All Nippon Airways (ANA) kicked off Boeing 787 commercial services today with a special charter flight from Narita Airport to Hong Kong.

The 4-hr., 10-min. flight, carrying more than 240 passengers, comes 7.5 years after ANA placed the launch order for the 787 in April 2004 and marks the aircraft’s long-awaited commercial debut.

Despite coming three years and four months later than originally planned, ANA President and CEO Shinichiro Ito says the 787 will spearhead the carrier’s “strategic goal of becoming Asia’s No. 1 airline. We have been through hard times with its development, but we believe ANA has acquired a great instrument for growth.

“Today, we finally launch the world’s first commercial flight of the 787 Dreamliner,” says Ito. Describing the event as “the long-awaited day,” he adds, “we decided on Hong Kong as the destination for our charter flight as the best way of demonstrating the aircraft’s comfort and amenities.” He asserts that the aircraft will be a “game-changer. For Asia, we are convinced this aircraft will become the mainstay of our fleet.”

Commenting on upcoming deliveries, Ito says ANA expects to receive another five 787s by year-end, bringing its initial fleet to seven. By the end of March 2012, the airline’s 787 fleet will grow to 11 and by March 2013, to 20.

Boeing 787 Vice President and General Manager Scott Fancher says, “it’s been a difficult journey. I can’t tell you how much I’ve been waiting to hold this in my hand,” referring to the boarding pass he flourished at the pre-departure press conference. “I can’t say enough about ANA’s contribution to the design of the 787.” Stressing the aircraft’s 20% lower fuel burn and 30% lower maintenance costs, Fancher says the aircraft represents a new design benchmark.

“With regard to the production rate increase, it’s always challenging, but we have solid plans in place and the teams at Boeing and around the world are executing those plans,” Fancher says. “We’re comfortable we have an executable plan.”

Commenting on the recent decision of China Eastern Airlines to convert its 24 787 orders to 737s, he adds, “we have 821 aircraft sold, and every time an airline decided their plans changed, there are plenty in line to take the Dreamliner.”

Although the initial aircraft are heavier than the original specification, Ito says, “we understand this and we are examining the performance results. We don’t expect that there will be a substantial gap between the actual performance and the predicted results, though we will continue to examine this.”

After a return flight to Japan, planned for Oct. 27, ANA is set to carry out a series of excursion flights from Narita before conducting the first domestic flights from Haneda Airport to Okayama and Hiroshima. The initial scheduled international service to Beijing is scheduled to begin in December and the first long-haul international service to Frankfurt on Jan. 21, 2012. These flights will be flown by the first 787-8s powered by the improved “Package B” variants of the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000.

Following the extension of long-haul services to Germany, ANA adds that future 787 destinations could include Belgium, Switzerland and the U.S. West Coast. With an expected 20 787s in service by early 2013, the airline will extend its domestic network to Itami, Yamaguchi Ube and Matsuyama. ANA is scheduled to receive all 55 of the aircraft currently on order, including 15 787-9s, by the end of March 2018.

Part of the reason for selecting the short-haul destinations such as Okayama and Hiroshima is to help accelerate the rate of pilot training for the expanding 787 fleet, says Ito.

ANA Capt. Masami Tsukamoto, who helped develop 787 pilot training at Boeing, says, “we finally have a 787 in our hands.” Tsukamoto spent six years working to develop the training program with Boeing and acted as a liaison between the FAA and the Japanese Civil Aviation Bureau. ANA’s director of 787 flight operations, Capt. Yuichi Marui, adds that 30 pilots have now completed qualification training, and the airline expects the total 787 pilot roster to reach around 100 by year-end.