Behind the scenes: On board United’s Amman inaugural, the 1st flight of its big summer expansion
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United Airlines kicked off its bold international strategy for summer 2022 on Thursday with the inaugural flight to the first of five new international destinations: Amman, Jordan.
The flight marked the start of the airline’s first major international expansion, aside from network restoration, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With service thrice weekly from Dulles International Airport (IAD), Amman will be the first and farthest testing ground as United attempts to see whether international travel demand has fully rebounded beyond visiting friends, relatives and old favorite places, and on to new leisure destinations farther flung than Central America.
The start of the summer expansion was a moment of celebration for United — and the chance to gloat a bit.
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United will increase its transatlantic flying this summer by 25% compared with 2019 (that includes service to Europe, the Middle East, India and Africa), something that’s only possible because the airline kept its wide-body fleet intact throughout the pandemic. Rivals American and Delta both retired parts of their wide-body fleets during the same time, part of a broader effort to cut costs but a move that’s also left them with fewer aircraft to deploy as international demand picks up steam.
“Early on in the pandemic, when we saw all of our competitors pull down their wide-body fleets, and there were a lot of pundits out there saying that international travel was going away, we actually thought quite differently,” Patrick Quayle, United’s head of international network planning, said during a media call last week. “This is something that we’ve been working on for two years.”
Quayle was on hand at IAD Thursday night and joined the inaugural flight for what was ultimately a celebration of travel, new destinations, connectivity and — simply put — the ability to get out into the world again. And, of course, TPG was there and on the flight as well. I bought my ticket the day that the five new routes went on sale late last fall — needless to say, I was excited for the assignment.
A bite in the lounge and a party at the gate
I’m based in Boston and booked a separate connecting flight down to Dulles on Thursday afternoon.
I left a wide buffer between the flights, and since I was booked into business class to Amman, that meant I could spend a few hours in the Dulles Polaris lounge before the 10 p.m. flight and the festivities at the gate.
United’s Polaris lounges, which can only be used by passengers flying international business class on United or a codeshare partner, tend to be spacious, sparkling and all-around stellar — the one in Dulles is no exception.
Over the course of a few hours, I enjoyed dinner at the lounge’s sit-down restaurant — I went for the Polaris burger — a cocktail or two, and a chance to charge my phone and laptop.
After that, I left a bit early to check out the setup for the gate-side festivities, which began at around 8 p.m.
United has a knack for throwing big, splashy parties at the gate before inaugural flights, and the carrier pulled out all the stops for the Amman launch.
Things kicked off with a massive display spanning the hallway leading to Gate C2. Signs and posters showing off sights in Jordan lined the hall, while a table was set with Mediterranean specialties, including stuffed grape leaves, pita, hummus and falafel. There was also a delicious sweet baklava and souvenirs including a United-branded passport holder and a Jordanian-American flag lapel pin for passengers on the flight. Hard to miss in the corner next to the food — a Jordanian dance troupe performing along with music playing.
Speeches began about half an hour into the event, with Quayle, the Jordanian ambassador to the U.S., United’s Dulles manager and a representative from the U.S. Department of State among those delivering remarks.
A few minutes after the speeches wrapped, it was time to board.
An unexpected extension
United will operate the Dulles-Amman flight with a Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner, the biggest plane of the new international routes — the other four will be served by a mix of 757-200s, 767-300ERs and a 737 MAX 8.
As it turned out, the inaugural would be served by an even bigger jet.
The 787-8 assigned to the Amman route Thursday night was taken out of service Thursday morning with a mechanical issue. The airline eventually pulled a spare 787-10 Dreamliner from its hub at Newark, citing its availability, and put it on the route instead.
The 787-10 is similar to the 787-8, just stretched longer and with more seats. This turned out to be good news for passengers waitlisted for upgrades.
That’s because the 787-10 has 44 Polaris seats compared to just 28 on the 787-8. The swap meant a few more people would get to fly to Amman in comfort.
The 787-10 has 54 Economy Plus extra-legroom seats and 199 standard economy seats, while the 787-8 that will normally operate the flight has 36 Economy Plus seats and 158 standard economy seats. Both plane types have 21 Premium Plus premium economy seats.
Every 787 in the fleet has been retrofitted with United’s relatively new Polaris seats. Cabins are arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, and every seat is fully lie-flat with a side table along with the regular tray table, inflight entertainment, a universal power outlet with two USB outlets and several reading lights. Seats alternate between being closer to the aisle or closer to the window (or, for middle seats, closer to your seatmate or closer to the aisle). Middle seats have a privacy partition that can be raised or lowered.
I was seated in 9D, which is a center seat that’s closer to your seatmate (my wife joined me for the flight, booking a ticket with her stash of Ultimate Rewards points, so this worked out fine!).
It’s a comfortable seat, although the footwell is a bit narrow. Even so, in lie-flat bed mode, I ultimately managed to get about four hours of sleep — not bad for a 10-hour flight on which I was doing work!
If there’s one complaint about the Polaris seat, it’s that storage space around the seat itself is a bit limited compared to similar business-class products. Still, there’s enough room for all of the basics, and plenty of overhead bin space, even if it’s a full flight.
Premium economy seats are in a 2-3-2 layout and feature a standard 38 inches of pitch and 6 inches of recline. The economy cabin is in a standard 3-3-3 configuration. Extra-legroom seats get 34 inches of pitch and 4 inches of recline, while standard coach seats have a fairly unremarkable 31 inches of pitch with 3 inches of recline.
Every seat in each cabin has a personal inflight entertainment screen, while Wi-Fi is available on board. I found the Wi-Fi to be fairly consistent, and was on it (largely writing this article) for most of the flight when I wasn’t eating or sleeping.
Every Polaris seat was prepped with a Saks Fifth Avenue-branded blanket, a regular pillow and a cooling gel pillow, and a pair of Polaris pajamas, along with an impressively stocked amenity kit. After takeoff, Polaris passengers also received a commemorative T-shirt.
A delay before a return to relative normalcy
Although the Dulles manager, Eddie L. Gordon Jr., ended the speeches with a joke about ensuring an on-time departure, it wasn’t quite to be.
Boarding was fairly quick, considering that it seemed to be a fairly full flight and that there was a bit of chaos with media (sorry, fellow passengers), dignitaries, executives and passengers just trying to board.
We were delayed, however, because the airline hadn’t quite finished loading cargo by our scheduled departure time. While they were wrapping up, the cabin door, which had already been closed, was reopened so a few last-minute passengers could come on board.
During all this, the purser, Shauna, came around and introduced herself to every passenger in the front cabin, before making a wider announcement welcoming everyone on board the inaugural. Flight attendants also came by to say hello and take everyone’s dinner orders.
We eventually pushed back at about 10:50, with a fairly short taxi before taking off.
Once we were airborne there were a few initial bumps, but it smoothed out after a few minutes.
Drink service began a little before 11:30. Quayle ended up helping the flight attendants serve drinks in one of the aisles — he told me that when the cabin crew doesn’t mind, he likes to do that on every inaugural for the chance to thank the crew and passengers.
Dinner was served starting a little after midnight, so just about an hour after takeoff.
Every dish was served with a bulgur salad with roasted corn and a cumin vinaigrette dressing — this was delicious and unique, and I really enjoyed it.
For entrees, we had the choice of an herb-roasted chicken breast, seared swordfish, a pumpkin curry dish called khatta meetha kaddu, or a miso tofu, all of which were halal.
I decided to try the tofu, having enjoyed the burger in the lounge earlier. It was served with red quinoa and mushrooms and was sprinkled with sesame seeds.
It was a good choice — the tofu was fried but soft on the inside, giving it a nice texture, and the miso glaze was delicious. The quinoa was a nice touch as well, adding a nutty contrast.
The meal was a step up from the reduced pandemic service, mostly a return to normal, but it was all served on one tray at once rather than being coursed out. I don’t mind that, but I know some people prefer the pre-pandemic coursing rhythm. Also, the menu highlighted an “express dining” option if you wanted everything all at once, which seemed a bit moot.
For dessert, there was a choice of an ice cream sundae, an egg custard tart or a cheese plate.
I went with the sundae, which had vanilla ice cream, chocolate fudge and brownie pieces. It was … fine. It seemed to be pre-made, so the ice cream was a bit of a puck and the chocolate syrup was sort of just sitting on top of it. It tasted decent, but it certainly wasn’t the same as the sundae cart Polaris used to feature.
There were snacks available during the flight, but all I had until the pre-landing breakfast was a cup of coffee.
Arriving in Amman
About 90 minutes before landing, the cabin lights were turned up and the flight attendants took breakfast orders.
There were two choices — eggs with steak, or buttermilk pancakes with beef bacon — which, again, were both halal.
I went with the pancakes, which were made with sultanas — sort of like raisins, if you haven’t had them before — and were served with an apple compote, along with cinnamon butter and maple syrup. They were maybe a tad soggy, but really that’s just nitpicking because they were delicious. I also had another cup of coffee.
The seat belt sign came on as we crossed into Israeli airspace, and just a little while later we were on the ground.
“Let me be the first to welcome you to Jordan,” the purser Shauna announced to a round of applause as we passed a water-cannon salute (which I just managed to see, even though I wasn’t in a window seat).
Deplaning was fairly quick, with both boarding doors available. The crew stayed behind for a quick photo op on a set of air stairs near the aircraft tail with dignitaries and United employees.
After photos, I headed up to the plane, through the jet bridge, and through customs.
The Amman flight is an interesting move. Friday’s arrival seemed to be more full of ordinary passengers — those traveling for vacation, to visit family or for business — than the industry, media and AvGeek contingent that’s been typical of other inaugurals I’ve been on. United offers a solid product and — now — is the only U.S. carrier to fly nonstop to Amman. (Royal Jordanian offers nonstop service from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Detroit and Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.)
I’m excited to see how the route — and how United’s overall expansion — plays out over the course of this summer!
Featured photo by David Slotnick/The Points Guy.
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