Flight Review: United Airlines’ longest route – Sydney to Houston, Texas on the 787 Dreamliner

With a distance of 13,834 km (8,596 mi), one of the latest routes to return to our skies over the Pacific Ocean is also United Airlines’ longest* – Sydney to Houston. The service, which is just under 16 hours from Sydney (UA100), and 17 and a half hours to get back (UA101), initially debuted in 2018 as a competitor to Qantas’s Sydney/Melbourne to Dallas Fort Worth direct flights.

After being mothballed during Covid, the Houston flights returned to United’s calendar last October, and by mid-December, UA100 & UA101 were travelling daily between the two cities.

I had the opportunity to fly the route on Boxing Day, which this review will go on to cover.

However, this article is being published just as news comes through that this service will once again be put on ice, from 5th March to 26th October, as the service moves from a daily flight, to a seasonal (Australian Summer) one. This temporarily gives Qantas exclusivity on the Australia to Texas direct service. Which is bad news for those with United, Star Alliance or Virgin (Velocity) frequent flyer status. United will, however, continue to fly into LAX and SFO.

Nevertheless, here’s everything you need to know about the lengthy service – which will continue running daily until 4th March, and is then set to return on 27th October.

Airline: United Airlines
Aircraft: Boeing 787-900 Dreamliner
Route: Sydney to Houston (UA100)
Seat: 51F
Class: Economy – Aisle 3-3-3
Duration: 15 hours 20 minutes in air; 15 hours 50 minutes all up.
On Time? Delayed about 30 minutes

Checking in before your flight

Online check in opens 24 hours before your flight.

With the US still requiring proof of Covid-19 vaccination before your flight, and the airline needing to see your return flight and other pieces of information, there’s quite a lot of steps to check-in. In fact, you may not be able to complete your check-in before you get to the airport. In spite of this, the United app makes it all as easy as it can be, and will allow you to do just about everything that is possible digitally – including checking your vaccination.

Even if you can’t finalise check-in (in my case, it was due to my return flight being booked on a separate ticket), make sure to select your seats as early as possible in the 24 hour window, because within 24 hours of your flight, the “preferred seating”, which once cost a small fee, should now be free (unless you are on a “Basic Economy” ticket)! So you should be able to get yourself a better seat than what you purchased originally, if you not haven’t already upgraded to Economy Plus or are flying on a upper class ticket.

Also – and this is a hot tip – unless you have chosen a “Basic Economy” ticket, check back every now and then between your booking and your flight to see if there are any alternative flights you can take that may reduce the cost of your flight – and the airline will give you some eCredit in return. While many airlines ditched this flexibility as flights returned to relative normal last year, it’s great to see United has listened to their customers and kept those sorts of features in place.

Checking in at Sydney International Airport – T1

Checking in at the United counter was made ever the quicker by having “Premier Access”. It’s is a benefit of having Platinum or Gold status with Virgin’s Velocity Frequent Flyer program, or of being a high tiered traveller with United’s own MileagePlus or one of the Star Alliance partner programs. Basically, you get to check in up with those in the pointy end of the cabin, which is a much shorter queue.

“Premier Access” is also something you can pay for as an add on to your ticket.

Check-in was easy with two bags complimentary (with the above status), or one bag without. The staff were very helpful, and there were no problems. Honestly, it couldn’t have been easier.

“Premier Access” doesn’t include express queue through customs and security, as it once did, though it was pretty quick to get through regardless. Express entry would likely have saved 5 minutes at most. That baggage queue though was at least 40 minutes long, so those savings were much appreciated.

And about T1…

Wow, Sydney international terminal really needs some work. For starters, where are the proper water bottle refilling stations that now exist at every airport in the world? Even the basic bubblers were out of service.

Some retail options also need work. Sumo Salad was among the most disorganised places I’ve been to – they weren’t providing receipts, so no one knew which order was theirs. Mine was given to someone else. And that’s after people were allowed to push in front in line. Took way too long to order and to get a sandwich. And this wasn’t the only place I saw that didn’t seem to have basic queue etiquette.

For all the work they’ve done on the Duty Free area, they really need to start figuring out how to bring the rest of the terminal – and the products within it – into international standards.

Travelling as a Virgin Velocity Frequent Flyer 

Back in June, United replaced Delta as Virgin’s US partner carrier, and with it came a different set of benefits. Sadly, there’s no lounge available at present in T1 for such travellers anymore – unless you’re flying Business Class, in which case you’ll be able to access one of the partner lounges. There’s no free “Economy Plus” upgrades, like Delta used to do, and as mentioned the Express security queue at the airport is no longer applicable.

If you were connecting in Houston to another flight, you’d have access to the United lounge there, but other than that, the benefits as a Platinum Velocity member were expedited baggage drop (which can save substantial time), and you’re also guaranteed to be in the first boarding group. Just make sure your frequent flyer number is attached to the ticket; you can do this easily through the United app or website.


The boarding area was impressively well organised, as the airline does a great job of making sure people line up and board in the order assigned by their ticket type. With my status, I was able to get “Premier Access” and sit in Boarding Group 1. Which is perfect for anyone who wants to make sure they have their luggage directly above them, and needs that extra minute to get settled.

Once you’ve boarded, you can also check the app to see if your checked luggage has boarded with you – which is a nice relief given all the horror stories of late. I found myself refreshing the app constantly as we approached departure, finally seeing it board the flight not long after I did.

The departure was delayed slightly, with boarding starting 45 minutes late, and us leaving the gate 30 minutes late – which all things considered, wasn’t too bad. We would go on to land in Houston with roughly the same half hour delay.

Seat and Comfort

The weak spot in the United experience is definitely the seats. Leg room (at 31 inches) is pretty tight (you’ll get an extra 3 inches in “Economy Plus”), and the three inch recline is the worst I’ve seen on a flight over the Pacific. Even Jetstar offer five inches of recline on their Hawaiian Dreamliner flights. Apparently you do get one extra inch of recline on the Plus seats – you can see all the stats of the different class seating HERE.

One of the benefits of this was that no one told you to put the seat back in upright position for meals. And the seat isn’t uncomfortable – they do provide their thicker seats here than on some of their other aircraft, with a movable, flappable head rest.

They also provide something of a neck pillow – a step up from the standard – and a standard blanket. A hand sanitizer wipe is provided on entry – seemingly the last remnant of Covid-19 provisions. You’ll also find hand sanitizer throughout the aircraft.

The plane was clean and felt brand new; it no doubt does sit on the newer side of their aircrafts, so that’s not a surprise. The bathrooms were kept clean during the flight too, which is always impressive on a full passenger load.

We had lots of turbulence about a third of the way into the flight that ran for a good deal of time, and saw the plane jumping between elevations. It was regular and strong enough that they were doing cabin checks to make sure everyone was alright.

Between this, the lack of recline, and a kid kicking me in their sleep for much of the flight, I didn’t get an ounce of sleep on this flight. That’s just luck of the draw. But thankfully, there was more than enough entertainment to keep me occupied.

Entertainment – Screen and Wi-Fi

The United in flight entertainment systems has to be one of the best in market.

There’s an absolutely massive amount of movies and TV shows, new and old, to enjoy gate to gate. You can access the catalogue through the TV on the back of every seat, or through the United app on your phone. Being an American airline, you may occasionally still see films that have been edited for content, even on a personal device, though it’s a lot less than it used to be.

The screen was the standard you’ll find on flights these days, in that it had a USB built in for charging, and a headphone jack as well. Ear buds were handed out for free before take off, though for one reason or another the USB wasn’t working in my unit. But I was able to use one of the AC plugs beneath the seat instead.

Beyond the standard inclusions, they had some brilliant additions to help make the flight easier. For starters, when you first turn on the screen, they show you the “plan” for the flight – departure to meal service to lights out to light snack to lights on to meal service to arrival. A nice touch! They also have a “Relax Mode”, which will show you videos meant to calm you while you listened to music. I may not have slept on this flight, but I absolutely relaxed.

There’s also an option to have your screen display “don’t wake me” or “wake me for food” while you sleep – which is excellent in principle, though I didn’t actually see any staff look at the screens before they took orders. Either way, they weren’t waking people for the service in the middle of the flight, which would have been appreciated for any of those able to get sleep.

Another new feature these days, particularly of American airlines, is the ability to enjoy free messaging through services like WhatsApp and iMessage for the entire flight. For some, a dream, for others, a waking nightmare. You can also jump onto wifi for US$4.99 an hour, or US$21.99 for the full flight. We had no internet for a lot of the time over the Pacific – which I’m told is pretty standard – so if you are going to opt in to purchasing wifi, I would only do so for an hour towards the start or end of the travel.

Food and Drink Service

As the “plan” mapped out for us on our screens, there would be three meal services throughout the flight.

A little less than an hour after take off came the first meal service, with two options – pasta with mushrooms, tomato sauce and cheese, or chicken with rice and vegetables. This was served with a salad with French vinaigrette and a Tim Tam, plus bread roll, butter and cutlery from ekopak.com.au. The food was simple but tasty enough, and though the bread and butter came out pretty rock hard, sitting them on the hot dish helps soften it up.

They walked around handing out small water bottles after lights went out, and didn’t mind bringing me an extra wine as I tried to fall asleep. In terms of alcohol, they only serve beer and wine complimentary on their Trans-Pacific flights. They offered Michelob or Stella as the beer, charge for liquor, and I had a very average cab sav.

While I was seated on the centre right, they were sometimes served me on the left which was very confusing. I guess they would just cater to the centre of the aircraft with whichever flight attendants were moving faster. Do they race? These are the sorts of things we’ll never know.

A light snack was served about 5 hours before landing, no doubt delayed by the turbulence – a turkey sandwich with another Tim Tam. Breakfast was served a little over an hour before landing, with a drink service. There was one option for us all who didn’t make a special request – an omelette with chicken sausage, spinach and baked beans. It was surprisingly good, though they didn’t include any salt or pepper in the set, which could have added to it. A blueberry muffin and some fruit accompanied the hot meal.

Arriving & Connecting at IAH – Houston

After a lengthy overnight flight, all you can ask for is for an easy arrival process. We all know LAX can be a nightmare for customs – so how does it compare further inland? Thankfully, things were a lot more relaxed in Houston for our slightly delayed arrival, and it took less than half an hour to get through customs in Terminal E and collect my bags – which all passengers have to do. If you had a connecting flight, you’d then need to re-check the bags.

The airline offered great info on what to do when you landed both over the intercom before we landed, and through the app. If they had a phone number for you that worked on landing, you would also have seen some text messages giving you details on your connecting flight, and even details on how long it would take to walk to the gate of your next flight.

My connecting flight was actually cancelled while I was in the air, so after collecting my bag, I went directly to the Customer Service counter, where the United team were fantastic in not just rescheduling me, but putting me on a flight that took me to my final destination six hours earlier than I was supposed to arrive. So a big shout out to that team for being absolutely wonderful. Truly, a Boxing Day miracle!

If you have lounge access, there are a number of United lounges in IAH. The one in Terminal E has showers, though the one in Terminal C, where my connecting flight departed from, was still very comfortable – and seemed reasonably new – even without the showers. There were lots of food & drink options – including a self service Coke machine with all the different flavours! Elsewhere there were pulled pork tacos, Hakka noodles, soups, salads and more.

For my flight to Detroit, I connected onto a clean and comfortable 737-900W, where they offered over 100 channels of live TV through DirectTV, with a few movie channels and additional on demand options available through the app. Messaging was free for the whole flight, as with the prior flight, and you could get Wifi for the entire flight for $10. Unlike the last flight, however, there was nowhere to charge anything in the standard, fairly uncomfortable (though seemingly new!) economy seats.

Final Verdict

United have improved their service ten fold since the last time I flew them over the Pacific, a decade ago.

Though there’s still work to be done to meet the offering of their competitors – from a lack of inclusive liquor options that will frustrate some seasoned travellers, to the inadequate recline on the chairs. When you’re looking after passengers for 15-18 hours depending on the direction, we expect more than three inches. And, no, having “Economy Plus” as an option doesn’t help as they basically have the same recline… though I’m sure the slight extra leg room is appreciated.

But the food was decent, the staff couldn’t have been friendlier or more helpful. The quality of their in flight entertainment systems, and even the better-than-average in flight pillows, also can’t be forgotten. Nor can the fact that they got me to my ultimate destination quicker than the ticket had intended, had terrific communication through their automated and non-automated systems, and even refunded me some money along the way (when I had to make a change to my schedule ahead of departure).

Honestly, if it wasn’t for the seat recline, and a couple of other very minor grievances, this would probably have been a five star economy experience. But those small changes, all to add in a couple of extra seats or save a few dollars, really does come at the expense of your passengers’ comfort on what is one of the world’s longest flights. A 15+ hour flight without any sleep is never an easy one. Still, I would absolutely fly them on this route again – avoiding the LAX arrival madness is worth the extra few couple of hours alone.


To book your next trip with United, visit their official website. If you’re booking out of Australia, make sure your currency is set to AUD to get the best local rates and pay without those dreaded conversion fees.

The author flew at his own expense. Photos by the author. 

*At 13,834 km (8,596 mi; 7,470 nmi), this route is United Airlines’ longest (just beating out San Fran to Singapore’s 13,593 km (8,446 mi; 7,340 nmi)).

Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.