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United’s 787 from Tokyo to LAX in economy should be a state-of-the-art product. Does it hold up? Pros: It’s a fresh update, at least when it comes to the hardware. Cons: grim service, warm beverages.

After a seven-hour flight from Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Tokyo Narita (NRT), my travel marathon home was set to conclude with nine hours or so to Los Angeles (LAX). I had flown from LAX to Tokyo on an All Nippon 777, and had a rather nice experience in economy; I was curious to see how the return on United would compare. This time, instead of a 777, I’d be on a 787 Dreamliner. And instead of economy, I’d be in Economy Plus.

In This Post

Booking

This was the final leg of an open-jaw itinerary from my home in Los Angeles to Singapore (SIN), returning from Kuala Lumpur. I was able to book the journey on Star Alliance carriers for $543 in taxes and fees. Instead of putting the ticket on a credit card — I would have used my Chase Sapphire Reserve, earning 3x Ultimate Rewards points, or The Platinum Card from American Express for 5x on airfare when booking directly with the airline — I chose to use 36,190 UR points via the Chase travel portal, as I was flush from a recent 80,000-point sign-up bonus from my Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card.

Even though my United Premier Silver status is the airline’s lowest elite tier, it still has a perk I use all the time: complimentary access to Economy Plus at check-in. I certainly was happy to have the extra legroom for such a long flight, and even happier not to pay for it.

Check-in

Thus, I was annoyed when I checked in online and could not change my seat to Economy Plus. I tried on the United app, then the website, then I called, then I was transferred to web support, then I waited for the rep to “check with support.” All methods showed that a seat was available and that I was eligible for it, but no one could assign me to it. Finally, after I was put on hold, the rep returned, saying, “I have very good news for you,” and thanked me for my Premier Silver status. It took 15 minutes of trying, but I finally had my mobile boarding pass with my Economy Plus seat.

Arriving at Narita from Kuala Lumpur, I had to go through an additional security screening, but was then free to roam about the terminal and go directly to the gate.

Airport

I had visited the United Club after my incoming flight and didn’t find it worth using one of my free passes from my United MileagePlus Explorer Card. So this time I loaded up on free cheese cubes and a beer from the Korean Air lounge (free admission with my Priority Pass membership, courtesy of the Amex Platinum.)

The flight was scheduled to depart at 5:20pm, and by 4:05pm people were already lined up in the queue area (divided into three lines for five boarding groups). The gate area had a smattering of power outlets, and I had no problem connecting to the free airport Wi-Fi.

At 4:18pm, Group 1 began boarding, followed five minutes later by Group 2. I received a gracious smile and slight bow from the Japanese gate agent who checked my boarding pass and no greeting from the American flight attendant at the airplane door. Within two minutes, I was in my seat. The overhead bin easily accommodated my rollaboard.

The Economy Plus Cabin in a 3-3-3 configuration.

Cabin and Seat

Economy Plus is in  3-3-3 configuration, just like standard coach, with 88 seats.

Rows of Economy Plus seats on the Dreamliner.

The cloth seat looked familiar, very similar to other United economy products, with an adjustable headrest, in-seat power (two outlets for three seats) and an IFE screen embedded in the seat in front of me. A pillow and see-through-thin blanket awaited me on the seat.

That

The legroom was quite good, and the seat felt wider than the one I had just flown on a 787-8 on ANA. United lists the width at 17.3 inches with 4 inches of recline and 35 inches of pitch. (I ended up with even more room, as the middle seat was unoccupied, despite the captain announcing a full flight.) The under-seat storage was decent, though a metal box for the in-flight entertainment (IFE) blocked some of the space. 

The dreamy Dreamliner windows.

The trademark Dreamliner windows are one of the 787’s standout features, large and electronically dimmable, without shades. They really are cool, though they don’t allow the cabin to get fully dark, which I would have liked on an overnight flight. 

Amenities

Nothing special came in the seat pockets. A flight attendant came by during boarding to offer complimentary headphones. 

Snack Shop Menu

A menu offering paid food items, Wi-Fi and United Private Screening outlined other benefits. 

You have to navigate to this screen to call a flight attendant or turn off the light.

The IFE screen had plenty of complimentary movies and TV shows, with a good assortment of recent hits. The screen also brought up two of my pet peeves and one safety concern: Despite my turning it off to have darkness for sleeping, the screen came on bright for announcements, and sometimes stayed on. I also had to use the screen in order to operate the overhead lights or call for a flight attendant. There were no instructions outlining this, and not being able to easily notify a crew member during an emergency strikes me as a safety issue.

Fortunately, everything on this flight went calmly. Doors closed at 4:50pm, we pulled from the gate at 4:59pm, and despite a long aircraft queue in front of us, we had a very smooth take off, with wheels up at 5:16pm (for a flight scheduled to leave at 5:20pm).

Food and Beverage

After 25 minutes in the air, the seatbelt sign was off and beverage service began. I ordered a Diet Coke, and it was served in a plastic cup without ice, napkin or the can. Apparently, I nodded off, because an hour later I heard, “Hi, sleepy. Would you like some dinner?” followed by a dinner tray. On it, there was a container of chicken teriyaki on rice, with cold corn-and-bean salad and a dinner roll.

Chicken teriyaki with salad and a roll.

Served with small plastic cutlery, the selection was not great — not awful, but not great. The chicken portion was three little slices that were warm and chewy, though tender.  It was a step up from frozen-food-aisle microwave fare, but that was about it. The teriyaki sauce hadn’t made it to the chicken and instead pooled in a corner.

The rice was salty and porridge-like, save for the edges, which matched the form of the plastic container. Despite its shortcomings, it was hot and a little comforting. The corn and beans salad was crisp, cold and simple. Though it had very little flavor, I was glad it wasn’t soggy or drenched in sauce.

You can not go wrong serving me cold vanilla ice cream on a plane.

About 10 minutes after being served, dinner was cleared, and I was given a small container of ice cream and bottle of water. The vanilla ice cream was very cold and perfectly yummy. 20 minutes later came another iceless beverage; a few minutes later, the cabin lights were off.

There was no further service for another six hours. During this time, I ventured to the rear galley to ask for water. “We’re out of bottles,” a crew member told me. (Gee, too bad they couldn’t have known 250 people flying for nine hours might get thirsty.)
Eight hours into the flight, the lights came on, and attendants took meal orders: a choice of a cheese omelet or Japanese chicken rice. “Which do you recommend?” I asked the flight attendant.
“Oh I don’t eat any of this stuff,” she replied.

Even more chicken, even more rice.

I could see why.

I opted for the chicken, which was similar to my previous meal but slightly worse, with limp peas among chunks of dark meat. Bits of egg gave some needed flavor. Two dry and sugary shortbread cookies did nothing to add pizzazz.
45 minutes later, we started our descent, with a final trash pickup 10 minutes after that. Wheels were down at 10:22am local time, and doors were opened at the gate at 10:40am, 35 minutes ahead of our scheduled arrival.

Overall Impression

The Dreamliner is a state-of-the-art aircraft that United operates without state-of-the-art service and supplies. After flying on Asian airlines for my recent flights, it was a culture shock to be back to a Los Angeles-based crew on an US-based carrier.
“There used to be eight,” a veteran crew member lamented when I asked how many flight attendants worked this flight in economy. It’s now five, and maybe the increased workload explains the grim attitude. And it can’t be easy to smile when you’re serving such mediocre food and aren’t carrying enough refreshments for everyone.
Next time I have to travel this route, I will try to do so on ANA, even without the added benefits of their premium economy. The service and amenities just give more bang for the buck.
That said, would I take this United flight again? At this price, I would. I’ll just have to remember not to expect smiles or cold drinks. And to bring my own bottles of water.
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