United’s daily service from Los Angeles (LAX) to Melbourne (MEL), Australia is the world’s longest Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight. The long flight (UA98 is scheduled for 15 hours, 50 minutes) allowed me to not only put the 787-9 to the test, but also United’s Economy Plus product.
Flights from LAX to Melbourne take off in the late evening and arrive in the early morning, so the outbound flight is quite easy to sleep on, assuming you aren’t contemplating the remoteness of the vast Pacific Ocean. The routing typically takes the aircraft out on runway 25R, and after an eternity over open water, high above Kiribati, American Samoa, and Fiji, before crossing the Tasman Sea, leaving less than an hour of flying time over land.
As you enjoy your breakfast, you can gaze out on a sunrise over the Australian Alps and observe the Dreamliner’s wings, which are nearly free of fuel, in their most upward-bent shape. I was excited for the flight, but not sure if United could come through during such a long trip.
UNITED 787: Economy Plus Subscription Service
The extra legroom provided in Economy Plus is a godsend when traveling on long-haul flights. The difference on the 787-9 is an extra 3” of seat pitch (35 vs. 32-inches) and 1 extra degree of recline (4 vs. 3). With low-level silver elite status in United’s frequent flyer program, you can usually upgrade your seat during check-in 24 hours before departure, but on popular flights you can’t bet on getting a window seat, or an upgrade at all.
The annual Economy Plus Subscription Service (Domestic $499 / Global $699) allows you to pick an Economy Plus seat at time of ticket purchase on United flights, even when using award miles for travel (I traded in 80,000 miles plus $100 to fly round-trip). However, when you have silver status or higher and choose to buy this service, you have to get over the idea of paying United for a seat upgrade you’ll very likely get anyway on less popular flights. If you have no status and have started to fly United regularly, it’s a pretty good deal; on subsequent domestic flights, I’ve found getting to book my Economy Plus seat ahead of time is nice.
Another benefit of sitting in the Economy Plus section on the Dreamliner is that you’re on the wing, which not only gets you an impressive view of the distinctive flexing airfoil, but it also absorbs the turbulence a little better since you’re sitting closer to the center of the aircraft.
UNITED 787: Mobile App
It merits mentioning that United has done some nice work on their mobile app. In this age of agile software development with rapid release-cycles it’s hard to build a perfect app, but in my years of using United’s app on the iPhone and iPad it has always worked well for me.
The app has always recognized my status and even had the Economy Plus Subscription Service feature activated almost as soon as I had paid for it. That’s the sign of a well integrated product team. The only “bug” that I’ve found so far is that on my return flight from Australia, the app listed my connecting flight to SFO ahead of my 787 flight because, due to our flying over the International Date Line, the second leg of my flight departed before my first leg in local time.
UNITED 787: The food + service
The cabin crew on this Dreamliner flight was great. It was Halloween, and the ex-Continental crew had candy and were in good spirits. They even had a little fun on the PA system before the first passengers boarded. You’ll typically find ex-Continental crew working these expanding Dreamliner routes, as flight attendant contract negotiations have stalled, and ex-United and ex-Continental crews remain on separate contracts. Until a new contract has been negotiated, the separate cabin crews fly on their own respective aircraft.
After departure, the cabin crew served dinner, which was soon followed by a surprising cheese and cracker dessert with caramel gelato. I’m not sure that’s a pairing I would have invented. The flight attendants were very attentive during the flight, yet worked hard to keep the interruptions to a minimum since most people were trying to catch some sleep.
Somewhere over the Tasman Sea, as the morning sun had finally starting lighting up the cabin, the crew began serving breakfast. The scrambled eggs and potatoes did more to help me adjust to the time-zone than it did to help my appetite. I think on such long-haul flights the airlines might be better off serving cold foods more resistant to being stored for a long time.
UNITED 787: The Windows
In May of 2014, I got to play with the window dimmers on my first Dreamliner flight (Norwegian Long Haul’s inaugural 787-8 flight from Oakland to Stockholm). A year later, it’s still fun to play with these buttons. Depending on where you sit, two windows might be slaved together. It’s hard to capture the effect with photographs.
Anyone sitting in the middle of the aircraft will appreciate still being able to see outside the large windows, even when they are dimmed. One unfortunate aspect of this new technology is that the window dimming can be overridden by the crew, so on my return flight to LAX the shades were no-longer “passenger-controlled.”
The sun is something I didn’t see much on the night flight out of LAX. The Dreamliner raced the sun, but it finally lost before landing.
UNITED 787: Earplugs and Noise-canceling headsets
In addition to entertaining my silly questions, the cabin crew gave me a leftover BusinessFirst travel kit. This is a nice accessory for the business class traveler. I availed myself to the eye mask and earplugs. One suggestion would be to upgrade their earplugs to the 3M kind – they’re more comfortable and work far better. Sometimes it is just the little things, you know?
As a general aviation pilot, I am acutely aware of the noise generated by aircraft and the potential long-term damage this can cause to hearing. On this flight I brought along my own noise-canceling headset. They are, of course, meant for pilots flying propeller-driven piston aircraft, so I’m not sure if their active noise-canceling technology attenuates the correct frequencies for a flight on a jetliner, but I’m a convert and will be buying one of the typical $300 headsets for future passenger flights.
UNITED 787: In flight entertainment
Each Economy and Economy Plus Dreamliner seat is equipped with a personal entertainment system for watching movies, listening to music, and navigating the flight map and information pages. The touchscreen-driven interface is built into the seat-backs on all non-exit rows. The selection of movies and music was good, with a number of films that have fairly recently been running in theaters. All in all, it’s a fine system, but unfortunately one that easily gets trumped by the larger screen-size, better content-selection, and cool aircraft video cameras on Emirates’ A380 entertainment system.
Each seat-back has a USB plug, there are power-plugs in each row, and the aircraft is equipped with WiFi (the December 2015 United Hemispheres Magazine states 56% completion across the 787 fleet to be done in early 2016), which worked fine on the flight to Melbourne.
The Dreamliners don’t yet have the personal device entertainment service for personal devices that United has started rolling-out to their other aircraft.
Over the past year, I’ve tested out United’s personal device entertainment on other aircraft types, and I now really miss it on flights where it’s not available. You’re able to see the same movies that might be available on a seat-back screen and use the intuitive touch-screen interface on the iPad—this service can’t come to the Dreamliners fast enough. I believe that if the same software team that’s been doing such excellent work on the United mobile app applies their trade to the future of personal device entertainment, it could quickly outshine even the A380’s system.
UNITED 787: Arrival & customs
Early morning arrivals are usually devoid of any great drama, and so it was that our brand new Dreamliner touched down gently in Melbourne after having consumed nearly 184,000 lbs of fuel. Captain Terry let me take a final peek into the flight deck and experience the heads up display, and I was quite impressed. Very different than the aircraft I am used to flying.
As you enter Tullamarine Airport – here’s a tip for getting through Customs quickly. As soon as you get off the aircraft, go to the nearest immigration computer terminal. There are one or two that most passengers walk right past and then they end up standing in very long lines closer to the checkpoint.
UNITED 787: My return to LAX
A few weeks later, it was time to leave Australia and head back to the United States, flying on UA99. The return-flight was uneventful, but did have a beautiful sweeping approach into LAX. For the AvGeek, however, Melbourne’s international terminal is a real treat. With large windows not far from the runways and other gates, you can see a host of interesting aircraft.
Eye candy at Melbourne included Boeing 777s from Singapore Airlines and Air New Zealand, a Qantas Airbus A380 (also heading to LAX), Airbus A330s from China Southern, Shanghai Airlines, and China Airlines, and Dreamliners from JetStar, Royal Brunei and, of course, United Airlines.
UNITED 787: Final thoughts
Coincidentally, when I was 747 miles from Tullamarine, I noticed that we were expected to touch down at 7:47 am. A little symbolism, but not entirely inappropriate. No airliner can ever replace the iconic jumbo, nor do the 787 and A350 carry as many passengers. But as these composite aircraft begin to open up economical, non-stop routes to cities that were once the domain of the Boeing 747SP via hub transfers, the Dreamliners may well become a passenger favorite for long-haul routes.
They seem quieter, have better pressurization, more humidity, and have LED mood-lighting to help the transition through time-zones.
This story was written by Hans Cathcart for AirlineReporter. Hans is a lifelong AvGeek, general aviation pilot, technology professional, and amateur journalist. He lives in Sonoma County, California and flies as often as he can.