Although I have traveled all over the world in international first class, I had never tried out United’s first class longhaul product…until last week. UA’s international first class service is often criticized, especially when compared to its competitors, but I was not convinced. On the contrary, my hopes were high for a great flight. Sadly, my expectations were misplaced. While the seat and food were great, the service was so unprofessional that I was unable to walk away from the flight with a good impression.
Thanks to a freak afternoon storm at Dulles, boarding for the flight was delayed by 45 minutes. No problem–I just relaxed in the lounge. When it came time to board the 767-300 to Frankfurt, I made my way down to the jetway and boarded the aircraft where I found three male flight attendants engaged in a conversation. One mustered a nod, glanced at my boarding pass, and pointed toward the galley. Since UA’s first class cabins on international flights are often comprised of non-revs, maybe he thought I was just an employee.
I settled into my suite, 1K, manufactured by BE Aerospace and extremely comfortable. In addition to being well-padded, it contained three compartments with ample room for storage. Unlike the seats in business class, which offer very little in the area of storage, I had more than enough storage space all around me for my second carry-on bag, wallet, phone, book, and laptop.
A few minutes later a flight attendant came by and handed me a menu (an amenity kit was already sitting on the ledge to my right) and offered me a choice of beverage ("Do you want anything to drink?"). I ordered sparkling water but was brought back a (plastic) glass of sparkling wine. Moments later the purser strolled up and simply said, "Have you had a chance to look at the menu yet?" Keep in mind, we were still in the midst of boarding and I was just handed the menu a couple minutes ago.
I asked him to give me a moment and he said "no problem" and walked away. A note on his appearance: his uniform was wrinkled and the top button of his shirt was open with his tie loosened. But the lack of professionalism did not only manifest itself in his unkempt appearance. He strolled back a few minutes later, again wanting to know if I was ready to order dinner. Even if I gave him the benefit of the doubt, an assumption that he rushed through meal orders because he knew the flight was only 8 hours and most would want to sleep as soon as possible after takeoff, that did not excuse the fact that he failed to welcome each passenger aboard or even introduce himself. And lest you think I am ragging on American work ethic, the purser was German.
By now we were about an hour past scheduled departure time and I asked the purser what time we were due into Frankfurt. He fumbled around his pockets for the flight info sheet and eventually fished it out of his back pocket before promptly dropping it, picking it up, dropping it again, then commenting, "Shows how prepared I am for this flight." Indeed.
Flight time was a short 7 hours, 22 minutes so I was hoping we would take off soon and I wouldn’t be into work too late the following morning. But that little storm at Dulles had moved up north–right in middle of our planned flight path. For some reason, the captain did not announce why we were just sitting at the gate–finally a FA had to go up, retrieve the information, then report it over the PA system.
We ended up sitting on the tarmac for two hours. During that time, I could not even watch a movie because the APU kept shutting off, causing the IFE system to restart. Good thing I had a book with me. During the first 1.5 hours of the delay, the three FAs who were standing around the door when I entered the plane resumed their conversation, paying no attention to the passengers in first class. Meanwhile, business class was served warm nuts and offered a beverage.
Finally one of the FAs realized that it might be a good idea to check on his passengers and came around the cabin with ramekins of nuts and took beverage orders (once again, not "may I offer you a drink?" but "want anything to drink?"). I wanted to test him and see if he knew what wine was onboard, so I asked what kind of red wine he had. Surprisingly, he knew that there were two varieties loaded and what kind they were. Impressive. I chose the 2007 Bordeaux and it was actually very good–the FA promptly refilled my glass before I even downed half a glass.
Our takeoff slot opened up and we were finally on our way–not a moment too soon. Upon reaching 10K feet, the purser went to work assisting in business and economy class (as he should have) and the FA who had delivered my wine took care of the five passengers in the first class cabin. Although he was not as polished as many of UA’s FAs (no addressing passengers by name and he still annoyingly said things like "you’re welcome" and "do you want…") he was attentive during the meal service.
I have been so negative thus far, but now let me say a few good things about UA’s first class product. I could not have been more comfortable during the ground delay–the seat is plush and comfortable no matter what position you are in. The large bi-fold tray table made eating quite easy in an upright or semi-reclined position.
Dinner was tremendous. I am not a huge seafood fan, but the shrimp appetizer was wonderful. The jumbo shrimp were flavorful and the cocktail sauce was a nice accompaniment. Next came soup, a bowl of cream mushroom soup that was piping hot and garnished with fresh-cracked pepper.
A generous helping of green salad followed, served with a choice of Caesar or sesame vinaigrette dressing and large croutons. I chose mahi-mahi for the main course and although it looked a bit dry, it was delicious, as was the the potato accompaniment and vegetables.
For years UA has served ice cream sundaes as dessert in international first class and that is just the way I like it: simple and delicious. I turned down the fruit and cheese plate and readied myself for bed. There was still time for nearly six hours of sleep before breakfast.
I slept soundly and awoke over France, about 50 minutes prior to landing. The same FA soon noticed that I was awake and offered me breakfast–a herb omelet with potatoes, sausage, and spinach, served with fresh fruit and a croissant. A typical UA breakfast, but a good one. The salsa on top of the eggs seemed to make all the difference. I will nitpick that the butter was not served in a small dish and jam was not served in a bottle. My tray was collected and it was off to lavatory to freshen up before landing–I would need to head straight into the office.
We landed about two hours behind schedule and taxied for quite a while before stopping at a remote stand. Two busses rolled up and stairs were rolled up to the aircraft. No word of thanks or even a goodbye from the FAs, but by this time my mind was focused on a meeting I had coming up in the next hour.
United’s international first class product offers a refreshingly good choice of food and a great seat for sitting or sleeping, but the service aspect was extremely disheartening. While service in the air was good, the lackadaisical attitude of the purser and general lack of finesse displayed by any of the FAs is cause for concern. It costs nothing to be friendly and act with a little decorum and it is high time United took steps to insure that its best and brightest work in international first class.
While I cannot in good conscience recommend United First over carriers like Swiss or Lufthansa, make no mistake: I was well-fed and got a very good night’s rest. I think that is all most business travelers who pay the full fares really care about, so maybe my complaints are misplaced. But I don’t think so…
My favorite slogan bears repeating: it is the little things that make a difference.