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The Time I (Almost) Flew the United 787 Dreamliner

December 14, 2012 at 5:43 PM | by | Comment (1)

"I just stepped off United's 787 Dreamliner and, boy, let me tell you about its awesomeness."

That's the sentence I had hoped to type to you today.

Instead, my story, typed from a hotel lobby across the country from home, goes a little something like this: "I flew to California and have nothing but disappointment." I only wanted to fly the United Dreamliner and had sought out an affordable route that included the 787 on one leg, from Newark (EWR) to Houston-George Bush (IAH). That routing just happened to go to Ontario, California. Whatever, so long as I get my 787 action. I booked it in October and also paid to upgrade to EconomyPlus. 24 hours before my flight, still seeing the 787 listed as my aircraft, I went ahead and booked a hotel night.

In case you aren't up on your Dreamliner news, the planes have had some electrical issues (resulting in non-life-threatening emergency landings) and United's been taking them off and on their routes. Reuters & WSJ have the latest updates. Knowing this, I had obsessively checked my travel details daily, fingers crossed that the 787 would stick. It did. Until it didn't.

Now I've wasted hundreds of dollars and have no United 787 photo galleries or stories to share with you, other than this sad one of lack of communication from United and a dreaded equipment change.

The full story:

Traveling more and more with mobile tickets, I'm learning the importance of taking screenshots of everything. Thanks to this practice, I have this screenshot of my flight information (taken from the United iPhone app) which, day-of, still shows the 787-800 as the aircraft for my flight. I only first suspected something was amiss after clearing security and thinking, "hey, I should have a printed ticket for this occasion of my first United 787 flight!" A customer service agent easily printed one for me and, walking to my gate, I noticed my seat had been changed. Whoa whoa whoa—gone was the window seat in EconomyPlus I'd had reserved for months and, in its place, I'd been downgraded to an aisle in Economy. What was going on? I was about to find out.

The gate was a total scene, not unlike when an army of ants swarms a crumb. I headed straight for the windows, fully anticipating to be greeted with the sight of the 787's swept wings and undulating gold stripe. Instead the plane that sat in its spot was too large, had the standard United livery and a regular ol' straight wing. It was a 777. Oh no. My heart sunk and a mild panic began to set in as I realized I'd become a victim of an equipment change. What to do, what to do? My choices were: use the tickets and fly this itinerary and stay at my nonrefundable hotel OR refuse to travel and argue for (an unlikely) refund with United, also losing the hotel money.

The plane swap meant many other passengers had questions, so I joined the growing line to speak with a gate agent. As I waited, the flight boarded through its numbered sequence groups until it was just us confused passengers left. The man in front of me chatted with an attendant flying standby, and they spoke of the 787; he had also specifically booked this flight, and was a retired pilot eager to experience the Dreamliner. Those behind me discussed the similar issues with Qatar's 787s. My tweeted exasperation was met with another's story of having his Christmas gift from his wife (a flight on the United 787) ruined by a similar equipment change. Later, onboard the 777, I'd overhear more conversations that echoed all these. Had I stumbled upon a secret gathering of #avgeeks? Nope, just a slew of travelers who paid attention to their itineraries enough to include the 787 in them.

Finally with a corrected boarding pass in hand (back to EconomyPlus, but on an aisle) but no answers (the gate agent had no idea when the equipment change had been made), I boarded the 777.

The flights were unremarkable. I sat next to a constant cougher from EWR to IAH and watched Grease on the seatback TV ("Greased Lightning" to cheer up). At IAH, I spent my layover in the United Club listening as a traveler questioned why his itinerary now had a 767 in place of what was supposed to be a 787.

So, how could all this have been prevented?

Transparency, for one, but some brainstorming with other aviation friends yielded "duh" ideas:
· I knew the 787 tail number for my flight—N26906—which, as a Twitter friend later informed me, has been out of service since December 8. Anytime between then and my December 13 trip, the flight information could have/should have been changed to reflect the replacement 777, but it was not.
· David Flynn, Editor of Australian Business Traveller came up with the idea of special fares on routes serviced by new aircraft, marketed at aviation geeks and frequent flyers interested in the newest goodies. Buying these fares would mean "guaranteed alerts and no fee rebooking" in case of changes.
· John Walton, also of AusBT, mentioned how "airlines send pax so much email they could at least make some of it travel-helpful rather than just sales."
· #avgeek @user47 sums it up in a few words: "Equipment changes happen, but notification is key," which got us thinking that something as simple as a twitter account from United tweeting EQP changes would solve this.

Some notes on being a travel journalist and traveling:
· I have always flown United as a regular passenger, albeit one with Star Alliance Gold status.
· Jaunted writers (myself included) have never attended any United events, media or otherwise.
· I recently emailed United's PR team to let them know of my interest in upcoming 787 events, and mentioned that I'd soon be flying it myself, on my own purchased ticket.
· I do not expect anything from all this other than, hopefully, some changes to the way they notify passengers on the 787 of equipment changes, as they currently do not at all. Had I had as much as 12 hours of notice, I would have moved my trip and not booked a nonrefundable hotel room.


Up in the air in what is not a Dreamliner.

The itinerary is not a convenient one. I'll spend tonight sleeping for a few hours in Ontario Airport before beginning, at 6AM, the trek (via SFO, on planes without in-flight WiFi) back to Newark Airport, which is still 1.5 hours of public transport (or a 45-minute $85 cab ride) away from my home. All of it I'd gladly do for the Dreamliner, but now I doubt I'll do it again with such uncertainties.

[Photos: Jaunted]

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Emails

Perhaps the AusBT team should practise what they preach about emails, no one wants an unsolicited email about a *webinar*

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