Want to sit for 15 hours? Boeing's new 787-9 claims better passenger comfort over extremely long-haul routes. Here's what it's like on one of the longest you can take.
Geoffrey Morrison is a writer/photographer about tech and travel for CNET, The New York Times, and other web and print publications. He's also the Editor-at-Large for The Wirecutter. He has written for Sound&Vision magazine, Home Theater magazine, and was the Editor-in-Chief of Home Entertainment magazine. He is NIST and ISF trained, and has a degree in Television/Radio from Ithaca College. His bestselling novel, Undersea, and its sequel, Undersea Atrophia, are available in paperback and digitally on Amazon. He spends most of the year as a digital nomad, living and working while traveling around the world. You can follow his travels at BaldNomad.com and on his YouTube channel.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was going back to Australia, and right before I was leaving, United opened a new route: LAX to MEL, Melbourne. This 8,000-mile, but low-traffic journey was made possible by Boeing's new 787-9.
Sign me up. After all, it was only 15 hours. How bad could that be...
I fly a lot: 73,002 miles last year. Most of those miles are on United, and I use them to upgrade to business class on any long flight (a long flight in my book being over 10 hours). I thought, "No problem!" I'd get a lie-flat seat, "big" screen TV, and with my NC headphones , sleep most of the way over the Pacific.
Yeah, not so much. The flight was sold out, and even though I'm Gold on United, I was relegated to coach. Specifically "Economy Plus," which is the least worst seats on the bus. Oh the horror. I'm doooooomed.
I'm so spoilt.
Once I adjusted to my new reality with the hoi polloi (I hope you all realize I'm joking), I settled into 19L and got as comfortable as one can in a 17.3-inch seat.
We're delayed at the gate by an irate passenger. It seems his seatmate on the aisle won't switch with Irate's wife, who's in the middle seat in the row behind. Aisle-to-middle is what I'd call a downgrade and for a 15-hour flight, I'd also say no way. There were at least three other couples separated on this full flight, and none of them were making a scene. Maybe you're the type of person who would make that sacrifice, but I'm the type of person who wouldn't ask.
No matter how you feel about it (I'm curious, tell me in the comments), he stood up and started yelling, while silent Aisle Passenger looked (rightfully) indignant. People started shouting at Irate to sit down and not delay the flight, when I heard those fatal words, "OK, sir, we're going to need you to leave the plane."
The flight attendants showed class and professionalism, apologizing for the disturbance, and making some jokes that were not at the expense of anyone involved. Good work, that.
The plane itself, now that I'm looking at it, is gorgeous: multicolored LED lighting, massive windows (at least twice as big as other plane's), swoopy curves to everything. The seats are standard United Econ Plus seats, it seems, though the seatback entertainment bundle is a slick 7-inch (I think) LCD with a USB power port. It looks only a little bigger than I've seen before, but its fast response is way better than I've ever used.
Hour 1: Takeoff
This thing is quiet. Wow. Easily the quietest jet I've been on. I almost don't need my NC headphones, though they always help. AudioTool on my phone measures 90 dB, C-weighted, which seems high but I'll believe it. There's less mid-frequency wind noise, and the GEnx engine rumble seems lower pitch than other engines.
We're fed. I'm told it's chicken. I watch "The Fugitive." Such a great movie; sadly the most interesting I can find. The bad thing about flying one airline so often is you rapidly chew through their movie selections. I bring my own too, so that's not an issue.
Announcements, by the crew, are noticeably clearer than any plane I've heard. It's such a minor thing, but hearing voices come over the PA that sound like voices, and not like they're transmitted through a Fisher Price walkie talkie, adds a layer of modernity to everything. I'm not sure if it was where she was standing, but though my headphones one flight attendant had a hall-like reverb on her voice that bordered on futuristic sounding.
I "sleep," which involves shifting position every few minutes in a vain attempt to get more than one body part comfortable at a time.
We receive a snack. It's bread with meat and cheese-like substances inside. It's far from the worst thing I've eaten.
The air is noticeably better than any other aircraft I've been in. It not as cold and dry, and I don't feel like I'm wheezing. The specs say it's like being in Denver, but it doesn't even feel that high. Most planes are pressurized for 8,000 feet; this is 6,000, and it's a huge difference.
I'm not going to make it. I desperately need to pee. Somehow the guy next to me has been asleep since wheels-up, which is as impressive as it is annoying.
I alternate between TV shows on my laptop and "sleeping" more. Eventually I feel surprisingly rested. The sun comes up around 10 a.m. Pacific time, sadly on the other side of the plane.
The windows are amazing. There are no shades. Instead, they're electrochromic, dimming at the touch of a button -- yours, or the flight attendant's master switch. Dimmed, they give the world a blue tint (blue-green in direct sunlight, it seems). It's undeniably cool, and I'm not just talking color temperature. It takes maybe 30 seconds to go from clear to dim, and if I didn't think it would annoy my seatmates, I'd probably play with it the whole flight.
Freedom! I am released from my prison and flee to the toilet. Inside, more LEDs light a curvy space that matches the design of the rest of the cabin. I didn't take pictures. You're welcome.
I return to my seat and immediately become less enamored with the magic windows. It seems the flight crew can lock out the individual controls. It's 12pm my time (and at least that for everyone on this plane). I'd like to start adjusting my body clock to AEDT, and seeing daylight is a huge part of that. No dice.
Hour 14: Feet dry
"Make preparations for landing." The best words to reach any air traveler's ears. We passed onto the Australian continent and continued on to Melbourne without incident.
I think what surprised me most was how normal I felt. None of the long-haul exhaustion. I certainly didn't sleep great, so is that due to the better air? I don't know. It's certainly the least gross I've felt stepping off a trans-oceanic flight, at least while flying coach.
At 14 hours 56 minutes, this isn't the longest flight you can take. There are several that are a few minutes or a few miles longer. It's not even the longest I've taken, which was Johannesburg to Atlanta for a measly 16.5 hours. For that flight, on a 777, I was also in coach but had a bulkhead seat. Honestly, it was a little less pleasant, looking back, even though I could put my feet up. It was louder, colder, dryer and far more "airplaney".
15 hours is a long flight, even for me. But I'm in the Louis C.K. school of thought on this one: you sit down for a bit, take a nap, eat some crappy food, watch some movies, and you're on the other side of the planet. Small price to pay for how incredible that is.
That said, I'll give Boeing credit for designing a plane that is actually more pleasant to fly in. Decades of cattle- cramming has taken some of the magic from flying, and while the 787 doesn't exactly fix that, it certainly makes it less unpleasant.