United Airlines CFO John Rainey made an unforced error when he told Bloomberg News that there was virtually no difference between United Airlines First Class (Global First) and Business Class (BusinessFirst). While true that the differences between first and business are muted compared to the products on some competitors, my recent flight in first class from Frankfurt to San Francisco nicely demonstrated the differences between the two cabins and the potential United is missing in not enhancing and more aggressively marketing first class.
I did not pay for a first class ticket…or even a business class ticket. It was a double upgrade due to a full flight and a welcome treat at the gate. I love sitting upstairs on the 747-400 (business class on United) but there is nothing like sitting in the quiet nose of the aircraft.
When traveling through Frankfurt in first class, United and other Star Alliance partners (except SWISS) do not have access to Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal or First Class Lounges. Instead, USA-bound first class and Star Gold passengers have access to a Lufthansa Senator lounge near the duty free area of the Z-Gates that offers a decent spread of food, Wi-Fi, and showers. Since I live in Frankfurt, I don’t bother visiting anymore – I’d rather spend more time at home and have it timed that I typically leave my house 90 minutes before the flight, travel to the airport via S-Bahn, and arrive about 60 minutes before departure, with just enough time to check-in and proceed through immigration and security before boarding begins.
Boarding looks like a giant mess, but is actually quite orderly. There is always hustle and bustle at the gate of an international flight to the USA with 374 seats and passengers coming into Frankfurt from points all over the world, but mandatory security checks (those obtrusive yet pointless “who packed your bag” series of questions) proceed smoothly and loading is done by zone, with first class, business class, United 1K, and United Platinum passengers invited to board at their leisure.
Upon collecting my new boarding pass, I boarded immediately and found my seat in 4A. The 747-400 first class cabin has 12 seats, with no seat reserved for crew rest (unlike first class on the 777s and 767s). If you are taller than six feet tall, the spacious United “GlobalFirst Suite” (not enclosed) is a tremendous improvement to business class. Not only do you avoid the 2-4-2 downstairs seating in United business class (first class is 1-1 in the nose, then 1-2-1), but you have a wider, longer seat with several storage compartments. Overhead bins are small on the 747 and with no side or underseat storage in business class, it is nice to know your belongings are always close by in first class.
I flew first class a few years ago from Washington to Frankfurt and was quite disappointed by the service. To be honest, I was apprehensive this time as well, but my fears were immediately waylaid. The Chief Purser (UA has a separate economy class purser on its 747s) named Sylvia introduced herself with a big smile on her face, thanked me for flying United by name, provided me a menu, noise-cancelling headphones and amenity kit, and offered me my choice of pre-departure beverage.
She had a twinkle in her eye and cracked jokes about her husband (“Don’t tell my husband I’m here”) and her seniority (“I’ve been doing this longer than you’ve been alive, and then some!”). Throughout the flight she provided tremendous service and it was clear she loved her job.
The amenity kit in first class is signifantly better than in business class.
We taxied out on time and took off heading east before circling around and beginning the 11-hour journey to San Francisco. The Chief Purser typically is not confined to first class and as she went about her duties in business class, another senior SFO-based FA named Anne provided the bulk of the service.
She was a tall, very matter-of-fact woman, but also very friendly with impeccably polished service. Every passengers was addressed by name for the entirety of the flight and she did her homework, offering not just “red” or “white” wine, but actually being able to name the specific wines catered on the flight.
Dinner service began shortly after takeoff. First, a hot towel was presented. The hand towel is of good size and lightly scented.
Next came the first beverage service and warmed mixed nuts. A distinctive of United Global First is that refills of nuts are offered (in a sterling dish with ladle) and I had three helpings. In BusinessFirst, it is rare to be offered refills as ramekins are catered with the nuts already in them.
Following the collection of nut ramekins, tables are set. No trays are used for the first meal service in Global First and Anne and Sylvia each took half the cabin, laying down a white tablecloth, setting down a napkin with silverware, bread dish with choice of bread, butter, and salt & pepper shakers.
Wine was a surprisingly good Australian Shiraz and Anne served it in the proper way, first allowing me to inspect the label, then pouring me a small amount to sample before filling my glass.
The tuplip lives on in Global First, with wine glasses and tumblers held over from pre-merger United.
A hot appetizer was delivered via cart, today a warmed lamb skewer that was succulent and perhaps the best part of the meal. A refill on bread was also offered. Each course of the meal service in Global First is served by cart and business class does not receive a hot appetizer, instead typically a jumbo prawn, melon and prosciutto, or salmon.
Another distinguishing feature of the first class meal service is soup, which is hard to mess up even at 35,000 feet. The soup today was sweet potato and ginger and was very tasty. A pepper garnish was offered.
Following soup is the salad course, a slightly larger salad than business class but otherwise identical. Salad dressing is ladled out from the cart and ground pepper is again offered.
Keep in mind all of this is taking place at a leisurely pace. What I find annoying about business class on many flights is how long it takes the FAs to get going after takeoff – sometimes it is one hour before nuts are served. While the first class service was not any faster from start to finish (it was actually perfectly timed for the way I eat), it began sooner after takeoff. A dine-on-demand option is also available if you do not wish to eat right away.
The main course was served – I chose salmon, which did not appear with the shrimp described in the menu, but was nicely flavored as was the couscous.
A cheese course follows, again served on a cart with flags identifying the cheese type.
Last but not least, an ice cream sundae. I noticed most passed on the sundae, but I took one for the team – not at all healthy, but certainly tasty.
The cabin was darkened after lunch and water bottles distributed. Sylvia stopped by each seat to make sure we were comfortable.
I reclined back and watched the new(ish) Jonny Depp movie Transcendence. I like sci-fi and thought it was a good movie. United has an AVOD system on its 747-400 with about 70 movies, 100 television shows, games, audio books, and a limited musical selection on looping tracts. Throughout the movie, Anne checked in every five minutes to ensure my water glass was full.
100% of United’s 747-400 fleet is equipped with wi-fi internet, which runs a flat $16.99 on international flights. I have been fortunate that internet has worked fairly well for me (I go out of my way to choose the 747 because of this, connecting immediately at 10,000 feet) and the internet worked just fine until the very end of the flight, when it did stop working and I was surprised to see a refund of the $16.99 in my inbox just hours after landing though I never reported the problem. I did find the catchpa a bit…random:
I had intended to work for most of the flight, but when you are in a plush, comfortable, seat, reclined, and watching a movie, you tend to get sleepy and soon I was fast asleep.
United offers a turndown service in first class, in which a mattress pad is added to the seat and the bed is arranged with two pillows and a down blanket for sleeping. Sylvia offered this to me after lunch, but I turned it down not intending to sleep. I ended up sleeping in the partially inclined position, but I still slept for nearly seven hours.
By the time I woke up, we were 35 minutes from landing in SFO.
And here is what impressed me most about the flight – not 15 seconds after waking up, Anne walked by and cheerfully said, “Mr. Klint, How about a snack before landing?”
The snack service is served 90 minutes before takeoff and the last half hour is usually clean-up time – at least certainly in business class. If you sleep too long, too bad for you. But within seconds Anne brought over a tray featuring the afternoon snack and offered me a fresh beverage.
The chicken wrap was not great, but was acceptable judging by the fact that I quickly downed it along with the bowl of fruit. I should not have been hungry after the huge meal I had finished earlier in the flight, but the food hit the spot.
Sylvia was back once more as we neared San Francisco, personally thanking each customer, sharing a few more laughs, and wishing us a good evening. We landed 30 minutes ahead of schedule in SFO.
This was a great flight – no question about it. Service was personal, warm, friendly, and professional, the seat was extremely comfortable and spacious, IFE more than sufficient, internet functional for most of the flight, and a very satisfying main meal served.
Of course the op-up already made my day, but this flight really exceeded my expectations and belies CFO Rainey’s odd contention that there is no difference between first class and business class. The question of whether people are willing to pay for it is another matter (after all, I was bumped up from upgraded business), but first class does offer many additional benefits.
I’ve flown around the world on the some of the finest airlines in first class and this flight will go down as one of the best flights of my life, and to foreshadow a future report – the service was far better than what I experienced on Singapore Airlines.