United Airlines 787 Economy SFO – SYD: Good Food, OK Service

After nearly a month of waiting the day finally came for the start of our camping trip to Middle Earth. As I mentioned in the previous post, I booked myself in United Economy on the DFW-SFO-SYD routing using 40,000 United Miles. It’s been a while since I’ve flown a 15 hour flight in economy (I usually fly economy through Europe to divide the flight time), but there is really no way around it if you desire to visit the lands down under. 

Boarding started about 45 minutes before departure time in San Francisco (11 pm). I was in Group 4 and chose a window seat near the center of the plane for the journey over. I was lucky in that the plane went out only 3/4 full in economy, which meant that the middle seat next to me was completely empty.  

Unlike European airlines, United and its American counterparts maintain at least some level of cushioning in its economy seats. The padding on my Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt the previous year was bordering on cardboard. I’m not holding my breath on this one because I’m sure some pencil pusher at Delta will decide to go slimline on long haul flights too, and everyone will follow. 

Anyway this United flight was operated by a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft featuring 48 Old United Business Class seats (Continental BusinessFirst Class) , 88 Economy Plus seats, and 116 standard economy seats. This is a bit surprising considering that their competitors (AA and DL) both offer direct aisle access on the route in business. 

Boarding was completed about 15 minutes early and we were all set to depart until the pilot came on board stating that the lavatories in the mid section of the aircraft were not functioning. So for the next 2 hours, plumbers and all sorts of engineers came in and out of the tiny lavatories. And let me just say that the cabin became intolerably stinky, which prompted the FAs to use air freshener a couple of times. Definitely not the high point of flying United. 

The delay lasted a little more than an hour and we finally left SFO at around midnight local time. About 30 minutes after take off the meal service began and since I had pre-ordered an Asian Vegetarian Meal, it came before the rest of the meals. I actually didn’t really want to eat at all, but since the middle tray table was down the FA just left my meal without a second glance. 

Since the meal was left on my table, I decided to open and check out what was on offer. The AVML consisted of some mixed vegetable curry, jeera rice, and some dal (lentils). 


And I have to say that the meal was quite tasty and was definitely a step above what I’ve eaten on other American carriers. Midnight Pacific Time (2 AM Central Time) is way too late for dinner in my book, so I only sampled it. Yeah I know I sound like an old bat.

It took the FAs almost 30 minutes to bring out the drinks cart so whoever pre-ordered meals would likely be done by the time they would get something other than water. Maybe airlines should also start taking orders for drinks ahead of time to smooth out the process? 

It took another 40 minutes for the trays to be cleared. I was extremely lucky in that the seat and tray table next to me were unoccupied because otherwise the tray  takes up most of table. All in the entire charade was over about 2.5 hours after departure. It certainly ended nicely with some mango sorbet:

Overall, I have to say United certainly impressed in terms of quality of the food . The service aspect of it is an issue we face with all airlines. They should really expedite the process by taking orders on the IFE screens. 

The entertainment selection on United has certainly improved over the years with them now having entire seasons of shows on board. I watched the first few episodes of Westworld before I fell asleep while we were over Hawaii.

I did actually bought Wi-Fi on this flight for a very reasonable $24 ($2/hr) which allowed me to finish up some work. However service got a little choppy as we approached Hawaii.

I woke up about 2 hours out of Sydney to the light outside the window. United luckily doesn’t micro-manage usage of its windows and I was able to catch the sunrise quite well. This is something that annoyed the heck out of me recently when I flew AA’s 787. I couldn’t brighten my window on my own while in-flight. 

Check out my vlog video if you would like to see the video or images of our descent into Sydney.

About an hour before landing, the breakfast service began and yet again I was offered my meal well before my fellow passengers. 

Again, United delivered some good quality Indian food for breakfast with the vegetable cutlets and upma (Indian version of porridge). 

Just so you know the options for the meals on the cart were an English breakfast or some french toast. I might have preferred the French toast actually if I had much of a choice in the matter. The FA pretty much left the tray on the middle table yet again. Not that this was bad in any way for this instance….

Anyway the breakfast service was fairly fast unlike the dinner service and we were ready to land in Sydney only 30 minutes behind schedule in the end. The taxi to the gate however took close to another half hour because this was the peak arrival and departure time for flights to/from Sydney.

The first email I saw as soon as we connected was the email from United apologizing for the Wi-Fi service on the flight over and proactively processing a refund. It’s a small gesture, but I was quite impressed that they had done this. 

Bottom Line:

I have to hand it to United in the food department. They certainly do a better job of AVMLs than other US airlines. Service itself leaves a little to be desired, but that’s something to be expected on United it seems. It always seems like there is a 50-50 split between the friendly FAs and the rude ones. In general I find AA flight attendants to be a bit friendlier across the board, but that could just be me. As far as products go on services to Australia, I believe that United may be only second to Virgin Australia in overall soft product and on par with the rest with regard to seat comfort in economy. What surprised me the most was the proactive refund for the shortcomings in Wi-Fi service. 

There you have it I was back in Australia once again. It certainly feels like I can’t get to New Zealand without a stop here. 

If you want to stay ahead on this trip report, all of it will be available on the vlog. The Sydney Day 1 Vlog post is already up. 

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