N27908, United's 8th 787. Photo Courtesy of BriBri (CC BY-SA 2.0)

N27908, United’s 8th 787. Photo Courtesy of BriBri (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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…

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Twice thanked, but request not fulfilled. Do not pass go. Do not collect $29 dollars. Photo: United.com

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.

SFO's Centurion Lounge. Photo: Mighty Travels (CC BY 2.0)

SFO’s Centurion Lounge. Photo: Mighty Travels (CC BY 2.0)

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.

Seat 3A. My home for the quick journey to LAX.

Seat 3A. My home for the quick journey to LAX.

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.

Route map for SFO-LAX. Notice the extra line originating off of the NW coast of Africa.

Route map for SFO-LAX. Notice the extra line originating off of the NW coast of Africa.

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.

Up up and away on the UA787. Note SFO in the upper right.

Up up and away on the UA787. Note SFO in the upper right.

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.

Spotting a UA787 from a UA787 on the ground at LAX.

Spotting a UA787 from a UA787 on the ground at LAX.

Conclusion
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.

Managing Correspondent - Lee's Summit, MO. JL joined AirlineReporter in 2012 and has since become one of our most tenured and prolific writers. His passions include catalyzing AvGeek passion in others, spending too much time on Twitter, and frequent travel. While he's always looking for the next big adventure, home is with his growing AvGeek family in Lee’s Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. Email: [email protected]

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18 Comments

I’ve flown the United 787-8 twice in economy – once domestically, once from Shanghai to LAX. The crews on those seemed to bring their A game. It sounds like the luster is wearing off, and even some crew members are looking at the 787 as just another plane. I suppose it’s hard to keep anyone amped about something, and conveying the right enthusiasm.

Myself, I’ve also had my best domestic flights on United, and I like the other Star Alliance airlines (especially Asiana and Air New Zealand). So they’ll be my go-to domestic barring a Virgin America invasion at my home airport.

Justin, excellent to hear you have had a positive experience on UA, better yet them being your go-to airline. This gives me hope!

That said, you mention VX creeping on UAs turf in your area. I have to say, Virgin really has it figured out. Not sure if you read part 1 of this series, but the experience there was almost uniformly positive. With excellent carriers like B6, AS and VX beefing up presence in historically legacy strongholds perhaps this is the catalyst for slow moving UA to expedite this transformation we keep hearing about.

Thanks for the comment!

JL, AirlineReporter

Yep, I definitely caught the first one. The idea of an airline sampler series of posts is really fun; I’ve enjoyed both posts. I sometimes stress my wife’s patience by going out of my way to try new-to-me airlines! Still want to get a Russian airline one of these days. I’d also love to fly with Air Kenya’s female 787 captain … just ’cause.

Curious. I’ve flown four flights on United in the past couple of weeks and the WiFi works very well.

You have to connect to the in-flight wifi through the United app, or through “unitedwifi.com”.

Operator error, not a United issue.

Hi, Douglas. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment. I’m pleased to hear you’ve found United equipment that sports WiFi, to-date I’ve never scored a UA bird with IFE. That said, it turns out that *none* of United’s most technologically advanced long-haul 787-8 planes sports WiFi. That said, not operator error as you suggest. Instead FA error in advertising something that simply doesn’t exist. JL Johnson, AirlineReporter

The devil is in the details. The United site you’ve linked to indicates 6 of their 787s have WiFi. It doesn’t specify which variants. It just so happens that United has 6 787-9s in their fleet those I’m told do come WiFi ready. All that aside, the fact remains N27908, the -8 I flew on did not have wifi even though the crew thought it did. While I do appreciate your passion, you are mistaken on the assertion that this was user error. Thanks for reading!

Steve the Flack

Jl,

A great read at the end of a busy week. I flew the UAL 787 PVG to LAX last year and loved every moment in my Economy Plus seat. An aisle bulkhead seat in the 2-3-2 configuration was perfect for the 11.5hr flight. Walked off the plane in LA feeling refreshed and crisp as opposed to the same flight path this week on a cramped AA 777-200 that left me feeling like I went 12 rounds with Tyson.Looking forward to my first A350 flight in the distant future.

One time I flew on a 14 minute flight from Chicago to Milwaukee and they didn’t even serve us water. Needless to say, the flight wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great. I’ll never fly with them again.

Listen to how ridiculous you sound. You flew on a 45 minute flight from SFO-LAX. Get over yourself.

jl johnson

Hi Steven. A 14 minute flight sounds excellent! I’d love an ORD-MKE line on my map.

Understandable that you wouldn’t get a beverage or snack service. In fact I was surprised I got a beverage service on this short 787 flight, a nice perk which I was sure to mention.

That said, your comment seems focused on the duration of the flight. I’m sorry but I don’t understand what the flight time has to do with any of the service gaps I discussed. In fact, none of the items I list would have been any different whether it was a 14 minute, 45 minute or even a 12 hour flight.

Thanks for reading, for the comment and for the idea of looking into the possibility of an ORD-MKE fight.

JL Johnson- AirlineReporter

I, in a soon to be published, article flew from Quito Ecuador to their largest city Guayaquil. The flight time was 35 minutes. I was in economy class- but was still given a drink service and a muffin.

I don’t see what there is to get over regarding anyone’s self here.

Ah yes, but I think I hold the record for shortest UA 787 flight ever – HND-NRT. 37 miles, and 10 minutes (there was a divert involved). And no, they did not serve drinks.

FWIW, I flew on the 787 in First last fall DEN-IAH and thoroughly enjoyed my flight, and my toddler loved the lie-flat seats and IFE. I agree the USB is in a weird place, I kinda liked that behind the head storage space though (we used it for sippy cups).

I understand that there was a technological or supply hurdle to getting the 787s WiFi equipped initially so only the newer ones have wifi at the moment. Blaine might have a better idea of the how the wifi works, he just flew on the newest 789 in the fleet.

Fumbletrumpet

Interesting article, thanks. Been wanting to ride in an ‘8’ for a while and as a sometime United customer crossing the Atlantic, I hope to soon (although I’ll most likely be in cattle).

Your comments about seats are interesting. I’ve done the 7 to 8 hour crossing in nearly new A330s (Virgin) and I experience excutiating backache by hour 3. Same experience on A340s. But the seat on a 15 year old (or thereabouts) United 757 suits me very well and I sleep like a baby. Seat comfort is a very personal thing and the spec and quality will vary depending on re-fit (and not necessarily ‘plane maker, as I tend to conclude) but anecdotally I tend to feel it’s Boeing good/Airbus bad. But that could just be that I’ve got a Boeing shaped butt. It is disappointing though to perhaps conclude that it’s not a fit or maker thing, but that it’s a cosy saving thing and that the quality of seats is declining gradually, fit-out by fit-out. Also I’m getting older and less tolerant maybe !

Bouncing Bawa

I would love to fly the new 787. Thankfully Air India has quite a few in their fleet. I must admit though, that given a choice of aircraft I will always fly the 747. If only coz its the fastest passenger plane out there.

That’s Australia.

Rand Cooley

I haven’t flown UA in years it was good the last time I flew on it but the consensus is what you experienced. There is no way I would fly UA. I’ve read a lot of horror stories lately about them and I’ll go elsewhere. As an aside I always enjoy reading stories like yours as all info is helpful! Thx for sharing

jl johnson

Rand, thanks for reading as well as taking the time to leave a comment. It’s good to hear you found the piece informative. Stay tuned for additional parts of airline sampler coming shortly.

Cheers!

JL | AirlineReporter

emeka okereke

i flew united a few times from houston to lagos and the same problem exist.some of the hostesses are rude and just dont treat the passengers right.The dinners are always finished and they just drop what they have left without trying to explain that they are out.

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