Big Plane, Short Flight, Flat Seat: SFO-LAX in UA 777 Business Class

Flight:  UA595, San Francisco (SFO) to Los Angeles (LAX) (337 miles)
Aircraft Type:  Boeing 777-222 (ER)
Aircraft Registration:  N794UA (built in October 1997)
Scheduled Departure - Arrival Time:  8:21 am - 9:47 am
Actual Departure - Arrival Time: 8:20 am - 9:50 am
Actual Flying Time:  53 minutes

Every morning (since November 2011), United flies a three-class 777-200 between San Francisco (SFO) and Los Angeles (LAX) as a repositioning flight for a long-haul flight from LAX later in the day.

Naturally, I chose that flight when purchasing my ticket to LAX for the airline collectible show.  In addition, being a Premier elite on United, there was a chance for me to score a complimentary upgrade that would allow me to try out, for the first time, United’s new lie-flat seats.  

There was a couple potential snags.  First, an upgrade is not guaranteed.  Second, only half of the United 777 fleet has been converted to the new seats.   
--> It is unpredictable whether this flight would use the old seat or new seat aircraft.  By default, the reservation system always shows the old configuration seat map.  (Click to see the new configuration seat map)
First piece of the puzzle fell in place when three days before my flight, United’s mobile flight status page showed aircraft number 2894 (N794UA) – a new configuration aircraft – would operate my flight.  All I needed now was for the upgrade to come through.
At 24-hours prior to departure, I attempted to check-in on-line.  But I could not.  I got a message stating check-in is not available for the flight.  After some searching on flyertalk, I found out this happens when there is an equipment change and seating has not been updated in the system (makes sense since the aircraft has been swapped from the old to the new configuration).  Unfortunately, not checked in, I will not be able to see where I was on the upgrade list.
I arrived at SFO under drizzly skies at 6:30 am, two hours before departure.  Premier Lobby was busy but not crowded.  I was able to walk straight up to an EasyCheck-in kiosk, where I was presented with the good news: “Because I am a valued customer, my upgrade is complimentary today”.  Yes!  The second piece of the puzzle was now in place.  I brought up the seat map and was happy to see that I got the last window seat, 10K (there was still a good number of middle seats left).  I later found out that 10A/B/J/K were rear-facing seats, which I wanted to try out.  Everything worked out in my favor!
SFO's Premier Lobby, now rebranded as Premier Access.
Premium security line at Terminal 3 was relatively short; I made it through in less than 10 minutes without incident.  My flight would depart from International Terminal gate G98.  It was rather appropriate that my international configured aircraft was leaving from the International Terminal.  It felt exciting walking to my gate in the beautiful wide airy concourse G, flying on a big plane to somewhere exciting.  OK, just LAX…but still exciting.  Not having flown from SFO all that often, I was surprised to see other United domestic flights (especially a 767-300 to Houston) also departed from concourse G on this early morning.  I got to G98 and confirmed N794UA (in the now old blue/white tulip color scheme) would be operating my flight.  
International Terminal departure board showed a good number of domestic destinations mixed with international.
Two views of 777-200 N794UA parked at gate G98.
The flight was lightly loaded.  It was full upfront in First and Business, as one would expect, but about 120 or so seats remained available in Economy according to the standby screen at the gate.  There was plenty of space in the hold room, not the madhouse that one normally sees on a full flight.
Boarding started at 40 minutes prior to departure.  Surprisingly, the usual elite customers queuing up at the door to be among the first to board was non-existent.  Neither was there a crowd swarming the gate.  I have never seen that before!  I casually walked up to the door and was the third person to board the plane.  

Gate G98 about 10 minutes prior to boarding
Boarding was through door L2 (which meant I couldn't see the new First Class seats), and found my rear-facing seat stocked with a headset at the footstool and a large pillow and a bagged quilted blanket at the seat.  Unfortunately, there was not a window next to my seat, which meant I had to lean forward to see out of the other two windows.  

Rear-facing Business Class seats 10J/K
There was not a window next to my seat.  :(

I briefly explored the seat and got acquainted with the entertainment system.  The 15.4-inch display is controlled by a handset at the seat.  The system has a large selection of movies, video, and audio, all on-demand.  For takeoff, I specifically looked for the map (found it with its own “Map” button on the main menu; not the “About this Flight” selection) and Channel 9 (Air Traffic Control audio).  Since everything was menu driven by title instead of channel numbers, Channel 9 was harder to find.  I found it under “Audio”, and then “From the Flight Deck” a page or two down.  Magazine slots next to the seat contained the usual safety card (“B777 Premium” with the new United logo), Hemispheres magazine, and a Duty Free catalog.  There was no at-seat storage – everything had to go up into the overhead bin. 
Pre-departure beverage choice of orange juice or water was offered – I went with the OJ.  Throughout boarding, announcements were made about Economy Plus seats – that if you wished to sit there, you had to pay extra.  Apparently, Economy Plus was emptier than standard Economy in the back.  

Pre-departure beverage.
Looking ahead from my seat, it was the bulkhead separating Business and Economy Classes.  Looking down the aisle, I face people in the first two center rows of Economy Plus.  Looking across the aisle, I saw a row of people sitting in the center 4-seats, more people than one normally expect to see in Business Class.  Sadly, in order to maintain capacity while making room for lie-flat seats, something had to give.  As a result, United has an economy class like 2-4-2 layout in Business Class with narrow 20.5-inch wide seats (that’s only 2.5 inches wider than Economy seats).  By comparison, United’s Business Class seats on the 747 and 767 are 23.5 inches wide (incidentally, the 747 also has a sardine class 2-4-2 layout on the lower level).  4-seat middle in Business Class is just not right.
Rant mode off. 
Pushback from the gate was one minute early at 8:20 am.  A live safety demo was performed in unison with the video safety demo.  I have never seen that!  It could be the video system in Economy was not working properly because the live demo never faced us sitting in the rear-facing seats.  I should have looked behind me to see whether a live demo was also performed for those facing front of Business Class.
With the storm moving through the area, Runway 10 was used for departures.  We made our way to Runway 10R at Intersection Quebec, a very short taxi from the gate.  With just two other aircraft in front of us, hold time on the ground was minimal.  
On the runway, the triple’s twin PW4090 engines roared to life with that familiar big-fan whine.  With our light load, we made a quick run down the runway with a very spirited rotation.  From the rear-facing seat, it was a roller coaster ride.  It felt like someone was pushing my back causing me to lean forward with only my seatbelt holding me in.  The at-seat magazine holder was not in the closed position, causing all the magazines to spill out.  My seatmate and I had to catch them before they fell on the floor.  He commented he has never flown backwards, to which I wholeheartedly agreed. 
Now that we were climbing to our cruising altitude, I can finally give my seat adjustments a try.  Seats are moved using electric motors by pressing and holding various position buttons on the control panel.  I got myself into a very relaxing position where my legs were stretched out flat, the seat back slightly reclined, and my head resting on the nice soft pillow.  It is amazing how comfortable a flight can be by just simply stretching and resting my legs.  I looked for something to watch on my monitor.  When browsing through each program, the display showed the program run-time along with remaining flying time, so that you know whether you will have enough time to finish the program.  I chose an episode of Top Gear (the good BBC version) while we climbed to our cruising altitude of 27,000 feet. The seat belt sign went off but the pilot announced it would come back on again in a few minutes when we descend.
There was an unexpected snack service on this short flight.  When I was presented with a warm scone in a bag, I thought I would get a like-sized scone.  I was disappointed to find a miniature representation in that large bag.  Later, drink orders were taken.  I went with apple juice.  After I finished it, I was quickly offered a refill.

The scone said: I wish I were bigger.  Note seat control panel.
Beverage served in glass, even on this short flight
As with all good things, it came to a quick end. We made our descent and I didn’t get a chance to put my seat in the full flat position to try out.  I was too engrossed watching Top Gear – and I didn’t even finish the episode!  I put my seat back in the full upright position by holding onto the green airplane button (as it was announced a few times), and I put my screen back on Map and audio back to “From the Flight Deck” to watch and listen to our approach to LAX. 
The descend was a little choppy.  View of the clouds and the wing going backwards certainly gave an interesting and unique perspective.

View out of my scratched window while descending for LAX.
We touched down on Runway 24R at LAX’s north complex, 53 minutes after takeoff.  Just like takeoff, landing gave me a push from the back, though it did not feel as urgent as the takeoff.  We rolled all the way to the end before making a long taxi across LAX to the south complex.  We taxied past an USAF C-32A “Air Force Two” and a C-17 at remote parking (apparently the VeePee was in town), passing Tom Bradley International Terminal, Terminals 4, 5, and 6 before arriving at Gate 76 in Terminal 7.  Short of the gate, we shutdown our engines, and the pilot announced to keep our seatbelts fastened while we get towed to the gate.  We arrived at the gate at 9:50 am, 3 minutes late.  In a little over two hours, N794UA will be on her way again, this time from LAX to Tokyo-Narita – stretching her legs, doing what she was designed to do!
While deplaning, standing up facing the back of my seat, I realized there was a light next to the headrest.  I didn’t even notice it while sitting (but I didn’t need it).  Someone walking past the rear-facing seats commented, “I could never fly backwards!”  I would definitely do it again.  It certainly gave a different perspective while flying and (for me at least) it was not nauseating, as most would assume.
I have heard on the 747, from the upper deck rear-facing seats, you get an excellent view of the engines and wing – that’s something I want to experience for myself while sitting there with my legs propped up, seat reclined in comfort!

N794UA as flight UA891 to Tokyo-Narita, rotates off Runway 25R leaving LAX's iconic Theme Building behind.
Copyright © 2012 Ben Wang.  All Rights Reserved.


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