Sep 182012

When the CEO of an airline states his product is unacceptable, your expectations of a trip won’t be high. So it was with trepidation I boarded United Airlines’ Flight UA870 from Sydney to San Francisco for an overnight economy class  flight.

The 13 hour overnight flight from Sydney to San Francisco is a jet lag nightmare with a 3pm departure and arrival in SFO at 11am the same morning. So getting some sleep on the flight is essential regardless of how cramped the seating is.


United’s online check-in is clunky but works and I was lucky to grab a windows seat that’s essential to getting any sort of sleep on an economy flight. The online check in refused to print a boarding pass so it was necessary to check in at the airport.

At the airport check in is efficient but you’ll have to enter most of the information about your accommodation in the US again. Keep these details handy as you’ll be using it for the US immigration form and may be asked about it on arrival.

Sydney airport doesn't like cleaning tables

Don’t expect clean tables at Sydney international airport

One aspect about waiting in Sydney’s international terminal is just how dirty it is. It’s depressing that the Sydney Airport Corporation is too busy clipping the ticket of unfortunate travellers with excessive parking fees and service charges that it can’t be bothered employing cleaners.

The Seats

limited leg room in United Airlines economy

Tuck in your legs, there’s not a lot of space to go around

When Jeff Simsek says his Airline’s economy class product is unacceptable he’s not joking. The old seats are less comfortable or roomy that those on Australian Jetstar domestic flights.

Leg room is about what’s expected on an oceanic economy flight but when the seat in front of you is reclined it’s difficult to read a magazine or use a laptop.

As far as power for your laptop or iPhone are concerned — forget about it, those things weren’t invented in the 1980s.

The inflight entertainment on United Airlines is even worse when the headphone socket is broken

The broken headphone socket

The age of the seats shows in the lack of any seat based entertainment system and the socket for the headphones was broken making it necessary to rip off some of the inflight magazine’s back cover to get it working.

Once working, the ‘entertainment’ was restricted to about ten channels, all of them offering some music and it’s suprising there is no news, business or comedy channel.

The 80s channel was eclectic mix including Madness and Frankie Goes To Hollywood’s Relax — maybe it was lucky we didn’t have video screens.

If one area illustrates just how 1980s the interior of United’s cabin is, it’s the centrally mounted video screens.  These just don’t cut it and are an embarrassment on a modern aircraft.

Food and beverages

Two meals were served inflight with beverages. Alcoholic drinks were included and the red wine was a perfectly fine Fox Grove Cabernet Sauvignon.

United economy international dinner

Lunch two hours after departing Sydney and was braised chicken with overcooked vegetables accompanied by a lettuce salad and a very dry chocolate cake.

breakfast on United economy international to san francisco

Choose the fruit

Breakfast two hours before arrival was eggs, baked beans and chicken sausage cooked within an inch of their lives. It was edible but I’d suggest the fruit next time.

One thing to note about the United economy class tables is they are incredibly uncomfortable to rest your arms upon. On more modern airlines these tables fold into two.

Cabin Crew

Overall the cabin crew were efficient and courteous although not really friendly.

A bizarre aspect about the flight were the in-air announcements which were quickly mumbled declarations that were difficult to follow. The sound levels were low and the announcements were crackly, it must have been that 1980s equipment.


One of the benefits of the United flight between Sydney and San Francisco is the sensible mid-morning arrival time so the airport and roads aren’t crowded. Getting away from the airport was easy.

1980s zombies

In many ways United Airlines are a vision of the future — zombie businesses staggering on without the money to invest in modern technology.

The US airline industry has ruthlessly used Chapter 11 to keep afloat over the last thirty years and now we have governments doing everything they can to prop up ‘too big to fail’ businesses we’ll see a lot more companies looking like United.

Qantas’ move off the San Francisco route also illustrates the drooling, anti-customer incompetence of Alan Joyce and the rest of his management team. The United flight was packed and they can continue to run aging rust buckets on the route as there’s no competition.

Given there’s no competition on the Sydney-San Francisco route, United is what you’re stuck with. If you have to fly economy on this route get a window seat, bring a bottle of water and take some sleeping pills.

If you were around in the 1980s, then enjoy the experience of what it was like when United’s 747s were new and the pride of the sky.

Paul travelled courtesy of Salesforce on the way to the Dreamforce 2012 conference in San Francisco

  9 Responses to “Riding the zombie skies”

  1. Oh no! I”m about to make my first fight from SF to Sydney, and I was hoping your article was a few years old. You mean they’re still flying 1980s planes????

    • Sorry Donna, but indeed they are. My flight back seemed to be on a plane a little bit newer, but not by much.

      If you can afford it, get the Economy Plus for at least one leg. It makes things a bit more comfortable.

      Have a great trip.

  2. I found this after booking a flight for me and my family back to the states to visit famly. I had misread the flight details and later found out it was United to SFO and not Qantas. I have a wife and a 3 year old who will most likely leave me after a flight like this!

  3. F**K me, First time student flying by myself and I get this airline, and its only 1 hour away Why why why

  4. I took a seat at the very back next to the window and there is a bit extra room as its only a 2 seat configuration there. As it was mid-week, the flight wasnt full and the seat next to me was empty. I had a sleeping pill and ‘snoozed’ for about 6 hours. Take protein bars, as the food is truly dreadful! There are old movies playing on screens still. No seat back entertainment on this flight! The cabin crew were great. Our steward was 58 this year, and looked too tired to do much, but he was jolly.
    The mid- morning arrival is great, but be warned that you won’t be able to check into your hotel for a reviving shower until 2!

  5. get over yourselves losers, take a boat next time. its air travel, it wasn’t available to familes and students 30 years ago, now everyone can use it, Really airline food wasn’t that great. probably coming from some punter who sends in trip advisors on restaurants. pay the extra fare to upgrade,,,OOOHHH don’t have the cash,,, back of the jet folks..
    Class envy…and small penis’s I presume

  6. Seriously people, get over yourselves.
    If you are flying AU to US/Canada you will not get better bang for your buck, and I mean by between 20-40%. For a family of four flying return SYD-LA or SF peak season this equates to 3-6k
    That buys a lot of iPads, limo rides or hotel upgrades.
    Hands down and game over. United’s pricing vs schedule selection can’t be beat. Believe me I tried.

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