Premium Promise: A Review of United’s New Premium Plus Seat From SFO to Paris on the 777-200
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Earlier this year, United finally said it would be introducing a true premium-economy product on some of its aircraft. With Premium Plus, the airline will be able to better compete with American and Delta, which both recently introduced their own premium economy seats. This puts the three US legacy carriers on par with many other international airlines that have had premium-economy seats on their aircraft for years. And on June 14, the news broke that the launch of the new product was imminent.
Over the weekend, we found that the first aircraft to be retrofitted with Premium Plus had finally been completed. Its first flight from the US would be from San Francisco (SFO) to Paris (CDG), and we knew we had to be on it.
Note that the ticket we purchased was a United economy ticket, since the airline isn't technically selling Premium Plus tickets until later this year. This review primarily covers the hard product, i.e., the seat, IFE and things that will be the same when United officially introduces the new class. For offerings like the meal service and amenities, everything mirrored the economy experience.
On Saturday, the Twittersphere reported that United would roll out its first Boeing 777-200 with Premium Plus seating on a SFO-CDG flight on Monday, so, naturally, we began figuring out how we could get on board.
For now, the premium-economy product will only be available on United 777s flying select international routes. Eventually, though, you'll see the seats on Boeing 767-300ERs, 777-200s, 777-300ERs and 787-10s. On the 777-200, rows 20 through 22 will be Premium Plus — look for a 2-4-2 configuration in those rows even though it will be marked as economy at present. True coach seats are in the tight 3-4-3 configuration.
Even though it was so last-minute, we were able to book this flight with miles at the saver rate. Since this was technically an economy booking, we used 30,000 miles plus $80.60 (taxes and fees plus a $75 close-in award booking fee) — the standard rate for an economy flight between the US and Europe. We transferred the required points from Chase Ultimate Rewards to United, which converted at a 1:1 ratio, for the reservation. If you’re low on United miles and Chase points, you could also book this flight with 30,000 Aeroplan points — a 1:1 transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards.
Since Premium Plus seats are sold for now as Economy Plus seats, United elites are able to select those seats free of charge. They'll be available at booking for Gold, Platinum and 1K members and at check-in for Premier Silver members. Those who aren't elites will be able to reserve a Premier Plus seat with regular Economy Plus pricing. Since I don't have status with United, we paid $183 with the Platinum Card® from American Express to upgrade to the premium-economy seat, which was being sold as Economy Plus. The carrier plans on letting you book Premium Plus with miles, but it’s still unclear what those rates will be.
United wanted $2,582 for the one-way trip the day before departure, meaning our miles were were worth a whopping 8.6 cents apiece. (You can earn Chase Ultimate Rewards with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Ink Business Preferred Credit Card.)
The more I looked at United's award calendar, the more I found quite a lot of saver award space on this route, especially for those with the United Explorer Card, which gives expanded access to United award availability.
Check-in and Lounge
I arrived at SFO on a flight from Newark Liberty Airport (EWR) in the morning, so there was no need for me to visit the check-in counters at SFO. When I checked in the day before through United's app, I had to upload a scan of my passport to it, and after a few minutes received my boarding pass. I was only flying with a carry-on, so I didn't need to check a bag. When Premium Plus is officially introduced, each fare will come with two free checked bags.
Since I was traveling on an economy ticket, I didn’t have access to a United Club or the fantastic new Polaris Lounge in SFO that opened in April. United doesn’t plan to offer lounge access to Premium Plus passengers anyway, so don’t expect to see lounge access included in your fare.
I had a few backups, though. Since I was an Business Platinum Card® from American Express cardholder, I had access to the Centurion Lounge at SFO. Amex Platinum and Amex Centurion cardholders also receive complimentary access to any Centurion Lounge, which are becoming more and more common.
When I arrived, the concierge greeted me with a warning that the lounge was jam-packed. She wasn’t lying: The place was filled to the brim, making it difficult to find a spot to sit.
After finally nabbing a seat, I moseyed over to the buffet and filled a plate with a healthy portion of veggies. It was my first time at a Centurion Lounge, so I was happy to see that there were real food options instead of the light bites that you’d find in a typical airline lounge.
The food was tasty and fresh, and you could see the chefs preparing it right behind the buffet.
Although I wasn’t drinking, the lounge’s wine dispensers intrigued me. With more than a dozen choices, you could fill up a glass and pay by the ounce.
There was also a full bar where you could order complimentary beer, wine and spirits.
It was frustrating to see how crowded the lounge was. Still, I was happy to eat free, high-quality food before my flight.
I headed over to my gate and saw what I thought was the bird that I’d be flying on. After an hour, the captain told us that what was parked at our gate was not our 777. Our aircraft was still in the maintenance hangar and needed to taxi to the gate, meaning the flight was delayed. Then, after no updates for another hour, the captain came back on.
“We honestly don't know where the aircraft is at the current time,” he said, laughing.
It turned out that the gate crew wasn’t able to get in contact with the United maintenance team. The aircraft finally arrived at 3:30pm, 45 minutes after we had been scheduled to depart. I appreciated how honest the captain was, though, and he said that we'd be flying on an aircraft with new Polaris interiors, which he and the crew seemed quite excited about.
The 777-200ER, an extended range model, was registered N796UA; if you want to try the new Premium Plus seats right away, you'll have to book a flight specifically on this aircraft. It’s been owned by United since 1998, when Boeing delivered it to the airline. It was retrofitted in Xiamen, China, in April, making this its first passenger flight departing from the US.
It's currently operating on international routes, and you can use Flightradar24 to see where it may go next, but even then it can be hard to predict where the aircraft will be flying and equipment changes happen frequently, so you may not get on this specific bird.
Summer travel season brings hordes of tourists to Paris, and our flight was no exception. It was completely full, and the boarding area was packed with eager travelers ready to explore the City of Light.
I was in the fourth boarding group out of five, which is something you’ll likely avoid as a Premium Plus passenger, since they’ll receive priority boarding privileges. Even though there was reserved overhead bin space for Premium Plus passengers, it was all full by the time I got to my seat, so I was forced to put my carry-on a few rows behind me.
Cabin and Seat
The Premium Plus cabin on the United 777-200 consisted of three rows laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration for a total of 24 seats. Additionally, this 777 had 50 Polaris seats and 202 in economy — a drop from the 242 coach seats in the two-cabin configuration.
I grabbed 21K, an aisle seat. You’ll still find middle seats in the Premium Plus cabin.
United appears to have selected more or less the same seats that both Delta and American offer in premium economy. That means that the seats are about 19 inches wide. Although not massive, that’s a significant boost over economy’s 17-inch width. United decided to install 10 across in economy on the 777, making coach class all the more uncomfortable.
The Premium Plus section was cordoned off into its own minicabin, making me feel a little like I had more privacy.
Aisle armrests could be lowered into the seat, making for easier access, a feature important for travelers with limited mobility. The bulkhead seats had a third button to extend the footrest.
Recline was not a whole lot more than in economy. There was a legrest and a footrest, and even at 6 feet, 1 inch, I felt like there was plenty of legroom. My only complaint was that there was a seat support in the middle of where I’d put my feet, meaning I had to position my legs awkwardly if I wanted them fully extended.
When fully reclined and with both legrest and footrest extended, I found the leather seat to be quite comfortable. I easily fell asleep and snoozed in this position for hours. Sitting upright was quite comfortable too.
Overall, I found the seats to be pleasant. The extra width really did make a difference, something I especially appreciated after six hours in an economy middle seat on a United 777 on my connecting flight from EWR.
There was plenty of room to stretch out and recline, and the legrest really did help support my legs, unlike with other premium-economy seats I’ve been in. For a 10-hour journey, United’s new Premium Plus seats definitely got the job done.
One of my favorite parts of any premium-economy product is the larger IFE screen. As with American and Delta's new seats, United has a 13.3-inch screen. In the bulkhead, the screen popped out of the armrest; it was in the seatback headrests for the other two rows.
Although it was a touchscreen, there was still a handheld controller to navigate the entertainment system, one side a controller for video games and the other featuring a full keyboard. The touchscreen was responsive and passed the TPG IFE test (of which I am the proud inventor) since no furious tapping was needed to select my entertainment.
The screen was crisp and clear, and there were plenty of movies, TV shows and games to choose from, including newer films like "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," "Black Panther" and "Lady Bird" and classics like "101 Dalmatians" and "A League of Their Own." If you're an AvGeek, you'll be pleased as punch to know they even let you eavesdrop on communications from the flight deck. (This feature, unique to United and known as Channel 9, wasn't working for me, although the IFE did warn me that it would be limited on transatlantic flights.) If you're a nervous flyer or just want to relax, there were a few meditation options, including content from Headspace.
Weirdly, when I was checking our flight details, all the information appeared in Chinese. This was the only area where I encountered a different language, and I assume that it was just a bug that the airline will fix after a couple of flights.
Between the seats and underneath the armrest that flipped out was a USB and universal power outlet. It was also where you plugged in your headphones. There was a small storage area here, too.
The aircraft was outfitted with Wi-Fi, but speeds were abysmally slow. They were so slow I couldn't even get the speed test to work. I'm not sure if this was because I was using it over the North Atlantic, but it was basically inoperable. Prices would have been reasonable had it actually worked.
Since this was still United economy's soft product, all I received was a small pillow and thin blanket. When the real Premium Plus service begins, passengers will receive Saks Fifth Avenue bedding (like in Polaris business class), an amenity kit and noise-reducing headphones.
Food and Beverage
While this wasn't the real Premium Plus dining experience, I was happy with my economy meal service. About 35 minutes after takeoff, we had our first beverage service. I ordered a beer and coffee, an odd combination, I know, but I needed the coffee to power through what I knew would be a long flight. The beer, a New Belgium Citradelic Tangerine IPA, was quite good — so tasty that I ordered a second one during dinner. I was happy that I wasn't stuck with standard choices like Bud Light or Heineken.
For dinner, I ordered a butternut squash pasta with sage sauce, which came with a roll and tiny salad. Aside from the flavorless pasta, everything else tasted fine, but standard fare for an economy meal.
For breakfast, I chose the French toast, which tasted nearly like something you'd get at an actual restaurant, though it could've been fluffier. Additionally, the meal came with fresh fruit, a muffin, yogurt and United's famous Stroopwafels (which won't be around much longer in economy).
United says Premium Plus passengers will receive upgraded dining options and cocktails when the product is officially available for purchase. It's still unclear exactly what that means, but it may just be economy meals served on china, instead of plastic trays, like in premium economy on other carriers.
I was impressed with United's new Premium Plus hard product. The seats were comfortable and felt like a real upgrade over what you'd get in economy. I've flown a few other premium-economy products, and this seat definitely beats Air France's. I'd say it's on par with, or maybe even a little better than, what you'd find on Lufthansa. The IFE experience was superb (despite the minor bug or two) with plenty of choices and a large, high-definition screen.
While Premium Plus hasn't officially rolled out, I'm definitely a fan of the hard product, and the soft product seems promising. We'll have to wait and see when the soft product, and prices, are available to get a complete picture when Premium Plus goes on sale later this year — but it seems like United's on track to do this right.