First look: On board United’s inaugural flight to the Azores

May 14, 2022

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United Airlines has touched down in Portugal’s Azores islands for the first time in its history.

The airline’s inaugural flight from its hub at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) arrived at Ponta Delgada Airport (PDL) on São Miguel island on Saturday morning after a four-hour, 38-minute flight — a short, partial crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

The service is the second of five new — and unusual — routes that United is launching this summer, following its inaugural flight last week from Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) to Amman, Jordan (AMM).

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United hopes to use the route to introduce Americans — especially those on the East Coast — to the natural wonders and beauty of the Azores. “‘The Hawaii of Europe’ is closer than you think,” reads a billboard that has appeared at United’s hubs in recent weeks. Indeed, it takes about half as long to get to the Azores as it does to get to Hawaii from the East Coast. (Ponta Delgada is about 2,600 miles east of Newark and 900 miles west of Portugal’s coastal capital city of Lisbon.)

(Screenshot from Cirium)

As far as U.S. carriers go, United takes over for Delta on this route, which operated it in the summer of 2018 and 2019 from New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK). The route is also served by Azores Airlines, which flies from PDL to JFK and Boston Logan Airport (BOS).

United is operating the route — which runs until September and operates three times a week for the rest of May before going daily in June — with a Boeing 737 MAX 8. It’s the first time any major U.S. carrier has operated the 737 transatlantically, though Icelandair currently operates multiple routes to the U.S. with the aircraft (and so did Norwegian Air, before its long-haul demise). For United, this route has a one-of-a-kind passenger experience. While there is premium seating, the service is the airline’s only mainline route that’s not sold with a first- or business-class fare. Instead, what’s normally the domestic first-class cabin on this aircraft is sold as United Premium Plus, the airline’s international premium economy product. It’s worth noting that passengers ticketed in United Premium Plus lack access to United Clubs (let alone Polaris Lounges) unless they’re otherwise eligible by holding Star Alliance Gold status (via United or another carrier) or a membership.

I flew on United’s inaugural flight to the Azores in the Premium Plus cabin. I paid $1,071.47 for my itinerary, which included economy class positioning flights to and from Houston (IAH), where I’m based. When Premium Plus space became available the week of the inaugural flight, I paid a subsequent $910 to upgrade. For summer flights beyond the inaugural, United’s fares in economy from Newark range from as low as $545 round trip to as much as $1,925 roundtrip. MileagePlus redemptions in economy range from 60,000 miles round trip to as much as 140,000 miles round trip.

As for Friday night’s inaugural, here’s what the experience was like.

A very personal gate party

When I arrived at gate C136 for the gate party, I noticed some people taking pictures with an urn of ashes.

Once onboard, I learned a remarkable story about one of the flight attendants working this flight, Paul. Paul had been urging United to begin this route for nearly 20 years. His Azorean brother-in-law, who was also a United flight attendant, had recently died, and he was carrying his ashes home aboard this flight.

This story — and the gate party — set the tone for the flight: it seemed that every other person on this flight had a connection to the Azores.

United’s head of international network planning Patrick Quayle at the gate party. (Photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy)

United’s head of international network planning, Patrick Quayle, who has been the face of the airline’s big transatlantic summer expansion, told the crowd assembled that he’s part Azorean — his paternal grandmother emigrated from the Azores.

“This one is particularly special to me,” Quayle said.

In all, four of the six flight attendants who were working this flight spoke Portuguese. Based on the loud cheering I heard after certain Portuguese-language announcements were made, a large number of passengers did, too. It could be a sign that this flight is attracting visiting friends and relatives (VFR) traffic in addition to leisure travelers, a mix that would aid United’s chances of success on the service.

Azorean and Portuguese treats at the gate party. (Photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy)

The gate party featured a number of Azorean treats including queijadas — a sweet, egg-based treat that’s synonymous with Portugal. It also featured two musicians playing Azorean music.

(Photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy)

But the real star of the show was Lisa and her two Yorkies, Amy and Emily, who were dressed like pilots and got some face time with a real pilot. Lisa and the Yorkies joined the flight and sat in Premium Plus.

(Photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy)

Soon, it was time to board the flight.

More: With new route to the Azores, United moves firmly past the 737 MAX’s grounding

Enhanced domestic first

The service on this route felt like an enhanced version of United’s domestic first-class product — United First — and, of course, there were obvious reminders all over that this was primarily a domestic aircraft. From the sign that said United First on the bulkhead to the United First branding on the inflight entertainment screen, it was no secret what this aircraft’s primary mission is — a mission it had flown as recently as that afternoon when it arrived in Newark from Orlando (MCO).

But the similarities began to end there. From the headrest covers that adorned the seats to the Saks Fifth Avenue-branded pillow and blanket that can be found both in United’s Polaris business class and in the dedicated Premium Plus cabin on widebody aircraft, United brought multiple elements of its long-haul international service to this 737. In addition, all passengers on this particular flight — both in Premium Plus and economy — received a commemorative poster for the inaugural and a set of Polaris pajamas. Premium Plus passengers also got an extra set of PDL inaugural pajama tops. A standard Premium Plus amenity kit was also waiting for passengers in that cabin, featuring an eye shade, earplugs and a dental kit (those first two items will really come in handy on this short flight if you’re looking to catch some shuteye). In economy class, one of United’s unique turquoise-colored multi-purpose pillows and a basic blanket were on each seat.

Before pushing back, Capt. Robert came by the Premium Plus cabin to thank each of us individually for joining the flight. Robert was a class act — even helping folks put their bags into the overhead bins.

Once the safety video was played, our purser, Sandra, made an announcement that Portuguese law required us to wear masks for the entire flight.

Elevated dining

The food and drink on this flight was the same as international Premium Plus — an improvement over United’s domestic first-class food, but not the type of dining experience that United is slowly bringing back to its Polaris cabins after pandemic-related cuts. It’s worth noting that United has among the best catering in its premium economy cabin of any airline — including Singapore Airlines and Emirates. Some elements of domestic first were present as well, such as a predeparture beverage of champagne or water being offered.

For a very short transatlantic redeye flight, it’s the perfect amount of food — as long as you’re comfortable dining after midnight. Because this is a relatively short flight, United has scheduled it to depart at 11 p.m. from Newark — allowing it to arrive at a reasonable hour in Ponta Delgada. Because of weather issues at Newark, we took off a little over an hour late on this inaugural flight, at 12:03 a.m. ET. Due to the late departure, along with the captain keeping the flight attendants seated for the first 20 or so minutes of this flight, I was not served dinner until about 1:15 a.m. ET.

For dinner, there were two entrée choices: Thai chicken in ginger sauce and cacio e pepe ravioli in pesto sauce. I went with the ravioli, which tasted fresh and was bursting with flavor. Both entrees came with a fresh and crispy side salad that featured cherry tomatoes and mozzarella cheese and olives, along with a balsamic vinaigrette. For dessert, a wrapped snickerdoodle cookie was offered, which I stashed away as a snack for later. My seatmate ordered the Thai chicken, and while she liked it, she said that she thought my entrée looked better.

Breakfast was served at 3:50 a.m. ET, just two hours 20 minutes after the dinner service ended, and it was as light as light breakfasts go: a fresh-tasting fruit salad. No complaints there — it would have seemed overkill to serve anything else.

(Photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy)

 

This flight goes by fast

After dinner, I decided to work on this flight report. I had no plans once I arrived in Ponta Delgada, so I could take a nap once we arrived.

Flight report aside, this fits the profile of many travelers on this route. United knows how little sleep is available on this route, and they’re OK with that, because no one is really in a hurry to do anything once they arrive. Everyone can take a nap.

“The type of traveler we’re targeting for the Azores, and that we’re seeing for the Azores, is more of a backpacker, and if you look at the flight, it’s maybe four-and-a-half, maybe five hours maximum, effectively less than a transcon,” Quayle told TPG before the flight.

If you must sleep, I recommend skipping the meals and bringing eye shades and ear plugs or noise canceling headphones, especially if you’re seated in economy class, where the eye shades and ear plugs are not provided. The 737 MAX 8 features United’s latest IFE system that allows you to pair Bluetooth headphones and features soothing scenes like “starscapes” and “birds of the rainforest.” That might be a winning combination to lull you to sleep.

A quick note about the WiFi on this flight: while the MAX 8’s Viasat system is blazing fast (I recorded speeds near 50 megabits per second down), it cut out at around the flight’s 3-hour mark and never returned. United prices WiFi on this flight as a domestic segment, so it costs $8 for MileagePlus members and $10 for non-members.

More: United’s international-focused summer begins today with five unusual new routes

Arriving in Ponta Delgada

After a beautiful approach, we touched down at Ponta Delgada Airport to cheers at 8:41 a.m. local time. While we weren’t greeted by a traditional water cannon salute, a small army of airport workers, local media and dignitaries wearing high-visibility vests were on hand to greet us. There’s something to be said about the excitement at an airport when a new carrier inaugurates service. Baggage handlers loading a Dash 8 propeller plane at the adjacent gate even stopped what they were doing and took out their phones to take pictures and video of our arrival.

(Photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy)

While there was a flag ceremony with the crew following our arrival, unfortunately, it was for credentialed local media only. Despite the best efforts of United’s communications, there was no access for U.S. media on the flight.

Ponta Delgada Airport is small, and immigration took about 30 seconds — no questions were asked of me. There were also no customs or COVID document checks on the way out of the airport.

My first inaugural flight with United was now officially in the books.

Bottom line

It was moving to take an inaugural flight to a destination where so many people — from a top United executive to many of the flight attendants — had strong connections. To me, it didn’t matter that this transatlantic flight lacked lie-flat seats or was operated on a relatively small, 166-seat Boeing 737 MAX 8: the sleep opportunities are unavoidably fleeting during this very short crossing. I thought the crew was excellent on this inaugural and the catering was the right mix of domestic first class and Polaris business class.

I now look forward to exploring the absolutely breathtaking Azores!

Featured photo by Ethan Klapper/The Points Guy.

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