Superlatives abounded on this, the inaugural non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Singapore. It’s billed as the third-longest direct flight in the world and the longest to originate from the United States.
The flight takes 17 hours, five minutes to cover the 8,772 miles between Los Angeles and Singapore. Favorable headwinds shaved an hour off our flight time, but, still. It’s an awfully long time to be in the air.
At the departure gate, United set up a small stage for the pre-flight program, along with a catered buffet for passengers. There were dignitaries aplenty, ranging from the Singaporean ambassador to the U.S. to numerous United executives and trade-council members.
International trade relations aside, the whole point of the exercise was to learn firsthand what it would be like to spend 17 hours on a plane, albeit in United’s Polaris business class on a relatively new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner.
I did not spend much time in the airport lounges at LAX or Changi, only popping in long enough to grab a snack on my way to the gate, so we’ll save those for a future review.
OK, so on to the part you’re probably waiting for: what was the flight actually like?
It was great, as one might expect it to be, especially as it was an inaugural flight packed with United brass, dignitaries, and the press. I didn’t fly back with the press group, though, as I needed to return a day sooner, so my return was routed through San Francisco, which is a slightly shorter flight at 8,448 miles and 14 hours, 40 minutes flying time. It also provided an opportunity to travel on an ordinary flight; basically, I would have a benchmark.
And, yes, before we begin, I know this is United’s current Polaris product. As to when the updated seats might appear on the 787s, Maddie King of United’s corporate communications department said, “We are still reviewing and haven’t made any announcements on this.”
So, with that out of the way, here we go.
The seats are quite comfortable, and I liked the window seat a lot, although the design makes night-time restroom excursions something of a predicament as you have to step over your seatmate to get to the aisle.
A surprising disappointment came in the form of the USB power port not having enough amperage to charge my iPad this was really surprising considering that the plane we were on was less than 18 months old, and high-draw devices have been around for much longer. Even Alaska Airlines’ economy seats have USB ports that push 5 amps and can charge my iPad. A 120v USB adapter from my computer bag solved the problem, but I wasn’t able to charge my iPad and my laptop at the same time, as there was only one 120v outlet. I also tried plugging in the laptop and charging the iPad via one of its USB ports, but that got a bit unwieldy. Still, I was able to soldier on.
The dining options were solid. The salads were fresh and flavorful; same with the seafood and the main course. The weak link, so to speak, was the breakfast – it tasted fine but everything was a bit rubbery. I loved the matar methi paneer for the main course – the flavors were distinct and, same as with the other food save breakfast, it all tasted surprisingly fresh.
I don’t drink, so I’ve got nothing to tell you about the wine or alcohol selections. They did have a seemingly endless supply of sparkling water, which is my favorite traveling beverage, so I was quite happy.
So, with dinner out of the way, what next? How to pass the 15 or so remaining hours?
The IFE system looked good, but I’m not much into movies, so the only time I used it was when I wanted to check the progress maps. I’m more of a BYOD (bring your own device) kind of person, hence my being a bit freaked out that the in-seat USB port didn’t provide enough amperage to charge my iPad.
I read a lot, played a few games, and talked to my seatmate and some of the United folks who were walking around.
Oh and there were pajamas, but you had to know to go ask for them. And I loved them. One of the United vice presidents had changed into his even before we left the gate – he apparently liked them a lot, too. I wore them for pretty much the entire flight. And, contrary to the numerous blog posts and chat threads about the procedure, changing into them in the lavatory was a piece of cake.
This being an inaugural flight, people seemed chattier than usual, so I was able to enjoy several pleasant conversations with fellow travelers, with topics ranging from past flight experiences to dragon boat racing. That took care of another hour or so.
When I eventually tired of playing games, er, I mean reading, on my iPad, it was time to try for some sleep. I found the lie-flat bed to be a bit lumpy as I’d forgotten to ask for a mattress pad, but it didn’t keep me from sleeping for nearly seven hours, which is a record for me on a plane.
Those seven hours weren’t uninterrupted, though.
My elbow kept bumping the IFE remote, which is cradled low and close to the base of the seat. Elbowing the switch turned on the large and very bright video screen, which woke me up every time it happened.
By the time it occurred to my groggy self to simply pull the wired remote out of its cradle and set it on the floor, it was time to get up for breakfast anyway. At least I had a plan for dealing with it on the return flight.
On both the outbound and return flights, the wifi was terrible, as in, 1990s AOL dial-up terrible, so slow as to be mostly unusable. I applied for, and received, a refund of the fees once I got home.
It still feels like a big tease, this whole in-flight wifi thing. I don’t expect the speed of a fiber-optic connection at 40,000 feet over the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but I do expect to be able to at least access a text-only email, which, for the majority of the flight, wasn’t possible.
I don’t necessarily fault the airline for this, as the underlying tech is provided by third-party vendors, but I do wish airlines wouldn’t promote in-flight wifi as if it were something that actually worked consistently and reliably.
Speaking of money, though, the $30 fee for wifi for the duration of a 17-hour flight seemed a reasonable price (assuming that it had actually worked, of course), especially considering that I’ve seen fees as high as $39 for a comparatively short five-hour transcontinental run.
On both flights, the cabin crews were genuinely delightful. With the inaugural, you’d expect everyone to be on their best behavior, but on the return flight to SFO, the service was every bit as good.
About halfway through that flight, I got a bit hungry, so I gingerly stepped over my seatmate into the aisle to go forage in the galley. There wasn’t much out yet other than some chocolate, and I was tired of sweets, so I just turned around and headed back to my seat. As I did that, a flight attendant noticed I was leaving empty handed, and asked if I wanted a grilled cheese sandwich. I probably lit up like a 10-year-old kid at the thought, as she just smiled, said something about comfort food always being a hit, and sent me off to my seat. A short while later, I had a lovely hot sandwich and a nice bowl of tomato soup.
Upon landing at Singapore’s Changi Airport, there was an announcement on the plane’s PA, followed by a smattering of applause. “We have just completed the longest flight in United history.”
That announcement was immediately followed by the longest airport immigration line in my travel history – we stood in line for more than an hour to get our passports stamped and then go out and find our luggage, which by then had all been removed from the carousel and stacked alongside.
All in all, both ultra-long haul flights were quite pleasant. Other than some quibbles, such as a seat design that begs improvement, offering a realistic amperage for the USB outlets, and perhaps finding a better location for that IFE remote, it was a comfortable journey and I arrived refreshed rather than sleep-deprived and frazzled.
Disclaimer: United Airlines invited the media as guests on both flights and covered our accommodations in Singapore. Our opinions remain our own.