I flew 16 hours nonstop in economy class on one of United Airlines' busiest international routes -- here's what it was like

Flickr/CurimediaUnited Airlines has had a rough couple of years.

  • United Airlines and Cathay Pacific are the only airlines that fly nonstop from New York to Hong Kong.
  • The 16-hour route, which takes passengers over the ice caps of the arctic, is one of the longest flights in the world.
  • I decided to fly United Airlines Economy-class cabin to Hong Kong, to see what the experience was like after years of bad press about the airline.

United Airlines has had a rough couple of years.

For most Americans, United’s recent history has made it an airline to avoid: the violent removal of passenger David Dao last year, the high-profile death of a d0g last month in an overhead compartment, and abysmal consumer-satisfaction ratings over the past several years.

That’s before you get into passengers’ increasing discontent with the airline’s baggage fees, the “Basic Economy” ticket class, and shrinking seats, leading Wired to call United the “industry leader in the abandonment of basic decency.”

It all made me a bit nervous when I was looking for a flight from New York to Hong Kong days before I needed to leave. While Cathay Pacific and United both fly nonstop to Hong Kong, United was the only one available on such short notice.

Perhaps I’m a masochist, but it was a very reasonable $US761 for a one-way ticket. And I was curious what United might be like on one of the world’s longest routes.

I last flew United a few months back over Christmas on a visit to Seattle. The flight then went without incident, but the flight back was a nightmare of delays, overbooked seats, and forced checked bags.

Read on to see what I thought of my flight on United Airlines, departing from Newark Liberty International Airport at 4:00 p.m. for Hong Kong International Airport, operated on a 777-200.

I arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport about two hours before my flight. I knew I wasn’t checking a bag; I meticulously packed my carry-on so that I wouldn’t have to.

The security screening was confusing. From the perspective of a regular traveller, TSA PreCheck and the various “priority” lines seem to be creating more harm than good. The regular security line was excruciatingly long while much-needed TSA officers waited around on the empty “priority” lines.

When I finally got through, I had just enough time to grab a bite to eat before boarding. I stopped at Wanderlust, one of the dozens of restaurants in United’s new dedicated terminal at Newark. Like most of the options there, it was tasty but overpriced.

By the time I got to my gate, the plane was mostly boarded. United was boarding Group 5. Because I was in Group 3, I was able to skip right ahead to the front of the line.

I was told by the gate agent that I’d have to check my bag because it was “too big.” The bag was definitely carry-on size. I suspected the agent was just trying to check as many bags as possible because so many passengers bring carry-ons these days. At least I wasn’t charged.

Despite boarding late, I still found the walkway log-jammed all the way to the entrance. This was no doubt because every passenger was trying to stow a carry-on. Perhaps one day airlines will come to their senses about the situation they have created with baggage fees.

As I walked down the aisle, I felt the kings and queens in United’s business class mocking me.

They were already seated, sipping cocktails and reading the newspaper. What luxury! I then had to walk past the other various seat classes before finding my way to the back.

As I walked, I kept passing carry-on suitcases stowed in overhead compartments that looked larger than the one I was forced to check. I was already agitated.

I landed at my row, about three or four from the back of the plane.¬†United’s 777-200 economy cabins are in a 3-3-3 layout, which makes the cabins slightly less cramped than the 3-4-3 configuration some airlines have been putting in their 777 fleets.

Still, with three full-size adults in the row, it felt cramped. It didn’t help that I stowed my backpack under my seat, severely limiting the 18.3″ of width and 31″ of pitch of my seat, according to SeatGuru. A rookie mistake. The seat wasn’t particularly comfortable either.

Once boarding was finished and we were buckled up, the plane started taxiing as the seat-back entertainment systems fired up with the obligatory safety video. I’ll be honest: I didn’t pay attention. We took off on-time, however, and the captain informed us that we should arrive in Hong Kong a few minutes early.

With 16 hours to kill and knowing that it was unlikely that I would sleep much — I have recurring nightmares of the plane crashing while flying — I decided to peruse United’s in-flight magazine, Hemispheres.

After about 20 minutes of flight time, the staff came around with with some “Asian-style” snacks (wasabi peas, sesame sticks, rice crackers).

Beer and wine were included. I thought I’d start off this 16-hour marathon with some white wine. I was pretty surprised it was complimentary, given how airlines nickel-and-dime economy passengers these days. Hard alcohol was extra.

The entertainment options were good (lots of new releases, a wide selection of international films, and some solid TV shows), but the screen itself was old and the touch-panel unresponsive. To select a movie, you had to push so hard on the screen that it moved the seat in front of you, leading to a domino effect of aggravation.

Dinner service started about 20 minutes later. I ordered the gluten-free option because I was curious. The benefit was that I got my meal before the rest of the cabin. The downside? I ended up with chicken dry as a bone and gross green beans, while everyone else seemed to get some Korean spicy noodle dish.

On most of the international flights I’ve flown in recent years, the seat-back entertainment system is a modified Android tablet with two USB charge-ports next to it. This 777 seemed far more outdated. Power outlets were below.

You’d think a two-pronged outlet below your seat would be better than a USB charge-port in that you could use it to charge a laptop. However, they are so loose that my power adaptor kept falling out.

As I saw the first sunset of the 16-hour flight, I realised what a mistake I’d made dipping into the free wine. I had triggered a migraine. It persisted for the next six hours.

The only respite from the migraine was this gelato. When I asked the good-natured flight attendant if there was a choice of flavours, he laughed and said, “Yes! Salted caramel or nothing.” I chose salted caramel. It was tastier than I expected.

The best part of the flight was when we passed over the Arctic Circle, seeing both a sunrise and sunset. Everyone on my side of the plane quickly opened their windows to take a look. Though my seat-mates didn’t speak English, we bonded over the sheer wonder of looking at polar ice.

The seat-back entertainment system had a nifty feature that showed the flight’s progress on a map. It came in handy when I started seeing the polar ice. It alternated with a screen showing things like speed, ETA, and altitude.

Harrison Jacobs

Meal two came next. The gluten-free chocolate-chip cookie was actually pretty good. The dry, tasteless rice with bits of chicken was not. My seat-mates’ meal looked far more appetizing.

After spending hours three through nine dizzy with pain from the migraine, I finally had the brilliant idea to ask the flight attendant for aspirin, which he obliged. It dissipated around hour 11, and I proceeded to watch the first three episodes of “Fargo” Season 3 (I recommend). One thing I did appreciate about the TV selection: It contained entire seasons for several TV shows. Planes are the perfect place to binge. Despite the lagginess of the system and poor quality of the screen, I had no issues with playback, which is more than I can say for some planes.

With about an hour left before arrival, the cabin lights came on and everyone started to shake themselves awake. The flight attendants came by with a final meal service.

I finally lucked out at breakfast with a tasty vegetable omelette and some fresh fruit. I must say three meals on the 16-hour flight, plus copious snacks, were pretty good to me. I was full the entire flight.

We may have been served breakfast, but it was nighttime as we touched down in Hong Kong.

After touching down, we deplaned fairly quickly. So, what’s my impression of a United Airlines’ nonstop flight from New York to Hong Kong? Overall, it was somewhere between OK and good.

Let’s be honest, it’s hard to make a 16-hour-flight experience excellent in economy class. No matter what, it’s a long flight, economy passengers are going to be cramped, food will likely be mediocre reheated pablum, and babies will be crying.

That said, there are definitely differences between airlines. In the past year, I’ve been on two other longhaul flights (New York-Tokyo round-trip, on Japan Airlines, and New York-Vienna, round-trip, on Austrian Airlines). United is at the back of the pack when compared to those.

That’s not to say United was particularly bad. It was fine. The plane left on time, arrived a few minutes early, beer and wine were complimentary, the flight attendants were polite and funny, and the entertainment selection was deep and varied.

However, the cabins felt ancient despite being on a 777-200, which I usually take to mean I’ll be flying on a top-notch plane. That wasn’t the case here. The entertainment system was somewhat janky, and its screens old and dull. The power outlet below my seat wouldn’t stay in place and the seats themselves felt worn-in.

And while I might have shot myself in the foot by choosing gluten-free for my meals, it says something when the meals for special-needs passengers are practically inedible.

Comparatively, when I think back to those flights on Austrian and Japan Airlines, I’m struck by just how much better everything was. The cabins were brighter, the seats newer, the in-flight entertainment systems sharper. And the food? Well, the food was light-years better.

With all of that in mind, would I fly United Airlines again? Yes, if the price was right, which I suppose is what United is banking on. But if I have the opportunity to fly literally any non-American carrier for a longhaul flight, I would opt for that first.

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