Still needs work: A review of United Premium Plus on the Boeing 787-10
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="62" ground-experience="2" cabin-seat="23" amens-ife="26" food-bev="8" service="3" pros="Relatively spacious seat, state-of-the-art IFE, well-stocked amenity kit." cons="Same service flow as economy class, inattentive flight attendants, useless legrests, bad food." /]
United introduced its version of premium economy, Premium Plus, back in April. TPG Editor-at-Large Zach Honig reviewed one of the first flights from Newark to Hong Kong and found the experience to be subpar.
Since Zach flew on one of the inaugural Premium Plus flights, we figured that it'd be fair to give United another shot to see what (if anything) has changed in the last five months, this time on a flight from Frankfurt (FRA) to Newark (EWR). After all, it wouldn't take much to make my experience better than his, but long story short, the two Zachs — Zach H. and I — had similar experiences.
As United reconfigures the interiors of its wide-body planes, Premium Plus is now popping up on more and more of the carrier's long-haul routes. United also just started selling the cabin domestically between Newark and LAX and San Francisco (SFO) and vice versa.
Although the cabin is more widely available than before, there aren’t any great options for redeeming miles for award seats. You can’t book Premium Plus seats with partner airlines, nor are there any saver awards. The only way to book Premium Plus seats with miles is through United’s MileagePlus program.
Ever since the cabin was introduced, United hasn’t published award charts for the Premium Plus cabin, effectively introducing dynamic award pricing five months early. I’ve noticed some dates where Premium Plus awards cost more miles than saver Polaris awards, an ominous sign ahead of Nov. 15.
With poorly valued mileage awards, your best bet is to outright purchase seats in the Premium Plus cabin. If you’re a Premier Platinum or 1K member, however, you’ll soon have the option to upgrade to Premium Plus at a discounted rate using PlusPoints.
Since you’ll likely be paying for Premium Plus seats, make sure to use a card that earns bonus points on airfare, like the Platinum Card® from American Express.
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My Premium Plus experience didn't get off to a premium start. When I got to Frankfurt airport's Terminal 1, I couldn't find the United check-in counters. I had checked in online the night before, but I wanted to scope out the scene at check-in for the integrity of the review.
I don't usually struggle with navigating around airports (they're my second home, after all), but I felt like I was off my game that morning. I couldn't find any signs for United, so I asked an airport worker where the airline's check-in counters were. He pointed to a very long line and said, "Wait there."
The line was easily 250-plus people long, so I headed to the front to figure out what was going on. Turns out that United's computer systems were down that morning, and all check-ins needed to be completed manually. United has over six morning wide-body departures from Frankfurt (to Chicago, Denver, Houston, Newark, San Francisco and Washington Dulles), so there were a ton of frustrated passengers waiting around.
Fortunately, Premium Plus customers are invited to use the priority Premier Access lanes, but those weren't much shorter.
After waiting for over an hour, I made my way to the Z Gates' security checkpoint. Consistent with the theme of the morning, there were really long lines there, too. Since Premium Plus doesn't include lounge access, I headed straight to Gate Z18 after clearing security.
The gate area was jammed, and there definitely wasn't enough seating or power outlets for everyone. Worse, there was a Lufthansa narrow-body at our gate, with our United 787-10 nowhere in sight.
Although boarding was scheduled for 10:30 a.m., we didn't hear anything from the gate agents until 11 a.m. Then they announced that our plane had landed at a remote stand (old news to me after tracking the inbound flight) and we'd shortly be lined up to board buses to our stand.
Boarding began an hour later than scheduled, and we were all corralled onto one of three busses for the long journey to our plane. Once planeside, I climbed the stairs connected to Door L2 and boarded the newish bird for the flight to Newark.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="30" configuration="2" configuration-2="3" configuration-3="2" width="18.5" pitch="38" tray="17" tray-2="10.5" lavs="5" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The 21 recliner seats were arranged in a standard 2-3-2 configuration. I booked a few weeks before departure, and all the "couple" seats had already been assigned.
I ended up choosing Seat 22F, an aisle seat in the center section of the last row of the cabin. Though my seat lacked window views, I definitely appreciated the direct aisle access.
Bulkhead seats do have a bit of extra legroom, but you'll need to store all your belongings in the overhead compartments during taxi, takeoff and landing. (Bulkheads also have smaller IFE screens that can only be used when the plane is airborne).
The seats all had roughly the same 6-inch recline, which felt much more generous than economy and more in line with domestic first-class products.
The legrest was nice in theory. In practice, I found it to be useless. Though it extended outward from the seat, it didn't lift high enough to support my legs while reclining.
There was also a footrest attached to the back of the seat in front, but it didn't move up or down. I asked the flight attendants for help with the footrest, but they also couldn't figure out how to move it.
Sadly, this meant that there was no geometrical configuration where I could comfortably place my legs on the legrest and also use the footrest.
The rest of the seat worked as intended. The head cushion had wings that provided enough support to lean on one side when I was trying to sleep.
I found the seat itself to be quite supportive, and I liked the purple accents to the otherwise dark cabin.
The legrest and recline buttons were on the armrest console and were easy to use.
Because United placed the literature pocket just under the IFE screen, there was a retractable storage pocket toward the bottom of each seat in front of you.
If that weren't enough storage, there was also a small area for spare items near the AC outlet and USB port. This was also where you'd find the bifold tray table.
The 17-inch-wide and 10.5-inch-deep tray table was large enough for my 13-inch MacBook Pro, but a 15-inch version would've been pushing it. Because the tray tables were stored in the armrests, there was much more space between each pair of seats.
Each seat featured a personal air vent and reading light, making it easy to adjust the airflow. You may not need to use it though, since I've found that US-based airlines keep the cabin temperature much cooler than their Asian counterparts.
Lavatories were shared with the economy cabin, which meant that there were often lines for the six economy restrooms. I wish United had dedicated lavatories for Premium Plus passengers.
Aside from the broken footrests and the shared lavatories, the cabin itself was a noticeable step up from economy.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="26" tpg-rating-max="30" screen="13.3" movies="255" tv-shows="159" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" wifi="2.45" wifi-2="1.38" headphones="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
The amenities and IFE more closely resembled Polaris than economy.
Waiting at my seat was a Saks Fifth Avenue throw blanket and light pillow, headphones and amenity kit.
The Saks-branded pillow and blanket were much lighter than those found in Polaris, but they were more comfortable than what was given to economy-class passengers.
The Premium Plus amenity kit was considerably well-stocked, including a toothbrush, eye mask, earplugs, socks and Sunday Riley hand cream and lip balm.
The highlight of the IFE system was the crisp, 13.3-inch HD screen, which was responsive to the touch. I especially appreciated the large monitor when I walked back to economy class and saw many people squinting at the small screens.
Not only was the quality of the screen impressive, but the content was as well. There were 255 movies with more than 10 new releases from this year, as well as 159 TV shows, with most featuring more than one episode. There was also a bunch of podcasts and audiobooks loaded on the IFE system.
The screen was so responsive that I didn't even bother using the remote in the armrest. That's also where the well-placed AC power and fast-charging USB port were.
The headphones were the most disappointing aspect of the IFE system. Even though they were the same as the ones offered in Polaris, the quality wasn't great, and there wasn't any noise cancellation. Make sure to bring your own.
United often struggles to offer reliable Wi-Fi, but the internet on this flight was excellent. The full-flight pass cost $25.99 and offered speeds around 2 Mbps download and upload. Although the speeds themselves weren't necessarily impressive, there weren't any coverage gaps, and I was able to upload photos to the cloud without issue.
[flight_stats ticket-class="econ" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="8" tpg-rating-max="20" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-meal="2" meals-purchase="No" comp-alcohol="Yes" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
I had high expectations for the meal service after reading the two-sided menu that was waiting at my seat atop the Saks pillow.
There were two choices for the lunch entree: a Mediterranean-style chicken or carrot manicotti. There were two choices for the prearrival meal: macaroni-and-cheese pie or a meat-and-cheese plate.
Alcoholic drinks were complimentary in Premium Plus, and the menu listed lots of options, including four beers and seven spirits. Red and white wines were also on offer, but you needed to ask the flight attendants on this flight.
Although the printed menu got me excited about the meal service, once we got airborne I experienced an acute case of expectation versus reality.
Fifteen minutes after leveling off at our cruising altitude, flight attendants came through the cabin taking meal orders. I selected the pasta, which was served on one tray with the foil and plastic wrapping intact.
The tableware was the same as in Polaris (drinks were served in plastic cups), but I was disappointed that the flight attendants hadn't removed the foil or wrapping around the bread. Maybe they didn't remove the wrapping because they weren't proud of what they were serving?
And I couldn't blame them, either, since the food was pretty bad. The salad was wilted and only half full. The bread roll was frozen solid, and the pasta was lukewarm and overly cheesy. The best part of the meal were the two chocolates that had clearly been repurposed from the Polaris welcome gift. Sadly, the beverage-snack almonds were missing.
After the meal was dropped off, the drink cart stopped by. I tried to drink away my disappointment with a gin and tonic, but the flight attendant couldn't find any gin on the cart. She didn't offer to look around, so I settled on wine. I had a 187-milliliter bottle of the white and red, which were both totally average.
Flight attendants came through to clear the trays 90 minutes into the flight and then handed each passenger (including those in economy) a small bottle of water along with Loseley toffee ice cream.
After a movie and a brief nap, it was time for the prearrival meal. At this point, I was getting quite hungry, so got excited by the prospect of some comfort food.
Just like lunch, the meal was served with the foil intact, but this time the food was somewhat edible. The mac-and-cheese pie certainly wasn't memorable (and was definitely more of a penne and cheese rather than a proper creamy mac and cheese), but it got the job done. However, the bread was served cold, an impressive feat after six hours of flying.
With printed menus and proper tableware, United is certainly trying to differentiate the Premium Plus meal experience from that of the economy cabin. However, the food itself left a lot to be desired.
Serving economy-quality food on Polaris-style plates doesn't make the meal taste any better. United should improve the food before worrying about printed menus and real china.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="3" tpg-rating-max="10" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="No" turndown-service="No" /]
The least premium aspect to Premium Plus was the service. Though the service protocol encourages flight attendants to serve predeparture water, none was offered on my flight.
It wasn't for lack of time, since we were seated on the plane for over 90 minutes before pushing back. Instead, the flight attendants chose to converse with each other and play games on their iPhones.
The service didn't get better once airborne. All meals were served from the same carts as economy class, and the only differentiation between Premium Plus and economy was that we were served ahead of economy passengers.
When serving the meal, flight attendants went through the aisles yelling "Chicken or pasta?" to an entire row of passengers. Flight attendants didn't offer any further explanation of the dishes and were caught off guard when I asked about the preparation of the Mediterranean-style chicken.
When playing around with the IFE system, I noticed that there was a "Do Not Disturb" button on the screen. I was exhausted after a few days of travel, so decided to enable it midflight. That didn't stop one of the flight attendants from waking me up to provide me a customs form (which I didn't need, since I have Global Entry).
Ultimately, the service was really no different than economy. Premium Plus passengers were served from the exact same carts with the same flight attendants as the economy cabin. If United were really serious about offering elevated service, they'd dedicate and train flight attendants to serve the Premium Plus cabin. Until then, you should start deciding if you prefer chicken or pasta, because the flight attendants may only give you 10 seconds to state your preference.
United Premium Plus still needs work. After five months of service, the carrier hasn't perfected the meals or figured out the service flow. Sure, the hard product (seat and IFE) is a noticeable step up from economy, but my interactions with the flight attendants made me feel like I was downgraded to economy.
So, is Premium Plus worth it? If you're looking for extra space in a more comfortable seat (sans useful legrest), then I'd say yes. Temper your expectations for the meals and service and you'll have a pleasant flight. But if you're looking for a totally upgraded economy experience or are faced with a steep buy-up price, stick with an extra legroom Economy Plus seat. After all, there's nothing too premium about Premium Plus.
All photos by the author.