A Work in Progress: United's 737 MAX 9 in First Class
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This Thursday, United launched service with its first batch of Boeing 737 MAX 9s. These planes offer an interior very similar — though not identical — to the carrier's most recent 737-900ERs, but there are loads of efficiency improvements, ranging from reduced fuel consumption to a significant drop in engine noise.
The MAX can also travel farther than its predecessor, making flights from Houston (IAH) to Anchorage (ANC) — which re-launched Thursday with the MAX 9 — financially viable, too. With a chevron engine design and the same "swoop" livery United features on its Dreamliners, it's also quite easy on the eyes.
I joined United's inaugural 737 MAX 9 flight, from Houston to Orlando (MCO) on Thursday morning, which I reviewed in Economy Plus, then caught the 12:00pm reverse leg on the return. I booked a paid first-class ticket for the flight back to Texas, since I wanted to give both cabins a try, and didn't want to risk not having the upgrade clear on what I expected to be an in-demand flight.
As detailed in my economy review, I booked a round-trip ticket, with the outbound from Houston in economy and the return in first class. The ticket cost $490 in total, and since we used the Platinum Card® from American Express to purchase this flight, TPG earned a total of 2,450 Membership Rewards points — equivalent to about $47 according to our latest valuations.
As a Premier 1K member, I earned a total of 4,785 award miles, in addition to 853 Premier Qualifying Miles and 167 Premier Qualifying Dollars for the economy outbound, and 1,706 PQMs and 268 PQDs for this return leg.
Be sure to check out my Economy Plus review for more on how I booked, along with a list of which flights will be operated by the 737 MAX 9.
Airport and Lounge
I was doing a direct turn back to Houston, with exactly an hour between flights — that left about 20 minutes to explore the terminal before it was time to get back on board.
I decided to pass the time at the United Club, which I could access thanks to my United Club Card — unfortunately domestic first-class passengers aren't otherwise eligible.
The Orlando United Club isn't remarkable in any way, but there were plenty of empty seats to choose from.
I made my way to the mini cubicle room, and parked myself in a corner, just across from a gentleman very loudly participating in a conference call.
The snack situation was decidedly lackluster, though there was Italian Wedding soup.
And there was a bar, though as with other United Clubs within the US, only well drinks and beers that don't interest me (Coors Light) are free.
After 15 minutes in the lounge I walked the few feet back to Gate 48, where the agent was already up to Group 3.
While there wasn't any fanfare in the terminal, like we had in Houston, a handful of ramp workers stopped by to check out the plane.
Cabin and Seat
And with that I was back on the MAX!
United's 737 MAX 9 offers 20 first-class recliner seats, arranged in a 2-2 configuration — it's the same number you'll find on the 737-900ERs, but the seats themselves are significantly different, more or less matching those you'll find on the airline's A319s and A320s.
Seats at the bulkhead (Row 1) require seat belt airbags, which I don't particularly care for. I might avoid the front row, along with Row 5, which I picked for this flight. (See this post for a detailed look at which seats to pick.)
As seems to be a new(ish) trend with US carriers, the MAX 9 doesn't offer seat-back screens — even in first class. You'll need to use your own device to watch streaming entertainment, instead.
I went with 5E, an aisle seat in the last row of first class, located directly in front of the Economy Plus seat I had for the flight to Orlando. While it was fine for our two-hour hop back to Texas, Row 5 is a bit too close to the lavatory, and the economy section behind — especially since there isn't a bulkhead wall separating 5E and F.
The seats themselves are a big improvement over those on United's older 737s, with a small storage compartment and a slick drink table, in addition to dedicated power ports.
While I would have much preferred a seat-back screen, the fold-out tray table offers a device holder, which makes it easy to prop up the smartphone or tablet you're using to stream Wi-Fi content from the aircraft's onboard server.
The seats slide down and back to recline, which means they don't protrude quite as much as those I've seen in some other first-class cabins. My laptop still nearly touched the fully reclined seat in front me, though.
While I'd obviously prefer a flat-bed, there's far more recline than you'll get in coach — I could see managing at least a couple hours of sleep on a redeye flight.
The lavatory situation is far better in first class, too — the restroom is still quite compact, but it's more spacious than the three back in coach.
While the sink still sprayed water outside the basin, it didn't splash onto my clothes, which is definitely a plus.
I was also able to comfortably wash both of my hands at once. It's the little things...
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
I actually walked away with more "amenities" as an economy passenger on the outbound leg, since we got headphones, cookies and a first flight certificate. None of those items were on offer for the return flight from Orlando, nor was I offered a pillow or blanket.
The entertainment options were identical to those in coach, since they're piped in over the same Wi-Fi network. You can access content from your laptop after installing special software, but if you have the United app on a smartphone or tablet, getting up and running with streaming content takes only a few seconds.
Since I checked out the movies for my economy review, I decided to thumb through the TV shows this time around.
Except I couldn't get any to actually play. I tried the movies as well — nothing would load, even after I quit the app and reconnected to the Wi-Fi.
The satellite connectivity didn't work quite as well on this leg, either — it appeared to be connected on the ground, as it was when we landed from Houston, but I wasn't able to purchase a plan until we were in the air. I asked a flight attendant and mentioned that United advertises gate-to-gate connectivity on the MAX, but she insisted it's only supposed to work after takeoff, then walked away. So we had no choice but to wait.
The satellite was clearly connected, though, since it was accurately displaying our flight status and I was able to load the United app.
I was able to purchase a plan a few minutes after takeoff, with pricing as follows — Wi-Fi for the full flight cost $10.99:
The speeds were just as impressive as on the flight out, however the connection did cut out for about 30 minutes shortly after departure. A flight attendant said there were actually technicians onboard troubleshooting the issue, since it was a new plane, and sure enough we were back up and running about an hour before landing in Houston.
Food and Beverage
Interestingly, our flight was serviced by trainees, who were supported by regular flight attendants. The trainees handled most of the passenger interactions. They seemed to be very new — for example, one male flight attendant working first class spoke so softly that it was impossible to hear him.
After boarding, we were offered pre-departure beverages. There wasn't any sparkling wine available, since the first-class passengers on the flight from Houston finished off the entire load and it wasn't restocked in Orlando. The crew also couldn't seem to figure out the coffee maker, so that wasn't available until after takeoff, either. I asked for a sparkling water, instead, which ended up having a heavy lime flavor. It was served in United's signature first-class plastic cup.
After takeoff, a trainee came by to offer a snack — I had heard her offering a choice of cheese plate or vegetable wrap, but she only mentioned the wrap to me. When I asked about the cheese plate, she initially said "we only have a wrap," and didn't acknowledge that the cheese plates had already been claimed, but when I pointed out that meals are usually distributed according to status she said I could have a cheese plate after all.
It was very much snack-size, and served with grapes, a not-so-great-looking strawberry, crackers and a Ghirardelli caramel, which was by far the highlight of the meal snack.
I really like 737 MAX overall — it's significantly quieter, and feels very fresh, which makes sense given that it's a brand-new plane. The new first-class seats are comfortable as well, though I really wish they had seat-back screens. I was relieved to see that the lavatory was far more usable than those in coach, too. Still, while I was definitely happier up in first class than I would have been in Economy Plus, I'd avoid sitting in Row 5, due to its proximity to the coach lavatory and the lack of bulkhead wall.
Overall, the service was lackluster, the snack wasn't great, the Wi-Fi cut out and I couldn't get the streaming content to work — basically, this was a typical United domestic-first-class flight, but on a brand-new 737 MAX. Once the kinks are worked out — and with a seat in rows 2, 3 or 4 — I think the in-flight experience will be a big step up from what I've had on the previous-generation 737 fleet. It might just take some time to get there.