In part one of this series I provided an overview of my airline sampler trip (5 airlines over 4 days) and offered my thoughts on my very first flight with Virgin America, from Dallas to San Francisco. Here we pick back up at SFO for a quick journey down to LAX in the first class cabin aboard a United 787-8.
This leg of my airline sampler was actually the catalyst for the entire trip. I happened to stumble upon an announcement that United would be briefly returning the 787 to domestic service for once weekly (Friday) service from SFO-LAX. I didn’t get the opportunity to check out the Dreamliner when United had them on domestic runs when they were first introduced. After a number of friends booked their own 787 experiences only to be disappointed by the wrong plane at the gate, due to operational issues, I decided to hold off. I was skeptic for too long and wound up missing my opportunity. Some time had passed and United now had a number of 787s in service, so I figured that the time was right.
The economy fare was very attractively priced at a meager $72.10 — what a bargain! When United.com solicited me to pay an extra $29 for economy plus I jumped at it.
As a Boeing fan-boy, I was excited, but that joy would soon evaporate like spilled Jet A on a hot day. It pains me to report that problems began before I ever stepped foot on the plane…
I chose my seat and finalized my purchase only to encounter an error message: “We are unable to complete your seat purchase at this time. Please try again later.” I wasn’t sure how to react so I went back to make sure my seat was assigned and as per the message, it wasn’t. My invoice from United showed I’d simply purchased an economy fare even though I was charged for both. Hoping some system sweep might catch the error I waited two days and checked again, no difference. I phoned United and was told that I’d need to take it up with my credit issuer. I did, and they refunded the economy plus charge. Bummer. I guess economy on a 787 isn’t bad, but I wanted better.
Enter my frequent travel pal Dan (who was the lucky recipient of my Southwest Airlines companion pass a few times), who was for years a die-hard United 1k that had recently defected to American. He had a number of upgrades banked and when he had heard of the ordeal offered to upgrade me. Reciprocity is a beautiful thing.
The weather in San Francisco the day of the flight was incredible. After a bit of plane spotting and a quick visit to the SFO Centurion Lounge, we were off through security. My upgrade awarded me access to a priority screening lane, yet Dan who has PreCheck scooted through much quicker than me. Maybe I was wrong about TSA Pre?
After a quick trek to international departures I had arrived at the 787. Even through the polka-doted SFO glass, it was a beautiful machine with graceful lines. I had plenty of time to stare at the Dreamliner as my flight was unfortunately over an hour delayed.
When it came time to board United’s 787 it all felt a bit disjointed. The lead gate agent had taken quite a verbal beating from passengers upset by the delay and at risk of missing their connections. The agent’s stress came through loud and clear as he announced boarding. I’m not sure if he skipped part of the process or not, but no one was where they belonged and there was a lot of general confusion.
Although I had premier access group, because of the chaos at the gate, and from me being a bit laid back and not pushy to force my way on, I ended up being the last to board. No harm though, as seat 3A was all mine. Although I think their new boarding process would have been a huge help here.
As I entered the plane I knew I would be turning left, a real treat for me since most of my time is spent aboard 737s, always turning right. A well-dressed flight attendant greeted me as I entered, but as soon as I tried to turn left he challenged me. Only after I’d pulled up the boarding pass on my phone to prove my “right” to turn left was I allowed to proceed. I understand that part of their job is to assist passengers board efficiently and properly, he didn’t need to automatically act like I didn’t belong. Another odd, and frankly annoying experience.
As soon as I made it to my seat another, more friendly flight attendant greeted me, and offered to take my drink order as well as stow my jacket. This, all before I was even seated.
Just moments after placing my carry-on overhead and my camera bag under the seat in front of me the personification of “the friendly skies” flight attendant had returned, drink in hand. Now talk about attentive! I regret that I didn’t write down her name because her service and disposition were the real highlight of the human element for this leg of the trip.
My seat was sufficiently comfortable, but it felt a bit cheap. The metal below had a slight forward backward give, which made a “clank” as it shifted. I suspect this was part of the recline mechanism as I’ve never had a traditional seat move like this. There was plenty of room, but the padding on the 14 month-old seats had already broken down and was much thinner than I would have expected in first class on a plane intended for long-haul flights. By comparison, the padding I experienced on Spirit’s “Big Front” seat last year felt thicker (sorry, but it’s true!).
There was AC power and a USB outlet, but they were both over my left shoulder nearly above my head. I’m not sure who designed this setup, but clearly they weren’t familiar with the concept of the standard 3-foot iPhone charging cable. Sure, I had access to power, but using my phone while it was plugged in wouldn’t be an option. Thankfully I came prepared with my own power bank which fit well on the shelf below the in-flight entertainment monitor.
My, now favorite, United flight attendant came through with a hot towel service which felt wonderful. I’ve only experienced this elsewhere in Delta’s first class and have to say it I’m a sucker for it. As we pushed back, the towels and first round of drinks were collected, and it was time for me to explore United’s in-flight entertainment.
Checking out the navigation map, I noticed something strange. Our origination point was showing as some imaginary airport that resides in the ocean just off of the northwest coast of Africa. I couldn’t understand what was going on and this distracting line remained on the various route map views for the duration of the flight.
A friend familiar with United’s IFE system said that the input of a fake international origin is a hack to make some on-demand content free on domestic flights. I didn’t bother watching anything so that very well might be the case.
Soon, I decided that it was time to get online. The flight attendants had announced that this was a WiFi equipped flight and I was anxious to check out United’s in-flight connectivity offering as this was my first UA bird to offer internet access. Or, so I thought…
I enabled WiFi on my phone and waited for it to find an SSID. I found plenty of mobile hot spots (naughty passengers, turn that stuff off!), but no United WiFi. I wasn’t sure if maybe the technology took a while to connect so I patiently waited… nothing. I asked for confirmation and the flight attendant stated that they were sure it was turned on. Well… it turns out that none of United 787-8s have WiFi (the 787-9s do).
I do not mind that fact that there wasn’t WiFi, and I realize that typically the crew flying from SFO-LAX are on aircraft that have WiFi, but just another minor disappointment, that kept adding up.
My first flight on a 787 turned out to be a bit of a flop. While the experience wasn’t necessarily “bad”, it wasn’t great. Honestly it wasn’t even average. I had very high hopes for an end-to-end positive experience, yet this leg of the sampler was riddled with bumps along the way. Although, I should say that the actual flight was silky smooth — I’ll give the 787 points for that.
I’ve long been hard on United, but it’s “tough love” and not hate. I adore all airlines, even those who consistently let me down. I was a fan of United as well as Continental prior to the merger but I can’t shake the impression that the combination brought out not the best of the two, but the worst. There are still a few die-hard United fans out there, brand ambassadors as it were, who constantly vouch for the company and attest to the positive change they are seeing. I hope they are right.
I know that the airline is acknowledging its many challenges and working to remedy them, but when you are so large, with so many complicated aspects, these things do not come quickly. I don’t fly United more than once or twice per year, so perhaps by the time I have my next flight things might be a bit different.