Note as of January 2014: This review was originally written before the full integration of products after the United/Continental merger. This service is now known as “United GlobalFirst”, which, as of this time, is served out of the pre-merger United SFO, LA, Chicago and Washington hubs. The hard service (seats, entertainment, etc.) has not changed since that time, but the menu an on-board service has been updated (slightly for the better, IMO).
Unlike some of my comprehensive reviews of Business and First Class airline travel, this one will be relatively quick. Quite frankly, there isn’t too much to write home about, anyway.
For this installment, I take a look at United’s latest international first class product, marketed as the United First Class Suites. It’s important to point out that this is the international first class services from the pre-merger United Airlines – this is NOT a review of (pre-United merger) Continental Airlines’s BusinessFirst service (you can read my review of the upgraded Continental BusinessFirst seat here, if you’d like. It should be noted that the new United Airlines will maintain a mix of two-cabin and three-cabin services, including the seats that I review today, as well as the new-ish Continental BusinessFirst product and the fairly-new United International Business product.
This review happens to be my first experience in United First Class on an international route. Despite that fact that I live a few miles from the “new” United’s hub at Newark, I actually have limited experience flying United over the years. This is, in fact, only my third premium class trip on United and, to date, I have to say that I’m not overly impressed.
My route on this trip was from Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport (PVG) to Los Angeles International (LAX). The PVG-LAX route was flown on a Boeing 777-200, configured in three classes. The first class cabin seats a total of 8 people in a two-row, 1-2-1 configuration. The adjacent business class configuration on this flight seats 40 people in a bizarre 2-4-2 forward facing/read-racing configuration – pretty much guaranteeing annoying bathroom break disturbances for every single business class passenger throughout the flight.
The single star in this service is, without a doubt, the First Class Suite. It is a very large, comfortable seat that provides ample room for storage, making for a comfortable flight, whether sleeping, eating of lounging.
No, it’s not the most luxurious looking suite on the market today, but it is comfortable. Each seat is slightly angled, which helps a bit with privacy issues if you’re sitting in the middle aisle – as you can see, there are no dividers between the seat next to you. One small annoyance is the addition of a shoulder seat belt (in addition to a lap belt) in this configuration. The shoulder belt can be uncomfortable, to say the least.
In this suite, stowage is no challenge, as there are a number of different compartments to place all of your goodies, including a huge bin located on the aisle side of the seat:
The console next to the seat provides seat controls, headphone jacks, USB charger connects, a power port and a remote control:
Legroom is quite large, even for all 6 foot 4 inches of me, although the television is relatively small compared to some of the other comparable first class products on the market (Emirates, Singapore, TAM, etc.):
My 11.5 hour flight to LAX departed at 8:25pm, so I certainly did get a chance to catch some sleep and have to say that I’ve slept as good as I ever had on a long-haul flight. It is certainly a comfortable space.
Unfortunately, however, the service was less than first-class. I found the food to be mediocre, at best, the selection to be limited and the preparation to be less-than-spectacular. Don’t get me wrong, the quality of food beats anything in Economy any day, but for a $12,000 ticket, I typically expect more. The service include:
…a sloppily presented tomato soup:
An overcooked steak:
A miniature appetizer:
A poorly-presented and tasteless pasta:
Again – I’m not expecting Michelin three star-quality food, but, at a minimum, you would think that United’s First Class service would match Continental’s BusinessFirst Serve, which is a pure business-class product. Excellent First Class seat aside, it does not. In fact, I find that Continental’s transcontinental domestic first class service often provides better meals.
Flight crew service on the trip was friendly and just attentive enough. I didn’t see them much at all after dinner, but they were there in an instant when I needed something.
Upon arrival at LAX, I was greeted with further disappointment: While United does maintain a very comfortable dedicated First Class Lounge, there are no showers in any United Club facilities. Thankfully, however, the First Class Lounge offered a variety of food, beverages and super-friendly staff.
The Quick Conclusion
All in all, the flight was comfortable and it got me across the Pacific without much incident. But the large seat aside, I find it difficult to pay the premium for United’s First Class versus, say, Continental’s BusinessFirst service. I have subsequently encountered several times where seats on the direct PVG-EWR Continental route had no BusinessFirst availability and, instead of choosing United First Class, chose to add another few hours to my trip by flying Emirates back home via Dubai.