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United sure knows how to send off an inaugural flight. Pros: fantastic new Polaris Lounge at SFO, incredibly friendly flight attendants, good food, fantastic wines, great Saks Fifth Avenue bedding. Cons: older business-class seat, sluggish Wi-Fi, slow meal service.
On October 30, United launched a new flight that I honestly never saw coming — from San Francisco (SFO) to Papeete, Tahiti (PPT) on the airline’s 787-8 Dreamliner.
This new United nonstop makes Tahiti and other popular Polynesian islands like Moorea and Bora Bora far more accessible to US-based travelers — especially those hoping to redeem miles for a free flight, given the excellent economy saver award availability. Naturally, we wanted to join for the very first flight.
I want to make this clear right off the bat, though — this was a very special inaugural flight, with “VIP” passengers ranging from United executives to corporate travel planners. There was even an airline employee tasked with overseeing flight attendants onboard. In other words, the service was exceptional on this flight, but it kinda had to be.
United typically offers free seats to journalists joining inaugural flights — as per TPG policy, we paid our own way, booking a multi-city economy itinerary for $1,384, upgraded to business class using one of my Premier 1K Global Premier Upgrades.
That fare included my flight from Newark (EWR) to San Francisco and onward to Papeete in the W fare class, which is required for GPUs, along with a discount-economy flight from SFO to Newark following my French Bee A350 leg from Tahiti to San Francisco at the end of the trip.
We paid with The Platinum Card® from American Express, earning 6,920 Membership Rewards points, thanks to the card’s 5x points on airfare booked directly with the airline. I’m also earning United miles and elite credit as follows:
In addition to the 6,920 Amex points, worth $138, I’ll net 14,509 redeemable MileagePlus miles, worth $189. And I got a business-class flight to Tahiti. Not bad at all!
You can also find plentiful saver award availability in economy, priced at 35,000 United miles each way, with 70,000-mile business-class saver awards available on same dates as well.
United is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards — points transfer instantly at a 1:1 ratio, earned with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve, making it easy to boost your balance and book this flight.
Check-In and Lounge
I began my long journey to Tahiti very early the same morning in New York City, including a breakfast visit to the Newark (EWR) Polaris Lounge followed by a six-hour flight to SFO. I checked in using United’s app, and since I was connecting from a domestic flight, I was able to head straight to the new Polaris Lounge once we pulled up to the gate in San Francisco.
While I’d visited the SFO Polaris Lounge once before, that was for a special preview event, so I was eager for a more authentic experience.
I had a great visit overall — rather than run through it in great detail here, I’ve shared my experience in a dedicated review.
After an hour in the lounge, it was time to head to the international area for the typical pre-inaugural gate festivities.
The party was in full swing by the time I arrived, with employees and passengers gathered around a buffet of Polynesian treats…
… and watching Tahitian-themed musicians and dancers.
United executives took turns giving speeches, including United’s VP of International Network, Patrick Quayle, who announced that the airline’s seasonal nonstop would be available year-round.
Shortly after the celebration wrapped up, it was time for passengers to make their way onboard N26906, our six-year-old Boeing 787-8.
Cabin and Seat
While the extended-length (and range) 787-9 is United’s most popular Dreamliner, the airline also operates a dozen 787-8s. There are a total of 219 seats onboard, including 36 spread between two small business-class cabins, arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration.
I usually grab a seat in the second business cabin, but I’m thinking I might change my tune — while that move makes sense on the larger 787-9, where the second cabin is far smaller, they’re identical in size on the -8.
The one major downside to picking a seat in the second cabin is that all 183 economy passengers pass by during boarding, which is exactly what happened this time.
While the rest of the passengers made their way onboard, I changed into my pajamas in the largest lavatory, located just forward of Door 2 on the port side of the plane.
I then returned to my seat, 4D, located at the center bulkhead.
While I’d normally opt for a window seat on the 787, since I just can’t get enough of those gigantic electronic-dimming windows, the only bulkhead option left was in the center section. It did mean that my neighbor and I both had direct aisle access, though.
Seats in the first row of each section offer far larger footwells, making for a much more comfortable snooze in bed mode.
There’s also much more room for a bag — my overstuffed Tumi Alpha 2 backpack fit perfectly under the ottoman.
The wide ottoman really shines when it comes time to sleep — it feels far more natural, since there’s no need to scrunch your feet together.
I also appreciate that United made the decision to offer dedicated air vents on its Dreamliners — I just can’t understand why so many international airlines choose to leave them out.
In addition to the large cotton pillow, gel pillow and Saks Fifth Avenue duvet pictured above, there was a well-stocked amenity kit waiting at my seat during boarding. It’s more or less identical to the kits I’ve received from United in the past, though the pouch itself has changed a bit.
Inside I found an eye mask, ear plugs, tissues, a dental kit, Cowshed lip balm and hand cream, disposable socks and a pen.
There were also more Cowshed amenities in the lavatory, along with a flower one of the crew members apparently grabbed from the gate. And while this flight wasn’t supposed to have pajamas, since it’s a bit too short, there were some sets onboard, likely leftover from the Osaka (KIX) flight before. There were also mattress pads available, but I forgot to ask for one until it was almost time to land.
Typically, United offers full-size inaugural flight certificates — this time, they were downgraded to a commemorative postcard, which each passenger received inside a United-branded passport holder at boarding.
As for the entertainment, each business seat offers a 15-inch touchscreen on-demand system, loaded with movies, TV shows and other content.
There were dozens of new releases, along with countless older films, broken out by genre.
I’ve noticed that the selection tends to vary a bit from one United aircraft to the next — for example, my 757 flight from Newark offered a slightly more up-to-date roster than what we got on the Dreamliner.
I ended up watching two full movies on the flight, and made frequent visits to the moving map, tracking our progress over the Pacific.
United offers Panasonic Wi-Fi on this route as well, priced at $5 for one hour, $9 for two hours or $19 for the whole flight. While service was available for almost the entire flight, it was very sluggish at times — too slow to run a speed test, even. You shouldn’t have any problem sending some texts, but even loading web-based email is a challenge.
Food and Beverage
During boarding, I went straight for the menu — I was really hoping to find a mai tai, or some Polynesian-specific entrees, rather than the usual suspects I’ve seen many times before. No dice.
Moments later, a flight attendant stopped by with a mix of pre-departure beverages, including Champagne, water and orange juice. This was also my first time seeing United’s new polycarbonate cups — a huge improvement over the blue plastic we’ve been getting for so many years.
After takeoff, the service was pretty slow — nobody seemed to be in much of a rush, and since I was still full from my Polaris Lounge visit and planned to stay up the entire flight, I didn’t really mind.
The main meal started with a “Champagne toast,” some 40 minutes after takeoff.
The wine cart appeared a half hour after that — I hadn’t noticed this Polaris branding before, but it definitely helps to dress things up a bit.
And we were definitely in good hands with the wine. The purser, Kevin, works part time at United — his regular gig is as a sommelier in Napa. So, naturally, he was far better informed than any flight attendant I’ve encountered before.
He recommended the Gundlach Bundschu Mountain Cuvee, from nearby Sonoma, as well as an Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, which I’ve had several times before — but never on United.
Without a doubt, both of these wines were far better than anything I’ve tried on UA. Kevin seemed to think they’re now part of the regular business-class rotation, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if they had been hand-picked for the inaugural.
The rest of the meal was 100% Polaris, though.
The appetizer tray appeared more than 90 minutes after takeoff, giving me some time to work up an appetite again. I also indulged in the bread basket — those pretzel rolls are a must, but unfortunately mine was a bit cold.
The shrimp were cold, too, but that was by design. They were flavorful and fresh.
The salad was also fresh, but a bit… uninspired. A couple cherry tomatoes and two tiny balls of flavorless mozzarella just weren’t worth getting excited about.
I really loved my entree, though. I ordered the miso-glazed salmon filet with soba noodles — it doesn’t look very appetizing, but it was moist and delicious. Other options included a beef short rib with barbecue sauce, spicy chicken soup with udon noodles and lentil chili with garlic polenta.
Finally, it was time for dessert — nearly three hours after departure. Patrick Quayle, the VP responsible for United’s decision to fly to Tahiti, was fixing up sundaes. (In case it wasn’t clear before — this really wasn’t an ordinary United flight.)
Patrick went a bit heavy on the toppings, which I didn’t mind one bit.
The crew served a pre-arrival meal about an hour before we landed at PPT. We had a choice between mushroom ravioli and a salmon salad. I normally wouldn’t go out of my way to eat salmon for two meals in a row, but the fish ended up being far more delicious than I expected. I also had another pretzel roll — unfortunately it was even colder than the last.
There’s a lot of excitement around this new route, and not just in French Polynesia. United’s new nonstop to Papeete makes it far easier for US travelers to get to this incredible South Pacific region, including Bora Bora — perhaps the most famous honeymoon destination in the world.
While some frequent flyers will certainly be bummed that United’s latest Polaris seat isn’t yet available on this route, 2-2-2 seating does actually make quite a bit of sense for this market, given that French Polynesia is especially popular with couples — who would probably rather not kick off their romantic adventure with single window seats on United’s new (or improved) wide-body planes. It’s also the exact same seat you’ll find on Air Tahiti Nui’s brand-new Dreamliner — United’s chief competitor to the West Coast.
There is one major improvement I’m hoping United makes soon, though: the arrival time. Getting into Tahiti at 7:40pm is not ideal — it makes an overnight stay in Papeete all but compulsory, and while I enjoyed my quick visit to the Intercontinental just five minutes down the road, I’d much prefer making an intra-island connection right away.
On the other hand, the evening departure to SFO definitely makes sense, giving passengers plenty of time to arrive at PPT from neighboring islands. It’s also timed perfectly for a full-night’s sleep on the way back home — perhaps easing the pain of saying farewell to paradise.
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