Flight Review: United (787-9) Economy Plus From San Francisco to Singapore
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Last June, United launched nonstop service from San Francisco (SFO) to Singapore (SIN) in a shiny new Boeing 787-9 aircraft. At 17 hours and 15 minutes, it became United's longest nonstop flight — at least until its new LA to Singapore route launches this fall. When TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig flew on the flagship flight in business class, I couldn't help wondering what kind of an experience United offered for 17 hours in economy and Economy Plus? And could it compete with the experience offered by Singapore Airlines, which launched its own SFO-SIN nonstop around the same time? I jumped on this flight deal and decided to find out.
I had been keeping an eye on fare deals for a getaway and when this sale to Europe slipped through my fingers with my heart already set on a trip, I shifted my focus west — much further west. After using a $200 voucher, I was able to book two round-trip tickets from Newark (EWR) to San Francisco (SFO) to Singapore (SIN) for $504 each. I wasn't considering it at the time, but if I had used United MileagePlus miles, it would have cost me 80,000 per ticket, a value of $1,200 according to TPG's valuations.
I used my Platinum Card from American Express and ended up earning 5,040 Amex Membership Rewards points for the two tickets thanks to the new 5x points on airfare bonus, worth $96 according to TPG. Also, the 22,000 Million Miler Qualifying miles I'd receive would make me 85,000 miles away from lifetime United Premier Gold status. More than anything else, however, I needed a trip and was excited to get back to a city that barely resembles the one I'd visited 11 years ago.
In economy far more than premium cabins, seat selection is key. With United Premier Gold status, I had access to a fairly open Economy Plus cabin, which was another selling point if you're facing more than 17 hours in economy. I usually will keep a close eye on the flight map leading up to departure. The back of the economy section — or sometimes Economy Plus, if it applies — is most likely to leave those middle seats open, so when you have a travel companion, always take the window and aisle and hope that the middle seat will stay vacant. You might sacrifice some time in the immigration line by being in the back of the plane, but for me, it's worth it to have the extra space and comfort during the flight. If things are looking especially open, I'll pick an open row toward the back of the cabin in hopes of securing "poor man's business class," when all three seats are empty — this worked out nicely on the return trip and my friend and I each got our own row of three seats!
Airport and Lounge
A maintenance delay out of EWR left me with a tight connection in SFO. I still popped into the United Club, which I had access to with my Premier Gold status since I traveling on an international itinerary. I didn't have time to sample the buffet, but just wanted to get a glimpse of the offerings, which included roasted pepper with Gouda cheese, soup and beef pot roast. There was also a spread of carrots and celery with dressing and some mixed greens for a salad.
There was a cracked bulgur wheat salad with fixings for a regular salad as well.
Rolls, cheese, crackers, brownies and cookies rounded out the selection.
United has definitely stepped up its food options since Amex opened the Centurion Lounge, but it's still not at quite the same level. That's why I spent my appetite and the short window of time I had to eat at the Centurion Lounge instead.
I have access to the Amex Centurion Lounge with my Amex Platinum Card. As expected, the buffet selection was better and I made it in just before 10:00pm when the hot food is removed — it was the same as it had been during my previous visits to SFO and was, once again, delicious across the board. The main course was grilled chicken with olive-caper vinaigrette and crispy fingerling potatoes.
The soups were butternut squash and a red curry in coconut milk with veggies and shrimp.
The salad bar had a beet, quinoa and arugula salad, a "little gem lettuce salad" and mixed greens.
There were plenty of salad fixings and brownies for dessert.
Remember to fill up your water bottle with cucumber water before boarding.
I have yet to have enough time to take advantage of the SFO Centurion Lounge's most unique offering — the Napa Valley wine tasting.
If you're flying long-haul economy and you have lounge access, be sure to fill up on food and drinks in the lounge beforehand. The food is significantly better here than it will be on the plane, and the drink selection is complimentary, much larger and flows more freely.
Boarding was mostly complete by the time I made it to the gate. I walked right onto the plane and to my seat without waiting. I didn't mind boarding late as I knew the cabin was not full enough to have an overhead bin space shortage, especially since the Dreamliner's are larger.
Cabin and Seat
I didn't have time to board early and get pictures of the cabin, however on Zach's flight last year, he took some great shots of the empty economy cabin. The seats were arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration. Here's a peek at the Economy Plus seats.
There were 88 seats in Economy Plus.
Economy Plus seats have 35" of pitch, are 17.3" wide and offer a 4-inch recline, according to United.
The adjustable headrest will ensure you don't fall asleep on a stranger's shoulder.
The back cabin was all standard economy seats — except for the exit row — with a pitch of just 32" and recline at a torturous 3 inches.
Aesthetically, I was initially impressed with the economy cabin — the lighting had a modern feel to it without seeming tacky — however, the seats weren't leather like they had been on Zach's flight! The configuration was the exact same though and personally, I don't mind the cloth seats. I'm also a big fan of the overhead compartments where luggage can be stored vertically. Overhead space isn't as much of a problem in these wide-body planes, but it's nice not having to worry about it.
The 75% full Economy Plus cabin and its 3-3-3 configuration didn't feel cramped at all.
I'm 5'10" and the 35" pitch was more than enough space for me.
There was plenty of room for me to cross my legs.
The recline of the seats seemed really limited. Economy Plus has a recline of 5" to 6" on most United flights, but was only 4" on this one and just 3" in standard economy — this really is inexcusable for such a long flight!
Also, these are the first United economy seats I can remember that actually move the bottom cushion forward when you're reclining. I'm normally not a fan of this as it takes away from precious legroom, however it wasn't an issue in Economy Plus because there was enough legroom to spare.
If you have open seats near you, be sure to stock up on the extra pillows and blankets like we did. If you get lucky enough to score poor man's business class, one pillow won't be enough to support your head and one blanket isn't enough to cover you. You also may need to pad an armrest base that is digging into your side.
There was no amenity kit in Economy Plus, which is the norm for United's long-haul flights, another example of how the airline continues to lag behind foreign carriers, which sometimes will offer an amenity kit, even in economy.
United's in-flight entertainment has finally caught up with the top-notch offerings of other international carriers. The 10-inch seat-back touchscreens carried on-demand entertainment with no shortage of material — the 166 movies ranging from new releases and classics to international films could easily fill up a 17-hour journey. The IFE system also offered 138 TV programs, 21 games, 20 audio stations, nine audiobooks and a selection for kids that included 12 movies and 12 TV programs. Note that this was the same device United has on its p.s. flights.
The touchscreen design eliminated the need for bulky controllers in the armrest or seat-back. The audio jack and a USB charging port were located just below the screen.
There's also a home button, which, when touched opens the options for brightness, volume, overhead light (which is LED, not a bulb), as well as the buttons to call the flight attendant and for power. If you wave your hand near the home button, the motion sensors will light up the home button, audio jack and USB port. With the cabin remaining dark for most of the flight, it's a handy feature when you're trying to use the plugs.
For games that require more than one player, you can either play against the computer or another passenger. I tested this out while playing Battleship and it worked really well! If you are playing against the person next to you, though, I'd recommend a different game since it's so easy to cheat!
When poking through the IFE, I found this very helpful screen for arrival and travel information in Singapore.
In addition to each seat having a USB charging port in the seat-back, each row of three seats had two 110v outlets with universal plug input between them, below. This means three passengers have to share two outlets. With everyone already having individual USB charging in the seat-back, I bet this is rarely a problem. My laptop plug came loose a few times during the flight and I had to plug it back in, but it wasn't a big issue.
Connectivity was offered via United's global Wi-Fi and I decided to wait until mid-flight when we were somewhere over China to try it out. I purchased the one-hour option for $4.99 — two hours would have been $8.99, while the entire flight will run you $21.99. You could pay with miles, too, but at a value of roughly 0.75 cents per mile, which is half the 1.5 cents TPG typically values per United mile. Note that the costs were the same for getting my Wi-Fi on my iPhone.
Unfortunately, the Wi-Fi was nearly unusable. I was barely able to check my email and the speedtest.net results were dismal.
Nearly unusable quickly turned into completely unusable and never recovered, even when I switched to my iPhone. I'll be demanding a refund.
The bathrooms were roomy and had touchless controls, another nice feature on this new aircraft — however, 17 hours of use takes its toll, so it's better to use them earlier than later. The economy bathrooms were almost identical to the one pictured below from Zach's business-class review, except the lotions tray was empty this time around.
Another main reason I didn't attempt to board early to get cabin pictures is that this would have potentially outed me as a writer covering the flight and could leave me open to possible special treatment. And I can confidently report that my plan worked perfectly! In no way did I feel the least bit special at any moment during this 17-hour journey. And I wasn't alone. The flight attendants were far from friendly, with some of them acting closer to rude. All the routine interactions were hasty and cold. One lady even got a snappy reply when she asked a flight attendant for a drink after the beverage service had ended. Thus, this remains an area where United's economy offering lags behind that of international carriers, particularly Singapore Airlines. In fairness, I should mention the service on our return flight (UA2) was significantly better.
Food and Beverage
There were no menus provided for the meal service and beverage options included the standard selection of soft drinks and alcohol — beer and wine were both complimentary, but there was an extra charge of $7.99 or $8.99 for liquor. The dinner option of "chicken or pasta" was delivered hurriedly and with the charm of a cafeteria lady.
The "chicken" choice meant Thai chicken and rice with vegetables and was served with a grain salad, mixed greens and a dinner roll. I though the entree was decent, but wasn't a fan of the grain salad — the greens were dry, presumably to be eaten with the salad, so I didn't eat them either. The roll met the minimum requirements of edibility, but was too cold to butter. Note that allergens were listed on the plastic cover for this and all entrees.
My friend picked the "pasta," which was baked rigatoni parmigiana. It was a bit too mushy for her liking. The sides were the same.
The dessert was a tasty green tea gelato. I did appreciate that it was served as a separate course after the dinner trays were collected.
Five hours later, we were served water and United's standard savory snack mix pack, but most people slept through this.
An hour and a half later, we were served a turkey and cheddar sandwich on a cornmeal roll with an M&M snack pack. I was hungry again by then and content with the sandwich.
Seven hours later — about 14 hours after dinner — breakfast was served. I'd feared getting the same yogurt and croissant I'd had before for breakfast in United international economy, so was pleased to see a full hot breakfast this time around. I ordered the French Toast, which was covered with syrup and cinnamon apples next to a turkey sausage. The side was mixed fruit, although some of it was still frozen. The same cold roll as dinner was served alongside this.
My friend ordered the eggs, which actually turned out to be Eggs Lorraine — scrambled eggs, potatoes, bacon bits, Swiss cheese and chives. It was kind of watery and, once again, she wasn't impressed, so I got a second breakfast out of it.
I'd recommend bringing your own snacks on this flight because I ate all the meals and was still hungry. Also, if you dislike the meals like my friend did, you'll need something else to get you by.
I think the food and beverage service is an easy area for improvement if United tries to meet the standards set by the economy experience of foreign airlines. A simple menu could help immensely. It's much easier to choose between Thai chicken and rice and baked rigatoni than guessing on the spot what "chicken or pasta" actually means. It would also speed up service with fewer questions. United could also add some destination flavor by offering a special cocktail like Singapore Airlines does with the Singapore Sling. Liquor should be free, too, as most foreign carriers don't charge for it.
Our flight had departed at 10:40pm on Wednesday and touched down in Singapore at 6:55am on Friday, meaning I'd spent the entirety of Thursday on an airplane. I also never saw the sun that day, which meant I wasn't able to fully capture one Dreamliner feature I was fascinated with. There are no window shades — instead, the large windows have a thin layer of electrified gel that darkens as current is passed through it. Each window has a button to control the level of dimness, and I displayed it here the best I could against the airport lights when we were parked at the gate.
Here's the large Dreamliner window before dimming:
And here it is after dimming:
I had high hopes for this flight. The aircraft was an impressive Boeing Dreamliner 787-9 and seemed to be competing with the quality of Singapore Airlines' similar SFO-SIN route, but I quickly realized this was just the same old United Airlines international economy experience wrapped in bigger, shinier bow. It's tough to beat a $600 flight to Asia from the East Coast and a roomy, partially empty Economy Plus section made the flight comfortable. On a full flight though, the limited recline, especially in standard economy, would be painful on a trip of this length. For the average economy customer, Singapore Airlines is probably the better option and if United really wants to compete on this routing, it'll have to rely on cost and loyalty, the two reasons I flew it to begin with.
Overall, I have mixed reviews. The Dreamliner experience is a noticeable step up from all other United metal — aside from the seat recline anyway — and the in-flight entertainment was top tier. However, the absence of an amenity kit, menu, free liquor and flight attendant friendliness keeps United from matching the experience offered by other foreign airlines. Still, the flight provides a good opportunity to rack up EQMs or Lifetime Flight Miles, and I'd recommend booking Economy Plus if the price is right. Regardless, the debate should be about how you get to Singapore, not if you should go to Singapore — the modern day super-city is definitely worth the commute.
Have you flown in Economy Plus on United's 787-9? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author except where otherwise indicated.