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United is currently flying a 747 between Chicago and San Francisco each day, giving domestic flyers a great opportunity to try out this long-haul aircraft. Last week, TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig flew the 747 in business and first class to give you an idea of what to expect from an international plane on a domestic route — here is his review.
United is “my” airline, so when I heard that it would be operating a 747 each day on a domestic route, I jumped at the chance to fly this plane (at least) one more time. United also confirmed plans to pull the 747 from its Chicago hub, operating the Queen of the Skies only from San Francisco beginning in 2017. It’s not clear when the plane will disappear entirely from United’s fleet — some reports claim this could happen as soon as 2018, while others suggest we could see the 747 remain through 2022.
As of now, the 747 is scheduled to operate a round-trip between Chicago and San Francisco every day from now through May 4, but there’s always a chance it could remain on the route a bit longer — perhaps even until United pulls the plane from O’Hare next year. Regardless of the confirmed retirement date, however, the 747’s days are numbered, so if you’re looking to take it for a spin, this is a fantastic opportunity to do so.
Booking United’s 747
I decided to book the 747 flight just a few days before departure, so I didn’t get a fantastic deal and there wasn’t any award availability to speak of. The round-trip flight (including LGA-ORD and back) ran me $1,034 booked in economy on the way out and business on the return.
Fortunately, as you can see above, my upgrades cleared for all four segments. I applied a Regional Premier Upgrade for the outbound flight, given that there were fewer than 9 business-class seats for sale when I booked. That upgrade cleared a couple days before departure. The first upgrade to clear was for the return flight booked in business class, however — on a three-cabin aircraft operating a domestic flight, United will upgrade business-class elites to first class based on availability. My upgrade to first (normally “Global First” on this plane) cleared at the very beginning of the 96-hour window for Premier 1K elites.
As you can expect on such an elite-heavy route, both premium cabins went out completely full on both flights. There were more than 80 people on the business-class upgrade standby list for both of my flights, so if you really want to fly business class (or on the upper deck in particular), I’d recommend applying a regional upgrade certificate instead of waiting for a complimentary upgrade, unless you’re a Global Services member.
If you’re booking more than two weeks in advance, you should be able to snag a round-trip economy flight for $244 on the 747, with business class priced from $642 round-trip and first class available from $930 round-trip. Note that you may need to call United or search on Google Flights if you’re trying to book seats in domestic first class on a three-cabin aircraft (such as this 747), as these may not appear during a search on United’s site.
An Amazing Centurion Lounge Breakfast
I began my journey at the LaGuardia Airport Centurion Lounge, which I can enter for free thanks to my Platinum Card from American Express.
The lounge is located on the second floor before security, so you’ll need to leave with enough time to clear security — fortunately this only took a couple minutes, thanks to TSA PreCheck.
The LGA Centurion Lounge is known for being a bit too popular, meaning it can often be difficult to find open seating. However on this visit there were only about 20 other people in the lounge, so there was plenty of space to stretch out.
One of the Centurion Lounge perks is access to a free (and generally FANTASTIC) buffet. I had the frittata with chicken sausage, along with a poached egg and banana bread with orange juice. Everything was excellent.
After a few minutes in the lounge, I headed down to my gate, where boarding was a bit delayed. I had originally been booked on a slightly later flight to Chicago, but that aircraft was delayed leaving Houston and I didn’t want to risk missing the 747, so I asked United to move me to the 11am flight, instead. Fortunately the agent was able to maintain my upgrade, since I had applied a certificate to the reservation and there was “R” space available on the new flight.
I headed to gate C18 after a couple of hours in the very crowded United Club, which I accessed thanks to my United MileagePlus Club Card (unfortunately domestic passengers don’t get access otherwise, even if flying in three-cabin first, with the exception of BusinessFirst passengers on p.s. routes).
We boarded from a gate that’s typically used for international 747 flights, but the boarding area was still so crowded that passengers from each of United’s five boarding groups spilled into the main concourse. Plus, our flight was delayed at least 30 minutes — in other words, gate C18 was definitely an area to avoid if you weren’t on this 747 flight.
I managed to snap a few pictures of the economy cabin (before my flight from SFO, actually). Seats are arranged in a 3-4-3 configuration, so there are a LOT of middle seats to get “stuck” with on this plane.
As you can see, United’s 747s don’t have any seat-back entertainment in economy (though they do in business and first). Fortunately, you can stream movies and TV shows to your smartphone, tablet or laptop over the Wi-Fi, when it’s working. Speaking of which, the Wi-Fi wasn’t available at all on the outbound flight (including streaming content), and while streaming worked on the SFO-ORD leg, internet connectivity wasn’t available on that flight, either.
Seriously — United’s 747 economy seats are ancient. If you’re planning to fly economy, I’d avoid the 747 altogether, especially on a long-haul international flight. It’s also worth mentioning that United isn’t terribly efficient about boarding the 747 — while the airline does board through two doors, the process takes far longer than it does on the 737 or A319/A320 that normally operates this flight.
Lower Deck Business Class
Moving on to the “good” stuff…
As you may have noticed in our 777 SFO-SYD review from last year, United has a whopping eight seats in each row of business class on the main deck of its 747-400 and pre-merger United 777-200.
That means you could end up with one of the two middle seats, and they’re just as cozy as they look. Fortunately, there are plenty of paired seats to select as well, but if you’re upgraded at the last minute you may get stuck with a seat in the middle section.
The seats in row 9 and 10 (above) offer the most privacy, as there are no seats in the middle section of those rows. It’s important to note that seats in row 9 face backwards — you may love facing the rear of the plane, but if you’re unsure, it’d be best to grab one of the forward-facing seats.
The most unique feature of the 747 is its small upper deck, which United uses for 20 business-class seats arranged in a 2-2 configuration. If you haven’t been on the upper deck of a 747 before, ask a flight attendant to let you take a peek during the flight or as you deplane — it’s pretty neat!
Upper Deck Business Class
As you might expect from such a small cabin, the upper deck feels a bit like its own plane — it’s cozy, but flying upstairs is definitely a fun experience. Each lie-flat BusinessFirst seat includes a 15-inch monitor, and like on the main deck, there are rear-facing seats here as well. If you want to face forward during the flight, pick a seat in row 12, 14 or 16.
Above are two forward-facing seats in row 14 (14A and 14B). You’ll have the same amount of space regardless of which row you choose.
One advantage of flying on the upper deck is that due to the curvature of the plane it isn’t possible for the seats to be flush against the window. This leaves enough space for a large storage compartment, which you can easily access from the window seat (but not the aisle) throughout the flight.
As I mentioned, seats on the upper deck are arranged in pairs, and there isn’t much privacy. While you should be more than comfortable if traveling with a friend, you’ll probably want to strike up a conversation with a stranger seated next to you at the beginning of the flight, to help ease the awkwardness of sitting so close.
My large Tumi backpack fit in the window storage compartment, with plenty of space to spare.
Unfortunately the foot wells are all quite small on this plane — while the Continental-style bulkhead seats on United’s 757s, most 767s and all pre-merger Continental 777s have extra-wide foot wells, the same does not apply on the 747.
You do get your very own adjustable air vent, however — if you’ve ever flown on an international airline that tends to keep its cabin a bit warm, you know what a relief this can be.
In a sharp contrast to the economy cabin, each business-class seat has a 15-inch touchscreen display, with plenty of new releases and older movies, along with dozens of TV shows to choose from.
There are also side-by-side seat controls — the placement is a bit awkward, since it’s easy for your neighbor to adjust your seat by mistake.
There’s also a handheld remote, but you may be better off tapping the screen to navigate, instead.
Each seat has a universal power outlet and a USB charging port — however the USB port didn’t seem to have power in our row, so you may want to bring an AC adapter if you’re planning to charge your gadgets on the 747.
Finally, there’s a somewhat-awkwardly placed magazine rack located between the seats — it shouldn’t get in the way, but if you’re in a rear-facing seat be sure to make sure it’s properly latched before takeoff!
Business-Class Food and Beverage
When it comes to the catering, this is just a regular domestic ORD-SFO flight. There weren’t any menus, and flight attendants take orders from the front of the cabin (near the cockpit) to the back (the row I was in, unfortunately).
That means pre-departure drinks in plastic cups. My flight attendant was incredibly friendly and seemed genuinely excited to be working the 747. I ordered a glass (or plastic cup) of sparkling wine before departure, while my (also friendly) seatmate asked for orange juice.
After departure, I requested a Moscow mule (one of United’s new offerings), which was served with a small bowl of warmed cashews and almonds.
The main course options were “chicken” or “mushroom ravioli.” I selected the chicken, which turned out to be a surprisingly delicious (if somewhat-soggy) chicken katsu curry. Interestingly, this exact same dish was available on my ORD-LGA flight the next day.
After dinner, the flight attendant came by offering “gelato,” which tasted just like chocolate ice cream. Unlike on p.s. flights, there weren’t any toppings offered here.
Upper Deck Tour
Most of the upper-deck passengers rushed off the plane as soon as we pulled up to the gate, giving me some time to snap some pics of the empty cabin.
I also stopped by the cockpit, where the incredibly friendly first officer offered to take my picture in his seat.
The captain arrived a minute later and was also very friendly, taking a few minutes to chat with me about the 747 and United’s new route.
After visiting the flight deck, I collected my bag and headed downstairs to deplane.
I snapped one more picture of the plane after landing at SFO — we pulled up to a domestic gate at the far end of the terminal.
Visiting the SFO Centurion Lounge
After a decent (but not overwhelmingly excellent) stay at the Hyatt Regency near the airport, I headed back to SFO early in the morning to catch my 8:35am flight back to Chicago.
This time we were departing from the international terminal, which gave me a chance to pass by yet another Centurion Lounge. I once again got in for free thanks to my American Express Platinum card, and even though I was expecting to have breakfast on the flight, I decided to grab a few items in the lounge.
Just like at LGA the day before, the SFO Centurion Lounge wasn’t very crowded. I had my pick of tables and didn’t have to queue up for the buffet.
Breakfast options tend to change from month to month, but last week Amex was offering a frittata, chicken sausage, oatmeal, fresh fruit and orange juice.
Yes, I ate two breakfasts one day last week. I don’t feel great about the extra calories, but I did it for you. The SFO breakfast wasn’t quite as tasty as what I had the day before in New York.
While we came in to a domestic gate, our 747 was relocated to the international departure overnight, giving the nearly 400 passengers enough room to queue up without blocking other travelers in the terminal as we did in Chicago.
We departed from gate 94, but I walked through the terminal to check out some of United’s other 747s, including this bird parked at gate 100 a few feet away.
First-Class Cabin and Seat
For this flight, I booked business class (“P” class) and received a complimentary upgrade to first four days before departure.
While not exactly competitive, United’s first-class (or “Global First”) 747 cabin provides a bit more privacy, with four single seats on each side of the plane’s nose and two pairs of seats in the middle.
United fits a whopping 12 first-class seats in the nose — by comparison, Cathay Pacific has 9 seats in this space, while Lufthansa has 8. It doesn’t feel crowded when compared to business class, but it’s certainly not an ideal configuration.
The first-class cabin has two lavatories, but they’re very, very small — on par with what you’d expect for economy, but certainly not first class or even business.
I selected seat 1K, which is located at the very front of the cabin on the right side of the plane.
Seats 1A and 1K are a good pick if you’re traveling with a friend, as are 3C and 3H or 4C and 4H.
As with business class, the first-class seat can fold completely flat. United offers bedding on international flights, but not on this domestic route.
There’s a storage compartment near the window, with enough space for headphones and maybe a small laptop.
Meanwhile, there’s a huge (very deep) compartment to the left of the seat (or to the right if you’re seated on the left side of the plane).
Expect the same connectivity as in business class — a headphone jack, USB port and universal power outlet (not pictured). Fortunately, the USB port was working at this seat, but it charged my iPhone very slowly, so I’d still bring an AC adapter along.
You’ll have the same screen and entertainment options (and the same crappy remote) as in business class.
First-Class Food and Beverage
Once again, I began the flight with a pre-departure plastic cup of sparkling wine.
The service is identical in first and business class on this route, though you’ll likely have a better chance of getting your first choice of entree in first class. I selected another glass of sparkling wine, along with the egg entree, which consisted of an omelette, sausage, potatoes and fresh fruit. The flight attendant also came by to offer cinnamon rolls and croissants with butter and jam.
While the catering was identical to what you’d get on any flight operating this route, the 747 offers an obvious advantage when it comes to comfort — at least if you’re flying business or first. I would absolutely avoid the 747 if you’re traveling in economy, though, since you’ll be packed in with tons of (likely fairly unhappy, due to the lacking entertainment) passengers. Plus, they apparently ran out of stroopwafels back in coach!
That said, if you can confirm a seat in business or first class, I’d absolutely pick the 747 over any other plane. I had the friendliest crew ever on both of these flights (they were very excited to be working the 747), and the plane offers a very comfortable ride overall, especially for a 4-hour flight. If you want to secure your spot on the 747, I’d book a flight departing by May 4 — while United may keep this plane on the ORD-SFO route a bit longer, there’s no guarantee.
Have you flown United’s 747?
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