Sep 242012
 
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One of the tough things about long haul, overnight flights is getting a decent night’s sleep. I find this can only be done in a windows seat where you can snuggle against the fuselage and get reasonably comfortable. So it’s a priority to get those windows seats for a big flight.

With the return flight to Sydney from San Francisco it turned out there were no window seats in the basic economy section so a $150 upgrade to United’s Economy Plus section was needed to grab one of those essential windows seats.

Check-in

The United online check in, while clunky, still worked and the upgrade to Economy Plus was a simple online credit card transaction with a straightforward seat allocation, the selection was painless and effective.

At San Francisco airport the check in, albeit three hours early, was friendly and quick with no quirks and thankfully the seat allocation had been kept.

One thing to keep in mind with United’s seat allocations is they reserve the right to change them and even kick you out of Economy Plus, albeit with a refund of the supplement, if the flight is full and the Sydney flights are usually packed.

So it’s a good idea to get the airport and check in early to reduce the chances of losing your seat which is highly likely if there’s been disruptions elsewhere in the United network meaning connecting passengers have missed earlier flights.

Getting through security is the usually fraught hassle however the TSA staff deal with flummoxed tourists and language barriers with a brisk efficiency. Keep your sense of humour and accept that travellers’ dignity was one of the early causalities of the War On Terrorism and the process shouldn’t be traumatic.

Airside

San Francisco’s Tom Bradley International Airport is a delight compared to the snarling, customer unfriendly Sydney Airport. While food outlets aren’t cheap, San Francisco’s are decent and there’s plenty of accessible power sockets, working desks and free wi-fi that works.

The gates themselves can be some distance from the facilities so be prepared not to stray too far. The gate lounges themselves are fairly spartan and there’s no reason to wait there until a few minutes before the aircraft starts boarding.

The seats

Sadly I didn’t get the aircraft registration numbers for this flight or the previous inbound trip but it appeared that this plane was newer – say mid-1990s – than the flight into San Francisco which could well have been one of the first 747-400s ever built in the late 1980s.

The United Airlines Economy Plus 37" seat pitch

United Airline’s Economy Plus is far more comfortable than standard economy

The Economy Plus seats’ additional 3″ of legroom are definitely worth it. The moment you get in the seat, you know the extra room makes a much more comfortable trip than the cramped 31″ of standard economy class.

One thing to keep in mind is that while Economy Plus adds nothing more in service, being at the front of the economy cabin does mean you get first choice of food, beverages and easy access to the middle toilets which is a slight advantage over those crammed at the back. It’s also a little quieter as the seats are over the wing rather than behind the engines.

Another benefit with the additional pitch is that you don’t get a faceful of headrest when the seat in front of you reclines so it is possible to work on a laptop, read or eat in comfort even when the person ahead of you is still sleeping.

Inflight entertainment

While the system was still the shockingly decrepit 1990s cabin screens, there were for some reason additional choices on the audio channels including a classical music selection which made it far easier to relax than cheesy 1980s love songs or gangsta rap.

Naturally there was no inflight power in the cheap seats so take advantage of the plentiful power sockets at SFO to make sure you’re fully charged before boarding.

Shortly after take off the cabin crew come around with meals. Overall the cabin crew seem tired and beaten, while they aren’t rude or unpleasant one wonders if they have all received too many stern memos from management about being friendly to customers.

Food

An interesting thing about cheap airline food is how they cook and serve it in ways that make it difficult, if not downright dangerous to eat with plastic cutlery.

Tough chicken for dinner on United Airlines

Careful trying to cut that chicken

In this respect UA 863 didn’t disappoint. The tough, mystery chicken lying under a red sludge masquerading as barbecue sauce was difficult to cut and risked sending one’s drink flying into your neigbour if you weren’t careful. This isn’t helped by the weird ridges United insist on putting underneath their trays.

The bread had a strange chemical taste while the Love and Quiches Double Chocolate Crunch Bar was the highlight of the meal. The red wine was nice as well.

After as good a night’s sleep as one can get in an economy class seat, breakfast was served around two hours before landing in Sydney. Again it was tough to eat.

French toast for breakfast on United Airlines out of San Francisco

You’ll need lots of syrup to soften that tough toast

Like the chicken earlier in the flight, the French toast was tough to cut and hard to eat. Fortunately a good soaking in maple syrup makes it almost edible.

The fruit salad was spartan but fine while the cold croissant tasted strange like the roll served the night before. It’s a shame United can’t find one of San Francisco’s excellent bakeries to supply their bread.

Arrival

The plane arrived on-time and without problems with immigration straightforward after dodging the embarrassing and garish duty free ripoff shops.

Customs is the standard mass brawl that’s normal for early morning international arrivals at Sydney when a dozen or so wide bodied jets arrive at the same time from Europe, Asia and the US.

If you have the choice, it may be worthwhile choosing a flight that arrives in Sydney after 8am so you can avoid both the customs hall and traffic peak hours.

Once past customs it’s welcome to the snarling, belligerent and anti-traveller horror that is Sydney Airport. Get out of there as quick as you can by train, taxi, bus or car.

Note if someone is meeting you, the pick up area is on the far side of carparks A and B. It’s not marked for either passengers in the terminals or for those driving into the complex. None of this is an accident and it’s best for both parties to have mobile phones so they can co-ordinate movements.

In many ways the customer hostile attitude of the Sydney Airports Corporation is good news for United Airlines as it makes their tired inflight service feel warm and inviting.

Overall the United Economy Plus option is worth the extra $150 charge to at least get earlier service and more legroom if you have to fly UA. It’s difficult though to recommend United while they fly such awfully old equipment and you should only consider it if the connections or the fare make them the best option.

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