United first class service to Hawaii

As I’ve mentioned a few times now, I spent the weekend in Maui. I flew United both ways on a great fare ex-Seattle, thanks to Alaska Airlines’ crazy Hawaii expansion, which is driving prices down. And I figured I’d share a few observations regarding the flights.

First of all, the upgrades were insanely easy. I mean insanely easy. I flew out on a Friday evening through San Francisco and returned on a Sunday night redeye through Los Angeles, which seem like peak times. But in both cases I cleared at the 1K upgrade window. Not only that, but all passengers requesting an upgrade cleared on both flights (including all elites requesting complimentary unlimited domestic upgrades). There were even non-revs in first class on both flights, and beyond that, empty seats in first class on the return. For what it’s worth, it was a 757 in both directions.

Second of all, the crowd in first class largely wasn’t your usual first class transcon crowd. At least half the passengers were under 15 or over 70 and seemed to fly once or twice a year at most. This made me appreciate just how easy frequent flyers are to deal with, which I don’t often appreciate. In this case, it took the better part of 10 minutes for the passengers in first class to situate their bags as they tried to find their seats. There were two families of four in first class, and otherwise just about everyone else was traveling with a companion.

Now on to the meal service. The meal service was basically standard transcon food, though there were a few nice touches. There were hot nuts to start, followed by a small salad. I guess to give the appearance of greater service, the (excellent) crew served the tiny bowl of salad first, with a whole wheat bread roll, and later brought out the entrees.

Diet Coke with lime and hot nuts

Salad and bread roll

The options were either Trader Vic’s chicken or salmon. I went with the chicken, which was served with broccoli and mashed potatoes, and was quite tasty.

Trader Vic’s chicken

For dessert was a chocolate chip cookie with milk.

Chocolate chip cookie

Prior to arrival was the “refreshment” basket, consisting of Ghirardelli chocolate, Biscoffs, chips, and bananas.

One of the fun things about flights to Hawaii is the “Halfway to Hawaii” game they have. The premise is that you have to guess at what time the plane is geographically halfway to Hawaii. The captain gives some basic info, like takeoff time, headwinds for the first half of the flight, etc.

At the suggestion of someone on Twitter, I guessed the halfway point timewise plus 10 minutes, to account for the fact that the second half of the flight should be a bit longer, right? The first half of the flight should be slower because you’re still burning off fuel, and typically you’re flying faster on the descent than ascent. But the flight time was 4hr56min, and the correct answer was 2hr21min (seven minutes before the halfway point timewise). Oh well, better luck next time!

Halfway to Hawaii

I always hear people bitch about United’s meal service to Hawaii. On one hand I can appreciate that people would like the service to be “special” given the destination, but I can also understand why United doesn’t have a “special” meal service like they used to. Simply put, why bother? All the elites cleared their upgrades, probably most on unlimited domestic upgrades, and there were even non-revs in first class. The first class cabin isn’t even nearly as profitable on these flights as a transcon, so if anything, they should improve meal service there.

Though I understand it’s quite frustrating since United charges a huge co-pay (up to $300) for upgrades on Hawaii flights, while they don’t for their other US flights. That’s a total ripoff. But still, overall the service is pretty darn good, and the crew did their best to be festive.

Of course don’t get me started on the “panini” served on the return

Filed Under: United
  1. I heard that version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” (mentioned in the picture of the ‘Halfway to Hawai’i’ game) countless times during my stay at the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki this March. It’s everywhere!

  2. You had a rare flight my friend! But just to comment on your quote:

    “Simply put, why bother?”

    This is the exact attitude that has led United from being an elite airline to below average shitty airline!

    Just think if the pilot said ah why bother, or the flight attendent said “ah why bother”?

    I live on Maui and my last first class flight to LAX in June they did not even have the hot nuts! The Flight Hag looked surprised at my Premiere exec friend and said “Nuts? we don’t have those anymore!

    Combined that all the Flight Attendents on the Hawaii flights are like 80 years old! United has a long way to go to even be considered a “good” customer service oriented airline!

    By far United has a LONG WAY TO GO! Best airline in Hawaii by far is Hawaiian!


  3. Ben, thanks for this timely post! I’m doing a couple HNL runs over the next few days and am glad to hear that the meal service is alright. (although I’m on the domestic 767, so that’s kinda ugh.)

  4. The headwinds are typically stronger for the second half of the flight flights to Hawaii, thus you usually reach the half way point before the halfway ‘time’. In any event, if the pilot gives you good info, it’s usually easy to get within a few minutes or so.

    As far as what Tracy says about UA’s HI F product, I disagree almost completely. (HNL based here) Never had a nut problem, usually have a decent crew, and there’s a few notable Senior crew who are outstanding (Boise, for one). Yeah, there’s a few surly senior sky babes on this route, as I’m sure there are on all the legacies serving Hawaii.

    Is it as good as HA F or some of the other domestics? Well, no. But it’s really easy to get in the UA F cabin.

  5. Compared to CO, meal sevice on UA sux. In fact CO has better meals LAX/SNA-HNL/OGG than UA has on even p.s. First. In fact CO actually meets my expectations for domestic F transcon and Hawaii flights. And no paper tray liner! Everyone has been complaining about UA cookies now being served on napkins, but this has been a standard CO practice. CO does fold the cookie in to the napkin with a triangular half opening which looks nicer.

    CO crews on the route and in general are never nearly as bad as a bad UA crew but also equally never as good as a really good UA crew. I had one UA FA who setup the folding cart with linens to do PDB (of choice). She was so friendly! Then she served dinner in courses and didn’t use the tacky catering storage cart to serve the food. Addressed us by name the whole flight, kept our drinks full the whole time and didn’t disappear…

  6. Lucky thanks for the report – doing ORD-LAX-KOA tomorrow, all 757 flights. Booked UA vacation pkg with so (1P) friend (2P) and so (gm) and me (1k). Split reservation (1K and 2p, 1P and GM) – we all cleared at the 100 and 72 hour windows with plenty of empty seats on the seatmap.

    Other than HNL, udu to the islands are probably pretty easy – I bet ORD-OGG 3/4 are good as well as the DEN saturday flights to LIH, KOA and OGG (all 763).

    UDU to Hawaii and clearing at 100 hours is a great 1K benefit!

  7. I agree with HunterSFO that a folding cart with linens should have been used; after all, it was dinner service. I’ve emailed UA several times, suggesting that they serve the dinner in separate courses from a cart. Thai Air and SQ use carts w/ linens, and serve the lunch or dinner by courses, as it should be done.

    I also do not like the trays with paper liner. If the salad is in a bowl, it can be served with a china underliner. Heated rolls should be passed from a basket. As for the dessert, the milk should have had a paper underliner, and the cookie should have been served on a napkin on a small plate. Consistency in service in F class is so important. I don’t think the domestic carriers here realize that.

    In the most recent issue of Travel & Leisure, the top domestic airlines and top int’l. airlines were reported on. CO, Delta, Amer. and United did not make it to either top ten list.

    Top dom. airlines:
    1. Virgin Am.
    2. Jetblue
    3. Midwest air
    4. SW ?
    5. Hawaiian Air

    Top int’l. airlines:
    1. SQ
    2. Emirates
    3. Qatar
    4. Virgin Atlantic
    5. Cathay Pacific

  8. My complaint with UA’s Hawai’i service is more on their hard product than the meals. I know this is a leisure destination, but could we get some old 175-degree biz class seats on the 777’s out of SFO? Maybe AVOD? A footrest? I seriously thought about flying to ATL and taking DL’s 747-400 service to HNL instead of dealing with the pathetic UA product out of SFO.

    I cringe at the thought of the panini-esce thing on my return flight.

  9. Wow…..I like in NYC and was planning on splurging on business class to HNL next spring. Since I have no loyalty I was going to use UA…..I may have to rethink that now…..sigh…

  10. I recently flew SFO-KOA (Kona, HI) roundtrip and had a very nice experience, too. I’m a 1K and easily cleared upgrade to NF on the outbound morning flight on a Wednesday with my partner also being upgraded. Breakfast was standard transcon (scramble eggs with chives and turkey sausage or continental breakfast) with the addition of sparkling wine (a cava from Spain). Of course, mai-tais were available and more popular after the half-way point. The outbound FA’s were very attentive and in the Aloha spirit. There were 3 empty seats in F on this leg and most passengers were frequent flyers headed to corporate events, so they knew how to get seated quickly and stow their stuff.

    Coming back on a Sunday at 12:30 p.m. departure, the flight was packed and upgrades did not clear until the day of the flight. Most passengers on this leg were leisure travelers on non-revenue or upgraded fares who had little experience with United. The supervisor at the gate actually moved some solo folks around who had not checked-in yet so she could seat me and my partner together, which was nice. The meal choices on the return flight were Trader Vic’s beef curry or macadamia chicken. We got one of each entree and agreed that both were surprisingly tasty. There was one veteran FA with 8 (yes eight) diamonds on her wings on the way back who enthusiastically served the F cabin while her younger colleagues all huddled in the galley fretting over the merger and what was to come. It’s amazing what job security will do for you.

    Both legs were on a 767-300 domestic configuration.

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