Would-Be Transcon Champ: United (787-10) in Polaris Business Class From LAX to Newark
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When United announced the debut of its latest and greatest long-haul airliner on a popular route within the US, I wasn’t surprised — it’s not unusual for carriers to introduce a new plane on domestic flights before sending it overseas, and United has a history of doing just that, most recently with the flagship Boeing 777-300ER.
But this time it’s different — this isn’t a limited-time run intended to get crews (and passengers) familiar with a shiny new long-haul aircraft. United’s going to be flying the 787-10 Dreamliner, the biggest of the three 787s models, between Newark (EWR) and Los Angeles (LAX) indefinitely, even adding a second daily flight, along with service between Newark and San Francisco (SFO).
With true Polaris seats, arranged in a private 1-2-1 configuration, United’s 787-10 is a huge upgrade from the 777-200s and 757-200s flying premium domestic passengers today.
As the most advanced, comfortable aircraft consistently operating transcon flights, UA’s longest Dreamliner now offers the best domestic hard product in the biz. But can catering and service match JetBlue Mint, the current top US pick? Following Darren Murph’s surprise preview flight, I joined the scheduled “inaugural” from LAX to Newark — plus two other 787-10 flights — to see how United measured up.
As seats began to fill up quickly, I decided to book my spot shortly after tickets went on sale in October 2018.
Given the nature of this first flight, there weren’t any saver awards or confirmed upgrades available. We could have redeemed 60,000 United miles for a standard award, which TPG values at $780. I prefer to get much more than 1.3 cents per mile in value, though, and considering there was a reasonable alternative, we booked a cash ticket instead.
I was able to cut the fare in half by adding an onward flight to Aruba this spring — we saved a lot of money, and I’m getting a “free” flight to the Caribbean to boot. In total, we paid $868 for the ticket, less than half the fare United was charging for that LAX-Newark segment alone.
Since I was traveling on a paid ticket, I was eligible to earn miles and elite-qualifying credit. While that $1,800 one-way fare would have gotten me much closer to requalifying for Premier 1K, with far higher Premier Qualifying Dollar earnings, I did net the same number of Premier Qualifying Miles and segments, plus 4,796 redeemable miles, worth $62 based on our valuations.
As it turns out, I actually had an opportunity to fly the 787-10 two more times in the first week — first, the night before the official inaugural, when it was assigned at the last minute to replace my booked 787-8, and again Wednesday evening on my way to the LAX Polaris Lounge preview.
I’ll be focusing on the LAX-Newark leg for the purposes of this review, but you’ll also find references to my other two flights here and there, since they help to paint a clearer picture of my experience throughout the first week.
I arrived at LAX around 6am, a bit over two hours ahead of our scheduled departure. The terminal was especially quiet at that time. There wasn’t even anyone queued up for TSA PreCheck.
I made it through the checkpoint in just a couple of minutes, which seemed to be adequately staffed despite reports of TSA agents calling out sick during the federal shutdown.
United’s Terminal 7 has been undergoing an extensive renovation over the past couple of years, and it shows — though it does feel a bit sterile, it’s a huge improvement overall.
That said, there isn’t a ton to do, especially if you don’t have access to the lounge.
There’s a small number of restaurants and coffeeshops, along with a few stores.
I wouldn’t ever plan to hang out at LAX, though — it was not especially exciting, even after the renovations.
There is a brand-new Polaris Lounge, but it’s accessible only to customers traveling in international business or first class. Transcon business-class flyers are not eligible.
Customers traveling in first class or regional business class don’t get lounge access at all — at least not without a United Club membership, United Club Infinite Card or a Star Alliance Gold card from a partner airline — but business-class flyers can visit the United Club with a boarding pass for a premium transcon route, including Newark to LAX and SFO, and Boston (BOS) to SFO.
United opened a new Club at LAX a bit over two years ago, in December 2016. Though it can get crowded during peak periods, this is easily one of the best United Clubs in the country — sure beats the dismal pop-up situation at Newark.
While the LAX lounge space and amenities hadn’t changed since my original review, I found the catering had improved quite a bit.
At 20,000 square feet, this is one of the largest United Clubs in the world, and you can really feel its size. In addition to a large main seating area, divided off into smaller sections, there’s a sizable dining space, with a mix of booths and tables.
There’s also a large oval bar, which I didn’t visit, given my early-morning departure.
The breakfast spread was far more diverse than I’d remembered, with a mix of cereal, yogurt, fruit and other toppings.
There were also pastries available: white and wheat bread, English muffins and other items.
I was most impressed by the egg selection. Everything was cold, which I normally wouldn’t find appealing, but I loved the egg whites mixed with avocado, especially with some hot sauce and Parmesan shavings on top.
There were Illy coffee machines as well, in addition to a few types of tea and a cocoa bar.
Most of the food and beverages were in the main dining area, but there were also a couple stations elsewhere in the lounge.
I was especially excited to see the jars of candy — but, again, it was a bit too early for sweets.
After a short visit to the lounge, I headed to the gate for the inaugural festivities, which began with executive speeches.
There were a few photo opps as well, framed by a large blue-and-white balloon arch.
Boarding began slightly ahead of schedule, with United employees handing out inaugural flight certificates and postcards to everyone in line.
The certificates seemed to represent the event accurately enough, given that this wasn’t a true inaugural in any sense of the word.
It was still an exciting moment for all involved, though — especially the crew.
And with that, it was time to board United’s “first scheduled 787-10 service” to EWR.
Cabin and Seat
Unlike the smaller 787-8 and -9 Dreamliners, which offer two business-class cabins, United’s 787-10 has a single cabin up front. It is very large, though, with a total of 44 seats spread among 11 rows.
Everyone was pretty excited to be flying on a new plane — there was no question that this was a huge step up, especially for regular domestic service.
Seats are in a staggered 1-2-1 configuration — center seats in odd-numbered rows are close together, making them better for couples, while even-numbered center seats face the aisles. Odd-row window seats are closer to the windows, offering more privacy (and more exterior views) than those in even rows.
There are four lavatories for business class, two at the front of the cabin and two just behind, next to the main entry.
For my first of three 787-10 flights, I selected 1A, a window-facing window seat at the very front of the cabin. I’m not sure I’d pick it again, to be honest — it was too close to the galley and lavatories, with lots of traffic and noise.
For this review, I selected 11L, at the opposite end of the cabin. Again, it’s near the galley and lavatories and was a bit too loud — it’s also much closer to the engine, which made it seem noisier as well. I’d recommend avoiding the first and last rows in general, if you can help it.
I actually found my third seat, 10A, to be a little bit quieter, even though it is exposed to the aisle. Being one row farther from the galley made enough of a difference.
I loved almost everything else about 11L, though — it was very private, though the passageway to the aisle is especially narrow, making it a bit challenging to get in and out.
I also liked having two large windows and a great view of the engine and wing. All odd-row window seats had two windows each, except for 5A and 5L, which only had one.
These seats are virtually identical to those on United’s 777-300ERs and retrofitted 777-200s and 767-300s. There’s a decent amount of storage, including a secured compartment just above the side table.
There is also a small shelf below the 15-inch touchscreen display, with a USB port that charged gadgets just as quickly as the one I have at home. I also really like that United’s Polaris seats have a handle bar, making it easier to stand up, especially when the seat is reclined a bit.
I was even able to tuck my backpack under the ottoman — it was a snug fit in 11L, while there was a bit more room for a bag up front at the bulkhead.
I found the footwell to be decently wide and deep. Seats not at the bulkhead often have less space for your feet, but that was less the case in Polaris.
My footwell at 11L is pictured above, for example, while below is the footwell at 1A — noticeably wider at the bulkhead, but not too narrow in other rows.
787-10 biz seats have the same slick controls as United’s other Polaris planes, including the recline wheel, which makes it especially easy to reposition into a bed. There are also buttons to turn the side light off and on and to activate the “do not disturb” light at the aisle.
I found the seat to be comfortable as a bed. There’s an annoying shoulder strap that you need to tuck out of the way, but assuming you don’t bump into that, it’s pretty comfortable. Technically, the bed is 78 inches long from one end to the other, though that figure drops to 73 inches, or 6 feet, 1 inch, if you exclude the end of the footwell where you can’t position your feet side-by-side — I’m 5 feet, 9 inches, and fit just fine.
The Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and blanket were great, though I do wish United offered mattress pads and gel pillows on domestic routes, just as the airline does on long-haul flights.
United’s 787-10s also offer individual air vents. There are two at each pair of center seats and two for each window seat.
My favorite feature is the privacy, though: If you are at an odd-row window seat, you really need to make an effort to see anyone else. I wasn’t even able to see the IFE displays of my neighboring seats without standing up or leaning into the aisle.
Even the aisle-facing window seats offer decent privacy. Traffic could be more of a distraction, but I couldn’t see any of the other seated passengers, even when I leaned out a bit.
Amenities and IFE
Business-class passengers are supposed to get an amenity kit on premium domestic routes — I did on my first and second flights, but I never received one on my third 787-10 leg. Assuming you do manage to get one, you’ll find a small pouch with a dental kit, eye mask, earplugs and lip balm — an abbreviated version of the airline’s international kit.
There was Saks Fifth Avenue bedding as well, but only one pillow and a comforter. Again, I’d love to see United offer mattress pads on these flights, especially in the evenings and on red-eyes.
Finally, there were headphones at each seat. They were pretty terrible, though, and I couldn’t use them for more than a few minutes. They were not noise-canceling and they didn’t sound good. Bring your own.
The 787-10 has an updated version of United’s Polaris entertainment system, with a 15-inch high-definition touchscreen and a separate, wired remote. I liked the interface a bit more here, and there’s a split-screen option that let you watch a movie or TV show and the moving map side-by-side. It was a little distracting, but it was great for briefly checking in on the flight progress without interrupting a film.
United offered a decent selection of feature films. There weren’t many recent new releases to choose from on the inaugural flight, but the content was updated for my third flight on the 787-10.
All of the films seemed to offer trailers and handy IMDB ratings.
There were three ads before each program, but you could skip them easily enough by sliding the timeline bar across to the right.
This system is a huge improvement over the IFE on the airline’s older business-class seats. It’s far sharper, brighter and responsive, especially when skipping ahead to a specific spot in a film.
Older films were presented in a 4:3 format, but new movies were 16:9, and they looked good.
The moving map has been completely refreshed, too. It’s sharp and fully interactive.
Generally, I’ve been very disappointed with the Panasonic Wi-Fi on United’s wide-body fleet, but this 787-10 was the first international UA aircraft I’d flown on where the connectivity didn’t completely suck. The connection was quite speedy, in fact, with gate-to-gate service except for a few brief outages throughout each flight.
Rates were quite high, though, at $26.99 for the entire flight (or, oddly, $2 less for the hour-longer EWR-LAX outbound).
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Two of my three flights were during dinnertime, but the LAX-Newark inaugural was scheduled during breakfast.
A flight attendant came by to offer a beverage shortly after boarding. I asked for a glass of Champagne, but United only serves Prosecco. It did the trick, but these blue plastic cups really need to go.
About 40 minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant came by to take my drink order for the main meal. I definitely waited a bit longer to be served in the last row. I asked for a spicy Bloody Mary, which arrived as requested but clearly wasn’t mixed at all — I got a big sip of Tabasco through the straw.
Then, about an hour after takeoff, the appetizer tray arrived with fruit, yogurt and a small ramekin of granola.
A few minutes later, a flight attendant came through the cabin with a bread basket, with a choice of a croissant or a cinnamon roll. I usually love United’s cinnamon rolls but this one was barely room-temperature. I ate a couple bites and moved on.
Soon enough, it was time for the entree, except they brought the wrong one — I had ordered the chicken-chorizo chili verde, or “the eggs” in United flight-attendant vernacular. Instead, he plopped down a plate of cheese blintzes. When I pointed out the error, I was told my entree had gotten mixed up with the passenger across the aisle — and the man with my chili verde wasn’t willing to give it up. There wasn’t any chili verde left, so it was this or cereal.
The blintzes were way too sweet, so I asked for a breakfast sandwich from economy, instead. But, they had run out of all of the economy options. The flight attendant wasn’t especially apologetic, so I asked about compensation — he said he’d check with the purser, which seemed unnecessary, considering United now empowers individual flight attendants to offer compensation directly through their company-issued iPhones.
After a bit of back and forth, based on my Premier 1K status and as determined by the flight attendant app, I was offered a $300 travel voucher — a very generous amount for a breakfast mix-up, and I wasn’t about to complain.
Entree snafu aside, the service was not great. I was never offered a drink refill, so I slowly pushed my glass closer to the aisle, hoping to catch the flight attendant’s eye. Even that didn’t do the trick, so I decided to ask for sparkling water, instead.
After an hourlong snooze, I woke up hungry — still hungry, I guess, since I didn’t really get to eat breakfast. That’s when I noticed a snack basket just above my seat, with chips and biscotti. I asked the flight attendant if there was anything else to eat, and he said he had wanted to offer me a sandwich or wrap, but I had been asleep.
A bit annoyed that he hadn’t offered back when we couldn’t find anything for me to eat after takeoff, I asked for both. They looked great. They even tasted great: The pesto added a lot of flavor to the tomato-and-mozzarella sandwich, and the roast beef in the wrap was tender and delicious. The bread was awful in both cases, though — dry and stale with the sandwich and way too wet with the wrap — so I picked out the good stuff and left the not-worth-it carbs.
Overall, I much preferred the catering available on lunch and dinner flights, such as United 275, the 6pm 787-10 flight from Newark to LAX. Here were the options on that flight.
Interestingly, that time around, the flight attendant wasn’t willing to fulfill requests for sparkling wine prior to takeoff — “We don’t have that open yet” — though he did offer the airline’s signature Old Fashioned to passengers requesting alcohol, which was served in a blue plastic cup.
A few Twitter readers have asked what happened to the candied orange peel. They’re typically not included with the predeparture beverage, but I did get one after takeoff. They ran out of the drink entirely on my third flight, though. According to the purser, they only had enough for one round, even after “raiding economy.” So, uh, yeah … so much for that signature drink.
On both evening flights, the dinner service began with an appetizer tray. It was identical on both flights from Newark, with the exception of the pretzel rolls, which weren’t available at all the second time around.
I ordered the seared beef short rib on the first flight. Short rib is naturally fatty, so it’s usually pretty moist. Not here — it was bone-dry and clearly overcooked, though it still tasted decent.
I ordered the grilled chicken breast on the next flight. This time, the meat was very tender, though the dish was pretty bland, with overcooked green beans and flavorless grits.
The sundaes hit the mark both times, though. United offers a full dessert cart on premium transcon routes, as on long-haul business-class flights.
The crew was all smiles at the gate, and during boarding. Midflight, though, it was clear they were overwhelmed by the new aircraft, which resulted in some of the least attentive service I’ve had on a premium transcon United flight.
It wasn’t just the lack of proactive service, though. On all three flights, the crew never responded to the flight-attendant call button. I had multiple flight attendants walk by my blue light, but even after several minutes, I never had someone ask how they could help. Not once.
Since I didn’t even get a water bottle on the last flight, I ended up having to go to the galley to request drink refills. During one visit, as I was checking out the snack spread, a flight attendant aggressively said “Excuse me!” as if I were standing in her way. She proceeded to grab a plate, made herself a fruit and cheese plate and then complained about the brie being salty. I would have been less offended if the crew seemed at all interested in responding to passenger requests.
With an industry-leading aircraft now permanently in the transcon fleet, inflight service is ultimately going to be the biggest challenge for United. Allow the table below to summarize just how inconsistent the experience was from one flight to the next.
|Flight||275 (EWR-LAX)||2418 (LAX-EWR)||275 (EWR-LAX)|
|Choice of predeparture beverage||No||Yes||No|
|Respond to call button||No||No||No|
|Unlimited Wi-Fi price||$24.99||$26.99||$24.99|
GREAT plane. So-so catering. Lousy service. United’s clearly got the hard product down here, but that’s just not enough. We very rarely get to experience a flight more than once before drawing conclusions for a review, and, in this case, United had three opportunities to prove that its transcon service was up to snuff. All three flights fell short.
Equipped with a Dreamliner any airline would be proud of, United’s on track to best the competition — yes, even JetBlue Mint. But the flight attendants really need to step up their game. A fantastic seat only goes so far when the soft product falls short.
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