Airline review: United Airlines, Boeing 777-300ER, economy class, Sydney to San Francisco

THE ROUTE

Flight UA870, Sydney to San Francisco

THE AIRCRAFT

That safe and reliable workhorse, the Boeing 777-300ER.

THE LOYALTY SCHEME

United's scheme is MileagePlus; from April 2022, United will partner with Virgin Australia's Velocity scheme.

CLASS

Economy; seat 52A.

DURATION

Thirteen hours and 40 minutes, non-stop. We land 50 minutes early. With an eight-hour layover before a connecting flight to San Diego, I use a United Club one-time pass (US$59) for the spacious lounge near Gate F11.

CARBON EMISSIONS

1.695 tonnes for an economy-class passenger. United has partnered with Conservation International to provide this calculator, which reveals it would cost $US7.96 ($A11.18) to offset my flight.

FREQUENCY

United is the only carrier currently offering direct Sydney-San Francisco daily flights, with Qantas pushing back plans to restart its SYD-SFO route to July 29. United's passenger-friendly departure time (lunchtime but pulling back to late morning over coming months), with an early morning touchdown in the US, allows for easy connection to other destinations.

HEALTH

I board this flight mid-Omicron surge. For travel to the United States, passengers are required to show at check-in (in addition to their ESTA) proof of vaccination status and a negative COVID test taken within one day of departure (I have a PCR test at Sydney Airport so the result will also qualify me to board a Holland America cruise, which requires a negative test within two days of embarkation). Except while eating and drinking, masks are mandatory within Sydney Airport and aboard the plane. As plenty of passengers are discovering, staying COVID-free before flying – and before the return flight home – is the nerve-racking part of international travel these days.

CHECKING IN

I arrive at the airport an unprecedented (at least for me) five hours before my flight, to allow ample time for COVID testing and results. As I've prepaid for my test, I'm ushered to the front of the queue and have results an hour later. With four hours remaining until lift-off and with the weight of the test result off my shoulders, I treat myself to a coffee to go with my packed lunch from home (some food outlets are open at the airport but I prefer to play it safe). I pat myself on the back for how well prepared I am.

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THE SEAT

The blue vinyl seats, arranged in a 3-4-3 configuration, have 31 inches (79 cm) of legroom, about average in the world of long-haul travel these days. They are just over 17 inches wide (43 cm). The toddler sitting behind me still finds it pretty easy to kick the back of my seat at regular intervals. Sigh. There's in-seat power, USB outlets, Wi-Fi and media can be streamed to your device.

BAGGAGE

Economy-class passengers can check one piece of luggage weighing up to 23kg for free; those with Mileage Plus status can check a bag up to 32kg. Passengers can also bring aboard a carry-on bag that fits in the overhead bin (22cm x 35cm x 56cm) and a personal item that fits beneath the seat in front of you.

ENTERTAINMENT

After almost two years of over-indulging in four streaming services at home, I find – for the first time – I'm not all that interested in the on-board entertainment. The range of movies is okay but nothing to write home about. I flick through Hemispheres – the inflight magazine in the seat-back pocket – before trying for some sleep.

SERVICE

It's perfunctory and efficient.

FOOD

For our late lunch, I'm asked: "Chicken or pasta?" That's shorthand for chicken with an alfredo sauce, roast potatoes, broccoli and capsicum, or the vegetarian choice of penne pasta in a tomato sauce with roast veggies. Oh, airline food – how I haven't missed you. Still, the chicken is tastier than expected. There's a mid-flight sandwich and then a disappointing breakfast – a ham and cheese roll in a plastic bag. Perhaps United will improve its food offering and presentation when competition returns to this route.

ONE MORE THING

With an empty row to myself, I figure I'll grab some sleep - but I've figured wrong. Although I've packed all the sleep aids in my carry-on, it feels too hard to retrieve them in the darkness. Turns out I've forgotten the basics of long-haul travel – and I'm about to pay the price, with no sleep turning this into the longest day of my life. My row of seats has one floppy armrest that refuses to stay upright, there's no amenity kit, barely any stuffing in the meagre pillow and the polyester "blanket" is wafer-thin. I stare enviously at the passenger who remembered to BYO neck pillow. Mine is at home in the closet. D'oh.

THE VERDICT

It's a brutal return to long-haul travel – but such are the times that I'm filled with gratitude to be on a plane at all.

OUR RATING OUT OF FIVE

★★★

The writer travelled courtesy of Holland America Line. Book flights at united.com

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