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Earlier this year, I booked a fantastic Business Class deal that should have seen me flying to Los Angeles with SWISS and back to Europe with United but with airlines playing around with their schedules as much as they were, my booking got changed multiple times and I ended up having to fly with United in both directions. That wasn’t ideal, but it gave me a chance to try out three of the airline’s long-haul Business Class cabins and this is a review of the first cabin in my itinerary.
Note: This flight was taken while a number of COVID restrictions that have now been lifted were still in place so I won’t be focusing heavily on aspects of this flight that will no longer be relevant (e.g. documentation needed, passenger numbers, check-in, etc…).
United At Heathrow
The United Airlines check-in desks are located at Area D at London Heathrow Terminal 2.
The line for Economy Class check-in was short while the line for Business Class check-in was non-existent, so I was soon heading through airport security and on my way to the Terminal 2 Plaza Premium Lounge (none of the Star Alliance lounges were open at this time).
As boarding time approached, I made my way to the gate and was invited to board almost straight away.
Note: The gates that United Airlines uses are a solid 10 – 15 minute walk away from the central shopping area at Heathrow T2 so if you’re hanging around at Duty-Free, in the Plaza Premium Lounge, or in one of the Lufthansa Lounges, leave plenty of time to get to your flight. The United Polaris Lounge is located considerably closer to the United Airlines gates.
United Airlines 787-9 Business Class Cabin
United is in the process of refitting its 787-9 Dreamliners with the considerably newer all-aisle-access Polaris Business Class cabin (United calls all of its long-haul Business Class cabins “Polaris” but there’s only one true Polaris product) but this aircraft was not one of the ones that have been refreshed and that remains the case for the aircraft operating this route right now.
The unrefreshed United Airlines 787-9 aircraft offer a Business Class cabin in a 2-2-2 layout which, to put it politely, is a little 2009.
There’s very little difference between the seats in the center section of the cabin and the seats on either side of the aircraft…
…but there’s a key difference between the seats in Row 1 and the seats in all the other rows.
The seats in Row 1 (all 8 of them) have footrests that are considerably larger than the footrests that all the other seats in the cabin have.
The footrests in the seats in Row 1 seats offer noticeably more space for a passenger’s feet and this differentiation becomes important when the seat is placed into lie-flat mode and a passenger wishes to sleep. In lie-flat mode, the space set aside for a passenger’s feet in the regular seats can feel confining and the lack of space can make it difficult to get comfortable.
The seats in Row 1 don’t suffer from this issue and that’s what makes them the most comfortable seats in the cabin.
I was not in a Row 1 seat. Row 1 wasn’t available to me when I came to choose my seat (they may be reserved for flyers with high United/Star Alliance status) so as I didn’t want my flight to be disturbed by someone in the seat next to me (and as I didn’t want to have clamber over someone in the seat next to me if I wanted to leave my seat), I chose a seat in the center section.
This turned out to be a good choice because the seat next to me remained vacant throughout the flight.
The seat is fairly comfortable and well-padded and although it may not appear so at first sight, there’s also a reasonable amount of personal storage space around the seat.
There’s a small shelf underneath the IFE screen that can be used to store an iPad…
…and there’s a second shelf built into the seat casing at around head height that is a very good size.
A tip of the hat has to go out to the designer who put the seat’s main power outlet and a USB outlet above the shelf built into the seat’s casing. This makes the shelf a great place to charge devices while keeping them out of the way (I could fit my 15″ MacBook on the shelf while it charged).
At floor level, the seats have a cutaway section that can be used to store shoes…
…and a further positive aspect of this cabin is the fact that passengers can, to some degree, control the temperature of the air around their seat by using the air vents above the seats.
The controls for the seat are simple enough to use and are located on the central armrest.
You’ll get a better idea of where the seat controls are from the image below and it will help me explain a gripe that I have with where they have been located.
During the flight, I found that every time I rested my arm on the armrest (where, by definition, an arm is meant to be placed) it would inadvertently touch the seat controls and something somewhere on the seat would start to move. I’ll call this “annoying’ but I’d really like to call it something far stronger that has no place in a civilized blog post.
The seat’s tray table is housed in the center armrest…
…and can be folded out once to form a drinks table…
…or twice to form a table big enough on which to work or to have a meal.
This is where I have my second gripe with a design element in this cabin.
The table isn’t particularly robust and it isn’t flat. In fact, the hinge in the center of the table is higher than the rest of the table and that turns it into an incredibly annoying pivot point when you place a laptop on the table. Have you ever tried to type when your laptop is doing a good impression of a wobbly teeter-totter?
My third gripe surrounds the IFE controller that I had at my seat.
The controller is housed just under the seat controls its technology was last considered cutting-edge in the late 80s.
The controller doesn’t really have much use (other than to switch on and off the overhead lights) if you’re within reach of the IFE screen because the IFE screen is a perfectly good touchscreen and touch is a considerably more efficient way to access the entertainment options than the controller.
To explain my last gripe (I promise to stop complaining in a moment!) you’ll need to know that when you turn off the main IFE screen, the screen on the IFE controller also switches off. That’s great because if you want the main screen switched off you’re unlikely to want the controller’s screen blinking at you from the side.
Unfortunately, this particular controller didn’t like to feel ignored (maybe they all have this issue?), so every now and again it would come back to life for no obvious reason. At first, I thought I was nudging it with my arm or elbow but when I placed it on the center armrest and watched it for a few minutes, it did exactly the same thing. I ended up extending its cable fully and placing it face down on the seat next to me under a pillow so that its blinking screen wouldn’t keep catching my eye.
The final thing I’ll point out about this cabin is that it’s definitely a cabin in which eye masks will be useful to anyone wanting to get some sleep.
Because there aren’t any big screens or doors separating the seats in the cabin or giving seats any protection from the aisles, most seats will give you a very good view of another passenger’s IFE screen – even the screens belonging to the seats across the aisle – and while this isn’t going to be an issue when the cabin lights are up…
…anyone choosing not to wear an eye mask and trying to get to sleep when the cabin is darkened, may be disturbed by the lights from neighboring screens.
As issues go, this isn’t a big one – it’s why we’re given eye masks in the amenity kits – but its something to keep in mind, and as United’s 787 Business Class cabins are definitely not the only cabins where this will be the case, frequent flyers would do well to find themselves a good quality eye mask of their own and to bring it with them on all their trips.
United Airlines Business Class Amenities
A large regular pillow with Saks 5th Avenue branding, a light blue memory foam pillow with United Polaris branding a good-size grey Saks 5th Avenue blanket were all waiting for me at my seat when I boarded.
Slippers were handed out by the flight attendants shortly after boarding…
…and an amenity kit was also provided.
The pillows were very comfortable (the memory foam pillow was particularly good), the blanket was well proportioned and comfortable and the slippers were pretty standard fare. The amenity kit, however, wasn’t particularly impressive.
Everything that you’d probably expect from a US carrier’s amenity kit was there…
- Hand cream from Sunday Riley
- Face moisturizer from Sunday Riley
- Lip balm from Sunday Riley
- A pen
- A toothbrush
- Colgate toothpaste
- Eye mask
…but the quality felt poor and the net bag that everything was provided in was something I’d expect a thrift store to give away with every purchase. Even the Business Class amenity kits from American Airlines look and feel considerably more “premium” than this one did and no one loves a cost-cutting exercise more than American.
United Airlines Business Class Service & Dining
As I mentioned at the very beginning of this review, please keep in mind that this trip was taken at a time when a number of COVID restrictions that have now been lifted were still in place so what follows may not be what United Airlines is offering now – I’m including this section for completeness.
There were no menus available (in case we all caught COVID-19 from them) so the flight attendants read out the meal options to each passenger and took meal and drinks orders at the same time.
There was a beef tenderloin dish, a chicken dish, and a pasta dish and that’s where the options ended. There was no choice of starter or dessert.
Bottles of water were handed out shortly after take-off…
…but there was no pre-departure beverage or a separate beverage service immediately after take-off because lunch was served very quickly – 25 minutes after we left the ground.
All the various elements of the lunch service were served on a single tray and all at the same time.
I had chosen the chicken, couscous with almonds and raisins and Moroccan vegetables and overall, it tasted better than it looks in the image above.
The Chicken wasn’t overcooked (it was tender and moist), the couscous was ok but it wasn’t something that I’m going to longing to sample again, and the vegetables were surprisingly nice but the portion was far too small.
The salad was fine (although there’s no place for arugula in a civilized society) and the honey mustard dressing gave it the added flavor that it needed.
Dessert was vanilla ice cream in a tub and was just as you’d expect vanilla ice cream on a middle-of-the-road airline to be – acceptable but far from memorable.
The most impressive aspect of lunch was the speed at which the flight attendants cleared everything away. This is something I always appreciate because I hate having the remnants of a meal service sitting in front of me for too long as it stops me from getting any work done.
Approximately 4 hours after take-off and 3.5 hours after lunch had been cleared away, we were offered drinks and a choice of chips or corn nuts.
2 hours after that, more drinks and a snack basket were offered.
7 hours after take-off and a little under 3 hours before landing the flight attendants passed out more bottles of water.
1 hour before landing the second meal (a choice of a burger or vegetable couscous) was served.
The fruit was ok and the blueberry muffin was as fake-tasting as you would probably expect but it’s hard to know what to say about the burger.
The burger itself was sealed into the bun to form what I imagine a burger pie would look like and it didn’t really taste of anything at all. Thinking that my tastebuds were doing me a favor and sending me a clear message I put the burger to one side and left it well alone.
Overall the food served was well below what anyone paying for a Business Class fare should expect but with COVID-19 being a catch-all excuse for absolutely everything around the time of this flight, I wasn’t entirely surprised.
The IFE screen on the United Airlines 787-9 isn’t particularly big but it’s big enough to do its job and worked pretty well as a touchscreen.
The IFE system allows you to select your preferred language…
….give you details of the flight…
…and gives passengers access to a wide variety of movies, TV shows, music, games and children’s entertainment…
…and I was very impressed by the number of episodes offered in each of the TV box sets (even though the episodes didn’t seem to be in order).
Finally (as there really isn’t very much you can say about an airline’s entertainment system), there is a nice option available which allows passengers to tell the crew that they don’t wish to be disturbed or that they would like to be woken for meal services.
I like this as it leaves little room for ambiguity – it’s hard for a FA to say that you missed a meal because you were asleep if you’ve gone ahead and selected the “please wake me for meals” option.
United Airlines Long-Haul Wi-Fi
United Airlines’ long-haul Wi-Fi is provided by Panasonic and the cost of Wi-Fi varies on the length of the journey.
On this flight, which was a little over 10 hours in length, the cost of Wi-Fi for the full flight was $37.99 (or 7,600 miles if you’re prepared to get just 0.5 cents of value out of each mile you use) which is expensive.
American Airlines will charge $35 for a journey of the same length (also expensive) while Virgin Atlantic and British Airways will charge you $26 and $27 respectively.
The options of 2 hours of Wi-Fi for $23.99 or 1 hour of Wi-Fi for $16.99 are verging on an insult to a passenger’s intelligence.
Considering how unreliable I always find Panasonic Wi-Fi to be on flights across the Atlantic (it was incredibly unreliable on this journey and on every other journey that I care to remember) this is rip-off pricing and there’s no excuse for it.
If British Airways can offer Wi-Fi for $10 less and have that Wi-Fi be (mostly) robust, why can’t United?
- Not offering all-aisle-access seating in a transatlantic widebody Business Class cabin is poor. This is now one of the more outdated cabins offered by a major transatlanic carrier and the sooner United gets moving with its retrofits the better.
- The limited amount of space for a passenger’s feet at all seats except for the front row is disappointing. On a daytime flight, this won’t be an issue but a lot of people will probably find it tight when it comes to sleeping on an overnight flight.
- The food was mostly poor. Some of it tasted ok but none of it came close to representing what a Business Class meal should be like. I know that COVID-19 will be used as an excuse but I’ve flown across the Atlantic with three other carriers under similar conditions and this was comfortably the worst food that I’ve been offered.
- The tray table is not robust enough and the way the hinge in the table turns itself into a pivot for anything placed upon the table is aggravating.
- The location of the seat controls makes it very easy for a passenger to get the seat or the lumbar support moving without having meant to.
- The Panasonic Wi-Fi is woefully and vastly overpriced.
- There was nothing “Busines Class” to the feel of the amenity kit. It felt more like a kit that you’d find in a Premium Economy cabin with a few extra items thrown in.
- As a place to pass some time, the seat is comfortable. It has issues in lie-flat mode that I’ve mentioned above but as a seat, it’s ok.
- The location of the power outlet and the USB port above the main shelf is great as it means that devices can be kept out of the way while being charged.
- The entertainment opinions on offer were impressive. The number of movies offered was on a par with what you’ll find on a number of other transatlantic carriers but what stood out was the number of episodes available in the numerous TV box sets loaded in the system.
As a cabin, the Business Class cabin on the United Airlines 787-9 ranks lower than a lot of other cabins offered by the major transatlantic carriers on routes of this distance. Iberia American, Finnair, Delta, and Air France all offer considerably better options. United’s newer Business Class cabin is also a much better option, and the new Virgin Atlantic Upper-Class seat and the new British Airways Club World Suite also offer a considerably better experience if you can find routes on which these cabins are being offered.
The legacy Club World cabin that you’ll find still operating on most British Airways routes is probably not much better than this 787-9 cabin, but I’d choose BA over United every time because the crews are usually friendlier, the Wi-Fi is cheaper and better, and the food and drinks served are better as well (even during the pandemic).
If you’re used to flying in cabins below Business Class, the United Airlines 787-9 Business Class cabin will feel like a massive step up from any other cabin that you’ve flown in before. If, however, you’ve flown routes of this length with any number of other transatlantic carriers, you would be well-advised to avoid this cabin if possible – you’re probably going to be disappointed if you don’t.