning sun, the day filled with promises past and present.

Flights on United Airlines nonstop from IAH to Sydney, which depart daily, start at $1,453 for economy seats. For information, visit united.com.

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