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!

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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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