Everyone remembers their first time. Their first time getting upgraded on an international flight, that is. For some people, it’s a splurge with miles. For others, it’s the result of hard-won top-tier airline status. Or a cash upgrade offer at check-in that is too good to be true. But no matter how it happens, your first time flying in first or business class is the highlight of any AvGeek’s flying career.
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of my first long-haul upgrade – in a shiny new Dreamliner, no less. And yes, it was everything I wanted it to be and more. But the circumstances were a little unusual, because my upgrade wasn’t thanks to miles, or cash. I was upgraded because of a typhoon in the western Pacific.
Wait … what? Well read on for the backstory, plus plenty of photos and thoughts about my experience in United’s BusinessFirst 787 cabin. And once you’re done reading, share your own stories about your first times getting bumped up.
The story begins in Tokyo, where after a delicious sushi breakfast at the Tsukiji Seafood Market I was on the monorail to Haneda airport for my two-flight journey home. As we got close to the airport, rain began falling in sheets. When I got to the airport, I was greeted with too much red on the monitors:
THIS is why you check your flight’s status before you leave for the airport, folks.
Most flights out of Tokyo were cancelled, but somehow my flight to Osaka was one of the fortunate few that made it out. Sitting at the gate for my connecting flight in Osaka, I was happy to have escaped the center of the storm.
Then, I received a page on the loudspeaker. I assumed it was just to check my passport, but as I stepped up to the gate, I saw a boarding pass on the counter that had a single-digit seat number in it. “Hello Mr. Venkat,” the gate attendant said. “You have been upgraded.”
No other four-word sentence could make an AvGeek happier. My heart skipped a beat. I probably grabbed the handle of my carry-on to steady myself. I may have even shed a single manly tear. I hope the gate attendant didn’t think I was having a stroke.
Eventually the awesome reality sunk in. From what I could gather, so many US-bound travelers had their flights cancelled that United was doing everything it could to open up standby space on the flights that were still running. Including bumping up people with low-level premier status like me.
Whatever the reason was for my lucky break, I decided to squeeze as much awesomeness out of the unexpected opportunity. Game on.
The Asuka Lounge at Osaka Kansai Airport
My first step was to take advantage of the pre-departure perks. Sometimes last-minute upgrades don’t win you access to premium lounges, but I managed to talk my way into the nearby Asuka Lounge with my new golden ticket. I was grateful to gain access, but still wanted to take note of the lounge’s faults and merits.
The self-service bar had a solid number of options, though the food selection was a little basic.
There was a nice variety of seating and the space was not overly crowded. The lounge doesn’t have showers, and the restroom was in rough shape when I found it (Thanks for not sharing that photo – Editor).
The lounge certainly beat the general concourse. But for travelers with high standards for lounges, the Asuka Lounge @ Kansai Int’l is not worth getting to the airport early for.
Meet the Seat
Finally it was time for the main event! The front-most door was used for boarding, so I didn’t get the unique premium cabin experience of turning left after stepping onto the plane. I’ll have to save that for next time.
My much-improved seat assignment was in the rear part of the BusinessFirst cabin. I love how open and airy the Dreamliner cabin is. United’s BusinessFirst product is arranged 2-2-2-across on the 787. No seats stood out as ones to avoid, since the only seats that didn’t have direct aisle access were the window seats. Business class is in a much less ideal 2-4-2 layout on United’s 777s and 747s. An eight-abreast business class product seems pretty ridiculous – especially when economy is only nine-abreast (on the 777s, for now). I can see why United was eager to upgrade to its new Polaris seat design.
The entertainment screens were many times larger than what I was used to, and my bulkhead seat had a huge footwell. The lie-flat seat was a complete game changer for me and I had plenty of fun with the intermediate seat settings as well. Between departure and the meal service, I reclined slightly while reading. After dinner, I took the seat to 2/3rds flat for cozy movie watching. The level of control was a ton of fun. Compared with economy, it was nice to recline and not feel guilty about taking space from the person behind you.
Wined & Dined
After a glass of bubbly on the ground, we took to the sky.
The food was one of the things I was most excited to try in business, and the experience did not disappoint. For a first-timer like me, the novelty of a multi-course meal served on real plates, with real silverware, was almost too much. I was also pretty impressed with how bold the flavors were, especially the ginger-laden fish entree.
I’m no expert oenophile so I can’t comment on the quality of the wine selection. That didn’t stop me from sampling plenty of it, though.
Breakfast didn’t have as much pizzazz as dinner, but it was still way better than the rubbery eggs I’ve had for previous onboard breakfasts.
Between meals, flight attendants placed fruit and snacks in the galley so that passengers could help themselves.
Odds & Ends
All passengers received special Olympics-themed amenity kits, since this flight was shortly after the games. To the uninitiated, the combination of the words “cow” and “shed” may not sound sophisticated, but it turns out that Cowshed is actually a premium brand for lotions and the like. The contents of the amenity kit were generous.
All Good Things…
… must come to an end. And my flight did. Too quickly. I’ve had short two-hour domestic hops in economy that felt like forever. But in business? Well, I don’t think I’ve ever had a quicker ten hours. To be fair, the amazing night’s sleep I had on a lie-flat bed helped the time fly by.
I was a little worried that flying in business would be like smartphones or indoor plumbing: people did fine before having them, but once you experience them for yourself, it’s really hard to go back to a life without them. But luckily things turned out fine for me, and I’m back to being excited about long trips in economy. That said, now that I’ve had a taste of the good life, I can’t wait to get back to the front of the plane.
Now it’s time for AirlineReporter to hear about your first time up front. What airline were you flying and what was the experience like? Share your stories in the comments section below.