Long-haul from Maui: A 767 red-eye to Newark in United's best business-class seat
I'm certainly no stranger to red-eye flights. While overnight hops from the West Coast to New York are a bit too short for my liking, I managed to get some fantastic sleep on a recent 16-hour red-eye from South Africa, and United's new nonstop service between Maui and Newark is long enough to manage close to a full night's sleep.
With a scheduled flight time of just 9 1/2 hours, the new OGG-EWR flight is the fastest option to get back to the East Coast from Maui — at just under 11 hours, the westbound flight is your speediest option for a flight from the New York City area to Maui as well.
Best of all, United is currently flying one of its best-equipped planes on this route. The airline's special "high-J" Boeing 767-300ER offers 46 Polaris business-class seats (one of which is reserved as a crew rest), 22 Premium Plus recliners and 99 economy seats, all arranged in a spacious 2-3-2 configuration.
While you'll obviously be best off in a lie-flat seat, even United's coach cabin offers wide 18 1/2-inch seats, making for a relatively comfortable ride.
My girlfriend and I had originally planned to fly back from Maui a few days later, but we ended up leaving our hotel early and changing our departure plans at the last minute, booking a brand-new ticket for this flight.
With one-way cash fares at around $1,400 for first class, I booked an economy seat for $471 and applied 20 PlusPoints to waitlist for a first-class upgrade.
While I always prefer to confirm upgrade availability before booking a flight this long, there were roughly a dozen first-class seats still open the day before departure. That number quickly dropped, but I still held out for the upgrade, after (very) briefly considering buying up.
The gamble paid off — we both cleared into the Polaris cabin just a few hours after booking.
There was even saver availability on the morning of departure — TPG values 52,800 miles at $686, so booking this $1,400 flight with points would have definitely made sense.
After dropping off our rental car at Maui's Kahului Airport, we walked roughly five minutes to the check-in counters. The pathway is large enough to accommodate a wheelchair, and there's a tram available as well.
We ran our luggage through the state's requisite agriculture X-ray screening, then walked over to the relatively quiet United check-in area, where we tagged our own checked bags and handed them over to an agent.
We managed to get through in just a couple of minutes, but the line for the American Airlines counter was out the door. Regardless of which airline you're flying, I'd be sure to add in a bit of extra time if you're planning to check bags or collect your boarding pass at the airport.
After a short wait in the TSA PreCheck line, we were in the main departures area. Starbucks was open, as were a couple of stores, but there weren't many dining options. You may want to bring some food with you, especially if you're not expecting to get a meal onboard.
Much of the terminal is open-air, and the giant windows made it easy to get a view of our United 767-300ER during the walk to the gate.
The individual gate area is air-conditioned, which definitely makes for a better preflight experience, especially on a hot Hawaii day.
Mask enforcement was thorough during our time in Hawaii, and the airport was no exception. If you're flying through OGG, be prepared to wear your mask properly, with both your nose and mouth covered.
After a short wait at the gate, it was time to board our 22-year-old Boeing 767.
Cabin and seat
Our plane, N669UA, may have two decades under its wings, but United recently updated the entire interior, installing Polaris business-class seats, Premium Plus (premium economy) and a refreshed coach cabin.
This particular 767 has the "high-J" business cabin — there are a whopping 16 rows of lie-flat seats, all arranged in a fairly private 1-1-1 configuration.
I love the 1-1-1 arrangement on a solo trip, but it isn't ideal if traveling with a companion. Since options were limited by the time our upgrades cleared, I grabbed 17L, while my girlfriend ended up in 17A on the opposite side of the plane.
I love the window seats in odd-numbered rows — they're set a bit farther back from the aisle, so you end up with much more privacy than you'll have in an even-row window seat.
This particular aircraft type offers United's latest business class, Polaris, with an updated "pod" design and comfy lie-flat seats.
I'm well acquainted with this design, but the controls are intuitive enough that most flyers shouldn't have any trouble converting the seat to bed mode.
There's a fair amount of at-seat storage. In addition to a cabinet above the side table, there's a compartment below the TV, a footwell (which I used to store my backpack for takeoff and landing) and an additional area below.
The footwell was large enough for me to sit and sleep comfortably — there's no need to cram in your feet.
Best of all, there are dedicated air vents, and they were extra powerful on my flight.
I also really appreciated the extra lavatory at the rear of the business cabin — you'll only find it on this version of United's 767.
It's technically reserved for Polaris customers — note the blue curtain separating Premium Plus — but flyers from other cabins were coming up to use it as well.
Around 5 p.m., I noticed that our departure time had come and gone, and I overheard a flight attendant tell another passenger that there was a bird on the plane — it needed to make its way off before we could leave.
A few minutes later, United updated our departure time, noting that the flight was delayed "because we need additional time to assist customers." I guess that was technically accurate.
A couple of maintenance technicians arrived a few minutes later, and began tapping on the ceiling in an attempt to encourage the bird to fly toward the front of the plane.
Eventually, the team decided to turn off all of the lights and instructed passengers to close their window shades with the hope that the bird would fly forward to the door — the only remaining source of light.
Believe it or not, that strategy worked! The bird was above the Premium Plus cabin at the time, but made its way all the way through Polaris and out the front door in just a few seconds. Within minutes, we were on our way to Newark!
Amenities and inflight entertainment
Since the business cabin is branded as "first class" instead of Polaris on this route, you won't get the full business-class amenities, including the mattress pad and full-size comforter.
The large pillow was nice, but the lightweight throw blanket was no match for the comforter on an overnight flight.
First-class passengers also get a special amenity kit on Hawaii flights, including an eye mask, earplugs and a dental kit.
United also provides headphones in the compartment next to the seat, but the sound quality is quite poor — I'd definitely recommend bringing your own.
Each seat offers a 16-inch HD touchscreen with loads of on-demand entertainment. United also offers free streaming entertainment over Wi-Fi, so you can watch movies and TV shows on your own device as well.
While the "new releases" section was a bit limited — studios haven't been able to maintain their high levels of production during the pandemic — United offers hundreds of movies on each flight, including a robust selection of fairly recent films and classics.
There are also many TV shows to choose from, including entire seasons or series in the "box set" section.
The airline typically updates its selection at the beginning of each month. You can head to United's dedicated Private Screening website here to find the current offerings for your flight.
You can also keep yourself entertained by browsing the web. Wi-Fi was available starting at $5, but I decided to purchase a flight pass for $19.
The speeds were very good — I was able to get some work done and respond to plenty of questions and comments about the "bird incident" throughout the first few hours of the flight.
Food and beverage
United's service varies significantly depending on your route. Long-haul international and premium domestic flights have more substantial food and beverage offerings, even during the pandemic.
This flight, on the other hand, was branded as domestic first class, and even though it was more than nine hours long, I've had similar meals on the 90-minute hop from Chicago (ORD) to LaGuardia (LGA).
United offered all flyers a tiny 8-ounce bottle of water. According to TPG's sister site Healthline, experts recommend consuming at least eight times that amount of water in a day. I usually drink even more, so I asked a flight attendant if I could have one of the larger bottles from the galley.
She gave me a very stern "No!" in response, before firmly explaining that they're "reserved for the pilots," implying that I was asking to take water away from the crew. She said I could request as many 8-ounce bottles as I wanted, explaining that she had "17 more."
Still, she returned with a 16.9-ounce bottle a minute later — the size you'd normally find in a vending machine — presenting it as if it were an incredibly generous gift. Thank you.
About 30 minutes after takeoff, the beverage cart reached my row. As much as I love this version of the 767, having such a long business-class cabin definitely has an impact on service. It can take a significant amount of time for flight attendants to reach the back.
I asked for a mai tai, which United previously offered on Hawaii flights but isn't serving at the moment. Instead, I opted for an On the Rocks Old Fashioned, which was delicious as always.
On many flights, a flight attendant comes around to Premier 1K and Global Services members to take orders before going through the rest of the cabin, so top elites have a better chance of getting their first choice. That's exactly what happened here — I was offered a choice of chicken katsu or pineapple fried rice.
The crew ended up running out of fried rice when they were halfway through the cabin. "All I have is chicken," I heard a flight attendant explain as she reached each row. She made it to mine about 45 minutes after takeoff.
The chicken was hot, but that's the only good thing I have to say about it. There was far more breading than meat, the rice was mush and the sauce tasted like a mix of bouillon and corn starch. I was excited to try the roll, but it was cold and as hard as a softball. I did enjoy the chocolate-covered nuts, though.
As we approached Newark, I asked about breakfast, worried that I had missed it. Believe it or not, United doesn't offer breakfast on this route — I was offered an economy stroopwafel and coffee, instead.
The stroopwafel was still a nice treat, especially after warming it above the hot coffee. Yum! But after the lousy dinner, I was really hoping for something a bit more substantial.
There's no question about it — this was an "off day" for the crew. While one of the flight attendants ended up warming up a bit after takeoff, everyone I interacted with seemed especially curt and sometimes aggressively rude. It really set things off on the wrong foot.
It wasn't just the water bottle. During the bird incident, for example, I was trying to capture some video of the bird flying around. It seemed potentially newsworthy and I was doing it from my seat with my iPhone — I certainly wasn't in anybody's way. A flight attendant came up and yelled at me though: "Why are you filming?" I explained the novelty of having a bird flying above our heads and she allowed me to continue.
As another example, my inflight entertainment system was frozen when I first got to my seat. I asked a flight attendant if she could please reset it, and she did, but nothing seemed to happen. She noticed me tapping the screen and snapped at me: "You're not supposed to touch it during the reset." I'm not sure whether or not that's actually the case, but that's not the point — there was no reason for that to be a nasty interaction.
My flight attendant call button wasn't working either, and crew members repeatedly ignored me when I tried to get their attention as they walked by. When a flight attendant finally made eye contact as she walked my way, I said, "Excuse me," to get her attention. She ignored me once, so I said it again — "We're busy," was the response. Great.
This was a very easy flight home from Hawaii, and I really appreciated the "live entertainment." The bird made it out safely, and we were on our way after a relatively short delay.
Ultimately, our delayed arrival couldn't even be blamed on the bird — there was another plane stuck at our gate when we landed in Newark, and it took the airline a considerable amount of time to find an alternative.
While airlines clearly remain in cost-cutting mode, there are a number of improvements United could make without a significant investment.
For one, the food offerings need a complete overhaul. The dinner was a severe disappointment, and while packaged snack boxes were available as an alternative, that's hardly a reasonable solution on a $1,400 flight.
The airline might also need to rethink the service flow for this particular 767 cabin. The flight attendants seemed rushed and overwhelmed for much of the flight. I'm sure it's intimidating to have 16 rows of business-class seats to look after, but that's no reason to be rude to customers. It made things unnecessarily unpleasant, and certainly didn't make me eager to book another United flight.