Unfriendly Skies: Flying United’s 787-8 in Economy From Papeete to San Francisco
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Whether you’re looking to relax in luxury in Bora Bora’s famed overwater bungalows or island hop through French Polynesia (or both!), you’ll need to first get yourself to Papeete on the island of Tahiti in French Polynesia. From there, you can take Air Tahiti — not to be confused with Air Tahiti Nui — to other islands.
TPG Editor-at-Large Zach Honig reviewed United’s 787-8 in business class last fall, when the route to PPT launched. But, if you’re using all of your transferable points on hotels in Bora Bora, Tahiti and Moorea or on your flight to PPT, then you may find yourself in economy for the flight home, like I did. Here’s my take on United’s 787-8 in economy from PPT to San Francisco (SFO).
I booked this flight as a one-way cash fare to get me back to US after traveling to Tahiti on an one-way American Airlines award. I was able to snag the one-way United ticket back from Tahiti for $250 — $181 of airfare and $69 of taxes and fees. This price is relatively common, likely due to competition from low-cost carrier French Bee.
If you’re flying economy on this route, I’d recommend snagging a low cash fare like I did. But there are points-and-miles options. If you want to fly United, remember that United is removing award charts for travel on or after Nov. 15. So you’ll want to compare the cash fares and the award cost to decide whether using United miles is a good value.
TPG’s latest valuations peg the value of United miles at 1.3 cents each, so the award cost would’ve needed to be around 20,000 miles for me to use United miles (note that the final United award chart lists Saver Awards on this route for 35,000 miles). Alternatively, you could also book this United-operated flight with Star Alliance partner Aeroplan for 45,000 miles, worth about $675.
When I booked, only middle seats were available for selection without a fee. I decided to not select a seat, but United auto-selected a middle seat for me anyway. I used ExpertFlyer to set a seat alert for anything besides a middle seat and was able to change to an aisle seat a few weeks later when I received an alert.
Then, about 30 hours before departure I received a new alert that an aisle seat in the middle section opened, and I was able to switch to this seat.
After enjoying one final sunset in French Polynesia, I took a 2,000-CFP franc (about $20) taxi from downtown Papeete to the airport around 7pm. The check-in desks at PPT were open-air but under a roof — and you needed to visit these desks even if you only had carry-on baggage, since online check-in wasn’t allowed for United itineraries departing Tahiti.
There wasn’t a wait for the Premier Access or economy check-in lines, and my ID check and check-in went quickly. During check-in, I inquired whether there were any aisle seats further up in the cabin. The agent said there was an aisle seat in the Economy Plus section but that I’d need to pay $116 for the seat even as a Star Alliance Gold elite. This was a steep fee for a few more inches of legroom, so I kept the seat I had.
After checking in, I went through immigration — which was staffed by just one agent — and then security. Security was a single line, but there wasn’t a wait. After security, there were limited services — a duty-free shop that had mostly local brands, a couple souvenir shops, a cafe and the Air Tahiti Nui lounge.
The Air Tahiti Nui lounge was on the upper floor of the departures area. The lounge opened two and a half hours before the first international departure, excluding LAN and Hawaiian departures. I initially assumed the lounge was closed when I walked up to a locked door. But when I pushed the call button, the front-desk attendant unlocked the door.
The lounge was accessible to business-class and elite passengers for most airlines and Priority Pass members. I entered using the Priority Pass Select membership that comes as a benefit of being an authorized user on JT’s Platinum Card® from American Express.
The agent was perhaps the nicest front-desk agent I’ve met at a Priority Pass lounge. He welcomed me and told me everything I needed to know about the lounge. It felt busy despite there only being two international departures that evening — my United flight at 9:15pm and an Air Tahiti Nui flight at 11:45pm.
There was ample seating, though, and it didn’t feel too cramped — but only some seats had access to European-style power outlets. There was a self-serve bar area with two types of beer, a variety of middle-tier liquors and four wines — a red, a white, a rosé and a sparkling chardonnay. There were also light snacks, but it would be difficult to make even a small meal from the offerings. This being said, the fruits and pastries I had were fresh and tasty.
There was one shower in the women’s restroom that wasn’t reset between uses, and it also served as the handicapped restroom for women. The shower room was open when I checked upon arrival to the lounge, but I’d just showered before coming to the airport, so I didn’t try it out.
The lounge Wi-Fi was the best I’d experienced in French Polynesia, testing at 8 ms ping, 28.65 Mbps download and 29.24 Mbps upload.
If you don’t have a Priority Pass membership yet, know that there were plenty of seats upstairs near the lounge that had fans and power outlets.
AvGeeks will enjoy the elevated views of the tarmac through open windows. But but be aware that there wasn’t any air conditioning in the seating areas outside the lounge.
Boarding was scheduled to begin at 8:25pm, and I got a text message saying that boarding had started right at 8:24pm.
This message seemed scheduled though, as preboarding didn’t start until 8:28pm and Group 1 started boarding one minute later.
All of the gates in Tahiti are walk-up gates, and United was using Air Tahiti Nui stairways. There were two stairways connected to the aircraft — one for business class and one for economy.
The ground experience in San Francisco (SFO) was much smoother than my husband, JT, had experienced a day and a half earlier. The lines for immigration were short — nonexistent for Global Entry — and my bag came out 22 minutes after the plane reached the gate, which was just 15 minutes after I deplaned.
Cabin and Seat
United’s 787-8 economy cabin is configured with 3-3-3 seating in two sections. The first seven rows of the forward section as well as the exit rows are Economy Plus seats. Economy Plus seats are the same seats as other economy seats but have a few additional inches between rows and a different colored headrest. During booking, it would’ve cost between $112 and $132 for an Economy Plus seat.
The remaining rows in the forward section, as well as some seats in the rear section, are considered Preferred seats. These Preferred seats, which offer no benefit besides being farther forward in the cabin, cost between $28 and $39 to select.
I selected Seat 36F — a normal economy seat — when I got an ExpertFlyer alert that it’d opened up about 30 hours before departure. In a 3-3-3 cabin configuration, I prefer middle-section aisle seats because — especially from Tahiti — it’s likely you’ll be seated next to a couple who will chose to lean toward (and wake up if they need to get up) their partner instead of you. And that’s exactly what I got on this flight.
My seat was 17.25 inches wide, and the pitch was 31 inches. The seat was relatively comfortable besides a metal rod under the thin seat cushion near the seatback. This was rather uncomfortable, but I solved the problem by sitting on the provided pillow.
The seat and surrounding areas appeared relatively clean during boarding, and my aisle armrest could be completely raised by pressing a button underneath it.
When the seat was reclined, the pitch increased to 35.5 inches with the seatback reclining and the seat bottom sliding forward. This meant that the pitch decreased to 26.5 inches when the passenger ahead of me reclined, though.
The headrests had two wings that could bend to support your neck while sleeping, but I found that these wings didn’t bend enough to support my head in an upright position. My headrest wouldn’t move up or down, but it seemed that other passengers were able to slightly raise their headrests.
A tray table folded down from the seatback. The tray table was 16 inches wide by 9 inches deep and could slide toward you about 2.75 inches.
The tray table was barely big enough to hold my laptop and a drink. It was comfortable to work on my laptop when neither I nor the passenger ahead of me reclined — but it became close to impossible once the passenger ahead of me reclined.
There was ample storage under each seat, and even on my completely full flight the overhead bins were large enough to hold all of the passengers’ carry-on bags.
There was an USB outlet next to each IFE screen and a universal power outlet between each pair of seats. So each set of three seats shared two power outlets. The power outlets were on each side of the middle seat though, so it was awkward trying to plug in my laptop while my neighbor slept, since I had to reach behind her leg. Additionally, the power outlet would randomly stop emitting power, so I needed to reach down, unplug my plug and replug it in multiple times during the flight.
There were two lavatories in the middle of the economy cabin and two at the rear. They were relatively clean each time I used them, and I never had to wait in line to use them even with the completely full cabin. There were no amenities besides the basic soap, paper towels and toilet paper in the lavatories.
If you’re considering the last row, reconsider if you are hoping to fully recline. While there is some recline — and you don’t have to worry about any potential awkwardness with the person sitting behind you — they don’t feature the full recline of other seats in the cabin.
Amenities and IFE
During boarding, each economy seat contained a plastic-wrapped blanket and a single small pillow in a disposable cover. The pillow was a decent size for use as lumbar support, but I ended up sitting on mine to make my seat more comfortable. The blanket was so thin I could see through it, and it wasn’t very warm at all.
The IFE screen measured 8.75 inches along its diagonal. The screen could tilt, which made it easier to watch content when the passenger ahead of me reclined.
On the IFE, there were 211 movies, 135 TV series — some with multiple episodes — 12 audio mixes, 11 podcasts, eight relaxation videos and the Flightpath 2D flight map. The touchscreen for the IFE required firm touches at points, but was otherwise intuitive and easy to use.
Complimentary earbuds were distributed 27 minutes after boarding. The earbuds couldn’t compete with my Bose headphones, but they worked well enough for those traveling without headphones of their own. No other amenities like eye masks or earplugs were provided on this overnight flight.
Wi-Fi was available during flight. There were three packages available: one hour for $4.99, two hours for $8.99 and a full-flight pass for $18.99. United also offered the option to pay for Wi-Fi with miles, but they only valued their miles at 0.65 cents each (compared to TPG’s valuation of 1.3 cents each). I purchased the one-hour pass using my Citi Prestige card in hopes of earning 5x points — which I should, since it posted as “United Airlines.”
The Wi-Fi blocked almost every speed-test service I tried on both my computer and phone. I was eventually able to run OpenSpeedTest on my computer, and it recorded 2,095 ms ping, 0.11 Mbps download and 2.3 Mbps upload. If you logged in to your MileagePlus account before buying the Wi-Fi package, you could switch between multiple devices, which worked seamlessly for me during my hour of Wi-Fi.
Even if you didn’t purchase Wi-Fi, you could still watch select entertainment on your own device by connecting to the Wi-Fi network and clicking on “United Private Screening.”
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
No menu was provided, but the departure meal service began with an announcement in English, French and Tahitian about the dinner choices. The choices were pasta in marinara sauce or chicken with rice — but by the time the food carts reached Row 30, six rows ahead of me, only chicken and rice was left. So if you’re vegetarian or a picky eater, be sure to preorder a special meal.
Special meals were served just 20 minutes after takeoff. The food carts left the galley 30 minutes after takeoff, and the cart reached me about 20 minutes later.
A beverage cart trailed the food cart and reached me six minutes after my meal was served. This flight offered complimentary beer and wine. Spirits were $9 or $10 each.
The chicken and rice that I got by default — the flight attendant didn’t even ask if I was OK with chicken, instead plopping down the tray with a simple “Here you go” — was lightly breaded and served in a slightly sweet sauce. The tray also contained a cold roll, a small fruit tray, which consisted of mostly watermelon, and a small cup of chocolate mousse.
Flight attendants came through with the trash cart just 10 minutes after I received my drink, but they returned shortly after I finished my meal to collect my tray. A coffee and tea service was provided shortly after, and the cabin lights were turned off soon after that — 90 minutes after takeoff.
About two hours before arrival — after about four and a half hours of darkness — a loud announcement with arrival-meal choices woke up the cabin. The arrival meal was a choice of pizza or quiche, but the quiche option ran out a few rows ahead of me. The cart reached my seat about 15 minutes after the announcement, and the beverage cart arrived nine minutes later.
The pizza entree filled the entire serving dish, and looked — though didn’t taste — burnt. The pizza was difficult to cut with a plastic knife, so I had to resort to picking it up. The pizza was a little soggy but otherwise fine. The arrival meal was served with the same fruit plate and cold roll as the departure meal.
There were self-serve bottles of water, juice and wine in the back galley between the departure and arrival meals.
I was disappointed by the meal quality and quantity of both meals, as well as the fact that I didn’t get a choice of entree for either meal. Running out of a choice during one meal is bad luck, but twice is indicative of poor catering — especially because over a third of the passengers sitting around me slept through or refused each meal, meaning that there should’ve been plenty of extra meals if they’d catered meals for every passenger.
I witnessed dismissive and otherwise unprofessional behavior from some flight attendants on this flight.
When flying in economy — especially on a full flight — I don’t expect much from the flight attendants besides friendly service during the limited interactions with passengers, respect for passengers and other crew, adherence to safety procedures and responsiveness when passengers need help.
On the positive side, the flight attendants were friendly at the start of boarding and passed through the cabin a couple times during the night with water. But some interactions I witnessed between the crew and passengers were downright hostile. For example, one passenger noted during meal service that he couldn’t eat meat. Instead of offering to find a suitable alternative or even just offering extra fruit, the flight attendant simply removed the hot dish and walked away.
Another example occurred around pushback from Tahiti. A European family seated one row ahead of me had pushed the call button a few minutes earlier, but it hadn’t been answered. So, the father stopped a flight attendant as she was walking through the cabin and asked for an infant-in-arms seat belt (which is required in Europe). The flight attendant snapped, “We don’t have those!” before berating the mother for not having her seat belt fastened. The mother responded that she had been waiting for the infant seat belt, but the flight attendant remained dismissive.
The hostile, dismissive behavior of some flight attendants toward passengers certainly cost United points. But the service score was further damaged by gossip I overheard on multiple occasions as flight attendants passed through the cabin, as well as from the galley while sitting in my seat. Some of the gossip I overheard involved the captain’s girlfriend (who was apparently a passenger on the flight) and two especially bothersome passengers. I get that it can be boring to work a red-eye flight, but it seemed highly unprofessional for me to hear flight attendants openly gossiping about other passengers while I was sitting in my seat.
Although the call buttons were ignored and simply reset during taxi and before the departure meal service, I noticed that they were answered in a timely manner throughout the rest of the flight.
Despite my relatively negative impression of this flight, I’d still willingly pay $250 to take this one-way flight back from French Polynesia. Since the flight departs from Tahiti in the evening and arrives in SFO in the morning, I’d just get on board and sleep, as the passengers next to me did on this flight. This said, I was disappointed in many aspects of the flight — especially the poorly managed catering, awkwardly placed power outlets, uncomfortable seat bottom and unprofessional service.
All photos by the author.
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