A mixed but kinda dark review for United’s Boeing 787

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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 I finally got my chance last week, 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 behind business/first, now called Polaris.

I should also add that I actually like United, and have had few of the bad experiences people tend to associate with big old airlines—and plenty of good ones. And let’s be fair: not all the news about United is bad. For example, wider economy seats coming in refurbed 767s.

Okay, so that all said, how was my “customer experience” (as the marketing folks like to say) aboard the 787?

First, the good stuff.

As passenger jets go, it’s outstanding: maybe the best in the air today. Boeing explains how, so I’ll offload the explaining to that link.

Second, the not-great stuff.

I’ll start with seat selection. According to SeatGuru, the whole Economy Plus section is over the wing on both of United’s Dreamliner 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 window seats and why I love flying. See all these photos were taken out the windows of planes? Nearly all the planes I shot those from were United’s, and I have kindly tagged them #United as well. (See http://bit.ly/UnitedAerial.)

To be fair, all of United’s widebody planes (747,767, 777, 787) put most of Economy Plus over the wing. But on most of the non-787 widebodies, there is a row or two of Economy Plus in front of the wing or behind it. Alas, there are none in the new 787s.

So I booked a seat in the economy section. Fortunately, I don’t have long femurs, so leg room usually isn’t an issue for me. In fact, I like sitting in the back of plane, farther the better. That way as little of the wing as possible intrudes on the view, and the legroom actually wasn’t bad on the 787 I flew, so that was actually a bit of a plus.

The seat I chose was 37L, a window seat in a row that gave me 3 seats to myself, because the flight was less than full. This is another reason to book seats in the back, by the way. Those are the least likely seats to be filled on a less-than-full flight. (But be sure to check with SeatGuru, which warned me away from rows which have missing windows. Most planes do have some of those, and it can be very disappointing to find the view from your window seat is of a wall.)

The main problem I had was with one of the 787’s biggest selling points for passengers: large, electronically dimmable windows:

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787 windows are not only unusually large (or at least tall), but have five settings that range from clear to dark, which can be selected with the button below. The mid-tones are blue., like this photo from AirlineReporter.com shows. There is also a lot of lag between selection and result, but it’s cool when you get the hang of it. Unfortunately, there are some downsides. Read on…

It’s a clever system that eliminates the window shade, an ancient and standard feature of passenger aircraft that gives the individual a simple manual control over the view, and of the light coming in.

My problem wasn’t with the windows themselves, which are relatively large (but with more added view toward the sky than the ground). It was with the loss of individual control, and an apparent preference by the crew for the equivalent of no windows at all.

See, on this flight the crew turned all the windows dark just before the fjords and glaciers of Greenland’s coast came into view. They announced that this was so people could sleep or watch their screens without glare. But this flight wasn’t a red-eye. The plane left just after 2pm from London and arrived in Los Angeles just after 5pm, in daylight all the way: one very long afternoon. Yes, arrival time was the middle of the night in the UK, but that was another six hours in the future when they turned the cabin dark, while the scene was amazing outside. Here’s one photo I shot:

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Rivers of ice ooze slowly to the sea on King Frederick VI coast of Greenland. (Those are icebergs floating away in the lower right. ) I shot this after I turned the window clear.

So I turned my window up to clear (which happens so slowly you wonder if it’s working at first), and 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.”

In fact I was.

There were two empty seats in my row. The window seat wasn’t occupied in the row in front of me. (An older woman seemed to be sleeping in the middle seat.) The only other passenger in sight was a guy reading in an otherwise empty middle row across the aisle from me. The people behind me, who were watching Greenland scroll by through my aft window (their row, 38, had no window) were gaga over the view, saying stuff like, “Holy shit! Look at that! Look at THAT!” over and over. And with good reason. A United pilot once announced to a plane I was on that Greenland is the most spectacular thing one can see from a passenger jet.

Let me be clear here: if a passenger asked me to darken my window, I would have. But I didn’t need to dim my window for others, because there was almost nobody to dim it for. Yet here I was getting kinda busted for violating a form of flight etiquette that made no sense on a beautiful afternoon (again, it wasn’t the middle of the night)—especially on board a 787.

I mean, more than any other passenger jet in the sky, the 787 is supposed to be about the joy of flying. That’s one of things that makes the 787 a “Dreamliner.” Yet having the crew in full control of the “state” of every passenger’s window, and dimming a given passenger’s window, over and over (which also happened in my case… that’s another thing) is just freaky.

My final problem was also with the windows: they block GPS signals. I suppose that’s a secondary effect of the dimmable thing. This meant I couldn’t record the trip on my little Garmin pocket GPS, which I’ve been using for many years to keep track of where I’ve been, and to geo-locate photos. Admittedly, this is of zero importance to 99.9x% of passengers, but I’m 100% of me, and I love knowing where I am and where I’ve been when I’m flying. When it comes to the delights of flying, color me retro.

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

(As a bonus link, dig Louis CK’s great bit about flying, called “Everything is a amazing and nobody’s happy.” If you’re in a hurry, start about 2 minutes in.)

Originally published at blogs.harvard.edu on September 16, 2017.

Written by

Author of The Intention Economy, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, Fellow of CITS at UCSB, alumnus Fellow of the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard.

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