America’s Worst Lie-Flats: United’s “Dorm-Style” Business Class on the 777
During a recent trip to Hawaii, I had the opportunity to relive my college years. No, I’m not talking about the booze I had on Maui and Oahu, but rather the business-class flight I took from Denver to Maui on United’s Boeing 777-200, which features a hard product that was so outdated and cramped that I felt like I was back in my college dorm room.
There are 29 Boeing 777s in United’s fleet configured with this ancient hard product. Nineteen of these are configured exactly the same as the plane I flew and 10 of them have the same business-class hard product, but also have eight seats in a “first-class” cabin, a relic of premerger United.
This subfleet primarily flies to Hawaii, on some transcontinental flights and the occasional hop to Europe. United doesn’t plan to update the 19 777s that currently feature 28 business-class seats, but, fortunately, United is working hard to reconfigure the remaining 10 planes (six will get true Polaris seats and four will get the dreaded configuration I flew).
Since there aren’t any nonstop flights from the East Coast to Maui (OGG), I knew I’d need to stop on my way. Naturally, as a TPG employee, I tried to find a flight that maximized my comfort and minimized my travel time.
As I’m working to qualify for United MileagePlus Premier status, I kept my searches confined to United, but American, Alaska, Delta and Hawaiian also offer one-stop options from the East Coast to Maui. By choosing United, my connection cities were limited to Chicago (ORD), Denver (DEN), Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO). After filtering out the Boeing 737s that fly from LAX and SFO to Maui, I wasn’t left with much choice.
To fly lie-flat the entire journey, I needed to connect in Denver or California. In the end, my itinerary was Newark (EWR)-DEN on United’s 757-200 and then DEN-OGG on this 777-200.
Had there been award availability on my flights, I could’ve booked through the following programs.
- United MileagePlus requires 40,000 miles (at the saver level), transferrable from Chase Ultimate Rewards
- Air Canada Aeroplan requires 40,000 miles, transferrable from Amex Membership Rewards or Capital One points
- Singapore KrisFlyer requires 30,000 miles, transferrable from Amex Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards, Citi ThankYou points or Capital One points
- Avianca LifeMiles requires 40,000 miles, transferrable from Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou points or Capital One points
- Turkish Miles & Smiles requires 12,500 miles, transferrable from Citi ThankYou points.
I ended up paying cash for my ticket using the Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 5x points spent on airfare booked directly with airlines or through American Express Travel (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year).
My travel day began at 4:30am with an Uber from my New York City apartment to Newark’s Terminal C. United, the sole airline flying from EWR Terminal C, has been spending millions of dollars renovating the terminal, and the improvements are beginning to show, especially at the new Polaris lounge.
I entered the terminal on the third level dedicated to Premier Access customers. Given the early hour, there wasn’t a line at the check-in counters even though there were only two agents staffing the self-check-in machines. I quickly printed out my boarding passes and made my way to the TSA PreCheck line.
I was airside five minutes later and happy that I wouldn’t need to reclear security in the “haunted” Denver airport.
As I made my way to the gate for the flight to Denver, I passed by United’s new club directory. Flying business class to Hawaii no longer confers any lounge access, so there was no bar mix or United flagship burger in my immediate future.
Instead, I relaxed by the gate waiting for boarding to start.
Before long, we were airborne for the three-and-a-half-hour flight to Denver. After landing in Denver at Gate B21, I made my way down the departure hall to the connecting Gate B36.
The Boeing 777-200 was already waiting at the gate, having just arrived from Honolulu (HNL). I knew better than to attempt to access the nearby United Club, so I just waited patiently (read: anxiously waiting in the boarding line to grab the best possible cabin pictures) for boarding to begin.
The boarding process was quite democratic, and I was really the only gate louse in sight.
I wouldn’t hesitate to connect in Denver again, especially in the summer (when there’s little chance of snowstorms). United primarily flies from Terminal B, which is just one long rectangular corridor of gates. I didn’t need to take trains or buses and earned extra steps on my fitness tracker.
Cabin and Seat
This is where the flashbacks to my college dorm began. Immediately upon boarding, I was struck by the incredibly dense hard product.
The hard product reminded me of my freshman dorm, where I lived in a 150-square-foot room with roommates and without any privacy whatsoever.
All four rows of business class are in a 2-4-2 arrangement with seats alternating between forward-facing and backward-facing.
When the center seats face forward, the couple seats on the sides face backward, and vice versa. This arrangement guarantees absolutely no privacy, as passengers face each other the entire flight.
Aside from the lack of privacy across the aisle, there are no dividers or large armrests between any of the seats.
Hopefully you’re traveling with someone you know. Otherwise, you’ll be making lots of friends by the end of your flight.
Although I had booked my flight about two months before departure, all of the double seats were already assigned, so I was stuck with the aisle in Row 1. I thought that the bulkhead row would at least have a larger footwell, but my hopes were dashed when I measured the footwell as 10 inches deep and 13.5 inches wide.
The seat itself was sagging from the many years of passengers sleeping in it.
My seat was completely exposed and measured a measly 19.5 inches wide, which meant that I kept getting bumped from the galley carts and passengers throughout the flight.
The only good news was that the seat converted to a fully flat bed using the intuitive seat controls.
But beware, the bed length only measured 74 inches, so if you’re tall, you’ll need to find space to angle your knees when sleeping.
Looking to store your laptop, wallet, glasses or shoes? You’re out of luck. The density of these seats meant that there was virtually no storage space other than the literature pocket between the seats.
The tray table wasn’t particularly large, either, measuring 18 inches wide and 11 inches long — there wasn’t much room for anything else besides my laptop.
The two lavatories at the front of the cabin were kept clean throughout the flight and featured Sunday Riley hand cream and Murchison-Hume Garment Groom, which added a nice touch to the otherwise basic bathrooms.
Amenities and IFE
The amenities and IFE on this 777 had definitely been updated since the plane’s first flight in 1994. United also nailed the basics, as there were individual air nozzles and large overhead bins.
Waiting at my seat during boarding were a Saks Fifth Avenue pillow and blanket. There was no amenity kit, pajamas or slippers. United’s investment in its business-class bedding showed, as the pillow and blanket were actually comfortable and something that I’d consider taking home.
Much like United’s newest 777-300s, the carrier installed their latest entertainment system on this plane. The crisp, high-definition TV measured 15.4 inches and featured 137 TV shows and 209 movies, including newish releases like “Green Book” and “The Front Runner.”
The live map was detailed and had multiple views.
There was a handheld remote, as well as noise-isolating headphones.
My inner AvGeek was let down when I only heard static on United’s signature audio feed that streams the pilots’ communication with air-traffic control.
Considering that United struggles with providing a reliable Wi-Fi connection on many of its flights, I was surprised that Wi-Fi worked for the entire flight (the landing page didn’t know the correct route, though).
I found the cost to be quite reasonable at $20.99 for a full-flight pass. Speeds were also quite good at 3.4 Mbps download and 0.6 Mbps upload.
But just like that freshman dorm, things weren’t perfect. The TV was not directly aligned with my line of sight, which meant that I needed to turn my head 15 degrees to watch the TV. There also wasn’t a tailcam or live TV, amenities that are becoming standard on the best business-class products.
And finally, my power outlet didn’t work. It was so wobbly that none of my chargers would stay put without falling out minutes later. And I even tried using European and UK adapters.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Predeparture beverages of choice were served in United’s
red Solo signature blue plastic cups.
During boarding, a flight attendant came around asking us for our meal choices. Just like that school cafeteria, there was no menu. Instead, we had to choose from whatever the
lunch lady flight attendant said. In this case, it was either four-cheese ravioli or cider-glazed chicken casserole.
I chose the four-cheese ravioli, which was served on a single tray about 45 minutes after takeoff. The pasta was soggy and overly cheesy, but I enjoyed the small side salad and pretzel roll.
The highlight of the meal was the dessert, a DIY sundae of coffee ice cream, chocolate sauce and whipped cream. Ice cream just makes everything better.
There was no Champagne on offer. Instead, I was relegated to drinking Ca’ di Rajo Mito Italian sparkling wine.
Overall, I found the food selection to be basic for this seven-hour flight. It was very clear that, from a meal service perspective, United considered this a domestic flight.
The best part of the flight experience was the service. I was thoroughly impressed with the quality of my interactions with the flight attendants.
In particular, the purser was responsible for my aisle, and her professionalism shined through in our interactions. She made sure that my drinks were always refilled and answered the call button promptly during the middle of the flight.
Although she couldn’t provide an extra pillow or blanket, she profusely apologized that the full cabin meant that there weren’t any extras.
Most incredibly, the purser proactively asked whether I enjoyed my meal. When I responded that I didn’t love the pasta, she presented me with the economy buy-on-board menu and offered to bring me something from the back free of charge.
If you can, avoid this aircraft in business class. The hard product is so outdated compared to the other fully flat business-class products United (and other domestic carriers) fly.
If you don’t have a choice, then set the right expectations. Know that you’ll be sleeping on top of 27 of your newest best friends. At night, they’ll be climbing over you to get to the bathroom. And if you’re hungry, prep the stomach for a mediocre food selection.
All photos by the author.
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