Ultra-long haul flights are becoming more and more common, with airline chiefs touting improved technology and features to help make the longer flights more bearable.
In this review, we test one of the world’s longest flights – Sydney to Houston – in business class on United Airlines’ Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner. The outbound flight from Sydney takes just under 16 hours, while headwinds on the way back extend the 13,833km trip to 17½ hours, making it the second longest commercial flight offered at the time of writing.
Departing Sydney daily at 11:50AM and reaching Houston at 10:35AM the same day, this ultra-longhaul route skips a West Coast stopover with the goal of getting travellers onto connecting flights from United’s Houston hub. The Texas hub services over 70 cities in North America and is especially handy for reducing the number of overall connections required when travelling to smaller cities.
The UA100 flight from Sydney to Houston also allows you to reduce overall travel time to certain onward destinations, including Tampa, Memphis, New Orleans, Mexico City and Cancun.
On board the 787-9 Dreamliner is United’s last-generation Business Class product, with the new and vastly improved Polaris Business Class expected to be fitted in the future (although the rollout has been slower than we’d like). The current offering is ‘Polaris service’, which entails improved bedding and dining options but in the older hard product.
- Frequent flyer program: United MileagePlus, Star Alliance. You can also earn Virgin Australia Velocity points by crediting your miles to Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer and later converting them into Velocity points.
- Priority check-in: Head for the dedicated 'Premier Access' area, usually located to the side of check-in.
- Checked baggage allowance: 2x32kg bags.
- Carry-on baggage allowance: 1x113cm bag with no defined weight limit, plus a personal item such as a laptop bag/handbag and additional items such as umbrellas and duty-free goods.
- Priority security screening: Yes, Express Path access for both security screening and passport control.
United boards its flights by group number, with business class guests all in Group 1 (the first group called forward).
Our journey begins in the Singapore Airlines lounge at Sydney Airport. Shared amongst a bevy of airlines for their first and business class passengers, as well as Star Alliance Gold members, the lounge offers a buffet and DIY drinks, including coffee and alcoholic beverages.
Located adjacent to the Air New Zealand lounge, the Singapore Airlines lounge has a relaxed feel thanks to the soft furnishings and decorations, with plenty of natural light and tarmac views.
The food selection is adequate but if you’ve got the choice you might be better off heading to the Air New Zealand lounge, which offers up barista made coffee, a manned cocktail bar and ‘food theatre’ stations where you can see chefs preparing dishes.
If you’ve got some last minute work to do, there are plenty of powerpoints and USB ports available and Internet speed is serviceable as long as the lounge isn’t too busy – and even then it’s perfectly adequate for general browsing and emailing.
You can read our full review of the Singapore Airlines Sydney lounge here.
United Airlines’ Business Class layout sees 48 lie-flat seats situated at the pointy end of the cabin – remember, there’s no First Class available anymore, so these are the best seats on the plane.
Stretching out into a full-length bed, the business class seats offer passengers a decent amount of room, but are certainly beginning to feel dated. Once the new Polaris business class seats are fitted, this product will be much more competitive, so it’s worth checking if your upcoming flight will have the upgraded seats.
The current seats are set out in a slightly staggered 2-2-2 layout, which means passengers in the window seats will need to step over their seat mate to access the aisle. There is a privacy screen, but it’s not exactly substantial. If you’re travelling solo, you may prefer the middle seats if the cabin is full to minimise disturbances.
Each seat features a powerpoint, as well as a small storage area for magazines and the supplied noise-cancelling headphones.
The center of the seats houses a shared side table, with a cubby underneath for additional storage. A large tray table extends out for dining or getting some work done.
When it’s time to grab some shut-eye, just let the flight attendant know and they’ll arrange your bedding for you. On this ultra-long-haul route, you’ll get a pair of comfy fleece-lined slippers and a set of cotton pyjamas to lounge around in, however this isn’t offered on all Polaris-service flights.
The bedding has been designed by Saks Fifth Avenue, adding some swank factor to the Polaris service offering. The mattress cushion is very comfortable, and the duvet provided can be switched out for a day-blanket if you want to put your feet up but not quite sleep yet.
There’s a large pillow provided filled with “cool-gel memory foam,” which I found to be especially comfortable.
As someone that’s 6-feet tall, the bed was not as spacious as the technical specs make it out to be – I couldn’t fully stretch out, and felt like another couple of inches would have improved the experience greatly for me. If you’re over 6’1”, you may struggle to get comfortable, and the fact that your feet are in a small cubby hole also takes some getting used to.
The United service begins with a pre-departure beverage, which in our case was champagne. Because we boarded early we were even offered a top-up before take-off.
Next, we have the drinks cart with nuts, where we decided to stick to the Champagne, which was Joseph Perrier NV.
Everyone gets the same starter, which was a fresh and tasty dish of prawns and melon salsa with kawakawa and pesto, served with a large side salad and bread assortment.
Out of the four main options we chose the NZ salmon dish of pesto cream sauce, smashed potatoes and mixed vegetables. The description undersold the dish as it was one of the best salmon dishes we’ve tasted on board, with nice touches like asparagus and edamame as well as a cheese stuffed capsicum.
The other options were a lamb roulade, chicken breast, or a pesto pasta.
Afterwards, we opted for the passionfruit dessert...
...and a round of cheese to cap the meal off.
In between the two main meals of lunch and breakfast, United offers a selection of “Hot Bites” and “Cold Bites” if you’re feeling peckish. On this flight the Hot Bites menu included fish and chips and a cheese toastie with tomato soup.
The Cold Bites were a selection of sandwiches, fruit plate, fresh fruit, potato chips, and cookies.
The last meal was this breakfast, offering up a danish, assorted fruit and a selection of hot items.
Entertainment & Service
Entertainment comes via a large personal screen, with a good selection of classic movies as well as new releases. We also enjoyed the full box sets of television shows that were available.
United offers inflight Internet access on board the 787-9 provided by supplier Panasonic. The cost is US$4.99 for one hour, US$8.99 for two hours, or US$21.99 for the whole flight. Clearly the last option makes the most option for one of the longest flights in the world.
Connectivity over the Pacific was quite slow and dropped out at times, which is par for the course for these international flights.
The United Polaris Business Class experience is certainly an improvement on the service we had received on previous flights, however even with luxe touches like the bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue you can't help but be disappointed in the hard product. Once the new range of Polaris seats makes an appearance, this should make for a much improved flight experience.
Siddharth Raja travelled to Houston as a guest of United Airlines.