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.
Good! I’m glad you had a great experience! It makes me happy when experiences turn out better than expected and it sounds like you had a great crew. They really can make or break a flight.
Thanks for the report!
Serving that chicken burrito thing in First is a disgrace.
UA product if carried on with a smile and class can compete with the rest of premium offerings out there
Great review. While I can see Rainey’s point, this is a great example of how wrong he is. As always, the little things that comprise good service makes all the difference.
I presume you upgrade cleared into biz beforehand? Well done for the double upgrade!
Even business class on most Asian, European and Middle Eastern airlines looks way better than United First. I have to give kudos to Delta for not offering first class. If you cannot deliver, do not offer. US airlines cannot compete in that segment. United should be ashamed to call that first class.
I’ve never seen any drastic difference in soft product between first and businessfirst (on 2 class config aircraft). I often find in fact that the 3 cabin united planes with businessfirst and global first have an inferior service to what is found on the continental planes (2 class config) regardless of where you are sitting up front. Could be just my preference, but I would always take 2 class config aircraft as opposed to the 3 on united.
Hey, was that the garlic bread? I thought UA killed that off to save five cents per meal. 🙂
Thanks for the report. I am on that flight in November in Global First too.
similar experience as Matthew EZE-EWR last fall.
I’ve flown UA in C class quite a bit this year and have had pleasantly surprising service and meals on every flight. On my last flight at the beginning of the month MUC-IAD the food and service were so good and beyond expectations that I actually sincerely felt that I would choose United over foreign carriers for international premium cabin travel.
Not sure what is going on over there but after being a Jeff Smisek hater, I have to say that he’s earned some credibility with me and I hope United continues to make strides in being more customer centric. The decision to expand meal service in domestic F is a clear sign of this IMO.
I have to say I’m impressed.
I’m sure there’s room for improvement, but if marketed well and catered well, there’s no reason United can’t make this successful!
People like Rain[e]y-day need to leave the company.
With UA there definitely is a difference between F and C given how cramped the C cabins are on 3-class ex-UA aircraft! Not only is there more space and comfort in F, there’s a higher ratio of staffing and that can make even more difference to the perception of a quality offering and a rushed one. (And on most foreign airlines, business can appear better given more FAs providing the service, often in a less cramped C/J cabin. That UA execs don’t get this speaks to their unfamiliarity for their competitors products, and complacency to rely on corporate accounts to fill their inferior business cabins.
I just flew on October 19 from Munich to Chicago on GlobalFirst, and I did think that it had a great many benefits over BusinessFirst, at least on THIS particular flight and seating configuration. When BusinessFirst is the only class available on an international flight (which is the case both directions when flying between Newark and Tel Aviv), I tend to like how the seats are configured, with more space and generally better options. But on these 3-cabin flights, BusinessFirst is significantly less desirable, simply due to the configuration of the seats and the fact that there is significantly less space.
The main thing for me in GlobalFirst in 3-cabin vs. BusinessFirst in 2-cabin is just that there’s a better atmosphere of friendliness and a real desire to serve, and there’s no one sitting beside of you to block you from bathroom visits when you are in a Window seat. This is pretty important if you actually prefer Window seats. There are other benefits of course — the food is slightly better with a few more options, the blankets are mini-down comforters, just just fuzzy plush, and the cabin service is prolific due to the fact that there’s only a few there to share the available staff in the cabin, etc. But I don’t think it’s worth the big price difference between BusinessFirst in a 2-cabin plane and GlobalFirst in a 3-cabin, which can literally be well over 10 grand.
I was personally annoyed on the flight because the kosher meal was somehow dropped by the system again. This happens surprisingly often to me on United flights — I order kosher well in advance, call several times before the trips, verify 24 hours ahead, and then somehow it gets dropped and I am no longer on the list. When this happens on a 2-cabin BusinessFirst seating, the FAs are usually able to find me a kosher meal to make up for it because the cabin is big enough with enough seats to have had a kosher meal extra from a no-show. The downside of this happening on GlobalFirst is that there was no such option. That left me feeling pretty upset. I have to admit though, they did all they could to try to provide it at this point, it was just impossible. Even the catering manager from the airport came in to talk to me before take-off and offered his sincerest apologies, promising to investigate the on-going nature of the problem and insist on a correction. That has NEVER happened in BusinessFirst.
American/us carriers are pitiful compared to real business or first class services. The illusions of insincere proclamations, not classy us swill, poor quality, hyped marketing, puffery, and propaganda floods the U.S. market of swill. An ice cream sundae…sound like 3rd grade social hour. Fly an international carrier for true real authentic quality, not poorly presented food, mediocre hard product, and settling.
Sara, I have flown the finest Middle Eastern, European, and Asian carriers in first class and I still maintain this was one of the finest flights I have ever had. The food and alcohol certainly do not compare, but the service did on this flight.
Thank you for the review. We will be taking this very flight on our way back to SFO after a month’s safari in Botswana and Namibia and we will be very tired. It’s reassuring to know the flight will be as restful, pleasant and easy as possible. I appreciate your time and effort to share your experience. Thanks again for a great review!
My husband and I have been flying back and forth to Frankfurt from LA and San Fran for the past 38 years, since our marriage. In the first 22 years or so, we always had our children with us and most of the time we flew First Class. When our kids were in college we switched to business class and it generally was great.. We have flown all different airline companies from Lufthansa, United, American, Delta, Air France to Paris, with a connection to Frankfurt and British Airways to London, with a connection to Frankfurt.
Unequivocally, we found hands down, that all European Airlines excelled in both First and Business class compared to American Airline companies. We just recently flew United, First Class from San Franciso to Frankfurt and we were looking forward to experiencing the so called newer “Polaris” service. However, we were left disappointed and found the service average. In fact we both agreed that we experienced far better Business Class service on the upper deck of a 747 than First Class. We are not difficult to please but we do have certain expectations since we have so many different airline experiences to compare to… Attentive service, with a refill of the warm nuts, should be a given not a perk of First Class. We remember the days there were fresh flowers on the center cabinet in First Class, the tossing of the salad at your seat, the carving of meat or the personal serving of the main course at your seat. We were quite shocked that cream for our coffee was served in small plastic, throw away creamers.. We aren’t snobs but completely expected a more outstanding, unique experience.. We both believe that attentive service and good food is a minimum one should expect in First class…
But there are a multitude of ways to make the service outstanding.. Therefore, given the choice we will book furture flights on European airlines, as they seem to try a little harder to leave their passengers with an over the top experience… United needs to try harder!! It’s a big world out there and there is a lot of competition and travelers chat with others, as to their experiences.. We know United is capable but please get some input to rachit up the service! We will say, the mechanics of the flight were perfect with a great landing..kudos to the pilots! We are due to return on United First Class from Frankfurt to San Francisco in a few weeks and are hoping for a better experience.. As a designer, I wish United would interview me, as to how to improve their service.. I have some innovative suggestions.