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.
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.