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With brusque crew and five-cent offerings, this United First flight to Hawaii was a far cry from my childhood memories. Pros: convenient flight times and more comfortable than economy. Cons: unfriendly FAs, spotty paid Wi-Fi, no lounge access and disappointing meal. Cornflakes? Seriously?
The last time I flew to Hawaii in a premium cabin, I was 9 years old. It was Hawaiian Airlines first class, back when first class seats were essentially oversized leather armchairs. Lie-flat beds and private suites weren’t really *a thing* yet, and you could still pack full-size toiletries in your carry-on. What a world.
When the opportunity to fly United’s nonstop business-class flight from Newark Liberty International (EWR) to Honolulu’s Daniel K. Inouye International Airport (HNL) arrived, I was thrilled to relive my blurry childhood memories en route to one of my favorite destinations on earth. But my dim recollections were nothing like the flaky flight I took in late September.
United’s EWR-HNL nonstop is convenient once you’re on board, but booking it is another story. It’s a chore (if not impossible) to find saver awards up front (the carrier treats this flight as a United First route, which is actually less premium than its business offering on transcontinental flights and international flights, some of which are shorter in duration).
If you have a stroke of luck and are able to find one, you can expect to pay 50,000 miles each way, though searching through the end of the schedule revealed that you’d likely have to pony up a whopping 95,000 miles one way. One redeeming factor of all of this is that it’s easy to earn MileagePlus miles, thanks to the program being a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. Just signing up for and earning the sign-up bonus on one of Chase’s Sapphire cards (either the Preferred or Reserve) could get you a one-way saver ticket — if you can find one, that is.
Given that sad reality and the close-in nature of my booking, we paid cash for the ticket, which cost $1,398. We charged the airfare to The Platinum Card® from American Express in order to earn the 5x bonus points — 6,990 (worth about $133 according to TPG’s most recent valuations) in this case.
Since this was a paid fare, I got to earn miles for my flight. In total, I walked away with 6,620 redeemable miles, 1,324 PQDs and 9,924 PQMs.
paradise-bound Honolulu-bound United flight departed early Monday morning. If you want to greatly improve any airport experience, book your flight an hour before you’d normally leave for work, and all will seem relaxed and easy by comparison. I checked in online the night before and encountered no errors or hiccups (for the first time in recent memory) that would force me to drop by the check-in desk, so I breezed right to security downstairs.
The line for premium-cabin passengers was noticeably shorter than the line for TSA PreCheck, but I still went through the latter (who wants to take their shoes off?) and was through security in less than 10 minutes. After watching planes mill around in the gate area in the early morning sunlight, I started toward my gate.
Since this was a United First domestic flight, I didn’t have access to any United clubs, which I found annoying — though it is standard across all the major airlines to not offer lounge access just by virtue of having purchased a first-class domestic ticket. I would have loved to have gotten to check out the new Polaris Lounge in Terminal C, but that’s reserved for Polaris business class, Star Alliance long-haul first and Star Alliance long-haul business passengers only.
To my great fortune, however, I had received the coveted Classified invite just a few days prior to my flight. So, realizing I had loads of time to kill and nowhere particularly fun to be (until Hawaii), I booked a reservation at Classified on the phone and proceeded to the hidden restaurant, tucked behind Saison in Terminal C.
Classified became my lounge for the morning, where I enjoyed high-speed Wi-Fi, planespotting views and an excellent vanilla iced Americano and eggs Benedict with salmon.
I was hesitant to order breakfast because, at the time, I wasn’t especially hungry and I knew I’d have breakfast on the flight. But it turned out to be the best decision I made all day, after a series of less-good decisions I’d come to regret.
Gate 128 went from blissfully relaxed to a fuming horde so quickly I didn’t have time to snap a photo of the resulting chaos.
Despite the airline’s new efforts to streamline and manage the boarding process, I somehow ended up boarding at the same time as someone in Group 4, even though I was second in line for Group 1. The gate agents were also late, which fueled the frustration.
Cabin and Seat
United’s 2-1-2 business-class configuration on the 767-400ER is great for people who score one of the seven middle seats, and just fine for everyone else. This particular bird — registration N67052 — was an 18-year-old one that was definitely starting to show its age on the inside. The cabin lighting was a far cry from the fancy mood lighting you see on new planes, and the seats themselves were less than pristine.
I opted for a window seat in Row 8, at the back of the cabin, next to what appeared to be a storage closet, hoping it would give me added privacy.
But shortly after boarding, I realized that I was across the aisle from a single business-class seat reserved for resting crew members.
Shortly after pushback, a pilot unfurled a series of interconnecting curtains and disappeared into a private cocoon for the duration of the flight. While Seat 8L felt more private than most of the couplets, I wouldn’t recommend it.
If you’re flying this aircraft to Hawaii, opt for a seat closer to the cockpit. (More on that later.) The configuration also required me to either scramble over my seatmate or time my trips to the bathroom with hers.
Each of the 39 seats measured 21 inches wide and offered a generous 75 inches of pitch. The legroom was more than enough for me at 5 feet 2 inches, and I had plenty of room to stretch out when the seat was reclined all the way into lie-flat mode.
There were two options for charging: a USB port and a universal outlet.
When it came time for me to configure the seat into a lie-flat position, it was a hassle. It took quite a bit of aggressive button pushing to get the seat to recline fully. And later, it was just as much of a process returning my chair to the upright position.
The seat was comfortable and spacious, but the footwell was tapered and narrow. Whenever I tried to put my seat flat, it ended up getting stuck on either my shoes or the small backpack I had stowed underneath the footwell.
In general, the cabin felt rundown. There were scratches and scrapes on the shells of the business-class seats and overhead bins, and my foldout tray table was flimsy: It was impossible to type on my laptop without it rocking back and forth.
There were signs of Polaris on board, namely in the form of the fluffy pillow and cozy Saks Fifth Avenue blanket, as well as a pair of headphones of so-so quality. That was it, though. I noticed immediately that there was no menu to peruse, save for a crumpled United Polaris menu shoved between the seat and the aircraft wall.
Flight attendants came around early with moist towelettes, and seats were stocked with standard United literature (the September issue of Hemispheres) and a safety card, among others.
In the restroom reserved for premium-cabin passengers, fragrant Cowshed amenities were available.
Each seat came with a large touchscreen preloaded with a selection of films, including a few new releases I was excited about (business trips are one of the few opportunities I have to binge-watch chick flicks without upsetting my partner). “Deadpool 2,” “Life of the Party” and “Ready Player One” also jumped out immediately as viable options for my 10-hour flight. There was a remote available to control the system as well. It worked fine, but it wouldn’t retract back into its holster.
The aircraft also promised inflight Wi-Fi, which meant — as a MileagePlus member — I could toggle between my phone and my laptop. For $27.99, I purchased a basic connection I could use for the duration of the flight. But after three and a half hours, the Internet shut off. Or, as United put it, the service became “temporarily unavailable.”
I used the inflight map to check our location, and we weren’t even over the Pacific when the Wi-Fi began dropping off. The Wi-Fi continued to kick in and sputter off throughout the flight.
Food and Drink
Flight attendants came by early to take beverage orders, though I did wish they had been waiting with a glass of sparkling wine during boarding, as I’ve experienced on a number of international business-class flights.
Shortly after dropping off our mimosas (my seatmate and I had similar taste in morning beverages) our flight attendant returned to take our breakfast order. With a piece of paper in hand, she told us they were out of eggs and there were only two options remaining: a single apple soufflé for us to fight over, or cornflakes.
Because I’d had the foresight to dine at Classified before departure, I wasn’t famished, and let my seatmate take the apple soufflé, leaving me with cornflakes. I was less annoyed they were out of eggs than I was that cornflakes was even an option in first class. My ticket had a cash value of about $1,400. A bowl of cornflakes (retail value: under 6 cents per serving) is, in my opinion, simply unacceptable. And if you’re going to give a first-class traveler cereal for breakfast, at least let them choose what kind of cereal she eats. Even my flight attendant agreed when she took my order. “I myself don’t really like cornflakes,” she said, shrugging.
When the flight attendant dropped off our breakfasts, I eyed my seatmate’s apple soufflé, which she devoured. At the center of my tray was a large, white bowl filled with dry cornflakes. I ate the fruit cup (thick wedges of grapefruit, orange, pineapple and a smattering of grapes) and finished off the vanilla Chobani yogurt. The flight attendant came around with a basket of hot baked goods, including cinnamon rolls, and I helped myself to a warm, flaky biscuit. But probably out of spite more than anything, I didn’t eat my cornflakes.
Before takeoff, a flight attendant had announced that paid beverages on board included wine, beer and mai tais — because Hawaii. Later in the flight (I waited until after breakfast, at least) I requested a mai tai when the flight attendant came around for another drink service. She scrutinized me before saying, “I think we have that.”
She did in fact return with a mai tai, garnished with a maraschino cherry and a slice of pineapple. And it was perfectly strong.
But other than that, the food service on this flight was a complete miss — even if we’re going to pretend the cornflake fiasco didn’t happen. Later in the flight, the flight attendants returned to ask what we wanted for lunch. Our options were calzones — my flight attendant could not confirm exactly what was in the calzone, which eliminated it as an option for me — and a chicken salad. When I asked the flight attendant to repeat the options, she did so with a tone that made my seatmate shoot me a sly stare. I’d describe the FA’s attitude as gruff at best.
The salad greens and vegetables were fresh, and I was pleased the grilled chicken was on the side, as I don’t eat meat. But there was nothing especially tasty or memorable about this meal, either, except that it wasn’t breakfast cereal. A small improvement.
Later, while using the restroom and stretching my legs, I noticed a basket of snacks and glasses of waters with DIY fruit garnishes by the door. I don’t recall an announcement being made about the self-serve treats.
Afterward, the flight was mostly smooth — a handful of hours spent working (at least until the Wi-Fi went out) and watching films.
The nonstop United flight from Newark to Honolulu is convenient — it doesn’t leave too early in the morning, and you arrive in Honolulu just in time to check in to your hotel and cool off in the pool (or with a proper mai tai). And of course, if you find saver space in business class, it’s certainly a more comfortable way to fly. But travelers shouldn’t expect much in terms of service.
Despite the flight lasting more than 10 hours, it’s treated like any short, domestic, business-class flight. If you’re flying between the East Coast and California, you’ll (supposedly) get better service, expanded amenities and better food. Not to mention lounge access.
For many travelers, it may be a better value to simply take a connecting economy flight where you can stretch your legs and buy a decent meal on the ground before continuing on to Hawaii. If you do book a seat on this aircraft for a trip to Hawaii, be sure to select a seat farther up, near the cockpit. You may actually have a shot at a hot breakfast.
When I recall my childhood first-class flight on Hawaiian and my recent United first experience, there’s not much comparison. Both had miniature salt and pepper shakers. And, perhaps most importantly, both flights ended in Hawaii — meaning you can quickly forget about the crummy cornflakes and brusque flight attendants.
Know before you go.
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