Looking great, even under a stormy sky – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

Looking great, even under a stormy sky – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

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.

This is NOT the ideal weather for flying – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

This is NOT the ideal weather forecast for flying – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

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 Storm

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:

Apparently typhoons and airplanes don't get along – Photo: EPA

Apparently typhoons and airplanes don’t get along – Photo: EPA

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.

Food and drink options at the Akusa Lounge @ KIX – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

Food and drink options at the Asuka Lounge @ KIX – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

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).

Seating at the Akusa Lounge @ KIX – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

Seating at the Asuka Lounge @ KIX – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

The tarmac view from the Akusa Lounge @ KIX – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

The fantastic view from the Asuka Lounge @ KIX – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

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.

BONUS: United Polaris Charts a New Way Forward for Premium Cabin Passengers

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 BusinessFirst cabin on United's Dreamliners – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

The BusinessFirst cabin on United’s Dreamliners – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

A look at my seat, once I had settled in – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

A look at my seat, once I had settled in – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

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.

I don't even know what to do with this much legroom – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

I don’t even know what to do with this much legroom – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

Wined & Dined

After a glass of bubbly on the ground, we took to the sky.

Wings flexing as we climb out over Osaka – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

Wings flexing as we climb out over Osaka – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

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.

Many many times better than the plastic tray I'm used to – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

More courses = more fun! – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

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.

BONUS: Flight Review: United 787 BusinessFirst and Economy Between Tokyo and Denver

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.

Breakfast over the California coast – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

Breakfast over the California coast – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

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.

United's Team USA amenity kit – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

United’s Team USA amenity kit – Photo: Manu Venkat | AirlineReporter

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.

 

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SENIOR CORRESPONDENT – SAN FRANCISCO, CA. Manu got his private pilot license in high school, setting the tone for his interest in all things aviation. He earned his frequent flyer credentials working as a journalist, and is now a medical student in San Francisco. He enjoys writing about air travel from a millennial’s perspective.

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10 Comments

20 years ago I was flying Mumbai India in coach. I flew from SLC to ORD. While at ORD, I saw that there were lots of people at the gate desk, and found out we had an oversold situation. After a little bit of time, I went up to the gate agent (I had 6 hour layover and had said hi earlier) and told her I saw that there was later flight out to LHR, and if that would still be valid connect to get me to Mumbai, I would gladly take the later flight to help out. The look on her face was priceless! It was as if no one had been nice to her all year! She looked at me and said you are definitely going out on the earlier flight. We not only did I go out on my earlier flight, but she bumped me from Coach to First Class! (lie flat in the old days, when they brought around a cart with little miniature VHS tapes that your played at your seat). She told me no one had ever been so nice and accommodating ever!!!

Great story Jay! And a good reminder that it pays to be courteous when you fly.

July ’96 also due to a Typhoon I was upgraded on a Cathay Pacific flight from HKG to BKK… was heading to Thailand for a year as an exchange student. Was very special up top in the first row of a 747-400 as the window faced slightly forward and made for an extra special view of the old Kai Tak airport and the stunning skyline of Hong Kong. I had a chance to mention to the first officer that my father was a pilot and shortly afterwards I was invited into the cockpit for about 20 minutes inflight, very very cool! Doubt they would do that these days, haha…don’t remember the food, but all in all a very nice “first time”…

Sounds great! I just flew CX for the first time — My experience didn’t involve an upgrade (no surprise there) but I was still very impressed.

JL Johnson

My first time up front on a wide body was with United on the 788, same seat you just reviewed. I paid for BusinessFirst. The website would not allow for request of a vegetarian-friendly meal, but I was assured they could “throw something together” for me on the plane. I’m not picky or entitled, so I went with it. My special meal consisted of the same side salad that everyone else had with their main courses, and nothing else. The attendant was completely disinterested, and their SM team in true UA fashion did nothing to correct and never got back to me on whether or not I should have been able to select a vegetarian friendly meal. This happened over a year ago, and I’m still stuck on it. I’m pleased that you had a better experience.

JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

Yikes that sounds awful. I’d fault an error with vegetarian meals big time, even in Economy. The service on my flight was solid overall, with one flight attendant who was efficient but a little cold, and another who was very friendly. So maybe things are getting better, at least from an n=1?

I’ve never been upgraded on an international flight (I’ve never flown internationally either, so that may have something to do with it) but my first domestic upgrade was pretty memorable by itself.

I’d flown into Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) a few days prior in the back row of a CRJ900. The best thing I can say about that seat is that the noise of the GE CF34-8C5 a couple feet from my left ear did a pretty good job drowning out the crying child two rows ahead. FAT is a moderately sized regional airport that shares space with the 144th Fighter Wing of the California Air National Guard.

The day before my Sunday morning departure, I did my online check-in while sitting in a restaurant bar with waiting for the Fresno State football game to end. The game had been a total blowout, with the highlight for me being the trio of F/A-18s sweeping past the stadium to land in the military section of FAT. During my check-in, I noted that the price for an upgrade to the front of the bus was only a double-digit number. I hit the upgrade button fast.

What a difference the next day started with! I’ve always been in the last groups to board, this time I was first. Better still, I was settled in a comfortable seat with my first Bloody Mary half done when the unmistakable ripping sound of low bypass turbofans at full power echoed through the open cabin door. I looked out my window – no engine to block my view this time – just in time to see the flight leader of yesterday’s F/A-18 group blasting off to destinations unknown, followed shortly thereafter by the other two Hornets in the group.

The rest of the short flight from FAT to PHX was far less memorable, but certainly the most comfortable regional jet experience I’ve ever enjoyed. Then I was returned to the back of the bus for my much longer flight back to SEA.

For me, that First Class upgrade spoiled me for anything else. I still fly economy most of the time, because I have to, but given the choice, I’ll upgrade every time.

Thanks for sharing that story Aaron. I appreciated all the great detail — you should start publishing your own trip reports.

Nice review Manu.

I had a similar unexpected upgrade experience: AC YVR-YYZ, also on a 788, although instead of weather, the sister of a friend gate agent pitched a tremendous assist! That was also my first Dreamliner ride so it couldn’t have asked for a better intro.

AC has reverse-herringbone B/E Aerospace lie-flat seats in business that adjusts via a touchscreen pad, in a 1-2-1 layout so each seat gets direct-aisle access. Each seat also has a touchscreen IFE that’s bigger than my laptop screen, a wired touchscreen remote that doubles as a game controller (and is a photocopy of a PS Vita), a retractable tray table underneath the screen that leaves just enough space for a glass of Shiraz in the stowed position, lots of bins for oddment storage, a cubbie hole with a padded ottoman for your feet with a space underneath for a bag or shoes. As strong a hard product for a transcon flight as anybody in North America is able to offer.

Suffice to say, I refused to let myself sleep for the entire 4 hours even though it was a redeye that departed a bit after midnight and arrived at Lester B Pearson before 7 AM. And like your flight, it was over far, far too soon. An experience I would not suggest anyone turn down.

I’m also looking forward to Polaris, and am dying for an opportunity/excuse to try out JetBlue Mint.

Wow, a reverse herringbone product for your first time! I’m 100% in support of your choice to skip sleeping on that flight. I also love just about everything I’ve heard about Mint, from the service to the tapas-style dining (small plates are just more fun, right?). And at least from what I hear, Mint fares seem much more reasonable than those for AA/UA/DL transcon premium products. Thanks for the great comments, Phoenix.

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