Our United 787-9 being made ready for the inaugural long-haul LAX-SIN flight.

Our United 787-9 being made ready for the inaugural long-haul LAX-SIN flight

Superlatives abounded on this, the inaugural non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Singapore. It’s billed as the third-longest direct flight in the world and the longest to originate from the United States.

There was even a ribbon-cutting ceremony - the presence of a trade delegation highlighted the fact that economic ties are strong between Singapore and the U.S.

There was even a ribbon-cutting ceremony – the presence of a trade delegation highlighted the fact that economic ties are strong between Singapore and the U.S.

The flight takes 17 hours, five minutes to cover the 8,772 miles between Los Angeles and Singapore. Favorable headwinds shaved an hour off our flight time, but, still. It’s an awfully long time to be in the air.

The flight crew posed for a portrait before departure.

The flight crew posed for a portrait before the inaugural flight departed on Oct. 27, 2017

At the departure gate, United set up a small stage for the pre-flight program, along with a catered buffet for passengers. There were dignitaries aplenty, ranging from the Singaporean ambassador to the U.S. to numerous United executives and trade-council members.

International trade relations aside, the whole point of the exercise was to learn firsthand what it would be like to spend 17 hours on a plane, albeit in United’s Polaris business class on a relatively new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.

People seemed genuinely excited to be a part of the inaugural flight.

People seemed genuinely excited to be a part of the inaugural flight.

I did not spend much time in the airport lounges at LAX or Changi, only popping in long enough to grab a snack on my way to the gate, so we’ll save those for a future review.

The business end of our 787-9's starboard Rolls Royce Trent 1000 engine.

The business end of our 787-9’s starboard GEnx engine

OK, so on to the part you’re probably waiting for: what was the flight actually like?

Seat 6A was my home for the outbound ride — I'm a window seat kind of a guy.

Seat 6A was my home for the outbound ride — I’m a window seat kind of a guy

It was great, as one might expect it to be, especially as it was an inaugural flight packed with United brass, dignitaries, and the press. I didn’t fly back with the press group, though, as I needed to return a day sooner, so my return was routed through San Francisco, which is a slightly shorter flight at 8,448 miles and 14 hours, 40 minutes flying time. It also provided an opportunity to travel on an ordinary flight; basically, I would have a benchmark.

BONUS: Flying United’s Last Boeing 747 Flight

And, yes, before we begin, I know this is United’s current Polaris product. As to when the updated seats might appear on the 787s, Maddie King of United’s corporate communications department said, “We are still reviewing and haven’t made any announcements on this.”

So, with that out of the way, here we go.

The seats are quite comfortable, and I liked the window seat a lot, although the design makes night-time restroom excursions something of a predicament as you have to step over your seatmate to get to the aisle.

A surprising disappointment came in the form of the USB power port not having enough amperage to charge my iPad — this was really surprising considering that the plane we were on was less than 18 months old, and high-draw devices have been around for much longer. Even Alaska Airlines’ economy seats have USB ports that push 5 amps and can charge my iPad. A 120v USB adapter from my computer bag solved the problem, but I wasn’t able to charge my iPad and my laptop at the same time, as there was only one 120v outlet. I also tried plugging in the laptop and charging the iPad via one of its USB ports, but that got a bit unwieldy. Still, I was able to soldier on.

The dining options were solid. The salads were fresh and flavorful; same with the seafood and the main course. The weak link, so to speak, was the breakfast – it tasted fine but everything was a bit rubbery. I loved the matar methi paneer for the main course – the flavors were distinct and, same as with the other food save breakfast, it all tasted surprisingly fresh.

I'm sure this totally marks me as a child of the 80s, but United's salt-and-pepper shakers totally make me think of the Death Star from Star Wars.

I’m sure this totally marks me as a child of the 80s, but United’s salt-and-pepper shakers totally make me think of the Death Star from Star Wars

I don’t drink, so I’ve got nothing to tell you about the wine or alcohol selections. They did have a seemingly endless supply of sparkling water, which is my favorite traveling beverage, so I was quite happy.

And we're just getting started.

And we’re just getting started

So, with dinner out of the way, what next? How to pass the 15 or so remaining hours?

The IFE system looked good, but I’m not much into movies, so the only time I used it was when I wanted to check the progress maps. I’m more of a BYOD (bring your own device) kind of person, hence my being a bit freaked out that the in-seat USB port didn’t provide enough amperage to charge my iPad.

I read a lot, played a few games, and talked to my seatmate and some of the United folks who were walking around.

Oh — and there were pajamas, but you had to know to go ask for them. And I loved them. One of the United vice presidents had changed into his even before we left the gate – he apparently liked them a lot, too. I wore them for pretty much the entire flight. And, contrary to the numerous blog posts and chat threads about the procedure, changing into them in the lavatory was a piece of cake.

United's standard-issue 787-9 seating diagram.

United’s standard-issue 787-9 seating diagram

This being an inaugural flight, people seemed chattier than usual, so I was able to enjoy several pleasant conversations with fellow travelers, with topics ranging from past flight experiences to dragon boat racing. That took care of another hour or so.

When I eventually tired of playing games, er, I mean reading, on my iPad, it was time to try for some sleep. I found the lie-flat bed to be a bit lumpy as I’d forgotten to ask for a mattress pad, but it didn’t keep me from sleeping for nearly seven hours, which is a record for me on a plane.

There was legroom and storage space aplenty. This was taken right after boarding, pre-pajamas.

There was legroom and storage space aplenty. This was taken right after boarding, pre-pajamas.

Those seven hours weren’t uninterrupted, though.

The seat controls.

The seat controls.

My elbow kept bumping the IFE remote, which is cradled low and close to the base of the seat. Elbowing the switch turned on the large and very bright video screen, which woke me up every time it happened.

That dratted IFE remote.

That dratted IFE remote

By the time it occurred to my groggy self to simply pull the wired remote out of its cradle and set it on the floor, it was time to get up for breakfast anyway. At least I had a plan for dealing with it on the return flight.

The internet connection was so slow that I couldn't even complete a speed test.

The internet connection was so slow that I couldn’t even complete a speed test

On both the outbound and return flights, the wifi was terrible, as in, 1990s AOL dial-up terrible, so slow as to be  mostly unusable. I applied for, and received, a refund of the fees once I got home.

It still feels like a big tease, this whole in-flight wifi thing. I don’t expect the speed of a fiber-optic connection at 40,000 feet over the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but I do expect to be able to at least access a text-only email, which, for the majority of the flight, wasn’t possible.

BONUS: Flying on Singapore’s Airbus A340-500 from LAX-SIN-EWR in 2013

I don’t necessarily fault the airline for this, as the underlying tech is provided by third-party vendors, but I do wish airlines wouldn’t promote in-flight wifi as if it were something that actually worked consistently and reliably.

Speaking of money, though, the $30 fee for wifi for the duration of a 17-hour flight seemed a reasonable price (assuming that it had actually worked, of course), especially considering that I’ve seen fees as high as $39 for a comparatively short five-hour transcontinental run.

 On ultra-long haul flights like this, there are multiple flight and cabin crews on board to comply with crew rest regulations. This is the crew-rest compartment on our 787-9.

On ultra-long haul flights like this, there are multiple flight and cabin crews on board to comply with crew rest regulations. This is the crew-rest compartment on our 787-9.

On both flights, the cabin crews were genuinely delightful. With the inaugural, you’d expect everyone to be on their best behavior, but on the return flight to SFO, the service was every bit as good.

About halfway through that flight, I got a bit hungry, so I gingerly stepped over my seatmate into the aisle to go forage in the galley. There wasn’t much out yet other than some chocolate, and I was tired of sweets, so I just turned around and headed back to my seat. As I did that, a flight attendant noticed I was leaving empty handed, and asked if I wanted a grilled cheese sandwich. I probably lit up like a 10-year-old kid at the thought, as she just smiled, said something about comfort food always being a hit, and sent me off to my seat. A short while later, I had a lovely hot sandwich and a nice bowl of tomato soup.

I love the shapes of the 787's wing and engines.

I love the shapes of the 787’s wing and engines

Upon landing at Singapore’s Changi Airport, there was an announcement on the plane’s PA, followed by a smattering of applause. “We have just completed the longest flight in United history.”

I think that every flight should have a smiling local band greet arriving passengers.

I think that every flight should have a smiling local band greet arriving passengers.

That announcement was immediately followed by the longest airport immigration line in my travel history – we stood in line for more than an hour to get our passports stamped and then go out and find our luggage, which by then had all been removed from the carousel and stacked alongside.

No, I'm not showing you the inside of my passport. But the stamp is in there. United also handed out passport covers to commemorate the flight.

No, I’m not showing you the inside of my passport. But the stamp is in there. United also handed out passport covers to commemorate the flight.

All in all, both ultra-long haul flights were quite pleasant. Other than some quibbles, such as a seat design that begs improvement, offering a realistic amperage for the USB outlets, and perhaps finding a better location for that IFE remote, it was a comfortable journey and I arrived refreshed rather than sleep-deprived and frazzled.

Disclaimer: United Airlines invited the media as guests on both flights and covered our accommodations in Singapore. Our opinions remain our own.

ASSOCIATE EDITOR - SEATTLE, WA Francis Zera is a Seattle-based architectural, aviation, and commercial photographer, a freelance photojournalist, and a confirmed AvGeek.

http://www.zeraphoto.com
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14 Comments
Michael Moscaritolo

Awesome story!

Thanks for reading, Michael!

nice write-up and great photos as always!

Appreciate that you do not drink – neither do I – and I tire of reading endless reviews of wine and Champagne. I also don’t fly Business Class so the review didn’t really have much relevance for me. I chuckled over the WiFi experience. My son and I flew over from SFO to FRA earlier this year and he had the identical experience. It’s unimaginable to be sitting in a coach seat for 17 hours … so I think I’ll look for a routing with a stop over or two.

Plane-Crazy Joe

“Favorable headwinds shaved an hour off our flight time, but, still. It’s an awfully long time to be in the air. ”

Hmmm – did you mean “tailwinds”?! HEADWINDS will lengthen flight time.

That’s not an error, I did mean favorable headwinds.

The jet stream winds that blow from the west and normally slow a plane’s progress when traveling west were lighter than usual. Estimated flight times take such headwinds into account, so when they’re not as strong as usual, your flight arrives early.

The published flight time for LAX-SIN is 17:05 but the SIN-LAX flight time is 15:15 for the same 8,772 miles. That time difference is chiefly due to the jet stream.

There’s a twist of irony that this flight in coach (if you could stand United coach for 17 hours) is within $80 of my Alaska SEA – ATL next week,on a much better plane. That’s what’s known as a “loss leader” to go 4X the distance!

I am not sure if that means United is offering an AMAZING deal or that is a REALLY bad deal on Alaska to Atlanta!

David

Probably a combination of both. The on saving grace on the last minute holiday travel on AK was that the companion fare helped softened the blow.

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