Missed the mark: A review of United’s 777-200 in economy from Newark to Los Angeles
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Reviewing flights and hotels is a key part of the job description at The Points Guy, and — no surprise — it’s one of the most fun aspects of the job. So when I was asked to do two back-to-back reviews from New York to Los Angeles right after stepping off a review of TAP’s A321LR from Porto, Portugal, to Newark, New Jersey, I said yes before I even know what airline, aircraft and class I would be flying. If that’s not AvGeek, I don’t know what is.
It turned out that the first of my two adventures would be Newark (EWR) to Los Angeles (LAX) in economy on United’s 777-200. I hadn’t flown United since 2012, so I was looking forward to doing a deep dive of the experience, especially as a Brit flying domestically within the United States.
Related reading: SAS will fly the new single-aisle A321LR to Boston
Typically, basic economy one-way fares from Newark to Los Angeles cost around $99. This does not include priority boarding, ticket changes, upgrades, checked or even carry-on bags. For an extra $35, you can upgrade to economy, which entitles you to seat selection and a carry-on. Better still, you can further upgrade your economy experience by adding one of two Economy Plus bundles.
We opted for a regular Economy ticket then selected a seat in Economy Plus for an extra $142
In terms of points and miles, you can snag one-way flights across the continent for as little as 12,500 MileagePlus miles and $5.60. And, it’s easy to amass United miles, since the MileagePlus program is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. And, with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card offering a sign-up bonus of 80,000 points after you spend $4,000 in purchases within the first three months of account opening, you could be sitting on a nice stash of miles — you could fly from New York to LA and back twice if you’re able to find tickets available at that low rate.
I got to United’s Terminal C at Newark Airport just before 6 a.m., nice and early for my 8:30 a.m. flight. It appeared everyone else had the same idea. There were so many people that I couldn’t work out which line I had to be in. I noticed a lot of self-check-in desks, but I always prefer to speak with an agent at a counter, so asked a United staff member where the counters were. She explained that counter service was only available to business-class passengers and that I had to use the self-check-in desks.
The process was nice and easy. I had my boarding pass and bag tag within a minute or two and then looked for where to drop my suitcase off.
The line for bag drop was insane.
But then I realized there were several bag drops throughout the concourse when I spotted a completely empty set of barriers further along. I hurried to the line-less area before too many other people realized, and my bag was dropped off in less than a minute.
Passing through security also seemed unnecessarily chaotic. I was directed where to walk by about five different members of staff for what seemed like an eternity before I was lucky enough to be filtered into the sniffer dog lane. This meant waiting even longer and walking in twos with complete strangers to let the dogs do their thing.
From arriving at the terminal to clearing security and seeing the stunning view of United aircraft with a Manhattan backdrop was about 45 minutes in total, so not terrible after all of that.
My gate was C108, which was easy to find. A left after security and then the first right, and I was already close.
I was very impressed with the selection of eateries.There was everything from fancy bars to takeaway coffee to several bagel shops to seafood.
There was even an airport version of a classic New Jersey diner, if you had time to kill.
Pretty much all gate areas had multilevel seating with iPads to order food directly to you, which I haven’t yet seen in the U.K.
As I didn’t have a ton of time before boarding was due to start, I headed to my gate, which was already pretty full.
I found myself an empty seat and perused the iPad menu. There was so much to choose from. I was quite impressed.
There were also power outlets at every seat.
And there was a cool screen showing the seating plan of the aircraft to help to show which areas of the plane were boarding and when.
The gate area was filled with people who were very eager to board, even a half hour before boarding time.
I had just enough time to polish off the most American breakfast possible. Safe to say this meal saved the day.
The screens showed which zones were to board, and it was adhered to by both passengers and ground staff. It made for a very smooth boarding process, despite the crowd of eager passengers that had assembled around the boarding area.
I boarded the 24-year-old N777UA with my group at 7:50 a.m., well before the scheduled departure time, feeling good after a big breakfast and a better-than-expected ground experience. Pushback was dead on time at 8:30 a.m. It wasn’t until 9:20 a.m. that we took off after spending some time sitting still, waiting for the cargo loads to be rechecked.
Cabin and Seat
For several reasons, my journey went swiftly downhill from there. Let’s start with the cabin and seat.
The first thing I noticed was that the plane and the overhead bins were very full. Dreams of an entire row to myself quickly faded. Making matters worse, the cabin was arranged in the dreaded 3-4-3 configuration, making things very tight for passengers.
I found what I thought was my seat and settled myself in. On first glance, the seats appeared comfy and well padded. That wasn’t the case.
At least there were proper supporting headrests.
The cabin filled up slowly but surely, and I started to take in my surroundings. A member of the ground team came to me and asked my name then said I was sitting in the wrong seat. Typical me! I said I would move, but he said it would be fine, as the seat was exactly the same. Once he left, I noticed little blue stickers on the overhead lockers halfway down the aisle which signaled where the Economy Plus seats were, and I quickly realized I wasn’t in one. Little did I know that this would cause me problems later on.
But first, back to the seat. The most standout thing for me was the absence of any form of inflight-entertainment screen. It was the first time I’d seen that on a wide-body aircraft for a flight of five and a quarter hours. Perhaps most annoying of all, the seat failed to stay in the recline position for more than 10 minutes. Frustrated with the seat and frustrated with myself for missing out on 35 inches of pitch instead of 31, I gave up trying. Something to bear in mind if you’re trying to decide whether to pay for Economy Plus.
On closer inspection, I don’t think the cabin or seat had been properly cleaned before we boarded.
The 31-inch pitch was tight, so I was happy that the tray table extended enough for me to fully open my laptop.
It’s the smaller 13-inch MacBook Pro, but it took up nearly the entire tray.
There were two bathrooms at the front of the cabin, one at the rear and three in a central block in the middle of the cabin.
The space was perfectly clean, and foamy hand soap was provided. There was also an empty dock, which may have been used for a number of other fancier amenities in times gone by.
I happened to pick the accessible lavatory, which was rather large and equipped with the necessary equipment to help those with disabilities.
Amenities and IFE
As we already know, there was no form of built-in inflight entertainment for this flight. The only form of amenity was waiting at my seat when I boarded in the form of a very poor-quality, plasticky blanket, which actually did come in handy later in the flight.
Included in the instructions during the predeparture announcements was the advice to download the United app before takeoff to access any inflight entertainment.
For the vast majority of the travelling population these days, I can imagine most would prefer to watch series and films downloaded on their own devices anyway. But for those who don’t have smart phones or forgot to charge or download to their devices, then it could make for a long and boring flight indeed. On the upside, the Wi-Fi functioned well enough for me to use it throughout the flight, though the prices were quite high. One hour cost $13.99, two cost $18.99 and the full flight cost $24.99, which definitely seemed like the best deal of the bunch.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
I saw the food and beverage carts coming down the aisle around 25 minutes after takeoff. On the one hand, I was impressed that food was being served so soon after takeoff, but on the other hand, I feared I wouldn’t get my food because I was two rows out of the designated Economy Comfort area that we paid for. I watched as a crew member served my meal to the lady in my seat (completely my fault, I know), and then I managed to get the flight attendant’s attention and explain. I received a rather surly look. I figured I was out of luck, and maybe out of food. Then I said quite assertively that I could show her my boarding pass if she needed proof, which seemed to reassure her that I was being genuine. Problem solved. I was then served my eggs while my rather hungry-looking seatmates stared in confusion.
I actually quite liked the strange sweet-potato-and-scrambled-egg combo. Though it was rather salty, the two worked well together, and the added chives on top made it actually quite tasty. Due to intolerances, I could eat neither the fruit nor the yogurt, so I offered them to my seatmates, but both declined.
The first round of drinks, which included beer and wine for Economy Plus passengers, came at 10:25 a.m. This was two and a half hours after boarding the flight, and after a very salty meal I really needed water. I asked for a Coke Zero and a water, and the look that the same surly crew member gave me made me feel like a naughty child. I asked if she could take my tray, as it was over half an hour since I was served my breakfast. She told me simply, “I cannot do that right now”.
Drinks were served with either pretzels or Biscoff cookies.
Time passed by very slowly, which was made worse by the icy temperature of the cabin. Thankfully, I had my trusty plastic blanket, which I wrapped around my foot, as my big toe closest to the window actually started to feel numb from the cold. Around 90 minutes later, I was beginning to get very thirsty again. Rather than disturb my seatmates, I asked a crew member who was walking down the cabin for some water. She didn’t even say anything, just swiveled on her heels and charged back in the opposite direction. She quickly returned with a tiny cup of water without so much as a single word. I took to drinking tiny sips every so often, as I didn’t know when I’d be able to get a drink again…
A few minutes later, the same crew member walked down the cabin handing out water to everyone but me. She didn’t even make eye contact with me or give me the opportunity to ask for another cup. Seemingly, it was being rationed and I’d already hit my quota.
Around three hours into the flight, I thought I would head to the back galley to stretch my legs and see what snacks were available to purchase, as I was still pretty hungry. I first made eye contact with the same member of crew who reluctantly served me the breakfast. She averted her gaze as soon as I entered the galley and asked if there were anything for purchase. Thankfully, a different, cheery and very friendly member of crew explained to me that for $10 I had a choice of three different snack boxes. I decided to go for what seemed to be the healthiest, tapas.
I was pleasantly surprised by what was included: almonds, breadsticks, bruschetta spread, dark chocolate sea salt caramel, flatbread crackers, hummus, ginger-flavored sweets and a peppery cheese spread.
The three dips went down great with the breadsticks and flatbread crackers.
Around one hour before landing, a final snack and full selection of drinks (again, including wine and beer) was offered to Economy Plus passengers. I went for a rather wild second Coke Zero of the day, accompanied by the not-so-kind-to-my-teeth Kind bar. My seatmates were offered another soft drink.
Considering the amount of fluids we’re supposed to drink per day, plus the fact that flying is known to be significantly dehydrating, I thought these four tiny cups that represented my entire liquid intake over the course of six hours and 30 minutes (from boarding to deplaning) was shameful. Yes, I could have asked for more for a second time, but the potential wrath I’d experience from the cabin crew was enough to convince me to stay dehydrated. My advice: Take plenty of liquids on board with you. I usually do, but I clearly didn’t bring my A game that morning.
I really didn’t have any issues with the food itself and actually found it quite good, everything that I took issue with in terms of food and beverages was due to the way in which it was served (or not served) to me.
After a good start, I was left disappointed.
The warm welcome I received when boarding the plane set me up with a bit of false hope, as this was not, on the whole, replicated throughout the flight. It’s certainly personal preference as to whether inflight service is something that can make or break a flight experience. For me, it certainly is, and I was really disappointed with United that day. It all went downhill when the ground agent told me I could stay in the seat I had incorrectly sat in. He should have probably known that it would have meant less legroom and no inflight meal.
Like I outlined in the section above, simple requests like a cup of water seemed like a huge, disruptive task for certain crew members throughout the entire flight. The saving grace was the lovely crew member in the back galley who served me my snack box. She was smiley, friendly and appeared to really enjoy her job.
Other than that, it was a very disappointing experience.
Despite my one transcontinental flight several years ago, as a Brit whose travel within the U.S. consists mainly of short hops around the East Coast, I had no idea what to expect from a transcontinental flight in economy with United. I’d heard mixed reviews, usually verging on the negative, but I was ready to take on the flight without prejudice. It’s safe to say that my experience in Newark Airport and then my four hours in Los Angeles were the best part of the trip. The food itself was actually good, and I know I would certainly have enjoyed the extra legroom had I been in the right seat. But, was it worth the $142 extra over a regular economy ticket? Absolutely not. I would highly recommend the $10 snack box meals instead — unless the extra legroom is a deal breaker for you.
What really let this experience down for me was the service. It felt cold (almost as cold as the inside of the plane), impersonal and above all, it seemed as though the passengers were an inconvenience to the crew. I understand that cabin crew are worked hard and it’s their job, and I don’t expect to have a full-blown conversation over a G&T in the back galley, but I felt that this experience was especially disappointing. Unless there was absolutely no other option, I would steer clear of United’s offering on this competitive route.
All photos by the author.
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