Flight Review: United Airlines Flight 1 from San Francisco to Singapore

In January, United Airlines announced that it would begin operating non-stop service between San Francisco and Singapore. The flight commenced service on June 1st and is operated by a stretch 787 Dreamliner.

The new service holds several distinctions:

  1. It is the longest route operated by a Dreamliner (just shy of 16 hours); and
  2. It is the only non-stop flight currently operating between Singapore and the U.S.

The second distinction will not last long, as Singapore Airlines recently announced plans to begin operating the same route starting this October. That flight will be operated using a new Airbus A350.

As soon as I read about the new non-stop service between the U.S. and Singapore, I was eager to book my ticket. So when I found a reasonably priced flight that coincided with my trip back home this summer, I booked it.

My itinerary, originating in New York City, was as follows:

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The ticketed travel time was 26 hours and 15 minutes. That is longer than I would normally like, but isn’t yet in the realm of the ridiculous.

Newark To San Francisco

My flight out of Newark was delayed because a maintenance worker was still on the plane when we began taxiing out to the runway (I wish I was making that up). As he apparently had no desire to travel to California with us, we had to go back to the gate so he could get off.

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Maintenance worker fixing an overhead compartment

Due to “paper work requirements” once we returned to the gate, our ten minute delay turned into a 70 minute wait. I won’t review that flight in detail here, but I will note that it was nice to cross the country in a wide-body 777, as opposed to a single aisle 737 or the equivalent Airbus A320 (which seems to be the norm these days). Not only did the 777 have United’s full range of entertainment options (an onboard TV for each seat), but the double aisle plane also provided far more space to stretch and walk around in. It was also nice to be able to track the flight progress in real time, via the onboard flight map.

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Our flight was nearly 6 hours long, and I used the time to catch up on a few movies:

  1. Sisters – with Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. This was pretty disappointing
  2. The Night Before – with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen. This was okay but didn’t possess the same gut-splitting humor as similar Seth Rogen fare.
  3. Love and Air Sex – I thought this bitter sweet (and fairly raunchy) comedy was the best of the lot. It didn’t receive great reviews, but I would recommend checking it out.

Once we landed in San Francisco, I used my American Express Platinum card to get into the Centurion Lounge where I ate dinner and rested before the 16 hours flight to Singapore.

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Entrance to the American Express Centurion Lounge at SFO
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Free dinner buffet at the Centurion Lounge

San Francisco to Singapore

The non-stop flight from San Francisco to Singapore is United’s flagship route, and has accordingly been designated UA Flight 1.

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Flight 1 to Singapore, departing at 10:55

The flight to Singapore was scheduled to depart at 10:55pm, which was nearly 2:00am on the East Coast, so I was exhausted when it was finally time to board. However, I was reluctant to actually get on the plane until the last minute, as I did not want to spend any more time onboard than was absolutely necessary.

I went down to the gate to snap a few pictures as the boarding process was getting under way.

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Starting to board UA flight 1

Due to the reflection from the boarding area, I wasn’t able to take a decent picture of the plane. The picture below will have to suffice.

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The United 787-9 getting ready to depart

After snapping the above pictures, I headed to a nearby shop to do some last minute (American) shopping – I bought chewing gum – which isn’t sold in Singapore. I waited until I heard a last call announcement for the flight, and then headed back to the gate to board.

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Monitor just before you get on the plane – in case you are in the wrong place?

I was in the back of the plane for this flight. United offers three classes of service on the flight: Business, Premium Economy, and Economy. It would have cost roughly US$200 to upgrade from Economy to Premium Economy, but it didn’t really seem worth the price given the benefits are a bit underwhelming – a few more inches of leg room and your seats are closer to the middle of the plane.

I was also eager to see what United’s 787 Economy seating was like. To my surprise, I found the seats to be comfortable and the leg room to be more than adequate.

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Large entertainment monitor and sufficient leg room

The entertainment monitors were also large and easy to operate.

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They included a USB port which is a big improvement over old economy seats.

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The Economy and Premium Economy sections are in a 3-3-3 seating arrangement. As is my preference, I had pre-selected an aisle seat in the middle section. This is my favorite long-haul economy seat, as it provides for aisle access and, when sleeping, gives the person in the middle seat a second option for getting out to use the bathroom – that way it isn’t a given that you will be woken up if that person needs to get out (and can’t gracefully climb over you).

Once onboard the plane, I fell asleep almost immediately. I woke up when we began our long take-off roll. After reaching cruising altitude, I took a sleeping pill and slept through dinner. In total, I slept for a little over eight hours.

After waking up, I turned on the entertainment monitor to see our real-time flight progress. Unfortunately, this was the only update I received. . .

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I’m not sure if the flight progress was turned off or if it simply wasn’t working. I checked multiple times throughout the trip but with no luck. I would be curious to know if other people on the same flight have had this issue.

One of my biggest pet peeves with the flight was the complete lack of communication from the pilots. By my count, they made exactly zero announcements during the flight (granted I did sleep for about half the trip). Even when we went through a period of pretty bad turbulence, there wasn’t a single word from the cockpit – just an announcement from the chief flight attendant instructing the other attendants to take their jump seats. Maybe I’m speculating here, but could the turned off flight-tracker and pilot silence be related. . .

On a lighter note, I really enjoy the bathrooms on the Dreamliner, especially the contactless sink and toilet handle. These are a huge improvement over traditional airplane bathrooms.

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Contactless sink
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Just wave your hand to flush the toilet

I also enjoy the larger windows on the 787.

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And the higher ceiling

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Lots of overhead room

The food, on the other hand, was not very good (huge understatement). Actually, I had the noodles for breakfast, and they were completely inedible.

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Is this supposed to be breakfast?

 

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Up close with the United noodle breakfast dish – do not eat this!

Summary

Although the food was disgusting and the on-board flight tracker did not work, I actually found United’s Economy class on the 787-9 to exceed my expectations. The seats were reasonably comfortable and the leg room was far more than I expected (two factors which I think are more important than the food). In addition, the entertainment options were good, and the monitor was large and easy to operate – plus it included a USB port.

Although this flight may not always make sense for me (given that my family and friends primarily live on the East Coast), United’s Flight 1 offers a great new option for travelers who need to go between the U.S. and South East Asia.

After disembarking, I looked up our flight path via FlightAware. This was the route we took:Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 11.01.55 AM.png

 

 

 

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Trip Report: Singapore to Washington DC (Flight 3: Toronto to Washington DC)

Flight 3 – Economy:

  • Toronto Canada to Washington DC (Dulles)
  • Bombardier CRJ-200
  • Operated by Air Canada Express – Air Georgian

Despite sleeping for a considerable portion of the Tokyo to Toronto flight, I was exhausted and not feeling well when we finally disembarked from the 11+ hour flight. I was hoping to get some rest and a quick bite to eat before boarding our last flight to Washington D.C.

However, reaching our final gate proved more difficult than I expected. Passengers connecting through Toronto to the U.S., go through U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Toronto. That meant that as soon as we disembarked in Toronto, we were shepherded into the U.S. Customs line. This had one big advantage, in that we were able to use the downtime between flights to clear immigration – which ultimately saved us time when we reached Washington D.C.

That being said, the process of clearing U.S. Customs in Toronto was slow and painful (especially after 20 hours of travel already). To start, there were three separate screening processes that we had to complete. The first was a general security line which crept along at the usual glacial pace of such lines. After finally clearing security, we were herded into a new room that separated passengers based on some unknown criteria. Certain passengers were allowed to quickly pass through this room, while we were told to queue at an Air Canada counter to discuss our itinerary.

When it was our turn in line, we presented our boarding passes and were informed that we should return to the same line we had just exited. I was baffled by the process but in no mood to question what was going on. After a short wait, we were allowed to use one of the U.S. Customs, self-serve kiosks to submit our declaration forms. I assume these automated machines are designed to expedite the immigration process. But in my experience this has not been the case.

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Automated passport control kiosks at Toronto Pearson International Airport
After scanning our passports and taking the mandatory unflattering picture, we received our “receipt” and were directed into the last and longest line.

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This line was slow!
For much of the time we were in the above line, it was serviced by exactly one Customs officer. There were long stretches of time where the line simply did not move. The middle aged lady who was manning the Customs booth should be commended for her thoroughness – she seemed to be grilling every passenger in minute detail – but it really held up the line.

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Empty U.S. Customs booths
Luckily, after about 30 minutes of waiting, a second official was activated by the powers that be. In contrast to the first, this guy new the score – get through as many passengers as quickly as possible, with little to no fuss. He simply collected the Customs receipts and let everyone pass. He probably let in 20 passengers for every one the original Customs officer let in.

After clearing the line ourselves, we were free to head to our gate. Unfortunately, our flight was delayed by about 45 minutes. After a second delay, we were able to board the small Bombardier aircraft – we were relegated to an old portion of the terminal that let passengers walk directly onto the runway (although we had a covered walkway).

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Our aircraft after landing at Dulles
I usually do not like flying on smaller planes. But this final leg of our trip, at just 1 hour in length, was incredibly smooth. There was little to note about the flight. There was just one flight attendant who was friendly and attentive. As we flew into Dulles, and not DCA, we were not privy to any great views of Washington D.C. There were some nice views of Virginia though.

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Virginia from the sky
After landing in Washington D.C., it was a relief to avoid U.S. Customs and instead go directly to baggage claim. It was a long trip and I was exhausted, but I was also glad to be home.

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Obligatory picture of the White House taken the next morning