United Airlines' first 787-8 at Paine Field in Everett - Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter

United Airlines’ first 787 at Paine Field – Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter

THIS is the route that the Boeing 787 Dreamliner was built for.  Flying between Tokyo and Denver, you need a special kind of aircraft.  Something that is super-efficient, able to deal with Denver’s high altitude and summer heat, and right-sized for the market.  The 787-8 checks all of those boxes.

Luckily, the 787 has the legs for some wonky routings from Denver due to winds - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Luckily, the 787 has the legs for some wonky routings from Denver due to winds – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Recently, I planned a trip with friend (and fellow Denver-based AirlineReporter writer), Dave Delagarza.  Our wives were not thrilled to care for the young kids during the trip, but we’d be gone for less than 72 hours.  In that period of time, we flew nearly 20,000 miles to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and back, all on 787-8s (of both the United and ANA variety).  This helped us both re-qualify for our elite status levels with United, our dominant carrier here in Denver.

$2800?

$2300 to upgrade?  Too rich for my blood! – Image: United.com

I had to laugh when checking in for our flight from Denver to Tokyo. As we were booked in economy, I got an upgrade offer (above).  $2279 to upgrade our 12-hour flight seemed a little steep. At $190/hr, I figured I could survive with free beer and views of the Dreamliner’s wing.  (Side note: United needs get their IT sorted out – showing an image of a domestic first seat while asking for a four-figure upgrade?)

United 787 E+ legroom

Generous legroom in United Economy Plus – I’m 6’1″ – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

We had a great flight out from Denver to Tokyo, albeit in United’s “Economy Plus” cabin (regular economy, plus a extra few inches of legroom – a big bonus, given the fact that Dave and I are both over six feet tall).  We spent a lot of time out of our seats talking with the crew, including chatting with a very excited new flight attendant working her first international trip.  She had been on reserve, waiting to find out where she was flying that day – Newark? Detroit? TOKYO?!? Ok!  It was really fun to see her genuine excitement; her attitude and service approach were refreshing. This excitement and motivation will do very well with the new United.

United Economy service, with ice cream dessert and bottled water - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

United Economy Class service, with ice cream and bottled water – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

A few years ago, United eliminated free beer and wine in long-haul economy as a cost-cutting measure, but they’ve since reversed course, as well as upped their offerings for food.  It really showed – United served a great meal in economy, including ice cream!  Their on-board service has improved a lot, supported by the fact that United’s long-haul in-flight entertainment (IFE) system is top-notch, with a wide variety of movies and shows to choose from.  It was a pretty easy flight, despite being around 12 hours and completely full.

BusinessFirst seat on the United 787-8 – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlinerReporter

The real fun came on the return flight from Tokyo.  Based upon the interest in my review last year of “Global First” on the 747, United offered to upgrade my paid economy class ticket to BusinessFirst for the purpose of a review.  I wasn’t disappointed.  Dave (who was stuck in economy) may have been, though. Note from Dave: At least I got a whole Economy Plus row to myself – sort of a poor man’s flatbed seat.

It’s sort of comical boarding a United long-haul flight in a premium cabin.  I experienced the same thing when flying in first on the 747-400; I had to board with all of the Group 1 folks, which includes premium cabin, upper-tier elites, Global Services, etc.  On my 787-8, which holds 219 passengers, at least 40 people were boarding in Group 1. That didn’t feel very premium.

A very nice amenity kit from United - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

A very nice Cowshed amenity kit from United, along with the menu – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Once I arrived at my seat, I found a nice blanket and pillow, along with a high-quality leather amenity kit from luxury brand Cowshed.  This is a new upgrade for United’s premium cabins, and much nicer than the previous offerings.  My only complaint was that it was handed out still wrapped in cellophane.

Cool socks in the amenity kit, along with Champagne service - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Cool socks in the amenity kit, along with Champagne service – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

As I was exploring the amenity kit (cool socks!) I was offered a glass of Champagne.  I can’t tell you what exactly it was, because United’s BusinessFirst menus no longer list any of the wines on offer; it only describes the type of wines.  A chief complaint of mine from the Global First 747 flight was that they listed a ton of wines, but only catered a few of them.  So now, they just don’t list the wines.  That said, I found the crew very knowledgeable about the vino they were serving.  I just like having the menu listings so I can contemplate my choices.

My IFE was stuck in a language I didn't know - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

My IFE was stuck in a language I didn’t know – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

As I was getting settled, I realized that my IFE was in a language that not only couldn’t I speak, but I didn’t even know WHAT language it was.  The flight attendant was just as befuddled.  Luckily, my seat mate said “yep, Thai can be tough” and we used his screen to walk through finding the language setting.  Kudos to United for having so many options, I suppose.

Given that we were departing Tokyo at around 5:00 pm local time, soon after takeoff it was time for the dinner service.  Serving my side of the aisle was the purser, Raja.  He was just absolutely fantastic –  personable, warm, and he seemed to be dedicated to making the dinner service something special.

Appetizer service in United’s BusinessFirst cabin – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Dinner was really nice.  It was at least five courses, if you don’t count the ramekin of warm mixed nuts served to start. The appetizer course was a tasty duck breast with pepper jelly and a piece of California roll.  It was followed with a delicious salad, served from a cart with a variety of toppings and dressings, where Raja made it to order.  I was impressed with that personal touch.  A selection of five wines were offered at each pass, with recommendations depending on the course.

Main course was served with delicious garlic bread (upper left, already devoured) – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

I had three options for the main course, but chose the steak with red wine sauce, roasted potatoes, and green beans.  The steak was cooked perfectly (medium rare, as I prefer) and the veggies were great. The big disappointment was the sauce – it was really lacking in flavor.  I had to use salt and pepper liberally.

Throughout the dinner service, I had been catching up on grown-up movies.  With two kids under five at home, planes are my chance to watch movies I never have the chance to see at home.  United’s extensive selection of new movies, along with TV shows, made it tough to choose what all I wanted to watch.  It passed the time easily, just like in economy but with a much bigger screen.

Cheese, fruit, and Port cart service - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Cheese, fruit, and Porto cart service – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Next came the cheese course, which was beautifully presented on a cart with Port wine, fruit, crackers, and a variety of cheeses.  I recently saw a review of one of United’s competitors in long-haul business, where the crackers during the cheese course were served in little packages.  This was way classier.  The cheeses were quite nice too.

Finally, it was time for dessert.  I was pretty full from the big meal, and was also starting to hit the wall – we had left our hotel in Kuala Lumpur about 16 hours earlier, after a short night’s sleep. I considered some Scotch as a nightcap, but then remembered United only serves Dewar’s White Label, from those tiny plastic bottles, in their premium cabins.  My earlier ANA regional business class flight served Hibiki 17-Year Whiskey, which runs about $150 a bottle.  ‘Nuff said.  As my neighbors were indulging in a giant ice cream sundae with their choice of toppings, I decided to get some sleep.

Nice touch - the IFE handset displays the flight number and time-to-arrival - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Nice touch – the IFE handset displays the flight number and time-to-arrival – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

The seat was awesome.  It lies fully-flat, as do all United business and international first seats.  Unlike our flights on ANA, where the cabin temperature was set in such a way that only my wife would be comfortable, United’s cabin was nice and frosty.  I changed in to some airline pajama pants (not United; they don’t offer them), curled up under the thick blanket provided, and got six solid hours of sleep.  At the end of the day, THAT is the single biggest reason why business travelers fly business class (or, why their companies pay).  United’s BusinessFirst product is perfectly conducive to that. For what it’s worth, Dave, with his own row in Economy Plus, got more sleep than me. Note from Dave: I’ll admit that I may have had some help from the now-complimentary drinks in economy.

Time to get ready for landing in Denver - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Breakfast time – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

I set my alarm so I’d wake up before the breakfast service began.  I can’t stand being woken up by the flight attendant shaking my arm at the start of the service, immediately asking me “coffee or orange juice, sir” while I’m so out of it that all I can say is “mommy?” I’m glad I woke up “early” to get adjusted back to Denver time, but breakfast was pretty weak.  Eggs just don’t work after eight hours in flight, I guess, and the pastries were disappointing and soggy.  I wish I’d gotten the cereal option. Note from Dave: Meanwhile, back in economy, I was enjoying a baked penne pasta breakfast.  It was quite tasty.  I’d also had been given the option of an egg entree – no thanks, I’ve had that breakfast before and do not want to repeat that experience.  

United's Business First offers a fold flat bed.

United’s BusinessFirst lie-flat bed

Ultimately, my long-haul experience with United’s BusinessFirst product was really good.  I’ve heard it said, jokingly, that United Global First is just “BusinessFirst with a soup course.”  I don’t know if I’d say that, given that I really enjoyed the dedicated lounge for United Global First, as well as the more spacious hard product, but my experience on the 787 featured a comfortable seat/bed, a nice dinner, great service, and top-notch IFE. I’m not sure what else I could ask for.

Note: I had paid for tickets in economy for this trip; United offered to upgrade me one-way to BusinessFirst for the purpose of reviewing it for AirlineReporter.  Opinions are my own. 

MANAGING EDITOR - DENVER, CO. Due to his family being split on opposite sides of the country, Blaine traveled frequently as a child, falling in love with the flying experience, and has continued to travel ever since. For AirlineReporter, Blaine edits all content before publishing, assists in story and concept development, and takes every chance he gets to produce original content for the site. When Blaine’s not busy planning his next travel adventure, he spends his time working as a college administrator. If he can’t be on an airplane, he’d prefer to be on a bicycle or playing with his two toddlers with his wife. Email: [email protected].

Flying First Class on a British Airways 787-9 Dreamliner
25 Comments
Lance Ross

When Continental rolled out BusinessFirst, it was a gamble. The many skeptics, and some other carriers, pooh- poohed the concept. But it worked and was eventually copied by carriers that replaced international F with J. I covered the first phase of it as an aviation reporter more than 20 years ago. A full F/J international cabin often pays for the flight, with Y/K gravy. When Gordon Bethune stuck with BusinessFirst, it was a smart move. So was UAL’s Y-Plus. And with all of the post-merger CO/ UA snags, BusinessFirst will be remembered as a smart move for the airline, profitability & passenger satisfaction.

JL Johnson

I’m laughing at your Thai IFE encounter. I had the same only Japanese on my 789 recently. Good to see they are stepping up their game. Particularly exciting to read they are infusing new, excited, and passionate blood into the company as I’ve witnessed a lot of cultural “us vs. them” attitude with the legacies. The focus needs to be less on “us vs. them” and more on caring for the pax.

Fun read. Hoping for a recap on ANA as well.

JLJ

GREAT REVIEW — I AM EXTREMELY JEALOUS!!!

I think the most interesting thing was the 123mph tailwind that gave them a 696mph ground speed.

Henry Monroe

I read your review, and while I can say nothing of the fact that you enjoyed it as your opinions are your own; it reads a bit as if it was your first time flying on any airplane. Unfortunately, as a long-time, and loyal reader of this site we all know this is not the case.

While I understand that the Munoz/Hart era of United is not all about bizarre changes you might like and more customer choice that made your first class experience so seemingly sub-par (because it still is just business with a soup course). Come on! This is not even “high-end” or “class-leading” amongst North American carriers. Compare it to all of United’s Star Alliance partners and, other than Lufthansa, it’s close to fifteen years behind in terms of concept. That, however, is hard product alone.

There is something inherently flawed with a seat design where the middle seats are somehow more premium than the window seats. “BusinessFirst” feels like a concept created out of obligation and lack of planning. “Well, we can’t offer a first- but we have to offer something ‘flat’ to please our JV partners Just like Lufthansa!

Let’s look at the soft product. It is not, I repeat, not acceptable to serve cheap sparkling wine in a plastic cup- especially on a branded coaster that looks like it cost more than the cup and the “champagne” put together! It’s not even acceptable to offer such a thing for a premium economy product. It shows an utter contempt for the crew and the passengers. Other than that lucky woman who has yet to burn out on her first long haul- how can you show any passion for your job when you are not given the tools to create! The sushi roll in what most airlines these days would consider an amuse bouche looks like something from a nightmare in a manga book, and then there’s just some random duck next to it. There is no love, there is no passion- there is nothing in your display of cuisine that says “my United flight will be an amazing and premium experience!” Unlike all of my United flights (when I lived in the Bay Area, I was a long time GS) I am happy to see they actually managed to cook your steak correctly, but again- this doesn’t read like an honest review.

I understand where you are coming from, I have a family, flying (read drinking jack and cokes) was an extremely amazing way for me to relax when my kids were under ten. Even the witticisms of the old Nickeldeon cartoons would fray my nerves. That was in the era before lie flat seats and IFE sadly. If all you want out of a flight is to watch movies where “Daddy, that bad man said the S word” and drink average whiskies- United is totally the airline for you! I totally understand the appeal, and man if we had seat back screens back in the day my wife and I would’ve left the kids with grandma a lot more! My point, however, is that having been an avid reader of this blog since near its inception is that, Blaine, you’ve had way better flights and seemed way less excited. Some of those flights were also either complimentary upgrades from the airline or outright complimentary.

Thing is, AirlineReporter is AirlineReporter. As much as some of your still-SFO based contingent of readers seem to want this to be the case, you are not UnitedLoversReporter. This read like an ad and I can’t put my finger on why.

Blaine Nickeson

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Henry. I’m sorry you get an “ad-like” vibe from my review, as I fairly criticized a number of things when warranted. For AirlineReporter as a whole, our last United flight review was very critical (http://www.airlinereporter.com/2015/04/airline-sampler-part-2-flying-1st-class-uniteds-787-8-dreamliner/). That said, overall, I had a good experience and won’t apologize for writing about it.
I’ve flown a number of international carriers in business or first (not comped) and, yes, UA’s soft product isn’t comparable to Lufthansa or ANA. But, from a hard product perspective, give credit where credit is due. UA’s flat-bed seat on the Dreamliner is worlds better than the last time I flew business on LH – in an angle-flat seat (granted, they’re taking steps to retrofit those old configurations).

Thanks for reading!

Read your article as I’m researching a new trip Denver to Thailand with visits to surrounding countries. I have looked at the Denver – Toyko route via United’s 787, then to Bangkok via ANA via 787. The two configurations seem to be worlds apart. I flew first to Bangkok last year via Delta, return on Korean Air. Both legs required that I route through LA. I decided about 2 years ago that I would only fly business or first while travelling (all I’m doing is saving for my son’s inheritance) and I have a travel agent that eventually will book my flights – I now just give the route info and seat selection and he gets it done. I’ve also flown on Lufhtansa and it’s first and business class is in the “class” of Delta’s (at least the flight I was on), Korean Air and what is shown as ANA airlines configuration. I do however for Denver to Bangkok see one primary advantage – and that’s the single stop, which shaves as I see it as a minimum of 8 hours on the outbound and inbound flights – in my view the equivalent of one day, which means one more day on the ground. Hopefully will book my September flight trip today – 3.5 weeks in Asia.

Problems of privilege.

Super-efficient, able to deal with Denver’s high altitude and summer heat, and right-sized for the market. Considering those think Boing make reliable decission. For many more update and information about aviation engineering and basic of all engineering. Just visit http://goo.gl/utDdhL

Super-efficient, able to deal with Denver’s high altitude and summer heat, and right-sized for the market after considering those think Boing make reliable decition. For many more information about aviotion and other engineering basic visit this link…http://goo.gl/utDdhL

Wait a minute. The V max of a 787 is 593mph and that screen shows 696mph. How can you be flying at nearly the speed of sound?????!!!!!! Isn’t that way above the safe limit??

I think the speed of sound might be 2000 miles per hour.

Is a leather amenity kit the best choice for an international airlines? I would love to have one but I’m guessing that passengers to India might have a difficult time taking one and could very well be insulted by it.

Besides that, wow what a great trip and thanks for the article.

Blaine Nickeson

That’s a great question, Duane. I’ve reached out to United’s PR staff for an answer to that question.

One other quick thing. What about the windows? How were the electric shades? Dark enough? Are you a fan? I’ve read pros and cons on the windows, what’s your opinion, you must have been flying at night for you with daylight outside on that trip.

Blaine Nickeson

No, I don’t think they get quite dark enough. That said, when I sleep on a plane, I always wear an eye mask anyway.

It is a shame that United can’t up their game on their SFO-HKG flight. They are still no individual IFE’s on that flight which might be ok if there was seat power…..ugh. What also makes it rough is they have Asiana who do the same route but via ICN and sometimes cheaper with much better service. Which is why I fly it every time!

Blaine Nickeson

You should give United another try. All their 747’s (which fly SFO-HKG) now have power at each seat, streaming entertainment, and wifi.

I fly on United a lot and as of Feb 22nd have competed multiple international flights in business first.

The United Airlines media protest how specialist chats work to prepare restaurant quality menus.

I just paid over USD 5,000 for a one-way BF ticket from Singapore to New York. I connected in Tokyo and was upgraded to Global first for one segment, the other in BF.

Like many ,many other passengers I like a desert with my mean but I do not like and cannot eat ice cream. I am not alone and have sat with many BF passengers who complain bitterly that scream is the only desert option. For 5,000 I shod be given a dessert option I can eat, as shovel the passenger. There are no options in either Global or Business First.

My other issue is that I have now been told twice that I cannot have green tea in BF or GF because they were removed form the planes for cost savings. I fly India routes very frequently where a lot of people want green tea. Sometimes paying over 7,000 for a ticket UA will not pay a few cents for a sachet of green tea.

I have purchased Global First tickets on occasion as well, same issue.

In a few weeks I will take flight in UA BF on their longest route from EWR-HKG, I will again be unable to eat any dessert with my meal. That’s OK but please don’t try and market my ticket to me as including “restaurant quality food”!

I understand that UA do not even attempt to compete with Asian carriers on food but don’t describe the menu as carefully “chef selected” when it involves two scoops of ice-cream that could easily be purchased at a higher quality i the local supermarket. How may chefs does it take to “design” two scoops of ice-cream and offer no alternatives whatsoever for passengers who cannot eat that. The domestic first class desserts are better, so what gives?

Also, no green tea bags for Global First and Business First passengers in markets where green tea consumption is extremely high. Really?

The soft product on United for premium cabins is weak, at best. I flew Lufthansa business class to Frankfurt and was treated by young, attractive and attentive F/As. United provides senior, often old and cranky F/As. The food is much better on LH and the presentation is worlds apart from UA. LH serves by course while UA serve a complete tray of food at one time. The drink cart came three times during the dinner on LH as compared to once with United. LH provides a wide variety of wines and spirits to choose from…UA does not. GF lounges are United Club lounges with a different door. There is very little offered with respect to food and drinks compared to international carriers’ premium lounges. For example, one step in LH FC terminal in Frankfurt and you’ll never compare UA GF lounge to any other international premium class lounge again. Overall, LH is a superior product than UA. I am American and fly domestically a lot, so I am forced to fly UA due to my contract. I generally pay for J/F due to my size and comfort depending on the route. But when travelling international, I generally fly Lufthansa because of their superior service in J/F. I fly a premium cabin because I require the space, lie-flat bed for rest and good service due to the amount of travel I do. But if UA wants me to pay the premium price for international J/F travel, they have to seriously up their game on the soft product and customer service. BTW, UA upgrades far to many people on international flights. I may be an elitist, but it really erks me when I pay thousands of dollars for a premium service and the guy next to me gets a complimentary upgrade for nothing (no up-charge, miles, etc.). You almost never see a “free upgrade” passenger in LH FC. They’ll fly the empty seat to cater to the paying FC passengers, providing an exclusive service instead of a complimentary service. This means something to the passenger paying thousands of dollars instead of hundreds paid in economy.
Let me be clear, their is nothing wrong with passengers in economy; I fly it as well when required. But when one pays for J/F, the airline should provide a premium product. United lacks that true premium experience, especially on international segments.

I’ve been a loyal UA customer (on UA mileage plus program with over 400,000 miles) for nearly 10 years and have been flying UA, until recently when I bought Business class tickets on Cathay Pacific and American on their Asia to US long haul flights (for >30% less than UA’s BusinessFirst prices). And I also used my Star Alliance miles to fly on Singapore Airlines. I’ve heard that Asian and some European airlines are leagues ahead in service, ammenties and seat comfort. Wow, it’s all true. Food on trans-Pacific flight from US mainland to Tokyo is OK (good if you’re into Japanese cuisine – they have Michellin-starred chefs cook their Japanese meals), but when it comes to service and food quality, Cathay and SIA are a league ahead. And UA is lagging AA in seat comfort. My colleague tells me many (or most?) Americans who travel business class are missing out on better service, better food and ammenities by sticking to US airlines.

I agree!

I fly business on UA all the time and head to Hong Kong (via the US) from London this morning.

My person “worst” is the choice of dessert. There is none. If you do not like ice cream the UA simply do not care and will give you nothing at all. Compared to other airlines and the cost of some of the tickets its completely outrageous. Other airlines provide a choice of dessert in ECONOMY, in other words other airlines are SUPERIOR TO UA in Economy than in US Business first.

The other thing is green tea. I have been told several times that green tea bags were taken of UA international business class to save money. Really after paying USD 5,000 for ticket on some routes UA cannot give me a tea bag that costs less that ONE DOLLAR. Again, other airlines offer this in ECONOMY.

The one place where US does well I feel is international upgrades for very frequent flyers as a 1K I get a coupons even 50K miles that will give me upgrades form economy to Business First.

On this flight, do you feel the middle seats in BusinessFirst are a better value than the window seat? It appears in photos that if you are a solo traveler you may well be trapped in the window for the long-haul if the person in the aisle is occupied by someone in a lie-flat. What was your experience?

Blaine Nickeson

Hi Jen,

I think it depends on what you’re looking for. If you want privacy or the window view, and don’t use the lavatory too often, the window is best.
However, if you’re like me and tend to get up a lot to walk around (or pee), then one of the middle aisle seats is perfect.

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