A dark review for United’s Boeing 787

I’ve been wanting to fly on the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner” ever since I missed a chance to go on an inaugural junket aboard one before Boeing began delivery to the airlines. But three days ago I finally got my chance, aboard United Flight 935 from London to Los Angeles.

Some context: United is my default airline by virtue of having flown 1.5 million miles with them, which has earned me some status. Specifically, I get on shorter lines, don’t get charged for bags, and have some choice about where I sit, which defaults to Economy Plus: the section of Economy that features a bit more leg-room and is typically located which is behind business/first, now called Polaris.

And that gets me to my first problem with United 787s. According to SeatGuru, the whole Economy Plus section is over the wing on both the airline’s configurations: 787/8 and 787/9.

This means there is little or no view of the ground out the window. That view is one of the main attractions of a window seat and why I love flying. (See all these photos were taken out the windows of planes? Nearly all those planes were United’s.) To be fair, this is also the problem with United’s 777s, with the exception of one or two rows at the back edge of the wing. But it’s still a bummer.

So I booked a seat in the economy section. Fortunately, I don’t have long femurs, so leg room usually isn’t an issue. In fact, I like sitting in the back of plane, so as little of the wing as possible intrudes on the view. And the legroom actually wasn’t bad on this plane anyway.

The seat I chose was 37L, a window seat in a row that gave me 3 seats to myself, because the flight turned out to be less than full. This, by the way, is another reason to book seats in the back. They’re the least likely to be filled on a less-than-full flight.

My second problem is one of the 787’s biggest selling points: electronically dimmable windows:

It’s a clever system that eliminates the window shade, an ancient feature that actually gives the individual a simple manual control. These new electronic controls have a long latency as they obey the control button, which appears to have five settings from dark to clear.

The problem with them is loss of individual control.

So, for example, on this flight they turned all the windows dark just as the fjords and glaciers of Greenland’s King Frederick VI coast came into view:

They said this was so people could sleep or watch their screens without glare. But this wasn’t a red-eye. The plane left at roughly 2pm from London and arrived in Los Angeles at around 5pm, with daylight all the way. Yes, it would be the middle of the night (UK time) on arrival, but that was another six hours away, and the scene was amazing.

Then, when I turned my window up to clear, a flight attendant came over. Here’s the dialog, as best I recall it:

“Sir, you need to darken your window.”

“I got a window seat so I could see outside.”

“But other people are trying to sleep or watch their screens.”

“I’ll darken it later. Right now I want to see Greenland. Have you seen this? It’s spectacular.”

“Please be aware of the other passengers, sir.”

There was nobody in my row, and I was also talking geography with the people behind me, who were watching the scene below, saying “Holy shit! Look at that!” over and over. The window seat wasn’t occupied in the row in front of me. (An older woman was asleep in the middle seat.) And the only other passenger in sight was a guy reading in the middle section.

So that was a bummer. Whatever happened to “the joy of flying?”

Finally, there was this: these cool new windows block GPS signals, so I couldn’t record the trip on my GPS: something I’ve been doing to keep track of where I’ve been, and to geo-locate photos, for many years.

So I’ll go out of my way to avoid United’s 787s from now on. They’re nice, but not for me.


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