Great Product, Not-So-Great Service on a United 787-10 to Newark (Trip Report)

Trip Reports, United

It was time to get back in the saddle again after a nice, long holiday lull away from flying. This time, I was heading to New York for Wendy Perrin’s WOW List Summit. The last time she had one was three years ago down in Mexico, and it was a great event, but this time she did it in her backyard.

My wife joined me on this trip, and while we were tempted to fly the Delta 767 out with only two seats on the side, it wasn’t worth waking up so early to get a good fare. Instead, we opted for a later United 787-10 for a mere $133.30 each in regular economy (or the equivalent in Chase points). On the way back, we took the Delta 767 and had a nearly-opposite experience, but I’ll write about that in a future post.

The week leading up to travel, I saw a storm would be descending on New York the day we were planning on arriving, and I just assumed we’d be massively delayed. I contemplated taking a flight the next day instead if a waiver appeared, but it never did. It stayed warm enough that it was just a whole lot of rain, and we didn’t face a delay… until we got in the air.

There’s nothing quite like LA freeway driving early on a weekend morning. It was empty, and even the traffic at LAX was moving well. United’s Terminal 7 was relatively quiet, and the line for TSA Precheck was non-existent. This is the first time I’ve ever seen them not ask for our boarding pass at the checkpoint. Apparently there are some tests out there which allow you to just swipe your ID and the system pulls up your reservation from that. I loved it since it meant not having to fumble with my phone to produce a boarding pass.

On the other side, we found our way to the awkward gate 74. The gate is bisected by a wall, and those on one side can’t really hear the announcements. When you’re flying a big airplane, that means a lot people won’t find seating in the gate area, so there’s a lot of huddling around. You also can’t see the airplane which is a shame. We were on a beautiful, brand new 787-10 in the new livery. (It was just one month and one day old.) I was able to snap this sexy beast as I walked down to the jet bridge.

January 25, 2020
United 2418 Lv Los Angeles 815a Arr Newark 414p
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 74, Runway 25R, Depart 6m Early
Newark (EWR): Gate C121, Runway 22L, Arrive 16m Late
N12010, Boeing 787-10, 2019 Blue Globe colors, ~99% Full
Seat 49L, Economy
Flight Time 4h55m

We walked through one of the two jetbridges, and they were directing traffic. Those who were sitting on the far side of the airplane boarded through door 1L while those on the near side went through 2L. It helped avoid cross-traffic and seemed smart. The only minor nitpick? We were on the far side so we went through 1L. That meant we had to go through Polaris, and that is a very narrow aisle.

The windows were all dimmed, and the cabin had a bluish glow. We found our seats, and I was surprised to see a blanket waiting. It’s amazing that this now sounds like a luxury. I browsed through the surprisingly robust movie and TV selection, but I didn’t turn anything on.

The captain came on and told us it would be a nice flight, but the weather was miserable in Newark. He did say that we’d have a mostly smooth ride except on descent when we’d have some bumps. He added that it wouldn’t be “anything untoward.” What a great way to put it.

It was a foggy day in LA — the same fog that enveloped Kobe Bryant’s doomed helicopter the very next day — but we saw no delays. We were up and above the low layer in no time, and then we made a lazy loop around before pointing east.

I found myself wishing that United provided live television on this flight, because I wanted to listen in to the first day of President Trump’s defense in the impeachment trial. The only way to do that was to pay $20.99 for internet and hope I could stream the audio. I paid it, and sure enough, the audio streaming worked fine. But little did I know that the defense team would only use 2 of the 3 hours allotted to them, so it was over shortly after I logged on. Doh.

The flight attendants came through with the usual snacks and drinks. Then they declared war. See, I like my window seats, and I think the dimming window on the 787 is great… in theory. But when the flight attendants decide to lock it in an auto-dimmer position, I’m not happy. I had this blue hue the whole time and no other option. As I understand it, United’s standard operating procedure is NOT to lock the windows, so this was apparently the crew overriding the usual procedure for some reason. Grrr.

As always happens when the kids aren’t traveling with us, my wife had fallen asleep on takeoff and was barely awake when the food-for-purchase came by. After she fully woke up later, the flight attendant came by and my wife asked if she could buy some food. The flight attendant said she’d come back. She never did.

I ended up working and streaming others talking about impeachment testimony, so I could get caught up on what I missed. (Yes, I’m a masochist.) I left the excellent moving map on and even when the seat in front of me reclined, I was able to use my laptop.

It wasn’t the most comfortable setup, but it really wasn’t bad. Just being able to get caught up after a busy week was gratifying.

We chugged our way across the country, but once we got near Pennsylvania, we turned around. A line of weather had rolled through Newark, and the winds shifted so they turned the airport around. That messed everything up, so we had an aerial tour of the Great Lakes. Unfortunately, it was cloudy down below, so the tour wasn’t particularly interesting.

The captain kept us updated with great information along the way. Once the hold was canceled, he told us the story and said we’d have “significant bumps” on the descent.

Meanwhile, my wife had dug deep into the movie library. When her movie finished, she was pleasantly surprised by this feature:

It looks at the amount of time left in flight and then suggests other options that can be finished before touchdown. Ok, so maybe the movie choices could be a little smarter. (She had just finished watching Hustlers and they suggested An American Tail?) But the idea is great.

Once she found her next movie, she wanted to clear her area. She had an empty water bottle, and when the flight attendant passed by with another round of water, she asked if she would take it. The flight attendant said she’d come back. She never did. Sound familiar?

After we were released from our hold, it wasn’t long before we were ready to descend. I was watching the storm move through on radar thanks to the wifi, and it looked like it was clearing out. We started our descent somewhere over Pennsylvania, and I had flipped on one of United’s music stations for the ride down. Somewhere around 10,000 feet we went into the clouds. It turns out it wasn’t very bumpy at all since the storm had moved out. But it was a miserable day with panoramic views like this one:

We touched down and had a quick taxi to our open gate. The skies still looked rather threatening at that time, but the rain went away by that evening, and we had good weather for the rest of our trip.

After all the holding, we were only about 15 minutes late getting into the gate. We made our way through the bustling airport before hopping on the Airtrain to take us to New Jersey Transit into the city.

Overall, I love the 787. It’s a really nice airplane. And I find United’s seats comfortable with good entertainment options. The service, well, that wasn’t all that great.

While I was in New York, I was able to spend one night at the TWA Hotel, so I’ll be writing that up soon. Then I flew home on a Delta 767 which had great service but a not-so-great product. Look for those reports in the next couple weeks.

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37 comments on “Great Product, Not-So-Great Service on a United 787-10 to Newark (Trip Report)

  1. You know where that airplane went PEK-LAX-EWR. Hope you disinfected the armrests and tray table!

  2. United will always be Untied. It’s in their blood — or hydraulic fluid, as the case may be.

  3. I’ll be right back… LOL How did the AirTrain/ NJT connection work for you . I ask as several transit blogs in the NYC area bitch & moan on how bad the service is Vs taking Uber or a taxi.

    1. AirTrain/NJT is usable, to a degree. The problem is the NJT schedule from the train station to NY PENN station is not intuitive in any way – it’s driven by local NJT commuter concerns rather than, e.g. every 15 minutes or whatever. It’s by far the most usable public transit option to an NYC airport, in my experience, which, unfortunately, still makes it only the best of a bad bunch. The EWR AirTrain is an underspecified joke – poky, massively crowded, etc. You can always count on the New York, New Jersey and Port Authority to **** up public transit. The latest example being their complete redevelopment of LaGuardia *without* any kind of reasonable subway connection. Thanks Cuomo.

      The last time I was at EWR (last week) I wanted to get from rental car return to the PATH train. Rather than take AirTrain to EWR NJT station to Newark PENN station, I simply got an Uber to take me direct to Newark PENN station, for the time savings as much as anything.

      1. Good point about train to LGA. I prefer the train as it is not subject to complete NYC gridlock. Last trip I took the subway from Manhattan to Grand Concourse and then an express bus called the LGA Express (run by MTA – a free transfer) to LGA. It worked the best. Why they do not get a subway directly to LGA is awful planning. New Yorkers love to tout their public transit – until I ask them how to get to LGA and they quickly quiet down.

      2. On weekends, there are 3-4 NJT trains into NYC per hour, but they are all bunched together in a 15-20 minute block each hour. This makes wait times unpredictable and frustrating. For example, if you arrive at the Newark Airport NJT station anytime between 3:52 and 4:20 pm on a Saturday, you would have a maximum wait time of 12 minutes for the next train. If you arrived at 4:21 pm, then you need to wait 47 minutes for the next train at 5:08 pm.

        To make things worse, it’s not possible to get an Uber or taxi from the NJT station without paying to ride the AirTrain back to a terminal, so once you have exited the AirTrain you are committed to waiting for the next NJT train. The “correct” strategy is to check NJT train times before riding the AirTrain there, but most normal people don’t know this and shouldn’t really be expected to.

        This is made worse by the AirTrain itself, which is pretty unreliable. I’ve had situations where the AirTrain gets stuck in a station for 5ish minutes on its way to the NJT station, which is just enough to miss the last train in a “cluster” and make me wait 40+ minutes. Extremely frustrating.

        The AirTrain/NJT situation is much better on weekdays because the trains are more evenly distributed throughout the day. If you’re going *to* the airport you should still look up times to make sure you don’t end up with a 20 minute wait at Penn Station, but it’s mostly fine.

        1. FWIW, here’s my personal decision tree for getting to Manhattan from EWR:

          – Weekdays: Take AirTrain->NJT to avoid any possible road traffic.
          – Weekends:
          – Is work paying? If yes, just take Uber/Lyft to destination.
          – Check NJT schedule – assuming AirTrain takes 20 minutes, can I get to NJT station at least 5 min before last train in the hourly “bunch”. If yes, do that.
          – Else: Destination above 23rd St: Take Newark Airport Express bus
          – Else: Destination below 23rd St..: Uber/Lyft to either Journal Square or Grove St. (depending on traffic) and take PATH train.

          Taking the PATH into World Trade Center used to be an option, but that station is closed on weekends this year.

          All this is way more complicated than getting home from JFK, which has a reliable and high-frequency subway and LIRR connection.

      3. Re: LGA transit connection, there’s a very simple option available – just paint some bus lanes for the Q70 bus, which connects with the subway at Jackson Heights. It’s been explicitly dismissed by the PA and DOT because they don’t want to upset any drivers – ridiculous considering how many Ubers and taxis it would take off the airport approach roads.

      4. Enplaned – “by far the most usable public transit option to an NYC airport”? I must beg to differ, and as Alex says below “All this is way more complicated than getting home from JFK, which has a reliable and high-frequency subway and LIRR connection”.

        Let’s speak about rail transit options, which tend to be more reliable given the area’s traffic. (Although I do think the Q70 LaGuardia Link Select Bus Service is a fantastically easy way of getting to LaGuardia.)

        The Newark Liberty International Airport rail station – where one must connect to AirTrain Newark that serves the terminals directly – is served by NJ Transit’s Northeast Corridor and North Jersey Coast Lines, and all too few Amtrak Northeast Regional trains. Realistically, Amtrak fares are set to make it clear that it’s not meant for people traveling to the station from the New York City market. That’s it – no more. To get to it from the Manhattan central business district (CBD), you need to get yourself to Penn Station, either from somewhere in Midtown or Lower Manhattan. Alternatively, you can take PATH from Lower Manhattan to Newark’s Penn Station, but then you still need to transfer to NJ Transit to get to the Newark Liberty International Airport rail station.

        Jamaica – where one must connect to AirTrain JFK that serves the terminals directly – is served by two subway lines (the E and the J/Z) and too many LIRR lines to mention (all but the Port Washington Branch) – so many that the frequencies of the LIRR between Jamaica and Penn Station are essentially that of a decent rapid transit service. So, you can get to Jamaica from Penn Station in Midtown, from Downtown Brooklyn (via the Atlantic Branch of the LIRR), and from myriad locations throughout the City directly on the subway (without needing to transfer to the LIRR) served by the E and J/Z trains (let alone all the places that you can start from and transfer to those subway lines).

        In addition, one can’t forget that the other branch of AirTrain JFK (yes, there are 2) connects to the A train subway at the Howard Beach station, for easier and more direct subway access to Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan.

        In the future, the Port Authority would like to extend PATH to the Newark Liberty International Airport rail station, thus allowing for Lower Manhattan to have a direct ride to at least the connection point with the soon-to-be-rebuilt (hopefully as a real steel-on-steel rail line, like the much-better-sized AirTrain JFK) AirTrain Newark. Nonetheless, on the JFK side, the opening in a couple of years of East Side Access means that LIRR riders will be able to access Jamaica Station (for the transfer to AirTrain JFK) directly from Grand Central on the east side, and not solely from Penn Station on the west side or from Downtown Brooklyn at Atlantic Terminal. So overall I think – at least when considering CBD access – JFK is still easier than EWR via transit.

        As to LGA – we shall see. The proposed AirTrain LGA would indeed connect to the 7 train and the Port Washington Branch of the LIRR. Although the project has some serious concerns, with the opening of East Side Access, the LIRR Port Washington Branch will also be able to access both sides of the Midtown CBD, and also have access to the 7 Flushing Line for more local access. I also believe I have read that the CONRAC and employee parking will be moved to Willets Point, so having an AirTrain LGA serve that facility may provide at least a reliable trip to connect the terminals with those functions and with some relatively reliable Manhattan service. And God knows what fare specials may need to be implemented to allow for folks to take the LIRR there and not the 7! Perfect, it sure ain’t – but it’s a start and if the parking functions are moving there anyway, then a reliable high frequency/high capacity link may be needed to Willets Point in any event.

    2. SEAN – AirTrain worked fine for me. The hardest part was actually just finding the damn thing. Signage wasn’t great in the terminal. At one point there were signs pointing in two different directions. Then the “up”
      escalator was broken, so we had to wait with everyone else with luggage for the slow elevator. Took the train over to the station. Buying a ticket was fine, though the machines were ancient. It was cold outside, but it was covered so rain wasn’t an issue. When the train showed up, it was on time only about 5 minutes after we got to the station. It was pretty full, however, so we had to find scattered seats. It isn’t fast, but at least it wasn’t subject to traffic. By the time we got to Penn Station, it was a nice and warmish night, so we walked down to Chelsea and it worked out great.

  4. A 9 abreast 787 or 10 abreast 777 is ok when you are sitting next to your spouse or small child. Otherwise, I’ll choose any other available option.

  5. Delta has live TV on most of its flights. Why United does not have it on 787 is amazing. I can understand it may not work on international routes, but at least let us watch on domestic flights! I refuse United at any turn. Unless absolutely necessary.

    1. Delta doesn’t have it on the 767 fleet that Cranky took back to LA. I learned this one the hard way when flying during the Superbowl.

  6. I’m not seeing two of your referenced photos regarding your wife’s IFE for your descent.

    In terms of Newark my preferred way is to take the NJT Route 62 Bus from in front of each airport terminal to Newark Penn Station (scheduled for just 18 minutes) and PATH or a more frequent NJT transit rail train from there into Manhattan.

    The bus costs only $1.60 compared to $10.75 for the Airtrain to NJT Train combo, which is now payable in the NJT app, so you don’t need exact change anymore. I also like taking the bus because it avoids the slow ride on the monorail.

    1. SubwayNut – I tried to fix the photos. Can you see now? I could still see everything on my side, but I was getting a weird double upload problem so I wouldn’t be surprised if something was corrupted. If something is still missing, let me know.

        1. Subway – Whew. It looks like this was a WordPress issue. They just pushed a new update to the plugin, so that should help going forward.

  7. Jumping ahead a bit, guessing the 767 you flew on was a -300? Got a chance to fly the -400ER pre- and post-retrofit a couple weeks ago JFK-BRU and BRU-ATL, respectively. The older layout was just okay (though I had the AB seat set to myself). The new one was comfortable enough that I could’ve handled another few hours on that flight.

    Still haven’t made it aboard either the 787 or the 350. Flip side of that is I don’t have to endure transcons ever :)

    1. Ian – Yep, a very old 767-300 with a sub-par product. Seats were comfortable though. I probably haven’t been on a 767-400 for probably 15 years.

  8. I was on a 20 day old UA 787-10 last year EWR-LAX. At the time they were selling Premium Plus seats as Economy Plus for less than a standard Economy Plus seat. No brainer. I enjoyed the seat and the ride.

  9. CF – like you, I like to be able to control the window “shades”, but got into a discussion with the F/A on a DOH-ORD flight, because other passengers wanted the cabin dimmed, while I wanted to watch Europe passing by below.
    But, when landing or taking off I find that non-U.S. carriers usually insist that window shades be open, day or night, for safety reasons. I fully agree, and can’t understand why U.S. carriers can’t see the dangers! How many times have you landed when someone beside you “jumps” because they didn’t expect the aircraft to land just then? Being aware of your surroundings is always important, more so at these critical junctures! I view this as a safety issue and will ask passengers sitting beside a window to open the window shades, explaining to them my particular rationale – and I am not a nervous passenger – just wanting to know what’s going on!
    On another occasion I was in the back of a B747 when we had an engine fire when landing. The F/A’s were completely unaware of the potential danger, while passengers aft of the F/A’s could clearly see what was going on – but that’s another story for another day…..

  10. While I have awaited significant changes to United service experiences as Oscar Munoz was so focused on the cultural issues at UA. I believe they brought all 25,000 FA’s to Chicago for a multi day conference to get everyone onboard. When I travel it sure seems the success of changing and enhancing the onboard service as been spotty at best. I have flown primarily economy plus or an occasional upgrade to First class over the past year and I find far too often this type of service is not uncommon. Even my Polaris experience from SFO was spotty as a bit of indifference with the service delivery and “in the aisles” after the meal to check on customer. Some improvements but a very very long way to go….proof not promises is what we want to see.

  11. “It was a foggy day in LA — the same fog that enveloped Kobe Bryant’s doomed helicopter the very next day — but we saw no delays.”

    What on earth does the Kobe crash have to do with this? Irrelevant…

  12. Seems you and wife are terrible from fa point of view; Needing one thing too many!

    Enter through dorm consistent with class of travel

    Complain abt window shade, then tells us Abt view over Great Lakes

    Handing FA your trash while they are serving others…

    You and/or wife could have easily walked to rear galley
    And purchased food – and there is 50% chance FAs
    Would not have charged you.

    With number of pax Requesting stuff against number of FAs,
    They probably forgot or could not remember where you were.

    Now, multiply you and wife X. 200…

    Too much, dude!

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