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Wednesday 31 July 2019

20 Years Later With United Airlines (Part 1: NRT-SFO)

Welcome to my trip report on United Airlines!


Trip to the U.S had been in my mind for a while. The last time I was in the States was in the 1990s, about 20 years ago. I know I had to make a return especially with many of my friends talking about cities and aviation friends inviting me over. So with that in mind, I started planning in September 2018. Contacted a few overseas friends, and we were to meet up in different cities. If not because of time constraint, I would have included East Coast as part of my flying trip, adding Jetblue to my list. 

This would be my 1st flight with the new United Airlines. 

My last flight experience with United Airlines was way before the merger between Continental and the Old United Airlines. 

My photo of United Airline's Triple 7 at Changi Airport, always wanted to fly this aircraft back then. I even emailed to United asking them whether they could change one of my flights to 777. It was a cheeky email, but to my surprise, they replied me and explained that the 777 was too small for the route that I was flying on due to demand but encouraged me to try again soon. That was a nice gesture I feel. They didn't have to respond to a teenager's email.

This livery (below) is not my cup of tea, prefer the previous colour scheme. 

The airline's Boeing 747-400 ( I flew on N116UA and N196UA)

Photo: Paul Guinea 

The United Airlines that I am flying today is a different one. This airline of today comes from the merger between the old United Airlines and Continental Airlines. How did it come about? 

History of United Airlines (Before the merger) 

The talks about merging began in 2006 when the management of United Airlines and Continental met. An agreement only came about 4 years later and the reason for the merger is to strengthen their foothold at their respective bases, making them a force to reckon against their rivals. Finally, in November 2011, the newly merged United Airlines operated with a single air operator certificate. Recently, in June 2019, the United Continental Holdings changed the name to United Airlines Holdings. 

This is Continental Airlines (Both photos below are mine)

This is the United Airlines (just before the merger) 

My experience was negative especially with the American crew on HKG-SFO-HKG, Service was atrocious and it was not be forgotten easily especially remembering one of us arguing with the crew for unfairness. Anyway, it’s in the past, things have changed. I had already moved on. 

This time I am able to do a trip report with pictures, thanks to today’s technology. 
Without further ado, let's begin.

Airline's mobile application (IOS) 

I used the mobile app to do the booking, no issue at all. As aircraft type is important for my flying, I took quite a while to decide the best flight option. What I like about the airline’s app is it list you the pricing and the flight details, so everything is clear. No additional charges unless you decide to upgrade your seats. 

Once my booking was done, I received the confirmation of my trip within a few minutes. 
For seat selection, I was 
able to select my seat with on ANA’s SIN-NRT-SIN sectors using the Japanese airline’s website with the 6-digit United’s reservation code given. While for UA's flights, I selected my choice of seat without any issues. All seats reserved without charges. 

 For better comfort, one has to pay extra for it. 

I decided to choose the preferred seat for my NRT-SFO sector and looking at the difference between the preferred seat to the normal seat, there is no difference, only thing is it is located near the wing of the aircraft, closer to the front. The comfort level of the seat is the same as those at the rear. 

Once payment was made, I had a choice to add comfort to my experience. As you all know, I am more into flying for the aircraft type than enjoying premium classes. There are plenty of trip reports on those and not many Economy Class reports, besides I rather save the extra cash and splash it on more flights. 

Luckily for me, none of the flights experienced aircraft change or long delay 

I am impressed that the airline's website allows you to check where your aircraft is coming from and even the tail number too.

Only U.S airlines have standby and upgrade details available for viewing, so this is something new to me. Not only that, I received notification from the application, giving me essential information such as the gate of departure, when it is opened and reminding me to get there before it closes. That's very useful.

After arrival at NRT airport, I had time to kill, so I went around to do some plane spotting at the gate area.

I did a check which aircraft was taking me to SFO, it was N2142U, a 2-year old Boeing 777-300ER at this point of time, confirmed by the airline's website. 

Tokyo Narita Terminal 1 Airside 

It was around 2 in the afternoon local time, I had about 3 hours to spare. Even though I arrived with my aircraft using the remote parking lot, it didn't take long for me to reach the airside of Terminal 1 Departure Hall.

Direction of signboards will guide you, so you don't have to worry about losing your way. My advice is to have at least one and a half hour of connection time. However if your flights are in the same booking, you need not worry if you miss your connecting flight as the airline will rebook you to the next available flight.

Lots of shops to explore, I recommend checking out the Japanese snacks, they are recommended especially the banana cake.

United Airlines Boeing 777-200ER in Star Alliance livery, heading for Houston. 

Making my way to the assigned gate, 35

United flies their Boeing 737-800 on Guam to Tokyo route regularly

They should use more comfortable chairs for travellers 

The Airbus A380 aircraft is usually parked at gate 4X. 

Spotted this beautiful Airbus A380 at the gate, presumably just arrived from Honolulu

FedEx MD-11F is getting rarer as each day passes 

At the gate of departure

My ride: N2142U 

This aircraft arrived from New York, enjoying its short rest before taking me and the others to San Francisco 

Boarding according to zones was strictly enforced

More photos of N2142U 

Photo: Tokyo Spotter

Photo: Allen Zhao

Aircraft Type: Boeing 777-300ER 
Engines: 2 X GE 90-115B
Configuration: C60 Y306 
Line number: 1497
Delivered on 30 June 2017
Born in Everett

Route: NRT-SFO

Miles: 5,124

Time to board the aircraft 

Greeted by the friendly Asian crew on this flight. Feels strange not being served by the local crew from America. Most of them are not Japanese, possibly from other Asian countries. The crew on board our flight were able to speak English,  Mandarin and Japanese. For this flight,  Japanese and English languages were used in announcement by the cabin crew.

A lot of passengers like myself were connecting passengers from other flights. So usually the load factor of UA837/UA838 is full and Boeing 777-300ER, the largest capacity aircraft in the fleet, is deployed.

I have checked the history of UA837/UA838, it used to be operated by Boeing 747-400. 

Date of departure: 12 July 2019
Airline: United Airlines 
Flight: UA838 
Route: NRT-SFO
Duration: 8 hours 53 mins (According to Captain) 
Actual duration: 8 hours 42 mins
Aircraft Type: Boeing 777-300ER
Registration: N2142U
Seat: 40L 
Gate: 35
Departure time: 1700
Push back: 1712
Boarding: 1605
Take off: 1733
Load: 100% Full (Standby passengers occupied the remaining vacant seats)
Scheduled arrival: 1035
Actual arrival: 1014
Departure runway: 34L
Arrival runway: 28L

Welcome on board!

Nice galley, I presume it is for the crew to prepare beverages and food for the J class passengers

Business Class 

This is the new Polaris Business Class offered by United Airlines, featured on all Boeing 777-300ER and Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner and selected Boeing 767-300ER and Boeing 777-200ER (Some of them are being refurbished to this product at this time.) The Boeing 767-300ER and Boeing 777-200ER will complete the refurbishment programme in 2020. Soon, the Boeing 767-400ER will also have this new product installed on the aircraft along with the Boeing 787-8 and -9 Dreamliner aircraft. As for the Airbus A350, we should be seeing this product that is provided the airline takes delivery of the aircraft. 

For the Boeing 777, it is configured to a 1-2-1 seating which means every seat gets aisle access and since the 777 has a wide cabin space, every passenger gets more space for him/herself. 

I am impressed with the new business class product. After the flight, I went over and explore the features of it and I would love to try it once I gain enough mileage points to redeem.

There is a divider to provide privacy when sitting beside a stranger

My only concern when sitting at the seat near the aisle is the lack of privacy due to people moving around

The ambience of the cabin with the mood lighting looks fabulous.

IFE screen size is average for this business class product

The only time to take photos of the empty business class was after the flight. The crew were understanding since they are used to many aviation enthusiasts checking out the cabin products.

Premium Economy 

This class is in the 2-4-2 seating configuration. The seat is wider than the Economy Class seat and is definitely more comfortable than the 3-4-3 "cattle" class. 

This class is set up to make it more affordable for passengers to travel in this class than in business class. 

Every Premium Economy seat will receive the following items as shown below. What Economy Class will not get is the disposal slipper and menu. 

Seat pitch is better in this section, around 34 inches.

Notice the difference in seat colour between this and Economy Class 

Economy Class 

The crampy 3-4-3 configuration. This seat is narrower and may feel uncomfortable especially if you are sitting in between

Seat pitch is around 31 inch

View from my seat 

A United Airlines crew looking on while disembarkment was taking place 

More photos of Economy Class Seat 

Another colour of the mood lighting system

Compared to my previous flight on ANA's 787-10, this IFE system looks tiny

Somehow I managed to get past 8 hours plus on this window seat without getting up. How did I do it? Now thinking about it, I am also surprised.

I am quite impressed with United's offering

In-Flight Entertainment System

This system, like ANA's, has many languages on offer. One advantage over ANA is that it consists of more movies selection

The main page should have an option for us to turn on our seat light or call the crew. 

The seat map system is not the most advance, but still good enough to get information on your flight progress

Earplugs are distributed to passengers 

What's inside the seat pocket?

The airline's safety card, the Boeing 777-300ER

Disposal Bag 

In-flight magazine 

Blanket and Pillow to keep us comfortable

In-Flight experience

Majority of this crew is Asian, around the late 30s and early 40s. I was greeted amicably by the gentleman standing at the door. From his accent, he is not Japanese. Made my way to the seat and waited. It was a full flight so boarding took a while. 40 minutes later, we were on our way. 

What is new to me is that the window shade doesn't need to be pulled up for take off or landing, and the lights on my night flights for this trip were not dimmed during the critical part of flying. Has the rules changed?

We took off in the wet weather with half of the window shades shut. Flight service began after 15 minutes of flying. We had 2 meals, lunch and a light snack before arrival. The service was not bad, certainly better than my previous experience with this airline. I felt settled in in the comfortable leather seat though the legroom space was annoying for me. Somehow I managed to cope with it as I was kept occupied with the movies, catching up on the ones I missed out. 

 The ride across the transpacific was smooth. So for most parts, we had the seatbelt sign off, but with recent happenings of crew and passengers getting injured due to surprised turbulence, the cabin and flight crew emphasised on the importance on the safety belt. Unlike the ANA flight crew, this set of flight crew came on the speaker a few times giving us well-detailed information on our flight.

The flight was enjoyable, hardly any turbulence. Flying through clear skies with just a bit of bump. Landing at San Francisco was a smooth affair and I saw an aircraft (United's Boeing 737-900ER) landing on runway 28R, around the same time as us, we were on runway 28L. That was also another first for me. 

WiFi On Board 

There is flight information on the airline's wifi website

Charges shown below, I didn't use it

You have other options to explore and you can also use your electronic device to watch movies on it

Useful information - I am definitely impressed 

My verdict: United Airlines is more than just getting you from point A to B

In-Flight Meal

Before our first meal was served, we were given a bottle of water and a packet of snack mix

I had a choice between Western or Japanese. I can't remember the Western option, I chose the Japanese option since I was flying out of Tokyo. 

This is the Japanese curry, it's quite dry. Average quality.

I was surprised the meal comes with ice cream, this is tastier than the meal itself

For breakfast, we had a choice between this or the pancake. It was normal. 

Window shot photos 

Rainy condition at NRT airport (Photo was taken before boarding the aircraft)

Rain droplets on the window making it difficult to photograph outside

Quiz: Do you know what aircraft and the significance of this particular livery? (Photo below)

Answer at the bottom of this trip report.

Take off was smooth and we soon got out of the depressing weather

Flying over the transpacific, it was beautiful weather throughout the journey.

At this point, we started our descend towards SFO

It was a perfect day for flying

On approach over the sea means we were bound for runway 28

Touched down smoothly on runway 28 Left

The taxi to our gate took around 15 minutes 

We reached our gate early and our aircraft will rest for 4 hours before making her trip back to Asia, Taipei. 

What can I say? It is certainly better than expected flight experience from the airline. Despite being confined in the tiny space on the crampy 3-4-3, I managed to grab a couple of hours of sleep, but that is not enough for me. However, I managed to last until reaching my accommodation in Los Angeles. Tiring trip but it was fun.

My Flight Review from Flightradar24 

San Francisco is my first visit after 2 decades, unfortunately, it is only a stop-over. I have to return next time to spend some time in the city. 

My rating

United Airlines' mobile app: 7/10
NRT airport experience: 7/10
IFE system: 7/10 
Cabin interior: 8/10
Seat comfort: 7/10
Cleanliness: 10/10
Aircraft condition: 10/10
Punctuality: 10/10
In-flight service: 6/10
In-flight meal: 6/10
Overall rating: 78/100


This airline has surprised me in many aspects. From the airline's mobile app to the in-flight service. It's a completely different type of experience I was expecting. My initial expectation of the airline was just an airline that transport you from point A to B and anything else, we have to cough out for them. What I am impressed is the cabin products, decent in-flight service and the airline's mobile application which also helps you by reminding you of your flight and giving essential information to ensure your journey is a smooth one. I have 3 more flights with this airline to go, will I still be impressed? Stay tuned for the trip reports. 

Answer: ANA Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner Starwars BB-8 livery JA873A

Photo: Roland Bergmann - Spotterteam Graz

Hope you enjoyed my part 1 of 4 of United Airlines Trip Report. 

For my Part 2, click here.

Have a good one!

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