Flight Review: United Airlines’ Transpacific Service – Melbourne to San Francisco (UA61)

A couple of months back, I climbed to 42,000 feet across the Pacific Ocean on board United Airlines‘ Boeing 777-300 service from Melbourne to San Francisco (Flight UA61). It had been about a year since I last few across the Pacific with United (then from Sydney to Houston on the Dreamliner), so how did this experience compare? Read on to find out.

Departing from Melbourne International Airport

Skybus remains the best way to get to Melbourne International Airport, if you don’t have someone to drop you off or people to share a ride with. The cost for Taxis and Ubers between the CBD and the airport are high.

A lot of updates have happened in recent years in Melbourne’s terminals, however. As a whole, the airport is looking great, and the United Airlines check-in area was easy to navigate. Having Premier Access thanks to Virgin Australia Velocity Gold status may avoid some lines at bag check in, but there weren’t long queues for anyone on the day I flew out, in spite of two UA flights leaving in short succession. The airline will give you one extra checked bag with your Premier Access, so make sure to keep that in mind if you have the same status as me!

I booked this flight on points through Virgin Australia (as they are no longer flying over the Pacific themselves, sadly!), and was connecting through to another United flight at SFO, that was booked with cash. Since they were separate bookings, my baggage wouldn’t go all the way through to my final destination unless the bookings were combined.

I wasn’t able to do this over the phone or online, instead I was told to take care of this at the airport. However, because the VA booking had “MR” ahead of my name, but the UA one didn’t, the system wouldn’t permit it. A strange issue I’ve never come across before. Thankfully, after some back and forth between UA and VA, they seemed to figure it out. Though my bag didn’t make the final destination (more on that later), I at least didn’t have to re-check in at SFO (which gave me plenty of time to go to In-N-Out Burger). Priorities!

After checking in, there were no lines going through security – a quick scan of my passport and then I was on my way to the x-rays. However, the machine I went through was rejecting 50% of the bags that were going through it, and even without a queue it somehow took half an hour.

Lounge Access and Boarding

While United guests with Velocity Gold or Platinum status are told they have access to the Singapore Airlines Lounge, sadly this wasn’t actually open for the flight; it’s only open for select hours for Singapore’s own flights. So while this may have lined up for UA’s LAX service, those on UA61 to SFO are currently out of luck. A little frustrating, given Virgin promote this on their website – they really need to figure out this lounge access situation better for Pacific flyers. Or better yet – start to return to the route themselves!

After finding a bite to eat, a couple of gifts for people and wandering around the airport it was time to board. While I didn’t end up with lounge access, I did enjoy Group 1 boarding with Premier Access, which allowed me to board early, and get comfortable before everyone else boarded.

The On-Board Experience

Airline: United Airlines
Flight Route:
Melbourne to San Francisco (MEL – SFO, UA61)
Flight Time:
14 1/2 hours (13 hours 36 minutes in air)
Aircraft Type: Boeing 777-300
Seat Number: 39D (aisle, middle section of 3-4-3 layout).
On Time? Delayed departure 20 Minutes; Arrived 10 Minutes Early

I arrived at my seat – my usual chose of an aisle in the middle section (here’s why I choose this seat). Gone are the days of an amenities bag for economy flyers, but thankfully they still provide a blanket and a pillow at every seat. The pillows are better than the average selection – they have a tear in the middle so you can put them around your neck. Free earbuds were also handed out before takeoff.

We had a 20 minute delay due to an issue with a first aid kit (that was a new one!), but were still scheduled to arrive at the gate in San Francisco five minutes ahead of schedule. In the end, we landed about 10 minutes ahead of schedule. They were very good with announcements to keep us posted on all this, and during the delays encouraged parents to use it as an opportunity to take their kids to the bathroom, while the cabin staff distributed alternative sized life vests.

The seats on the 777-300s are relatively new, but the recline is terrible. There’s just almost none of it, and my seat kept being pushed back up to its upright position thanks to someone’s long legs behind me. It ensured I got almost no sleep on the flight. The plane was great in its comfort mode, however – there was warm blue lighting while we tried to sleep, and encouragement (though no requisite) to close your blinds (which is a pet peeve of mine on long flights – people who keep it open and let that early sun in! Please don’t do this.).

In Flight Entertainment and Wi-Fi

While we waited to take off, the screens on the back of the seats were already working, so I was able to dig into the massive amount of TV and movies on offer. They were organised neatly, either by genre or alphabetically. There were also games and an impressive selection of concerts and live events on offer. Great to see the airline expanding the sort of content they’re putting on flights.

There was in-seat power through the USB on the screen, as well as an AC below to be shared with the seat next to you, which thankfully was empty for my flight. You can also watch content on your phone through United Private screening, and access the in flight wi-fi. There’s free messaging through iMessage, WhatsApp and messages by Google for the entire flight, for all passengers, and an hour of free wi-fi for T-Mobile (USA) customers.

This complimentary hour is a feature all year, though T-Mobile customers can also access 4 x full flight sessions per calendar year. Luckily, I’m one such customer, and if there was ever a flight to use that access, it was a 14 hour flight across the pacific. So, I had internet for the whole flight, and it almost always worked. Slow at times, sure, but the most consistent I’ve ever experienced it over the Pacific.

Food and Drink Service

Beer and wine is included, as are non-alcoholic beverages, while spirits are $10 USD. They did a drink service shortly after take off, and that was after they served some pretzels.

The first meal service was about an hour into the flight. After the specialty pre-order meals were distributed, there were two options, chicken or pasta, served with Tim Tam, basic salad with balsamic and olive oil and a roll with butter. The pasta was bow tie pasta with a red sauce. Salt and pepper and the usual disposable cutlery was served with it. A decent enough meal, but a pretty small portion – I was still hungry after it.

A little over six hours into the flight, they did a second service, with drinks and a small small chicken salad sandwich with a Tim Tam. The sandwich was tiny and 90% bread – definitely the worst of the three “meals” – but kept me going. Breakfast started a little less than 90 minutes before landing. One option was handed out – a herbed Omelette with spinach, sausage and beans – with fruit and an apple cinnamon muffin. This was the best meal of the three, and the most filling thanks to the muffin. But ultimately I found myself hungry the whole flight. Must remember to bring snacks on next time!

The San Francisco Airport Stop-Over

We ended up getting to the gate about 10 minutes ahead of schedule, which was great. It took about an hour to get through customs and collect my baggage. As I was connecting to another flight, and already had the bag tags (thanks to the incredible staff in Melbourne), I promptly dropped my bag off at the transfer desk. Then I had enough time to leave the terminal and get myself an In-N-Out burger. I’ve written more about how you can do this too, HERE.

Look out for the Wag Brigade while you’re at the airport – something I think every airport should have! Cute animals will always make you feel better, no?

United also do a great job of communicating the details of your connection – text messages on arrival tell you how long it will take to walk from one flight to the next. It was bit of a walk to terminal 3 and the F gates, but I was prepared.

While I didn’t get lounge access in Melbourne, in SFO I was able to access the United flight after I went through security (which was pretty painless!).

The lounge was a squeeze – and busy. Meatballs, soup, nachos and a coke machine amongst the self service highlights. It was tight at the gates too. Normally I ask why people crowd around before their zone is called but there’s literally nowhere else to stand.

There’s tonnes of great food options in the terminal if you don’t have lounge access or time to go to In-N-Out – with plenty of local delights on offer.

The Connecting Flight

I went onto Chicago O’Hare from SFO on a 777-200. They have the same 3-4-3 layout as the newer plane on the earlier route, though it’s an older plane with smaller luggage compartments. They always seem to be struggling to close them! The seats feel relatively fresh by comparison, at least in economy. Sitting back in 33D, there was only AC power and no USB. The light and call attendant buttons were in the arm rest, and the seat back can hold your phone or iPad. Grateful this wasn’t the plane I was on over the Pacific, to be honest.

I would have one final connection in Chicago to get to Toronto, Canada, where I would easily make my connection, with time in the lounge to spare. But sadly by bag didn’t make the connection, and it didn’t arrive in Toronto. It would land pretty banged up the next day, with United organising a delivery direct to my accommodation. It was a bit of a pain to have to take care of it at the airport on arrival, but ultimately straight forward and thankfully my bag arrived when they said it would. The staff were incredibly helpful and empathetic of the situation. Though it does seem to be happening more and more lately, and I know it’s not just me who says this.

Final Verdict

This was one of those flights where a few things went wrong – e.g. lost baggage and some confusion on the tickets at the airport – but I was impressed by the United service from start to finish. The staff were fantastic. The communication excellent – from the announcements in flight to the messages we received on our phones. The in-flight entertainment was one of the best in market, and every flight I took arrived on time or early.

I remain frustrated by the lack of recline on their chairs – the Trans-Pacific flight is just too long to not be able to get comfortable, and it makes such a difference for me. I really struggled to get any sleep. The small food portions were also frustrating as it was just never quite enough to curb my hunger. Though it all tasted pretty good (except that sandwich! Let’s get some more filling in there please!).

All this said, in spite of the issues, it was overall a positive experience. I was grateful for the excellent, friendly service. But there’s plenty of room for improvement.



To book your next flight with United, head to united.com. Photos by Larry Heath, who flew at his own expense. 

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.