Now with daily non-stop flights between Melbourne and Los Angeles, jetting via Sydney on your way to the States is a thing of the past with United Airlines: saving travellers precious time on what is already a long journey.
Better yet, Victorians are also treated to United's latest 'BusinessFirst' (business class) seats and service aboard the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, which Australian Business Traveller put to the test.
- 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: Ignore the snaking economy line and head for the dedicated 'Premier Access' area on the far right 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 BusinessFirst guests all in Group 1 (the first group called forward).
Signage and queueing barriers are clear at the boarding gate... ... and while the Group 2 line may be considerably shorter than Group 1, don't be tempted to switch across: the entire Group 1 lane is boarded before Group 2 passengers are called forward, so the longer line is actually faster.
Following the closure of the dedicated United Club at Melbourne Airport, passengers in BusinessFirst are invited to use the business class section of Singapore Airlines’ SilverKris lounge on Sundays through Fridays… … which offers a choice of Nespresso coffees before United’s morning departures, conveniently-placed power points near almost every seat and a relaxing atmosphere.
On Saturdays when United’s flight leaves later in the day, the Air New Zealand lounge awaits…
… and comes with plenty of natural light, tarmac views and a ‘sports area’ with a pool table, but with a food and beverage selection that isn’t as comprehensive as SQ’s spread.
Under the Star Alliance lounge access rules, you can also opt for the NZ lounge throughout the week if so desired, so take your pick.
The Dreamliner’s funky mood lighting sets the scene for a relaxing flight… … with newspapers distributed before take-off, along with new Cowshed amenity kits: Inside you’ll find the expected eye mask and dental set with floss plus a comb, textured socks, tissues, lip balm, moisturiser, a refresher towelette, hand sanitiser and a branded United ballpoint pen.
BusinessFirst on the Dreamliner comes in a 2-2-2 configuration, with the seats 56cm wide and transforming into fully-flat, 198cm long beds: You’ll find the best seats in the middle pairs which offer uninterrupted aisle access, although the outer pairs are less desirable given that your seatmate will either be stepping over you, or you’ll be stepping over them.
That’s admittedly very ‘last generation’ for business class – especially on a brand new aircraft – but with Qantas as United’s only competitor on the Melbourne-Los Angeles route, it’s on-par with the 2-2-2 and 2-3-2 layouts on the Red Roo’s A380s and Boeing 747s.
United’s own seat comes sans a mattress but with easy-to-use pre-set options for upright and bed modes, controls to tweak the recline and lumbar support… … plus separate buttons that are easier to reach when fully reclined or standing to adjust your seat. Your amenity kit, inflight menu and newspaper can be stashed away on a shelf in front… … resting atop a footstool – unfortunately just out of reach when the seat was upright for take-off and landing, but which later forms the tail end of your fully-flat bed when it’s time to turn in.
There’s a separate bench space next to the seat offering both USB and AC power outlets: the latter of which accepts Australian plugs without an adaptor, while an adjacent pouch proves convenient when refuelling your smartphone. That said, it’s quite a difficult area to reach – it’s positioned both above and behind the seats, so you often need to twist your upper body when connecting your headphones or retrieving items from that pouch, which isn’t ideal.
More convenient is the tray table – folding in half to serve as a cocktail or snack table with an indent to keep your glass steady during turbulence… … and expanding at meal times or for a sturdy workspace if your time in the air calls for productivity.
Given the location of the bulkheads, seats in rows 1 and 6 also sport additional bench space in front – a perfect place to plonk your laptop or other large items while dining. Elsewhere throughout the cabin, the smaller shell between each row doubles to provide somewhat of a handle, assisting guests in the window seats to access the aisle while causing minimum disturbance to their neighbour.
The journey begins with a choice of water, juice or Champagne before take-off, all of which are unfortunately served in plastic cups. We chose the latter, the Didier Chopin Brut (NV), and can’t say we were a fan of the taste or texture. That’s quickly followed after wheels-up by another beverage of your choice – this time arriving in a proper wine glass – and an array of warmed nuts. While the printed menu implies a choice between two starters, you actually receive both in succession: beginning with a chilled smoked duck with tasty black bean/cucumber salsa, leaves and mandarin segments… … followed by a dinner plate-sized salad with lettuce, tomato, capsicum and croutons dressed with your choice of honey or raspberry vinaigrettes. That plate could realistically pass as a main, although my Australian appetite would have been more than content with a smaller side salad.
Main course options included a beef tenderloin (selected), chicken breast, ocean trout and a spinach and ricotta cannelloni, which you can opt to have straight after the starters or delay until it suits you later in the flight via United’s ‘Executive Dining’ service. The beef arrived tender and succulent and went well with the jus, mash and carrots, but could have done with fewer broad beans which looked to crowd the plate. A bread selection is also offered, including garlic bread.
Next up: both a cheese course and dessert – as with the entre, you won’t need to choose between the two. If you’re watching your waistline and are leaning towards just one of the post-meal options, we strongly recommend the sundae dessert. It’s wheeled into the aisles ‘Pan Am’-style and customised to your liking before your very eyes, with a range of sauces and toppings available along with whipped cream to finish it off.
Peckish passengers can also help themselves to a range of sandwiches and light snacks during the flight, with breakfast served around 1.5 hours before arriving into Los Angeles.
Choices are your typical airline fare – either cereal and a banana or a cheese omelette, this time served with tomato salsa, bacon and a chicken sausage. The hot dish, while lacking finesse in its presentation, was as tasty as you’d expect, as was a croissant from the bread basket with strawberry jam.
Entertainment & Service
Unlike the United Boeing 747s of yesteryear which used to grace Melbourne’s skies, every passenger on board has a personal inflight entertainment system – including in economy. Up in BusinessFirst you can choose from hundreds of movies and TV shows on a 15-inch HD screen, plus a selection of games, audio tracks and the obligatory ‘moving map’.
The touchscreen system is within easy reach when sitting upright, and can also be controlled by a separate touchscreen controller – a more convenient option if you’re in bed mode. The controller’s screen can also be used to call up the flight map itself without interrupting your main screen viewing, while tapping anywhere on that main screen conveniently displays your remaining flight time – also without disturbing your movie. Prefer to watch your own content on the big screen? Tucked away underneath the monitor is a video connector for your iPad, iPhone or iPod touch… … but which requires a non-standard cable and adaptor that United sells on board via its duty-free catalogue for a staggering US$40 (A$56) – a very high price to pay to watch movies and TV shows that you’ve already paid for.
Service was friendly without being overly-personalised or intrusive, with the lead flight attendant greeting each passenger by name before departure and plenty of typically-American responses such as “You got it!” and “Sure thing!” to requests throughout the flight.
Crew were also well-groomed, always smiling and provided a noticeably more refined service on this long flight than travellers might otherwise be accustomed to on domestic services in the US.
If you’ve got business that just can’t wait, United’s Dreamliners too come equipped with inflight Internet: only US$16.99 (A$23.84) for as much data as you can transfer while the aircraft is cruising.
Just a tip: purchase the Internet by logging into your United MileagePlus frequent flyer account rather than as a ‘guest’ – you’ll then be able to transfer your connection between devices throughout the flight, which is useful for travellers with both a tablet and laptop.
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Los Angeles as a guest of United Airlines.
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