Transpacific business class on United Airlines is a curious service with the crowded cabins being a step down from the carrier’s own domestic service.
United Airlines surprised me by bouncing me onto a Qantas flight on my previous attempt to fly business class with them across the Pacific however on the return flight on UA863 between San Francisco and Sydney there were no such surprises.
On boarding the 777 the difference between the airline’s domestic business class and its trans Pacific routes is immediately apparent in the crowded eight abreast cabin which compares poorly to the four abreast on United’s domestic 757 services and is a world away from the six abreast on the Qantas A380 services.
It is however a lot better than the ten abreast at the back of the plane in economy and while the seats are cramped they are lie flat with all the standard fittings expected in a business class seat.
Once settled in the seat and underway the cabin crew are spectacularly friendly and helpful despite being overworked in the crowded cabin. The gin and tonics are particularly strong and its worthwhile being cautious of having too many of them.
Aside from lethally strong drinks, the business class food on the flight is good with a decently cooked steak as part of a four course meal including an appetizer, cheese plate and ice cream sundae. For an inflight meal, the mashed potato and baby carrots were surprisingly good.
For the regulars on the flight the most important part of the trip is their ice cream sundaes. Apparently these mean a lot to United’s loyal customers and are a nice touch with the flight attendants clearly enjoying the ceremony. If you’re nice to the cabin crew, you can expect extra nuts.
After the meals, one of the downsides of United’s crowded business class becomes apparent — the lack of restrooms which results in lines just as long as those in economy on other airlines.
Once you do make it into the toilets, the United Airlines’ amenity bag has a good range of accessories to make the flight more comfortable including travel socks, earplugs and skin moisturizer. It’s probably good United don’t offer a set of business class pyjamas like Qantas as nobody would ever get into the restrooms.
Despite being cramped the lie flat beds are fine for a sleep during the 17 hour flight. During the period the lights are dimmed, the cabin crew do tend to vanish so staying hydrated involves making a trip to the galley where along with drinks a parked serving trolley offers self service fruit and snacks.
A few hours out of an on time arrival in Sydney sees standard American breakfasts being offered. These aren’t bad but aren’t good for anyone’s diet and no-one will be accusing the United States of producing the world’s best croissants any time soon.
Overall, United’s transpacific business class service is a curious beast. While the crew are friendly and the food adequate, it’s clear the product lags behind its own domestic service and other airline’s international offerings.
United’s lagging behind the competition is shown in their ticket prices with their business class fare from Sydney to New York being a third of Virgin’s and half of Qantas on the same routing. The market is voting with its wallet despite United having a monopoly on the Australia to San Francisco routes.
For those paying for fares out of their own pockets, it may well be worth considering other airline’s premium economy offerings although for connecting flights to other parts of North America, United offers more options than competing carriers.
Should you be one of the few where your employer still pays for long haul business class fares, then United is probably the least comfortable option although your office financial controller will be happier with the prices.
Paul flew United Business Class between Sydney and New York courtesy of Blackberry