United Airlines first class aboard a Boeing 737 MAX 9 cabin.

Status-free agent takes United 737 MAX first class for a spin

Cartoon of passengers, flight attendant and pilots onboard an aircraftA short trip to San Francisco for work required some travel. Several airlines ply the route between my home base of Seattle and the city by the bay. As longtime readers here at RGN know, I typically gravitate towards Alaska or Delta. But as a status-free agent, price is my new guide. And United led by an arm and a leg.

My plans for the rest of the trip hadn’t fully solidified yet, so I purchased a refundable main cabin one-way fare for $149. United’s no change fee policy is a godsend, and by the end of the week I had already saved $25 by rebooking via the app. Once plans settled, I knocked off another $20 by switching to a non-refundable fare.

The day of the flight I checked in via the app without issue. As I always do, I scanned the seat map to see if I could snag an empty middle row (there was one), then the stand-by list to see if said empty seat would just end up filled anyways (definitely going to be a full flight). Oh well.

I also noticed that our plane had changed from a Boeing 737 MAX 8 to the larger MAX 9. That left the first class cabin with several open seats, and the airline was aggressively peddling upgrades for only $120. I thought on it for a few hours before biting the bullet and taking the offer.

Several hours later, I was glad I did. I was already running behind after a transit delay. Typically TSA Pre saves the day, but not this time. For whatever reason, today was an absolute disaster, with security lines snaking out onto the curb. I hadn’t even completed half the queue as the United app informed me that boarding had begun. Having been in line for 25 minutes by that point, it wasn’t looking good. Then, across the way, a previously closed checkpoint opened up. I bailed for the premium line, along with what felt like half the airport, and made it through in under ten minutes.

I boarded the plane just in time, only to be met with the news that we were taking on a thirty minute delay, with air traffic control backups going into San Francisco. I’m still not sure I would’ve made it, but it would’ve been nice to know as I could’ve slowed up my run just a bit.

In any case, my first impressions were positive. The five row, 2-2 first class cabin is bathed in the carrier’s signature hues of blue. Each recliner seat has 38” of pitch and 20.5” of width, pretty standard for a US domestic first product.A man's knees are seen a fair distance from the recliner seat in front of him.

The seat padding itself was clean, but both of the in-seat storage spaces were gritty and grimy. One is under the armrest, probably big enough to fit a laptop.

Dirty storage space on the aircraftThe other is a smaller affair big enough to hold a personal device or water bottle.

Dirty seat parts on the United Boeing 737 MAX 9

A power supply unit, with international standard and USB-C plugs stood at the ready. Both worked. But I wish it also featured USB-A, as it was the charger I had easily accessible.A close up of the power ports supply.

I was glad to see the jet had seatback IFE installed, as not every MAX 9 does. As I’ve said elsewhere, United’s in-house IFE work really shines. Well organized, well stocked, inclusive and just plain smart.

The United Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 embedded IFE screen, with a GUI that asks: What are your ambitions with this flight?

It can be controlled both by touch and a tethered remote that tucks into the side of the seat. And it has Bluetooth connectivity that actually worked, which made using my headphones all the easier.

A remote to control various aspects of the IFE on United.

The only downside became apparent not long after our very quiet takeoff. Turns out when the seat is reclined, the position of the screen drops significantly. On a full recline, it becomes level with your chest and doesn’t pivot enough for a particularly comfortable viewing angle. Annoying, but not a deal breaker.

The screen doesn't provide enough tilt for the author's liking.

Besides the seatback, United also offers stream-to-device options via WiFi. You can also purchase connectivity for the duration of the flight for $10 or 1000 MileagePlus miles. Messaging is free, and worked for me without issue.

A screenshot of the wifi tiers and stated capabilities on United Airlines

Cabin service began not long after departure, a real Jekyll and Hyde affair. One crew member was smiley, pleasant and helpful. The other was dour, unpleasant and actively unhelpful. It wasn’t the best experience, but so it goes sometimes.

Unlike its competitors on the route, United does not offer a meal service on this flight. The beverages were nice though, with a whiskey and Coke to close out the week. A well-stocked snack basket made the rounds a few times, providing more than enough to sustain me through to an evening dinner plan.

A mango snack on board.We landed a bit behind schedule to a sunny San Francisco.

A few unpolished edges aside, United domestic first was a pleasant experience at a steal of a deal.

Looking out the United Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 9 over a city by the bay view.

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All images credited to the author, Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren