How United ruined the Dreamliner

Congratulations United, you did it!

Joe Polastre
Aug 2, 2016 · 5 min read
A United 787 Dreamliner on approach to London’s Heathrow airport. Photo by Lewis Smith.

The Dreamliner is the most amazing, sophisticated airplane in the world. It is a space-age plane built with carbon fiber, LCD dimming windows, and mood lighting. Yet airlines managed to destroy the experience onboard this modern marvel.

I flew the 787–9 for the first time with ANA Business Class — the original launch customer. Then I flew the 787–9 with United BusinessFirst — the North American launch customer. My experience was notably different. (Full disclosure: I’m a United 1K member and United Million Miler)

As a Product Manager, I listen to users and try to anticipate what they want. Often they use products in ways I could never predict. Airlines buying a jet from Boeing or Airbus are similar. The planes are designed based on feedback from airlines, but manufacturers just sell the shell. They can’t enforce how airlines configure or operate the plane.

Service. Let’s not sugar coat it, the service on United is horrible. What exactly is the cabin crew doing? You can’t find a flight attendant if you try. Despite repeated attempts to get a glass of water, I’m still thirsty 70 minutes after takeoff. United puts their crankiest, most tenured flight attendants on the long haul routes. I suppose that’s their reward for putting up with United this long.

The nicest Japanese gentleman sits next to me. After his meal, he calls over the Japanese-speaking flight attendant to complain. They have a heated debate about the food and service.

This may sound trivial, but the flight attendants don’t even try to accommodate guests. Imagine being at a super-expensive 3-star Michelin restaurant, like Saison in San Francisco. You ask for a napkin, and the waiter tells you to get it yourself from the service area in the corner. Admittedly, it is impossible for the flight attendant to reach my seat due to United’s poorly designed layout. For tickets that cost $4,000 each way, this is just not human-centered design — for the passenger or United’s employees!

In-flight entertainment. The most modern jetliner in the world has the most out-of-date entertainment system. If you’ve flown Virgin America or Air New Zealand, you’ve seen good seatback entertainment — even in economy. Take a look at the difference in interfaces — ANA runs Android on big screens, while United runs some outdated Linux distribution with a weird touchscreen remote:

No ordering food or drink from your seat. Limited movies to watch. Sluggish performance. And “games” with a fancy PlayStation-like controller that only has Sodoku. Seriously? No Pokemon? You know ANA, a Japanese airline, has already figured out how to add Pokemon.

Bathrooms should have windows. This is one of the coolest features of the Dreamliner. There’s a window — with natural light — in the bathroom. Instead of cramming into an electrical closet, you can see clouds and watch the world go by. United, I demand a window in all plane bathrooms! It takes a little design time to make this happen, but it is not more costly to build or operate the plane.

LCD dimming windows and a bathroom with a view! Both on ANA.

Window dimming. Speaking of windows, one of the coolest features on the Dreamliner is the ability to dim the shades with a button press. While ANA lets you control the brightness all flight long, United has a draconian override button where everything goes dark. That’s right, if you want to know the outside world exists, you can’t on United. Even the old, manually-operated window shades can be opened and closed.

Food. Japanese food is incredible. Both airlines offered Japanese menus. I didn’t even bother with United’s — after all, only they could ruin Japanese food. ANA serves up fresh local cuisine, with green tea pudding for desert. United serves something that vaguely resembled a California roll, then a piece of mystery meat. Remember that nice Japanese man next to me? He is complaining to the United flight attendant about the Japanese meal.

ANA meal and classic, minimalist desert.
United “sushi” and meat.

Seat configuration. ANA has amazing design sense — they alternate the number of seats in each row. This way, everyone gets a good seat and has a table with storage. A side table! On an airplane! United has a horrible 2–2–2 layout. Being next to the window, I have to climb over that nice Japanese man to get out, just like you have to do in economy.

Both airlines have 48 seats that take up roughly the same space on the aircraft. Amazing. It all comes down to design. ANA focused time and effort to design a sane cabin, whereas United shoves in their old, crappy product. Notice the bathrooms are in the same place on both planes, so United can include a window. United, did I mention that I want a window in the bathroom!

While the seats on United look bigger, ANA is better designed with tables next to each passenger. (Seatguru)

If you haven’t flown on a Dreamliner, you should. They’re quiet. The cabin pressure is closer to that on earth, so you feel refreshed on landing. For the love of god though, don’t fly United’s Dreamliner.

United knows their business class is garbage. They announced a new business class, Polaris. When the first planes get Polaris in 2017, international airlines will have moved on to a newer, better product. Always one step behind, United.

Star Alliance members ANA, Air New Zealand, and Eva Air fly the Dreamliner. If you’re stuck with United like I am, the trick is to buy your ticket through United but actually fly on a partner airline instead. Kudos ANA, I’ll be back.

Nothing to declare

What you’ll find when you step off the beaten path.

Thanks to Jamie Albrecht

Joe Polastre

Written by

Unrelenting traveler, United Million Miler, Pennsylvania native, Pilot, often found on a ⛵️, product manager

Nothing to declare

What you’ll find when you step off the beaten path.

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