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United Airlines 787 Dreamliner Polaris business class cabin Flight from Newark to San Francisco during coronavirus Wendy Perrin boys

If You Have To Fly in a Pandemic, Here’s Where to Sit on the Plane

UPDATE ON JULY 19: It’s been 14 days since Tim and the kids returned from California, nobody got sick, and both kids tested negative for Covid-19. (Tim was not tested.)  This update does not represent a recommendation that people fly; I am simply reporting the outcome of my family’s decisions, as described below.

As you know from Steps to Reduce Your Health Risk When You Fly, the problem with flying nowadays is likely not the air on the plane; scientists say the HEPA filtration system generates hospital-quality air. The problem is the close quarters and the unpredictable behavior of other passengers.  While it may be impossible to know with certainty how empty or full a flight will be or whether there might be passengers who refuse to wear masks (note: major U.S. airlines require passengers to wear masks), it is certainly possible—if you need to make an essential airline trip (remember, the CDC advises against non-essential travel)— to choose an aircraft layout and seat location so as to mitigate your risk.

That was my goal when I had to book a transcontinental flight for my husband and two sons. They flew from Newark to San Francisco on United Airlines on June 25. Based on their experience, here’s my advice for picking planes and seats so as to lessen your risk:

Know which airlines will keep seats empty during your flight.

Back in April when I booked the flight and chose the seats I wanted, United was blocking certain seats to try to maintain some space between passengers. But I knew I could not count on those seats remaining empty. United offered no guarantee that it wouldn’t fill every seat if it could. And, in fact, United is now no longer blocking seats; this week, the airline’s communications chief, Josh Earnest, said that blocking middle seats is just a PR strategy and not a safety strategy, since it still doesn’t keep passengers six feet apart.

By contrast, Alaska Airlines, Delta, Jetblue, and Southwest promise to keep certain seats blocked through at least the end of July: Alaska says it will block middle seats and cap flights at 65% capacity through July 31. Delta says it will block all middle seats, and some aisle seats in aircraft with 2×2 seating configurations, through September 30. Jetblue is blocking seats through July 31: middle seats on big planes, aisle seats on small ones. Southwest says it will block middle seats through September 30.

American and United are booking their flights to capacity when possible. United says it will alert passengers beforehand if their flight is “expected to be fairly full.” If you want to change your flight, the airline will let you do so for no fee; if you want to cancel, the airline will give you a credit toward a future flight in the amount that you paid. (See the “Prioritizing Your Well-being” section here.)  I recommend calling the airline ahead of time to check how full your flight really is (as opposed to waiting for the airline to alert you).

If you’re going to splurge on a business-class seat, pick an aircraft model where that will make a big difference.

I wanted a nonstop flight (to reduce time in airports), which limited my options to Alaska, Jetblue, and United. On United.com, as I pulled up flights during the search process, I compared every plane on offer between Newark and San Francisco by clicking to find out the aircraft model and view the seat map. My goal was to put as much physical distance as possible between my family and other passengers, and if there was ever a time when I was willing to pay more for that, this was it, so I checked out all the business-class options too. I saw that United was flying a 787-10 Dreamliner with the Polaris business-class cabin. The seat design means that you get something akin to your own cubicle onboard. Here’s a 3-D, 360-degree view of the cabin, so you can see how each passenger is partially shielded and how there are many solitary window seats with no aisle seat next to them. (If you hold your cursor down on the 3-D view and scroll in a circular fashion, you can “tour” the cabin.)  And the seats were surprisingly affordable (this was back in April, when the coronavirus outbreak was peaking in New Jersey).

It was the combination of the seat design, the cabin spaciousness, the newness of the plane, my elite status with United, and the price—plus the fact that if I needed to change the flights, United would have the most other flights to choose from—that made this option the best for my family’s needs. (If you’re comparing flights and can’t easily determine the aircraft model, seating configuration, and other seat details via the website you’re using, you can do your seat research on Seatguru.)

teenage boys traveling in business class United flight with masks on

My kids had seats with protective barriers.

When choosing your seat location, consider all the factors that might protect you from other people’s movements.

After studying the layout of the seats in the business-class cabin, I assigned my family seats in the last row. Here’s why I wanted the last row:

  • Since the business-class lavatory is at the front of the cabin, there would be no foot traffic past them to/from the lavatory.
  • The other passengers in the cabin would be seated in front of them, facing forward, so if any of those passengers were to cough or sneeze, they would hopefully do so in the opposite direction from Tim and the kids.
  • The aircraft door is immediately behind that row.  This increased the probability that my family could board the plane last and not have to walk past already-seated passengers. (Boarding the plane last meant they could avoid standing in line at the gate.) They would also probably be able to disembark first.

Tim reports that we made all the right decisions and that the flight felt very safe, as did the entire airport experience. Newark airport was empty. In the TSA line, nobody touched anything. At each gate was a gallon jug of hand sanitizer. When they boarded the plane, they were given wipes so they could wipe down their seat area. Every passenger Tim saw onboard wore a mask. Every airport staffer and traveler he saw at EWR and SFO wore masks, although a few passengers at SFO had their masks at their chins as they spoke on their mobile phones.

United flight crew attendant with mask around chin

The purser was the only person Tim saw onboard whose mask was not covering his nose and mouth.

Tim reports that there were only two exceptions to his sense of safety on the flight: (1) The United Airlines purser wore his mask at his chin instead of over his mouth and nose. (2) At the end of the flight, passengers were in a rush to get off the plane and kept only about two feet of distance from one another when emerging from their seats and moving from the plane to the jetway.

Based on my family’s flight experience, we have a few more tips to share:

When I dropped Tim and the kids off at Newark airport, they wore goggles, but they’ll be trying out face shields on the return flight.

  • Consider wearing a face shield (in addition to a mask). It can protect your eyes or at least prevent you from touching your eyes with unwashed hands.  When I dropped Tim and the kids off at the airport, they wore goggles recommended to us by a friend who is an E.R. doctor. The goggles fogged up, though, so I’ve shipped face shields to the boys for the return flight.
  • Use the lavatory earlier rather than later.  As you know from Steps to Reduce Your Health Risk When You Fly, the lavatory is cleaner earlier in the flight.  My family’s goal was not to use the lavatory at all.  And they succeeded!  They used the airport restroom immediately before boarding and immediately after disembarking. (And they report that everything in the airport male restrooms was touchless.)  During the flight, they never left their pods; they stayed nestled down behind their privacy barriers.
  • Bring a sweater. They turned their air nozzles on for purified air throughout the flight, but those nozzles blast cold air, so it got chilly.
  • Bring food. Newark airport was empty, with restaurants and almost everything else closed except for one convenience store on each pier. Tim and the kids brought deli sandwiches from home, in case the food service on the flight didn’t happen or didn’t appear to be safe. As it turned out, everything served to them—including silverware—came wrapped in plastic.


United 787 amenities kit

What It’s Like to Fly on a 787 Dreamliner

What’s it like to fly on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner?  I recently flew United’s 787-9 Dreamliner on what is currently the longest 787 route flown by a U.S. airline, between San Francisco and Singapore. It covers 8,446 miles and takes 16 hours 20 minutes going to Singapore. I flew the opposite way, on my trip home from Asia, which clocked in at a slightly shorter 15 hours 30 minutes. Here’s what it was like.

The seats

The seats in business class on United’s 787-9 are arranged 2-2-2, and are staggered slightly to offer some privacy when you’re reclined.

My home for 15 hours and 30 minutes. I slept wonderfully.

My home for 15 hours and 30 minutes. I slept wonderfully.

The seats are 20.6″ wide (the widest BusinessFirst seat United offers) and truly go flat, so you can sleep pretty well on them; and they are adjustable in various ways so you can recline or raise your feet to keep comfortable when not dozing. The blankets are duvet-style, cozy without being too heavy, and the seat cushion is plush enough that you don’t feel the bones of the seat when you lie down.

I had an aisle seat in the middle section of the first row. If you prefer the window spot, keep in mind that they are the only ones without direct aisle access, and you can find yourself trapped when your seat neighbor is fully reclined. This problem isn’t unique to United; I had it on my Qatar Airways flight too; and it’ll be solved when United launches its new Polaris international business class product in December of this year.

The Polaris premium cabin reboot will feature new seats that are more like private pods and that will have custom bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue—with new pillows! This is great news because one of my quibbles with United’s long-haul business class is its uncomfortable pillows. That may seem like nitpicking, but it’s surprising just how much a bad headrest can affect your sleep. The current pillows feel like loose sacks of lumpy cotton balls. In the future, flights outfitted with the Polaris design will give passengers the choice between the snazzy Saks pillow and a cooling gel pillow (they’ll also be able to request a mattress cushion).

United 787 business first cabin

The BusinessFirst cabin on United’s 787-9 Dreamliner, flying from Singapore to San Francisco.

United 787 business first seat power

Every BusinessFirst seat on the 787-9 has a personal power plug, a USB port, and a set of noise-canceling headphones that fit into that two-holed jack at left. You can plug your own headphones into a single hole, but the sound isn’t as good.

United 787 business first seat controls

The seats recline a full 180 degrees, but you can set them in just about any other position too, including adding extra lumbar support.

United 787 lumpy pillow

United’s lumpy BusinessFirst pillows are thankfully being replaced by custom bedding from Saks Fifth Avenue in the new Polaris class, to be unveiled in December. Photo: Billie Cohen

United 787 cubby space

Lots of room for your legs, and a convenient cubby for your stuff. When your seat is fully extended you won’t be able to access the bottom cubby, and if you’re tall, your feet might be inside the second one. Loved the mini banana-sized shelf at the top. Came in handy!

The environment

Thanks to several of the 787’s features, and the flight crew’s smart use of them, it’s very easy to get a good night’s sleep on this aircraft, and therefore to feel less jetlagged. To start with, the cabin pressure of Boeing’s Dreamliner makes it feel like you’re at only 6,000 feet instead of the usual 8,000. That makes a big difference in how dehydrated and dry you’ll be after 15-plus hours in the air.

Next, the lighting is much gentler and can be adjusted to different colors (blue, orange, etc.) to make your brain subtly register that the day is passing. The windows help with this too. Windows on the Dreamliner are bigger than what you’re used to on other planes—and the shades can stay open during the entire flight, thanks to a special tinting material within the windowpane itself. The feature can be tuned to mimic different times of day, so even though we took off at 8:45 a.m., the crew made it look like night after a few hours so that we could all switch over to San Francisco time more easily. And it worked for me—I adjusted time zones without any problem when I arrived; and I am embarrassingly wimpy when it comes to jet lag, no matter the direction of travel. As a bonus, the special windows mean that whenever you are awake you can still look outside rather than having to stealthily crack the shade up and hope you don’t bother your snoring seatmate.

The amenities

I’ve already mentioned the 180-degree lie-flat bed (thumbs up), and I also appreciated the easily reachable USB port, power outlet, and headphones in every seat. I’m also a sucker for a cool amenities kit, and I love the commemorative Rio Olympics-themed kit United is using this summer; it’s packaged in a cool tin shaped like the body of an airplane. The lotion and lip balm are from Soho House’s luxe Cowshed Spa, and the eye mask is comfortable cloth instead of nylon; the rest is the usual toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. Big plus: The bathroom sinks and toilets are touch-free. This should be standard in every bathroom on every plane everywhere. Genius.

For entertainment, each business-class seat has a nice big 15-inch TV screen, but the screens are missing a key design feature: privacy overlays. This means you can see everything on everyone else’s TV at full brightness. From my seat in the center section, I could not help but see all five of the other screens in my row. In an aircraft that takes such care to create soothing cabin lighting and a relaxing environment, this was a surprising (and surprisingly bright) oversight. Regardless, I was perfectly happy binging on bad action movies and TV shows in my cozy recliner until I fell asleep.

United 787 TV screens

Someone forgot to add privacy filters to all of the BusinessFirst TV screens, so there is no way to not see what everyone else is watching. This was particularly disruptive when the cabin was otherwise dark and I was trying to sleep. Those screens are bright!

United 787 entertainment center

You can control your personal TV either by this handheld device or by touch-screen.

United 787 amenities kit

We each received this commemorative amenities kit, made special for the Rio Olympics. United is the airline sponsor for Team USA.

United 787 amenities kit

All the goodies in the Olympics-themed amenities kit. Not only is the tin special, but the cloth eye mask and patterned socks are inspired by Team USA too.

The food

No one will be surprised to hear that the food isn’t very good. But when other airlines are elevating inflight dining, even in coach, it seems fair to expect that a business-class meal on a premier new plane would be at least edible. If only. Over the course of my three-month trip in Asia, I flew seven airlines; most of the time I was in coach, and United was the only U.S. airline I took. On every flight—even a domestic-China trip that was less than two hours—I was served a meal, and it was pretty good. So I’m just saying: It is possible. Even for vegetarians.

On this flight, I didn’t touch my special meals (one course had chicken in it, and the other was just really unappetizing). And for breakfast, the only vegetarian option is cold cereal. Which is weird because if you don’t drink milk, your meal is just dry corn flakes with a banana. Oh, wait, mine did come with a small bowl of the congee toppings; when, confused, I asked a flight attendant what it was, he said “I don’t know.” I figured it out by putting a heap of shredded ginger in my mouth. That’ll wake you up.

To be fair, it’s not just this flight that has challenges with special meals. Lots of airlines suffer, and United, despite its partnership with the Trotter Project, has not figured it out yet. Maybe there aren’t that many of us vegetarians or special-meal requesters, but if an airline kitchen is going to make the effort (and believe me, I so appreciate that they do), how about some input from the passengers who have to eat it? Call me, United, we’ll talk.

United 787 appetizer

The mystery appetizer, which may or may not have been chicken. The small cup of warm roasted mixed nuts in the top left corner is my favorite though—they could just feed me that and I’d be happy.

United 787 main vegetarian meal

Sounded good on paper, wasn’t good in reality: vegetarian braised tofu with mixed vegetables in sha cha sauce. Glad I brought my own PB&J instead.

United 787 breakfast

The only vegetarian breakfast is cereal. I don’t drink milk, so I ate it dry. You could add those congee toppings in the bowl, but it’s not quite the right complement for Corn Flakes.

The last word

United’s 787 experience made all the difference in my long-haul return flight. I slept so well, and the aircraft environment was so comfortable, that the 15 and a half hours went by pretty quickly. If given the option to take a 787 on a long-haul flight, I would definitely choose it, and I can’t wait to see how United improves its already enjoyable business class later this year when it rolls out Polaris.

United airlines 787 Dreamliner

United’s 787 Dreamliner. Photo: United


*Full disclosure: My flight was fully paid for by United. The airline’s SFO-SIN route was introduced July 1 and as part of the launch, I was invited to take the flight and review it. As I already had a trip to Asia planned, I accepted the offer. Wendy and I both fly United often and felt comfortable that we could represent a fair picture of this experience. 

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