Last year, I had the dubious privilege of flying United Airlines on three domestic routes. Call it bad luck, but I can’t say they impressed me too much on any of those occasions. Nonetheless, I was excited to fly United’s 787-8 in domestic first class (the international business class cabin is sold as first for marketing consistency). It would be a new aircraft for me, as I’d only flown the -9 variant before, and what’s not to like about flying novel widebody aircraft on short haul routes? I also filmed the experience for my YouTube channel:
Denver is a truly vast airport, the largest in the United States by land area. Its geographic position and customer experience make it a good place for a hub, although the concourses are huge. Bring walking boots and rations for longer transits between gates!
Check in was a breeze thanks to Premier Access, which comes with any domestic first class ticket on United. I avoided all the queues at the regular desks, and the kiosks were easy to use.
One point many European fliers overlook when flying in the USA is that, with only a few exceptions, wholly domestic first class tickets won’t get you into airline lounges. Lounge access is generally sold or packaged with credit cards. United is no exception.
The United Clubs here won’t let you in unless you’re connecting on the same day to an international flight, or you have Star Alliance Gold status. Sadly, I earned my Gold status after making this trip, so no free lounge goodies for me.
Boarding was efficient, although I’ll never understand airlines’ continual obsession with boarding groups (United has five, in comparison to American’s NINE!). On boarding, all the electrically-adjustable window shades were thoughtfully set to fully dark, to prevent the cabin from overheating in the summer sun. Naturally, I turned the window transparent at the first opportunity.
United’s 787-8s work long haul routes into places like the Far East, and are laid out in a 2-2-2 configuration in business class. This means window seat passengers have to step over their neighbour to access the aisle – not so bad on a short day flight like this, but far from ideal on a 10 hour slog with passengers asleep or reclined most of the time.
In summary, its perfect if you’re travelling as a couple, but less so for lone passengers. There’s also very little privacy in the seating layout. There’s a pathetic divider which comes nowhere near eye level. At least they’re relatively comfortable though.
Take off was brisk and we were soon heading over the stunning Rocky Mountains. The penalty for seeing beautiful mountains below is usually turbulence, and naturally we got quite a bit of chop as soon as the meal service started (sod’s law!).
The meal service infuriated me. Seated in 1A, I was literally the first passenger to place an order, and chose the eggs and refried beans as it sounded like a nice change. The flight attendant said she would “have to see if she had any left at the end”.
Now, I don’t mind airlines not fully catering each choice, and only having a certain number of each, as we all have a responsibility to avoid waste. But I do resent being made to feel like a second-class passenger. Essentially, in line with some other airlines like British Airways, United sometimes prioritises meal orders in the galley and give first preference to high status customers. So, the FA was going to wait and see how many “more important” customers placed orders after me, and would then decide if they would get “my” meal.
This practice is nonsense. Full disclosure: I was in the past a BA Gold member and while I’d almost always get my meal choice on long haul I regularly called out this practice on FlyerTalk as fundamentally wrong. This doesn’t happen even in the cheapest restaurants and it shouldn’t happen on a $300 airline ticket either.
Anyway, the food. Pretty bad all round. Surprisingly bland and, frankly, by the end I couldn’t have cared less is the meal had ended up in front of a United Premier 1K member. The eggs were soggy and the fruit plate was insipid. I’ve never been impressed by United’s food and keep wondering if I have terrible luck with this. I welcome opposing views in the comments, particularly as I have several more flights booked with them. Give me hope!
There’s also an irritating foible with the seat on the 787-8. The power port is located uncomfortably over your shoulder, such that it’s difficult to reach with either hand while sitting down with the seatbelt on. I had to actually unbelt and stand up to unplug my devices for descent. First world problems on a mountain-jumper flight like mine, but these aircraft fly routes which sell for thousands of dollars. Thankfully, United is installing splendid Polaris seats across the fleet, and I have an exciting trip on their 787-10 booked for May, which I’m confident will be a world apart from the tired seats on this trip.
We descended into San Francisco from the east and caught a glimpse of Moffat Air Base. Landing was punctual and uneventful.
The cost of my ticket? A not-too-bad $300, but I’d advise against spending it unless, like me, you want the miles (I collect with the unfashionable Air New Zealand) or if you want the novelty of flying a widebody.
United remain a conundrum to me, although I look forward to flying them more this year. I hope the food is better next time!