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

 

 

 

Trip Report: Singapore to Washington DC (Flight 2: Tokyo to Toronto)

Flight 2 – Business Class:

  • Tokyo Narita to Toronto Canada
  • Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner
  • Operated by Air Canada

After disembarking from our ANA flight, we went through a short security line at Narita airport and then headed directly to the ANA lounge. After showing our onward boarding passes, we entered the lounge for some rest and food.

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Entrance to the ANA lounge at Tokyo, Narita
The lounge was relatively empty when we entered, but it quickly filled up. There were light food options and a decent choice of alcohol, including Japanese beer on tap. My favorite part of the ANA lounge was the small noodle bar where you could order ready made dishes. I had the Ramen noodles which were pretty good.

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The noodle chef hard at work
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Ramen noodles
The lounge we visited also had a nice viewing area where we could watch planes landing and taking off.

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Bar area to sit and watch the planes
While we were there, we spotted this Star Wars themed plane taxing for take-off.

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About 20 minutes before our Air Canada flight was due to start boarding, we headed to our gate. The Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner we were on had three classes of service: business, premium economy and economy. We boarded and found our seats in the business class compartment.

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Business class
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Air Canada has a modern, reverse herringbone setup on the 787 that allows each passenger direct aisle access. Upon boarding, the seats were pre-stocked with a basic amenity kit, slippers, a warm blanket, a pillow and a bottle of water.After takeoff, the flight attendants passed out noise cancelling headphones which I used throughout the flight.


After I drank a glass of sparkling wine my cold began to get worse and I felt increasingly sick throughout the flight.  As a result, I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the primary benefit of business class: kicking back with your legs up and a cold glass of champagne, while contemplating ones own sense of superiority (a feeling enhanced with the knowledge that the untold masses are suffering in the back of the plane with overcrowded bathrooms, zero leg room, and crying babies). Instead I was just thankful that I had a warm place to spread out and rest during the long flight.

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A drink and warm cashews
My dinner on board the plane was good, but I didn’t eat very much. IMG_5811.jpg

Seafood entree


Similar to the ANA flight, the entertainment options onboard the flight were underwhelming. Although I enjoyed the large, modern touchscreen, I wish Air Canada would invest in a few more movie and TV options. I ended up watching Mrs. Doubtfire (a classic) and How to Be Single (not too bad). The entertainment system came with a cool little mini control / viewing iPad that you could also watch TV and movies on.  I did not really use this during the flight.

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Individual entertainment system
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The flight actually went by fairly quickly, as I was able to sleep for several hours. In almost no time, the flight attendants were coming around with breakfast and we were preparing to land in Toronto.

For the novice long-haul business class traveller, especially one using points, there is always that conflict and tension between getting a good night’s rest and staying awake as long as possible so one can partake, and “maximize”, all that business class has to offer (good alcohol, decent gourmet food, better entertainment systems, one’s own smug sense of superiority (as discussed above), etc.). As I was not feeling well, I was happy to be in business class so I could sleep in relative comfort. I think if I had been sitting in the back of the plane, the trip would have been near unbearable.

In the next blog post I will write about the Toronto airport, U.S. immigration (in Canada) and our return to lowly economy for the last leg of our trip to Washington D.C.