What It Was Like to Fly United's Newest 787-10 Dreamliner on a Surprise Flight to LAX
Sometimes, being in the right place at the right time enables you to be a part of history. While United's inaugural 787-10 flight isn't slated to occur until Jan. 7, 2019, a last-minute switcheroo on a flight between Newark (EWR) and Los Angeles (LAX) saw the usual 787-8 yanked in favor of the comparatively ginormous 787-10.
Thanks to an eagle-eyed TPG reader and confirmation from United, we parted ways with 35,000 MileagePlus miles to confirm one of the last Polaris business-class seats on the Newark to LA leg. The "dash ten" is the first Dreamliner to offer United’s new Polaris business-class seat, with 44 available on each plane. There are 21 Premium Plus (premium economy) seats as well, plus 54 Economy Plus seats and 199 coach seats. All told, it offers 36% more seating than the 787-8 that usually runs this route.
The ship I flew on, registered N14001, is the same one that TPG Editor-at-Large Zach Honig toured last month at Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD).
Pre-Departure and Lounge
My journey began with a feeder flight into Newark, along with a brief stop by the United Club near gate C74. As an avid Delta flyer, I was especially giddy to find giant jars of both M&Ms and Skittles in addition to the usual spread of salad and soup.
Somewhat confusingly, a Polaris seat on a transcon flight is not enough to gain access to United's Polaris lounge. The friendly lounge attendants will turn you away unless you're continuing on to an international destination. That's because this seat will be sold as a standard United business seat when used on domestic routes, and as a United Polaris seat when used on international routes.
Given that our visit was a mere five days before Christmas, the Club was particularly cheery. Christmas trees, a hot chocolate station and even a harpist soothing lounge-goers with a playlist that would've garnered the approval of Harry Connick Jr.
I ended up with more time in the United Club than I'd anticipated due to bad weather along the eastern seaboard. The inbound flight, UA25, departed from Los Angeles a full 1 hour and 40 minutes late, then spent a fair amount of time circling the skies above Pennsylvania before Newark cleared the extended-length Dreamliner for landing at around 6pm. (Note: FlightAware displayed the aircraft type as 787-8, but it was in actuality a 787-10.)
UA275, my ride from east to west, was scheduled for 5 hours, 36 minutes, but took 6 hours, 9 minutes from gate to gate.
Boarding United's First Dash Ten From Newark to LA
I walked to gate C108 at around 6pm, where a crowd of 300+ passengers was building. Due to inclement weather at Newark, the inbound 787-10 disembarked at around 6:30pm, where we were advised of another delay pushing departure to 7:35pm. Soon after, the captain came out to the throngs of people now waiting at the gate with more bad news. There was a "water issue" that rendered the lavatories inoperable, though a maintenance crew was working as fast as they could on it.
Boarding finally began around 7:40pm, and we lifted off at 8:51pm. The 71 minutes in between were truly exceptional. As soon as passengers began filing in and turning left toward the Polaris business-class cabin, the "oohs" and "ahhs" began pouring out. While a handful of passengers knew what kind of aircraft we were boarding, most were seeing the new Polaris seating for the very first time.
To boot, the plane even smelled new, and I overheard many passengers remarking on the "fresh out of the wrapper" scent.
Despite the delays, passengers chose to focus on their incredible fortune. Of all the flights between Newark and LA, they chose the best possible one on this particular day. Remarks of "Can you believe this?!" and "Look at all the space!" were commonly heard.
Unlike typical flights, those seated in Polaris created something of a makeshift celebration. As flight attendants cruised through the aisles offering pre-departure wine, most folks stood up and began to share their own AvGeek stories with others.
I ran across no fewer than four TPG readers seated ahead of me, all of whom were blown away by the product. Most couldn't believe their luck. "I wouldn't mind flying three times per week if every plane was like this," one said. One even questioned how it was possible to be flying on this aircraft, correctly naming Jan. 7, 2019, as the published date for United's 787-10 maiden voyage between Newark and LA.
A Riveting Realization
The crew joined in on the excitement. The captain walked up and down the entire Polaris cabin shaking hands and welcoming passengers on board, offering anyone who wished a chance to sit in his seat and get a memorable photo from the cockpit.
Several flight attendants paused to chat with me about the aircraft, sharing their excitement about being on board. One mentioned that this particular ship was but "a few days old," noting that it was destined for Ireland, Belgium and other locales in Europe after a one-day fling with America's coasts.
While the specialness added much to the passenger experience, I could tell that not everyone was thrilled about a brand new aircraft being thrown into the mix. Flight attendants had to radio back for several items, and Polaris menus never did make their way on board. Once airborne, a PA announcement was used to apologize for the lack of menus while our three meal options (beef, chicken and a vegetarian pasta) were uttered aloud. Not exactly the most elegant approach, but no one seemed nonplussed.
We plowed through an hour of turbulence after departing Newark, which delayed meal service. I was genuinely taken aback by how quiet the cabin was, despite having a massive General Electric GEnx-1B engine a few meters from my ears.
While confined to my seat, I popped open the storage cubby (press hard!) to find a set of over-the-ear headphones. I'm glad the ride was quiet already, as these weren't noise-cancelling headphones. That felt like a miss, especially after enjoying a set on Air France's 777 business-class product last month.
The small amenity pouch wasn't particularly moving. It resembled pouches commonly found in premium economy, containing Cowshed lip balm, a toothbrush, toothpaste, an eye shade and ear plugs. While I'd prefer something more substantial, I was reminded that no fanciful kit was provided on my A330 Delta One seat between Los Angeles and Atlanta earlier this year. Had that same A330 been flying to an international destination, a kit would've been provided — I suspect the same is true with United. The quality of the kit you receive depends on whether you're making a domestic or international run.
I was very pleased with the quality of the Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and blanket. I tend to sleep best with a borderline embarrassing amount of pillows, but I refrained from asking for extras. I didn't inquire as to whether slippers were on board, nor did I see any other business-class passenger ask or receive.
Food and Beverage
Once things calmed, a cold appetizer of shrimp and spinach salad was served alongside drinks. The food was tasty, and equally impressive was the tray table. You push in to unlock, and the gliding mechanism that retracts it toward you is very well done. It exudes premium. There's even a rear flip-up component useful for propping up tablets and phones.
My top selection of beef was available, and it was scrumptious. Hot, juicy and cooked to perfection with a side of braised kale. I wasn't able to glean the brand of the red wine I was served, but it paired well.
I tend to show my true colors when the dessert cart rolls through, and my first dash ten flight was no exception. I strategically answered the "sundae or fruit and cheese?" question by requesting a sundae and a few grapes. While the vanilla ice cream was delicious, I found it odd that it was served in a thin, paper cup. My hunch is that this was a last-minute solution due to a few catering quirks with this particular flight, as they've (once again) been served in bowls on other United flights since February.
Inflight Entertainment (IFE)
Due to the late-arriving meal and my desire to test out the lie-flat bed for sleeping, I didn't bother paying for Wi-Fi. Our 787-10 was equipped with Panasonic satellite internet, which doesn't have the best track record. United wanted $11.99 for an hour, $16.99 for two hours or $24.99 for the full flight. Of note, I did spot someone from Panasonic's field engineering team on board, presumably to test speed, quality and reliability before primetime in January.
The 16-inch display showcased United's freshest IFE system, which looks beautiful. While I adored the user interface and appreciated the responsiveness, I did spot two quirks.
First, the moving map never would render when using split-screen mode. Second, the system would boot me out of my movie each time a public announcement was made. I believe this was an isolated issue with seat 11A, as none of the friends I made on board experienced a similar problem.
I appreciated the robust selection of content for children, but I couldn't get past two layout choices. One, there's no "New Release" movie section. There's a "recently added," but that's not the same thing — very old films could be new for December's content library, for instance. Second, there's no selection of albums in the Music section, just a hodgepodge of Vevo and United playlists, which make you watch three commercials before listening can commence.
Seating and Sleeping
The Zodiac seat is a pleasure to watch hours fly by in. There's ample storage space, two USB ports and a power port. The faux marble table paired with my own wall sconce (there's even a dedicated button to turn it off and on) added an elegant flair.
Having two giant Dreamliner windows, each with their own digital shade, was a treat. I sat in 11A, the final window seat on the port side, with a door and galley behind me. I'm becoming a sucker for this position. I sat in the same spot on my Air France 777 from Tahiti to LA and very much enjoyed the privacy.
After dinner, I used the toggle wheel to flatten the seat. The resulting position was roomy and comfortable, and I had no issue falling asleep for the remaining two hours of the flight. I'd rate my sleep quality as good to great, with the only niggle being the oddly placed shoulder seatbelt. This particular seat doesn't have just a lap belt, but also an extension across one's shoulder. If you aren't careful, that buckle can dig into your back as you're trying to sleep.
One last thing from the sleep department: United's new IFE allows you to activate Do Not Disturb — which will prevent flight attendants from bothering you unless they need you to buckle up or adjust your seat for landing. But it also includes an option to only wake you for meal time(s). A very thoughtful touch.
It's an exhilarating experience to fly a brand new plane. When you zoom out a pinch and realize that you're traveling nearly 600 miles per hour in a vehicle that lists for hundreds of millions of dollars, it's easy to understand why the 11 rows of business class passengers on board my flight were so jazzed to be on it.
Toss in spacious and well-appointed Zodiac seats, tasty food, ample entertainment, massive windows (with digital shades!) and one of the quietest rides in the sky, and you've got an aircraft that'll be a must-fly for aviation enthusiasts.
In speaking with one flight attendant after landing at LAX, I learned that the onboard staff count did not scale up to match this plane's size. While there was room for 36% more passengers, the same quantity of crew members were on board as would've been on a 787-8 flight.
While the flight attendant I spoke with was pleased overall with how things transpired, he cited a few growing pains — mostly linked to catering snafus — as areas for improvement. I was impressed with how well the crew kept those concerns from showing. While I noticed one passenger getting perturbed that bread wasn't served with the appetizer (the basket came around after the main course), I didn't sense any other service hiccups.
The 787-10 feels like a winner for United. There was a palpable energy about this flight, with dozens of people snapping photos and excitedly spreading the word with friends and family. There was a recognizable sense of pride from the cabin crew on board, with the captain setting the tone by inviting passengers into the cockpit before departure.
TPG's Zach Honig will be on board the originally scheduled inaugural 787-10 flight in just a few weeks to deliver a comprehensive review.