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 I finally got my chance, three days ago, 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.

I should 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 not all the news about United is bad. For example, wider economy seats coming in refurbed 767s.

So. How about the 787?

It’s a nice plane in many ways, which Boeing explains here. Maybe the best in the air today.

But, hate to say, my experience with it was less than ideal.

The first problem is that, 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 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 in most cases a row or two is in front of the wing or behind it. Not, alas, on 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 this plane anyway, so that’s one plus.

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 is another reason to book seats in the back. They’re the least likely seats to be filled on a less-than-full flight. (But be sure to check with SeatGuru, which warn me away from rows which have missing windows. Most planes do have some of those.)

My second problem turns out to be 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 over the view, and of light coming in.

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

So, for example, 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 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 in the future, and the scene was amazing:

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.) And the only other passenger in sight was a guy reading in an otherwise empty middle row across the aisle from me. I was also talking geography with the people behind me, who were watching Greenland scroll by through my aft window (their row, 38, had no window) saying “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.

So I really didn’t need to dim my window for others. But I felt like I was getting busted for some infraction of flight etiquette that made no sense, given that the 787, more than other planes was supposed to be about the joy of flying. (Louis CK enlarges on this kind of aviation irony with his “Everything is a amazing and nobody’s happy” bit. If you’re in a hurry, start about 2 minutes in.)

My final problem is also with the windows: they block GPS signals, I suppose as 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.

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

5 comments

  1. Michael Elling’s avatar

    I wonder how much less expensive construction costs would be if windows were completely done away with, replaced by real time video feeds of 360 HD video from external cameras where you could zoom in and take pictures of anything in any direction as you fly right from your tablet or seat-screen. We’d see a world of lil’ Docs. In the meantime, keep the pics coming!

  2. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Lots less expensive.

    I hope United isn’t reading this right now. Don’t want them to get any ideas.

  3. Edward Haines’s avatar

    You realize that United could easily place premium cabins, and more efficiently board the aircraft, if those were at the rear of the aircraft. Plenty of sightseeing, and no wings. It would be a massive blow to the ego and mindset for premium fliers if they were seated in the rear. Reconfiguring people’s egos as well as the aircraft and airport jetway configuration is not possible at this point. Where would you place the economy plus cabin? Asking for a friend.

  4. jpsarj’s avatar

    There is so little good in flying these days, so the least the airlines can do is allow passengers sitting next to the windows enjoy the beauty of our planet. Those passengers wanting darkness can sit in the middle seat of the center section. To be fair and from my experience, United has not been the worst in insisting on a dark cabin.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    What’s missing from airline travel is what’s also missing from every other giant business in this late stage of the Industrial Age. What runs the market is giant companies, with giant flywheels of business-as-usual, driving regulation by captors of those the same giants.

    All the good answers we want can only come from the demand side of the marketplace: from customers. The best answers will come from a simple new way, yet to be deployed, for customers to take the lead, at scale, in their dealings with the companies from which they buy goods and services. Having the Internet in our midst is the first step in that direction. So is having open and widespread standards-based ways for customers to connect with companies. The Web, email, telephony and SMS texting are some of those. But we need more and better ones.

    This is why I wrote The Intention Economy: When Customers Take Charge, why I started and still run ProjectVRM, and launched Customer Commons as well.

    If we had market intelligence that flows both ways, we would have air travel normalized to whatever it is that customers actually want. Right now all the airlines are doing their own research, with their own silo’d CRM (or equivalent) systems, and guessing in their own ways about what customers want, and how to reconcile that with the needs for efficiency, safety and other concerns. And many of their guesses are bad, because they’re using guesswork systems that isolate them from fully useful interaction with customers who would actually like to help rather than just to complain. Instead we have customers being told what an airline thinks some arbitrarily defined (but mathematically determined and rationalized) clusters of customers might want.

    I suspect that an airline fully compliant with its customers would work with that customer base to find window seats with good views for passengers who want that, seats with sufficient legroom or widths for tall or wide passengers, seats best suited for sleeping for passengers who want that, and so on. And ways for market mechanisms to work within well-informed regulatory frameworks as well.

    I believe this is roughly what Southwest does, which is why it is the least hated among U.S. airlines. It long ago normalized its offering with an all-737 fleet, one way (or at least a minimized variety of ways) for passengers to optimize their chances of sitting where they would like, and so on.

    United is an interesting case right now, because it is a very large airline that one would think ought to be addressing itself to the largest possible customer base (or at least respecting the fact that they have a one of those); yet they are optimizing their offering to highly favor expense-account travelers with money to burn. In other words, more and more of United’s offerings, from what I gather, are configured to treat big-spending (rather than frequent) fliers with the best perks, and to punish the cheapest and least frequent fliers (for example with its new “basic economy” class). Search https://www.google.com/search?q=united+basic+economy to see how well that punishment system going. I am sure that these offerings are far from what most customers, ranging from the smallest to the biggest spenders, would like to see, or to settle for, from the airline.

    But let’s be clear: this is not just a United problem. It’s endemic to an Industrial Age that hasn’t ended yet, and is ironically typified today by industrial giants born in the Internet Age. And that’s why I believe our new Information Age has not yet properly begun.

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