Flying on a brand new United 787 Dreamliner

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You know you're on a 787 when you look out the window after take off and see the elegant swooping of the wing (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

You know you’re on a 787 when you look out the window after take off and see the elegant swooping of the wing (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

After a few technical difficulties early last year, Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner is rolling out quickly across many carriers. There are now about 140 flying around the world.

In the US, United is currently the only carrier flying the fuel-efficient, composite bird, with 10 in its fleet and 65 more on order. In November, American Airlines gets the first of 42 787s it has on order. Delta recently indicated that it is looking at the 787 along with newer generation A330s and 777s to replace its aging widebodies like the 747.

Have you flown on a 787 yet? If not, you likely will be very soon. Boeing currently has a whopping 900+ Dreamliner orders on its books from airlines around the world. For a taste of what it’s like to fly on this mod new bird, we turned to TravelSkills contributor Ramsey Qubein, who recently flew from London to Houston on a shiny new United 787.

See the swoop? Paint and the wing! (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

See the swoop? Paint and the wing tip, too! (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

Last month I took a United 787 on the London-Houston route in BusinessFirst, United’s business class cabin. When I arrived at the gate at Heathrow, the new plane certainly made a statement with its distinctive Dreamliner livery on the fuselage that United uses only for its 787 aircraft. (See the swoop!)

You could sense the excitement among many passengers who knew they were boarding a unique plane, with many standing at the gate windows snapping photos. Aviation geeks like me were in heaven at the sight of another Dreamliner from Qatar Airways parked next to ours and yet another one from Royal Brunei on the taxiway!

When I flew back in April, United was using two terminals at Heathrow, a relic of the United and Continental merger. But as of this week, it is operating from the flashy new, state-of-the-art Queen’s Terminal (T2). (Feast your eyes on United’s new lounges there)

Ironically, even though we were about to embark on a brand new plane, our flight was delayed nearly two hours for maintenance. And unfortunately, the staff handling the flight did not excel in providing the most informative updates, which got us off to a bad start despite our initial enthusiasm.

Once boarding opened, something odd and frustrating happened: Gate agents asked nonrevenue passengers (paged as United crew) to board the plane first. Regular paying passengers who walked up to board were curtly turned back and told this was just a crew call for boarding. However, none of the people who boarded were dressed that way. This could have been because of the mechanical delay, and staff chose to hold off on boarding paying passengers until things were sorted out… but we never really knew. Awkward!

Related: Chris’s trip San Jose to Tokyo on an ANA 787 | The sad state of summer airfares to Europe

Seat map United's Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Seat map United’s Boeing 787 Dreamliner

Once we boarded, I found that all the overhead bin space was full near my seat in row four despite the 787’s massive bins. Plus, I was unable to snag any really good photos of the cabin since it was so busy and full during boarding—all 36 seats were occupied. On the 787, United’s 2-2-2 configured flat-bed seats are angled slightly toward the window and have plenty of in-seat storage space and face large entertainment screens. Like BusinessFirst seats throughout United’s fleet, this one reclines to fully flat (no slope), and feels even more private because of the angle toward the window.

Service started out unevenly. For example, my aisle never received pre-departure drinks while those on the other side of the plane received them. Amenity kits and menus were already in the seat storage areas upon boarding, but my power outlet did not work. (Oh, the joys of flying in a new plane!) Unfortunately, the crew could do nothing about it, but at least they were extremely apologetic. My battery has a one-hour life left (yes, it’s an oldie), so I was unable to get much work done. I cannot say that I was too disappointed though—I had plenty to watch and report on!

photo4

Warm nuts are a nice touch (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

Once meal service began, I quickly forgot about my limited work ability (it should be noted that all other seats’ power plugs were functioning properly). Cheerful flight attendants quickly laid linens on tables with warm nuts (something I now appreciate since Delta no longer offers this inflight staple) and a lengthy wine list supplied ample entertainment for the flight.

One of my favorite features of United’s service on two-class (biz/economy) is the elegance and care flight attendants take in presenting meals—it really makes a big difference when you know that they are trying hard to do it “just right” and in this case, they were.

I have an admission to make: I’m an airline service cart freak—I even have one at home and I’m always observing how flight attendants use them. First observation: United FAs served appetizers and salads from a three-tiered cart (much nicer than the economy class carts that other airlines rattle through the business class cabin). On three-class aircraft (first/biz/economy), United does use an economy-class style cart and trays for meals, which in my opinion, cheapens the service experience. (Come on, tickets can cost as much as $8,000 for these seats!)

The meal began with spring rolls and spicy dipping sauce, continued with shrimp, and finished with salad topped with a tasty yogurt dressing (that I requested to have on the side). United serves appetizers, salads, and cheeses as separate courses, which results in a more personalized experience. Many airlines deposit all three courses on a tray at one time in front of the passenger while United spreads it out into a more restaurant-style experience—a really nice way to pass the time on a long flight if you are not working or watching movies. In my case, I was happy to have the meal service elongated since I didn’t have my laptop to distract me.

United business class

My Peruvian chicken breast with vegetable quinoa and spinach was piping hot and spiced just right (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

My Peruvian chicken breast with vegetable quinoa was piping hot and spiced just right, pairing well with the Au Bois d’Ardennes Pouilly-Fume 2012. An ice cream sundae and British cheeses finished the meal off nicely. Refills seemed to be on request (not automatic), but once I asked, they came and poured in a jiffy.

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Dreamliner manufacturer Boeing claims that the 787 has a more comfortable cabin (due to better pressurization and humidity due to the plane’s composite construction) that will help to reduce jetlag and headaches. Hmm. I can’t say that I really noticed a difference. I did feel that the aircraft was quieter and loved the oversized windows with electronic dimmers that allowed the bright sunlight to be reduced while still preserving the external view. Crew have the ultimate control though as they can dim the lighting on all windows with just one touch of a button.

Another unique feature of the Dreamliner is that it has turbulence sensors that can notice when bumps are ahead and give the aircraft time to compensate for it. While this does not mean zero turbulence, it should mean that it is less noticeable. I would agree with that, especially on my flight.

Hygienic touchless taps on the Boeing 787 (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

Hygienic touchless taps on the Boeing 787 (Photo: Ramsey Qubein)

Germ freaks will like this: Dreamliner lavatories have motion sensors on the sink taps and toilet flushers, so there is no need to touch them. Plus, lightweight, single-panel doors swing in to make it easier to move through the aisle. United does not feature any snazzy extras I’ve seen on other 787’s—for example, there are no windows in the lavatories, like Chris saw on ANA’s 787 to Tokyo last year.

I have to say that United’s robust onboard entertainment systems with big screens and excellent audio quality, along with hundreds of audio and video programs place it as one of the industry’s best.

Prior to landing, flight attendants served a savory, warm chicken wrap, similar to what I’ve seen United serve on domestic flights. The side salad of marinated vegetables and chocolates for dessert was a welcome treat—I had worked up an appetite again after nearly nine hours of flying from London to Houston.

To sum it up: Despite a few service issues early on during this flight, I believe that United’s Dreamliner is the best U.S.-operated aircraft across the Atlantic with lie-flat seating in business, fantastic audiovisual programming in economy, and a quiet ride with turbulence-abatement features that ensure a delightful flight (even when departures are delayed).

Have you flown on a 787 yet? What did you think? How did it compare to other aircraft you’ve been on? Please leave your comments below! 

–Ramsey Qubein

Disclosure: RQ flew this trip on a paid (not comped) business class ticket. 

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  • Ray Watters

    Absolutely!

  • Martin Kendall

    Bad experience! problem Bit of a aviation nut read flight global etc so was looking forward to my first dreamliner ! via Kenya Airways who have the best 787 dispatch times of any airline! Considering Boeings claim and many dollars this was to be a new chapter in air flight comfort! So onboard atmosphere was dreadful hot sticky and stifling and not sure on this one but will check with CAA (takes them ages to reply) but personally do not think the aircraft was airworthy as there was no personal lighting at all so an 8 hour night flight where I could not read a word. contacted a member of staff and he replied will reset the system that never happened so no crew call from anyones seat (the whole plane was the same) My partner is a very nervous flyer at the best of times at no time in the flight could she read the safety instructions placed in the seat pocket! surely this is not right! The on screen entertainment (poor) offered an inflight survey when accessed several times during the flight came up “this option is blocked” Has to be one of the most uncomfortable flights I have ever experienced in over 40 years of long distance flying. Feel I should be refunded for this flight (other Kenya airways flight on 777/300 was great) I am going to send a copy of this to Boeing and see if they can explain the in cabin issues I have raised particularly the air quality which is supposed to be revolutionary.
    Reply from Boeing was :
    Hello Martin,

    Thanks for your message. I shared it with the appropriate person.

    Kind regards,

    Boeing Webmaster

    Really helpful or what!
    Want a plane with the best flying experience and the best atmosphere go back 30 years and jump on a Locheed L1011 Tristar so much for technology moving forward we are all being hoodwinked!

  • rami

    I have to agree; even though UA has many great people, it is so hit or miss that it makes for an overall bad experience. Lying over the phone, disrespectful at all levels while nickel and dime-ing you all the way to the bank. I get it, they are a company that must make money at the end of the year but don’t pretend you are Friendly. No wonder they hover at the bottom of the pack in customer satisfaction.

  • Hajime Sano

    Thanks Chris! The return flight was just as pleasant. And I measured the screen- it is 15″ measured diagonally.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks for the full report Dwimby! Great stuff and I and many readers were eager to hear…excellent. — chris

  • Dwimby

    My flight on a “new” Norwegian 787-8 (9s and 10s are coming – they will hold more people) from OAK to OSLO was pretty good considering I sat in steerage, but if I am going to fly a marathon route why pay ten times what it’s worth for all the pain and suffering? Plus my budget does not allow me to splurge on anything above steerage. And Norwegian steerage is actually fairly priced vs our major airlines which have gone totally insane on pricing since our very own uniquely brilliant govmint has allowed mini-monopolies as in the United and Continental merger. What a goat rope that has been. Back to the plane: the 787 has some bells and whistles that other planes don’t, some highly innovative, and here is a very short recap of things that got my attention aboard a Norwegian 787 fairly priced flight to the Continent via OSLO, the “full” experience. There was a pretty good line at the Norwegian counter at OAK. I was there 3 hours early and getting to the counter took at least 45mins to an hour. They could do some time and motion tweaks at the OAK terminal and speed this up A LOT. One long winding line is totally passé. You need many parallel chutes to move the masses, not one sinewy line. The flight took off on time, plus about 25 minutes! No problem. Time was made up. The flight was approximately 9 hours and small change between OAK and OSLO. (I am spelling out OSLO on purpose). Norwegian is not like US carriers in that they are pretty brief and to the point with their announcements, not like US carriers who talk to passengers as if they were in the 3rd grade. Our Nanny State carried over into airline modus operandi? PLUS, the 787 has robo-announcements, that don’t expound extemporaneously, just state a couple facts about what’s going on then the system shuts up. I like that. The entertainment system on the 787 is innovative, one can order stuff right from the screen with a touch system. Hit the headphones box on the screen (and swipe your CC card) and you get headphones for $3.00 in short order. Better bring your own, but if you forget this is painless. New better map graphics also are programmed into the 787 entertainment computer. One small critique: the movie choices were just average, but why not sleep more and get to the Old Country rested? The 787 has newer and better turbulence avoidance system built in and the flight did seem somehow more smooth than your average cross-Atlantic flight. Maybe it was my imagination? I’ve been doing this for 45 years, and it seemed pretty smooth to me. I wonder. Also, the air humidity control seems a bit better than all forerunner aircraft. No, I didn’t arrive OSLO with new and perfect facial skin, but the new humidity control seems to keep the heretofore dryness factor down a bit. I think I actually did sense that. Finally, once in OSLO you have to clear security to get into the holding “pens” for ongoing flights. I won’t pass judgement here, but ANOTHER line to endure after coming from a secure zone? OK, the Norwegians are supposed to be one of the happiest countries in the world, so maybe this has something to do with that? Extra safety at OSL? To close quickly, but at a reasonable point, hope there were a couple useful hints here for those looking to try a Norwegian 787 to cross the pond. I liked my experience as much as one can like 9 or 10 hours in aircraft steerage. The Norwegian price made things more bearable, that’s for sure. But the new stuff on the 787 helped too. If you haven’t already, flying a 787 is the latest, state of the art flying available. Happy contrails.

  • Kevin Smith

    You know why United is so hated? Even the people who work for United secretly hate the passengers and it shows over and over, United is just a nasty unpleasant experience.

  • Global1st

    good review….be interesting to see OAK-OSL on Norwegian!

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    I’m VERY interested in hearing what you have to say Dwimby! I’ve heard mixed reviews so far, so I hope you come back with a positive one! — chris

  • Dwimby

    Very interesting and well written. Thank you. Tomorrow (6/9) I will board my first 787 (Norwegian) from OAK to OSLO. I’ll try and get back to you with a full summary of my experience. I will use your article as my basis for comparison. Laura 616 below makes a good point. I’ll be in economy and should be able to praise or gripe accordingly. Let’s see what happens. Let’s see how these Vikings do….

  • Bill Rubin

    Thanks for the info. I agree that people love to hate on United for reasons that sometimes seem ridiculous. For me, I like to fly long-haul as comfortably as possible with a seat that converts to a true lie-flat bed and which has as good an entertainment system as possible in case I can’t sleep. Service and food, while lovely, matter less to me than getting decent sleep and/or being able to pass the time when I’m not sleeping.

    I will be flying the UA 787 in Jan 2015 from LOS-IAH. At almost 14 hours, I’m looking forward to seeing if such a long flight benefits from the 787 higher humidity and lower pressure levels.

    UA BizFirst is better to me than Virgin’s Upper Class. While I would prefer 1-2-1 seating with UA, I normally travel with my husband so that matters less to us. (I always reserve a window seat to ensure that no one disturbs me when getting up, so the 2-2-2 issue is largely not a factor for me. I can annoy a stranger if necessary, but I don’t want to be annoyed ever for the same reason.)

    UA’s entertainment system is about as goof as it gets. I like it even more than Cathay’s. Asiana’s system is the worst I’ve ever seen (we flew Asiana F LAX-ICN in January en route to Burma). Even Aeroflot had better entertainment than Asiana!

    People sometimes compare apples to oranges or prefer things that not everyone sees in similar ways. I laugh when people trash United then fly business class on so many “amazing airlines” with angled-flat seats in Biz (LH, EK, SQ, etc.). I’ll take United First over business on almost ANY airline (except CX or SQ). And when necessary, I can almost always get UA BusinessFirst to almost anywhere I need to get with miles. Not bad to me.

    Some people buy into the hype. Some people just follow the leader. And some people don’t quite consider what they truly are comparing. United isn’t perfect. But United service, food, and seat quality, together with a huge array of premium award space available with truly flat bed seats makes UA a very good choice to get anywhere on miles.

  • Laura616

    I think the real test is what is it like in coach?

  • ATLHistoryGeek

    The lack of direct aisle access is a massive negative, along with having to sit next to a complete stranger for 12+ hr flights when I’m trying to sleep. I’ve seen comments from airlines that say people don’t care about these issues but I don’t believe it. Why wouldn’t you want direct aisle access, the window, and the privacy of a 1-2-1 layout?

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, HS! Great report and I’m glad to hear from folks who have actually flown on the 787. Some great info and tips here… thank you! — chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Ramsey was flying on a paid business class ticket. Thanks for asking! We’ve posted this as a disclosure. — Chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Michael! Great report and I’m glad to hear from folks who have actually flown on the 787. Some great info and tips here… thank you! — chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Hey Levy: Ramsey said he did not notice a difference in air quality, but I must say that I did notice it on my ANA flight from San Jose to Tokyo. I can only describe it as the air feeling “softer” with less eye irritation or nose and mouth drying. I flew back to SFO 3 days later in a B777 so I could tell there was a difference. Also, little to no jetlag, but is was a quick trip — Chris

  • Haloastro

    Haha, I laughed when I read that there was a 2-hour mechanical delay for this UA flight on a brand new plane, and not-so-friendly GAs (there are many at UA) to top it off. Yup, this is UA alright.

  • Haloastro

    2-2-2 across in J is pretty packed. I like the staggered 1-2-1 configuration on DL’s lie-flats on the 764 across the Atlantic. Everyone has direct aisle access, and there are lots of recline positions.

  • Hajime Sano

    I’ve been lucky to fly the B787 in BusinessFirst three, soon to be four, times. In May 2013, I flew it LAX-IAH round trip, and received my complimentary Premier upgrade in both directions.

    A few days ago, I flew it SFO-KIX (Osaka-Kansai), my first long trip on it. I will do the return flight in a few weeks. I used miles and the co-pay to upgrade in both directions.

    I used to do this trip (LAX-SFO-KIX) once or twice a year in the 1990s, using miles to upgrade to the B747 upstairs Business Class seats. The last time I did this trip was in 2000, almost fifteen years ago, so I can’t really say whether the higher humidity and higher pressurization helped with jet lag.

    The totally lie-flat seats really helps in getting sleep compared to the old recliners. The multitude of reclined positions also helps, though there are no longer a back massager and foot rest for seating comfort. The seat width was surprisingly narrow.

    The entertainment system is a huge improvement. The giant screens (I think 15″ or greater) offer a much better picture than the old swing-up 6″ monitors. The audio quality was really good, with lots of deep bass. But to get stereo, one had to use the provided headsets. The twin proprietary jacks would accept a standard mini-stereo headset, but the audio wasn’t as good and the sound appeared to be in mono. I suspect there is some noise-cancellation provided via the United headsets.

    All the headset jack, power ports and USB ports are behind and over the shoulder, so it can be awkward to plug and unplug devices. Power seems to cut in and out on the 120V outlets for no apparent reason. I wouldn’t plug-in any devices that can’t run on internal battery power for a few minutes at a time. It is handy for charging a cell phone so that the batteries are fully-charged upon landing.

    The food and wine selection is greatly improved from the 1990s offerings.

    The big wide and tall windows are great for looking out. And the electronic dimming works quite well. We were in daylight for the entire trip from SFO-KIX. Even though the windows would not go fully opaque, it cut enough light that it was easy to fall asleep.

    Overall noise levels seem to be lower than the B747s. I only used ear plugs for a short time, but my ears weren’t ringing when I arrived.

    I’m looking forward to the return trip.

    Great report Ramsey!

  • Levy Flight

    Did you notice any difference in the air quality? The humidity and cabin pressure is supposed to be better. Thanks for the report.

  • RandomGuy189155

    well, tell you what. Iam an airplane aficionado/enthusiast, and I have been following the 787 very closely since they started testing the plane…I have never flown on it though, yet!

    But all through its testing people were simply projecting the plane to be something out of the world….Like a) you wouldn’t feel any jet lag due to the lower air pressure and more humidity in the air b) better and fresher air conditioning system , and other features like better handling in turbulence etc….

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Hi X: The Dreamliner is more of a dream for airlines than it is for passengers. That’s because it uses 20% less fuel and its composite construction does not wear out as fast as metal. For passengers, the hoopla is about larger windows, better pressurization, more space, swoopy wings, and the simple fact that it is new…but when it comes down to it, it’s just another wide-body aircraft. — chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Hi Kirk: Thanks for your comments. Have you flown on United’s 787 yet? If so, please let us know what your opinion of the flight was. This post was written by TravelSkills contributor Ramsey Qubein who was flying on a paid business class ticket…far from free! He’s one of the more well-traveled writers I know and I respect his opinions. — Chris

  • RandomGuy189155

    So what is the whole hoopla about the Dreamliner if it is not as good ??

  • wiebej

    Another unique feature of the Dreamliner is that it has turbulence
    sensors that can notice when bumps are ahead and give the aircraft time
    to compensate for it.

    I was under the impression that Airbus already had this feature before Boeing, which means it is not unique to the Dreamliner. Or was I mistaken on that fact?

  • Michael James

    I have flown UAs 787 on their LAX-PVG route in Y+ and found it to be a pleasant flight. At least their entertainment was far better than their 777 and 747. One thing that bothered me was the automatic diming widow shades. I was at the window and the sun was as brute as ever all the way across the Pacific. The shades never completely blocked out the sun and I had to wedge a pillow between the widow and seat in front of me.

  • austin1805

    I agree. I truly do enjoy United Bizfirst. Everyone loves to hate on United. Fact of the matter is that Delta has a worthless FF program and American has lie flat seats on about 1% of their flights. I’m not about to sit in a 1960s lazy boy from DC To Tokyo for 14 hours. In my opinion United has the best consistent prgroam and prodcut in business class.

  • Mike

    He did say believe…he did not declare….thanks for the correction. FWIW I look forward to giving UA’s 787 a try here once I hop off gerbil wheel of chasing EXP this year. I ‘believe’ it’s got to be better than the 7 across ying-yang BA does with their 787s. Cheers.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks for sharing your comments, Fed. Sounds like you’ve have some bad experiences. I’ve flown in United business 6-7 times since the new seats were installed and I’m very impressed with them. Service has been good for the most part. Not always having direct aisle access is not all that horrendous to me. — chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Mike! I would like to try that new AA 777 one day! This blog post was written by our contributor Ramsey Qubein and in it he shared his opinion; it’s not a declaration. — Chris

  • Kirk

    Seriously Chris? I don’t see how any reasonable person could come to the conclusion you made! I mean, not even close! I know the flight was free and all, but at least pretend to be objective! Based on the other comments, I’m not alone

  • Daryl-Atlanta

    I see no mention/disclaimer in the article if you paid for your own ticket or if your received free passage as United’s guest.

  • FedUP

    United is way behind

    All of the business first. People are jammed in with no direct aisle access

    The 777 is an abomination

    Service is so so

    Food ok but not consistent

    As usual, they rush rush rush to shove the food service down your throat
    Then the crew disappears for 6, u or 8 hours

    The only good thing is the new air system

    Sad indeed

  • CCCP

    I gladly take Delta’s all aisle access in business to this.

  • Mike

    I think you need to try AA’s 777-300 in Biz before you make declarations like: I believe that United’s Dreamliner is the best U.S.-operated aircraft across the Atlantic with lie-flat seating in business.” Last I checked it’s still necessary to climb over your seat opponent from the window.