I flew on United's new ultra-premium transcontinental flight from New York to California and it's now my least favorite way to cross the US in economy

·12 min read
United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider
  • United just began flying between New York City and California again for the first time since 2015.

  • Flights use John F. Kennedy International Airport and are flown by a premium-configured Boeing 767-300ER offering 46 business class seats, 22 premium economy seats, and 99 economy seats.

  • In economy, however, many of the most desirable seats are dubbed "Economy Plus" and come at a premium, with few options to get a good seat for those that don't want to pay up.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

Related: 8 secret airplane safety features that could save your life

United Airlines is back at New York's John F, Kennedy International Airport, having returned in March after a six-year absence that started when the airline ended flights to California from the airport in 2015.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

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The transcontinental routes were premium-focused and used Boeing 757s outfitted with additional first class and business classes seats to service the lucrative clientele flying coast-to-coast.

United Airlines Boeing 757-200
A United Airlines Boeing 757-200 at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. Eliyahu Yosef Parypa/Shutterstock.com

Although the routes weren't profitable, then-airline president Scott Kirby said that it was a "mistake" for the airline to leave because those lucrative customers shifted to other airlines like American Airlines and Delta Air Lines for their transcontinental needs, and more.

FILE PHOTO: United Airlines president Scott Kirby speaks before the departure of the
United Airlines president Scott Kirby speaks at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago Reuters

But now, United is back with a vengeance and taking on competitors with one of its supposedly swankiest aircraft, a Boeing 767-300ER with a whopping 46 Polaris business class seats, 22 Premium Plus premium economy seats, and 99 economy seats.

United Airlines JFK
The first United Airlines flight to return to New York's JFK Airport. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I flew on the newly restored route from New York to San Francisco on a trip to the West Coast. Here's what it was like.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Arriving at around 3 p.m. on a Monday, the terminal was eerily quiet thanks to a lack of international flyers. Only two United flights were scheduled to depart that day, both in the early evening, and there was no line at all to check-in.

IMG_7893
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

United returned to its old home at Kennedy International, Terminal 7. It's among the smallest terminals at the airport and all gates are just a short walk from the security checkpoint.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

But with a fraction of its normal number of travelers, many of the shops and eateries were closed. All the lounges in the terminal were also closed, which takes a bit of the premium out of the premium service as both American Airlines and Delta Air Lines have open lounges at the airport.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

United primarily uses Gates 2 and 3 in the terminal, which are just a quick walk from security and boast expansive seating areas.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I got a quick look at our aircraft before departure. This Boeing 767 was nearly 21 years old and was due for a paint job as there was some green showing.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Source: Planespotters.net

Boarding began a full 50 minutes before the flight, which I initially thought was more than needed since the aircraft only has 167 seats.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

United has since abandoned its back-to-front boarding policy and now boards in zones, based on seat location.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I walked onboard and quickly realized that all that glitters isn't gold. The first thing I thought when I stepped on board was that this was an old plane with new seats..

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Polaris business class did look impressive with the luxurious and privacy-minded seats arranged in a 1-1-1 configuration. All of these seats go fully lie-flat, as well.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

A single seat in the cabin was initially selling for thousands but once I booked, the cheapest upgrade price I saw was around $364. This is the route's moneymaker but 17 seats went empty, the seat map showed just before departure.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I probably would've enjoyed the flight a lot more if I was in this swanky cabin. But I was in economy all the way.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Business class was followed by the Premium Plus cabin with its purple recliner seats arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration. These seats offer a luxurious 19 inches of width and 38 inches of pitch.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

United wanted $199 to upgrade to these seats, which isn't unreasonable at all for a long flight such as this one.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Economy houses the remaining 99 seats in a 2-3-2 configuration, standard for the 767. It's preferable for me since I normally choose a window seat and have one less person in the row to climb over when I get up.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

But on this flight, a window seat is a luxury. Only seven window seats are available in regular economy, the rest are "Economy Plus" seats that cost a premium because they offer extra legroom.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Naturally, the free window seats and the aisle seats in the two-seat pairs are the first to go. I booked this ticket less than two weeks from departure so my only option was an aisle seat in the center aisle.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

And that was the biggest disappointment of the flight as I'm a lover of the window seat.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I was in seat 31F for the flight, one of 56 standard economy seats in the cabin. The center-aisle is almost exclusively regular economy seats and offer, in my opinion, the least desirable seats in the cabin unless the entire row is open.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

There are also 43 Economy Plus seats in total offering 34 inches of legroom. Prices averaged at around $70 for an upgrade.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

The regular economy seats were quite comfortable and spacious with 31 inches of pitch and 18.5 inches of width.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Each seat had its own seat-back touch-screens to provide entertainment on the long flight to the West Coast.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

On offer was a selection of movies...

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Television shows...

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

And music.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

There was also a moving map to keep track of the flight's location throughout the journey. It wasn't United's newest system but it did the trick and flight attendants even gave out headphones, which I needed since I forgot to bring my non-iPhone pair.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

As I settled in for the flight, I quickly saw why we needed 50 minutes of boarding time. Flight attendants worked double-time to properly guide seemingly lost passengers who couldn't navigate the twin-aisle aircraft and wanted to move around to be closer to family.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Some passengers moved to empty seats, not knowing they were Economy Plus seats, and were told they'd have to pay for an upgrade to sit in the seats. All in all, a frantic start to the flight.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

The plane's age showed even more when we tried to leave the gate. The auxiliary power unit was seemingly inoperative and required a fix that delayed our departure by around 20 minutes.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

But it was ultimately fixed and we taxied to Runway 31L for departure. Soon enough, it was our turn to take to the skies.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I normally love the view of New York City when departing from this airport, which made not being in the window even more frustrating.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Flight attendants quickly jumped into action and started the in-flight service shortly after takeoff.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

While I was waiting for it to reach my row, I started scrolling through the movies and while there weren't a lot of new releases, there were some classics. I was torn between "Inception," "You've Got Mail," and "That Thing You Do" to watch first.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

The traditional plastic snack bags were first handed out.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Inside were the essentials including a bottle of water, packet of pretzels, Stroopwafel, and sanitary wipe.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

The drink service quickly followed. United has returned to a full soft drink service and that meant full-size cans with ice.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I watched the last 10 minutes of "You've Got Mail," arguably the best part of the movie, while enjoying my seltzer water.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Business class and premium economy class passengers were treated to a hot meal.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

After the meal service, I opened my laptop to get some work done. My MacBook Pro fit decently well on the tray table, though I did need to angle it when the seat in front of me was in full recline.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

WiFi was available for purchase and prices were reasonable. It was only $14.99 for the entire flight.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

The rest of the flight continued uneventfully with no true highlights in economy. But while economy was full, many seats in the premium cabins went unsold.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Hand sanitizer dispensers were also installed throughout the aircraft and next to the restrooms, which was a nice safety touch.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I was able to get glimpses outside but walking to the exit row and glancing out. The sun had stayed up just until we got to San Francisco.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I also caught a glimpse into how the other half lives in business class. The seats look quite comfortable and private.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I started to get peckish over Denver so I decided to order a snack box to tide me over.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

United just began offering in-flight purchases again on longer routes such as this one. On offer were snack boxes and individual snacks, though there was no menu and I wouldn't have even known they were for sale if I didn't see them when passing through the galley.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

This $10 kit included salami, two cheese spreads, crackers, almonds, apricots, and a Toblerone. It was a veritable feast for economy and I enjoyed it.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Flight attendants came around once more, around two hours before landing, with drinks.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

Soon enough, it was time to land in San Francisco, and I was eager to get off.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I wasn't overly impressed with the flight and it mostly had to do with the plane. I've been on some of United's newest aircraft and this wasn't the airline's best.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

And while it may seem trivial not having enough window seats in economy, it's a big source of entertainment on these flights. Not having enough for regular economy passengers is enough to keep me away from this flight.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

I love flying on United and out of JFK but I'm an economy flyer and other airlines on the route better serve flyers like me. United's route is just too premium-focused.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

But the flight did have one thing going for it: we had the smoothest landing that I'd ever experienced.

United Airlines New York to San Francisco Flight
Flying on United Airlines from New York to San Francisco. Thomas Pallini/Insider

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