I was bound and determined to fly on one of United’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner’s while they are still flying them on Domestic routes. I was scheduled to fly on the 787 from ORD to IAH back in December before the plane was grounded by the FAA, but there was a problem with that 787 and flew on a 767 instead. This time I saw United had three flights a day from LAX to IAH using the 787 and I had to take a trip to New Orleans. So I decided to make the drive from San Diego to LA (a drive I hate). Further, to make sure I would actually get to fly on the 787, I scheduled myself to fly it on both legs between LAX & IAH. This way if something happened and they changed aircraft at least I had the other direction to fall back on.
Despite a scare leaving LAX, when we immediately returned to the gate after we pushed (I was convinced that this flight was going to be canceled. The pilots tone was very serious. But it ended up being a false alarm. Some mix up with their headquarters in Chicago. We re-boarded within 15 minutes of de-planing. (then unfortunately, sat for an hour and a half because they let people re-board without looking at their boarding passes)). I was finally able to fly on the Dreamliner (and in both directions).
Because I had read about United’s plans for their BusinessFirst cabin I had somewhat of an idea of what to expect. But that did not lessen the excitement boarding this aircraft for the first time (I remember having the same feeling flying on the 777 for the first time). So my first impression was not as negative as it may have been if I didn’t know United kept the same lay-out and design as Continetal’s BusinessFirst cabins on their 777’s and 767’s. Not that that is bad (I like those seats) and not to get off the point, I just thought they could have upgraded their Business Class/First Class product as these planes are new. The problem with US Carriers premium products are when they upgrade them they are just matching what Asian, Middle Eastern, and some European Airlines already have. Then those airlines roll out new seats or cabins and the US Airlines are quickly behind again. Anyway, despite this, it still was very exciting to finally be flying on Boeing’s 787.
The first thing I noticed was that the Flight Attendants were very excited and you could tell had a sense of pride (nice to see). Most of them are International crews that will be working the 787 once it starts flying internationally – this week DEN – NRT), but I heard one tell another passenger that others are domestic FA’s picking up routes just to get a chance to fly and work on the Dreamliner. This enthusiasm showed in the service. On both flights the service was much better and friendlier than what you would expect on a three hour domestic flight.
The BusinessFirst cabin is made up of two sections. Both have three rows in a 2x2x2 configuration for a total of 36 seats. I was seated in 2K, an aisle seat in the forward section on the outbound and 5K on the return. I was originally seated in 1D then 4D on the return but my seat was changed twice (don’t know why). This normally would have bothered me as both these seats are bulkheads. But because the seats are pods there is no difference in a bulkhead seat vs. a non-bulkhead seat. As I said, the seats are the same as United’s two class BusinessFirst seats that were Continetal’s First Class/Business Class hybrid (for complete review of United’s BusinessFirst seat visit; http://patstravelreviews.com/united-777-businessfirst-review-lhr-iah/ ). The aisle/window seats in row 4 (A&B and K&L) are close to the galley and the lavatory’s are behind row 3 (A&B and K&L) and in front of 1K&L. But they are not as close as with other United aircraft, so should not be too bothersome. The 787 has better spacing and three lavratory’s for 36 passengers is a good ratio.
The IFE system is the same as well. Same 15.4″ screen and same AVOD programming (can start watching once you board – which was nice with delay). One can access the system using 13 languages. There are plenty of movies (new releases, classics, and International), documentaries, sitcoms, and other TV shows to watch. In addition, there is a moving map, hundreds of CD’s on the audio option, and a library of games to play. You can also plug your iPod into the system. The programming on this flight is the same as an international flight. Not the Directv you may get on a 737 from LAX to IAH. That also means no channel 9 to listen to air-traffic control. The seat pitch (leg room) is over 70″ and the width is 22″. The seat is 180 degree lie-flat and can be adjusted to a cradle position as well. I only slept 30 minutes on one flight, but slept very comfortably. The only issue I have with United’s Business Class seats (here is review for their three class Business seats; http://patstravelreviews.com/united-business-class-review-ewr-to-bru/ ) and BusinessFirst seats is there is no room to store personal items. The magazine storage is very small and is along side the armrest so it rubs up against your arm. There is some room near the power outlets, USB port, and headphone plug (2 pronged) over your shoulder, and a tray under the TV (but contents will fall out on take off) but other than that, not much. There is no Wifi on United’s 787’s yet, but I was told there will be in the future.
On both flights the International blankets and pillows were placed on your seat (again, I did not sleep long, so did not take advantage of), but the headphones provided were the domestic version. Orange juice or water was offered before take-off just like a domestic flight.
While the seat and service are the same as if flying the old Continental 767 or 777 there are many differences the 787 has over it’s predecessors. The overhead bins are very roomy. Maybe a touch smaller than the 777 (a much larger aircraft), but much larger than the 767. One bin can fit up to three carry on bags. They did seem to come down on an angle and I felt it is easy for a bag to slide down after you open the bin. But I am sure that has been tested, and is not the case. The windows are also very different and may be the biggest improvement that passengers can see. They not only are bigger, they can be adjusted to prevent sunlight from entering the cabin. Whether by the crew when the jet is parked at the gate – keeping the plane cooler or a passenger. There is no shade to slide down, rather a button to press that allows several variations of light. At it’s darkest you can still see outside. So if someone wants to look outside they can still lessen the amount of sunlight coming into their seat. The 787 also has the Sky Interior Lighting featuring LED lighting. On the flight to Houston it was not that prevalent, but on the return it was and even the head flight attendant put on a light show with all the different light settings. Looked like a dance club for a while. But with the shaded windows and LED lighting with soft blue colors (or whatever color an airline displays) it is certainly a more relaxed cabin experience.
Strangely enough maybe the biggest difference I saw with the interior of the 787 is the lavatories. Starting from the image in the center of each cabin indicating if the fasten seat belt sign is on and if the lavatory is in use. Also there is a red or green light over the door indicating if toilet is free. The door opens in, as opposed to folding (it is hard to explain how it opens). The lavatory’s are a little bigger than on United’s 777 & 767, but the biggest change is how the toilets flush (strange thing to get excited about). It actually is a little confusing (and hopefully this will not mean the prior passenger will leave a surprise for you). You can wave your hand over the flush button and the cover closes and flushes automatically, but other times this did not work and I had to press the button. However, this would only get the toilet to flush once I closed the toilet seat cover. It kind of felt like trying to get water out of the automated sink spouts. You can stand there and wave your hand for a long time before anything happens.
There are many other differences or improvements that the Boeing 787 provides. The cruise altitude was 41,000 feet as opposed to the typical 35,000 feet. This may provide a smoother ride. We did hit turbulence on one flight and the announcement (as were other announcements) was automated. On one flight it was in both English and Spanish. Thus interrupting the entertainment for a minute or so longer. Having automated announcements can also be good as some flights attendants like the sound of their own voice and can ramble on. This may shorten announcements. The engines are definitely quieter and has a slightly different hum to it. I can not say I felt a difference with the cabin pressure or air quality, but I have never felt any difference being in the air or on the ground. So maybe I am not a good person to judge that. Another big improvement, is the overhead light is very bright and there are four air vents per row that are very strong.
Economy is in a 3x3x3 layout and all seats have AVOD with the screen in the seat in front of you. The screen size is larger than on other United planes and in the bulkhead the screen raises from the arm-rest. Economy Plus seating is from rows 16 to 22, the center section of row 23, and row 27 (exit row). All seats are 17.3″ wide and Economy Plus has a seat pitch of 35″ while regular Economy 32″. You can click the link on the bottom of the page to access United’s site on their 787 Dreamliner.
The meal service was not elevated to BusinessFirst standards. Both meals were typical of meals served on those routes and at that time of day. A hot towel was distributed after take-off. Then a small cup of warm cashews and almonds were given with drink orders prior to the meal service. Lunch was served on the flight to Houston and dinner on the return. For lunch there was a choice of a Chicken and Cheese Calzone or a cold Shrimp Salad. Both served with Red Pepper Bisque. Dinner was either a Beef Tip or Pasta with a side salad and shrimp appetizer. They did bring around a basket twice with rolls (something you will not see on a domestic flight) on the dinner flight. The dessert was the same for both flights. A cookie in a bag. Chocolate chip on return and cranberry (I think) on outbound. Unlike if flying on a smaller plane between LAX and IAH in First when they would bring the basket full of snacks after the meal service. On both flights the basket was placed on an area in front of 1D&E and 4D&E to take as one pleased. The Calzone was surprisingly tasty. I have had this same meal on other flights to and from IAH and DEN and for the second meal on United International flights in Business or BusinessFirst. I have had this same beef dish the last three months on the last six dinner flights (from IAD, EWR, ORD and IAH to SAN) I have flown on United in First . It is good (it must be if I keep ordering it), but not great. The meat always seems to have a strange texture to it.
All flights had very smooth take-offs and landings. I actually flew on the 787 again this week from ORD to IAH (I am not the most prolific writer) and of my three flights, two had long delays with a lot of confusion. The ORD – IAH flight had a servicing issue leaving IAH, then we sat for over an hour in Chicago because of a valve in the cargo hold. In both those cases I missed my connecting flights. However, when I arrived I received an e-mail from United apologizing for the delay and offering a token of miles or an e-cert. The flight from IAH left on-time and arrived into LAX a few minutes early. Interestingly when we left IAH there was another 787 parked next to us and a third coming into our gate. So it seems United has several in their fleet now.
The 787 Dreamliner is definitely a big improvement with both the passenger flying experience and at some point from an airline operating standpoint. But it certainly is having trouble attaining that now. I am sure it will sooner than later. I also think some of the delays are from United being overly cautious. I heard the LAX – IAH flight was canceled the day after I took it. I know of other flight delay’s and cancellations with United’s 787 and on the first week they flew from DEN to NRT the flight was diverted to SEA because of an oil leak. But that said, if it is not critical you be somewhere on time, it is definitely worth flying the 787. If you can not afford delay’s or mis-connects than I would avoid flying United’s 787 (maybe all airlines 787’s) for now. Hopefully it will get over it’s growing pains and be the game changer that it is forecast to be.