I've always wanted to fly in seat 1A on a 747 - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

I’ve always wanted to fly in seat 1A on a 747 – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Recently, my wife and I took a trip to Japan to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary.  Because we have two toddlers (who were NOT coming with us), we wanted to travel in luxury and make it something very special.

Besides being an AvGeek, I also happen to be very savvy with airline miles and hotel points.  While that’s not a topic AirlineReporter focuses on (there are lots of great sites out there that do), I booked all of our flights using United miles that I’ve collected through various means.

On the outbound, I booked us DEN-SFO-NRT, with the SFO-NRT segment operated by the 747-400 (the bulk of United’s 747s operate out of SFO to Asia, with a handful of 747 flights also based out of Chicago O’Hare).  I could have booked us on United’s direct flight from Denver, operated by a Dreamliner, but United’s 787 fleet doesn’t feature a first class cabin (which United calls “Global First”).  Also, I really wanted to check out the United Global First Lounge in San Francisco.

United Dreamliner on the ground at SFO...viewed from inside a Mercedes! - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

United 787 at SFO…viewed from inside a Mercedes! Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Full disclosure: on our last big trip without the kids, we flew Lufthansa First Class and got to visit the Lufthansa First Class Terminal.  Both were so good, I think it ruined us for any future flights.  As much as I love United, I didn’t have great expectations.  Here’s the shocker/spoiler: our United experience was really good.

Our ride was waiting upon landing at SFO - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Our ride was waiting upon landing at SFO – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

From Denver to San Francisco, we were booked in United Economy Plus (for some reason, finding reward availability in domestic first is extra tough).  The flight was uneventful, operated by a 737-900ER which was less than a year old.

Upon exiting the aircraft, I was startled to see a United agent standing right inside the jet bridge holding a sign with my name.  She introduced herself and said she was there to escort us to our next flight (which wasn’t for 3 1/2 hours).  She then handed us SFO “Visitor” badges and walked us down the stairs to the tarmac.  Waiting for us was a brand-new Mercedes SUV — classy.

View from our ride - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

View from our VIP ride – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

As we were driving to the international terminal, the agent explained to us that this is a new service for United Global First passengers, especially those with tight connections.  Despite our long connection, they wanted us to experience the service.

We drove past regional jets and some domestic narrow-bodies before rounding the corner to the good stuff.  It was a beautiful day in San Francisco, and we got fantastic views of 777s, 747s, and a few 787 Dreamliners.  My wife was less excited about the view, but she didn’t mind the Benz.

Nice spread in the United Global First Lounge

Nice spread in the United Global First Lounge at SFO – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Once to the terminal, the agent escorted us up to the United Global First Lounge.  Available only for those passengers traveling in three-cabin first class, it was by far the nicest United lounge I have been in.  There was plenty of comfortable seating, good food, and a wide variety of adult beverages.

Pretty maids all in a row - Awesome view of 747s from the United Global First Lounge - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Pretty maids all in a row – awesome view of 747s from the United Global First Lounge                          Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Soon, it was time to board our flight to Tokyo Narita.  After a quick walk from the lounge, we were at the zoo that was our gate. United boards by groups, with Global First passengers in Group 1.  Unfortunately, there are a ton of other people in Group 1, including all BusinessFirst passengers (52 seats), and all United Platinum, 1K, and Global Services elites.  So, it felt like 1/3 of the plane boarded in Group 1.

If you’re going to have an international first class product, you need to differentiate it in every way you can; allowing the 12 passengers to board first would have been a nice gesture.

On board, I was thrilled to be sitting in seat 1A on a 747.  Sort of the AvGeek “holy grail.”Seat 1A is cool because you can see out the front of the plane given the curvature of the fuselage.  My wife was not a fan (in opposite seat 1K) because the sensation, while being seated askew, was a little motion sickness-inducing.

Great hard product on the United 747 - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Great hard product on the United 747 – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

I was impressed with the hard product for United Global First.  The fully-flat bed with lots of storage, along with a large in-flight-entertainment screen (and selection) was great; United is competitive with other carriers in this instance.

Sure, there’s no onboard shower like Emirates has on their A380s, but I found the seat pod to be very nice.  That said, the first class restrooms really need some work; they were no different than economy restrooms.

Great amenity kit in United Global First (but no pajamas!) - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Great amenity kit (but no pajamas!) – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

The soft product exceeded my expectations.  That said, I wasn’t expecting much.  The amenity kit provided was very nice, along with the large pillows and comfy duvet.  No pajamas are offered by United, however (although my return flight on EVA provided them to business passengers).

Beginning of dinner service in United Global First - Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

Beginning of dinner service in United Global First – Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

The food and service were mostly acceptable.  Dinner was actual quite nice; well-plated, good variety, and very edible.  Breakfast, on the other hand, was pretty nasty.

United’s menu has a large wine list (at least 15 listed), but unfortunately, they only seem to cater (or open) about four options per flight.  When asking for one of the “unavailable” wines, the flight attendant was pretty rude about it.  Here’s a hint, United:  either cater all the wine that is listed, reduce the length of the list, or print custom menus for each flight.  Having to play the “do you have this?” game is unacceptable in international first class.

Also, while the dinner options and execution were good, the liquor list was laughable.  Your only option for scotch, for example, is exactly what you get in coach – Dewer’s White Label.  As a scotch fan, this is embarrassing for United.

The tulip lives! Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

The tulip lives! Photo: Blaine Nickeson | AirlineReporter

So, was flying United Global First worth the additional cost in miles, and the connection in San Francisco?  Maybe.  I’m glad I did it once, especially given that the additional cost in miles was negligible compared to business class.  The seat was private and comfortable, and the ground services at SFO were really spectacular.  That being said, I’ve heard the Global First catering described as the “BusinessFirst menu + soup.”  Given the choice again, I would have flown in BusinessFirst on the direct Dreamliner flight.

While nothing has been officially said, it is likely that United will phase out Global First.  Their new United 787-8 and 787-9 Dreamliners do not feature it, as Continental did not have an international first class product.  I can see the benefit of keeping a first class product on high-yield business traveler routes (such as SFO-NRT), but I think it will become more of a niche product.

MANAGING EDITOR - DENVER, CO. Due to his family being split on opposite sides of the country, Blaine traveled frequently as a child, falling in love with the flying experience, and has continued to travel ever since. For AirlineReporter, Blaine edits all content before publishing, assists in story and concept development, and takes every chance he gets to produce original content for the site. When Blaine’s not busy planning his next travel adventure, he spends his time working as a college administrator. If he can’t be on an airplane, he’d prefer to be on a bicycle or playing with his two toddlers with his wife. Email: [email protected].

Airline Love: I Left My Wallet on a Plane in Beijing & a Flight Attendant Saved the Day
28 Comments
Mark of OKC

Nice and honest review…. but….. Did your wife enjoy the flight?
Happy wife, happy life. 🙂

Blaine Nickeson

Other than being really irritated that the wines she wanted weren’t on board (mainly because of the rude FA’s response), she enjoyed the flight. Like I said, though, she was spoiled after LH First.

Dear Blaine,

I recently flew United GlobalFirst from Amsterdam to IAD and I had to say i was impressed, i did not experience your service issue, in fact, I would have to say the FA’s were by far the best i have ever had on the new UA(having flown in BF multiple times in the past 5 years) and they did actually have a specially printed menu for this particular flight that did list only the wines and champagne that were on board, either way I am glad that you enjoyed the hard product, I found the food to be better than BF by a slim margin, and while IAD is not a gem by any means, the GF lounge was well stocked and comfortable for me(could use a shower!!)…

is it worth it…well i would like to add my two(or one cent) United Miles availability differs drastically, but i have found that more often than not, they will have supersaver bf/gf available but full mile econ…for an extra 10-20k miles, it is certainly worth it as I live for a year or two in different cities and then move back, so the free bags is a great benefit…it will make your trip more enjoyable and the bang for the buck is certainly the highest in terms of miles to dollar ratio…

quick suggestion to people considering or trying to maximize UA mile availability…it helps to try to arrange one way journeys versus round trip…and availability shifts the closer you get to your flight so you can make everything fit in your journey as you like…

Great review!!

I’ve had a few flights in Global First, all have been at least great. SFO-HKG was my first intl F experience and the crew was awesome, food was great, seat was awesome, etc.. LHR-LAX one of the crew members (Emme) was totally awesome, but the other ones were somewhat indifferent, they weren’t rude, but they didn’t do anything special and weren’t too enthusiastic. Long story short, it was far above the expectations set by all the American airline hating folks and even above my own United fanboy expectations.

@Blaine: An unbiased and wholly accurate review, IMO. Thanks! In no particular order, a few points of agreement and disagreement:
1) Leaving the kids at home may be neglectful in a few eyes, but most will agree that Mommy and Daddy still need [fill in personal choices].
2) On the 744, the only seat superior to 1-A is Zero-A and access takes many years and more miles than PAX will ever see. Good choice.
3) I’ve flown SFO-NRT a few times (two client-paid RTs and one miles RT) over ten years. I’d never make that choice on my own. IMO – and I’ve said this for many years – U.S. legacy carriers don’t come even close in hard or soft product on the major international routes. Sorry, but none is seriously competitive with most foreign flag carriers on the same route. IMO, UA KNOWS the difference and depends upon corporate contracts and back-fill to keep some Global First seats active. I agree, even on major international routes, UGF is on the way out. When they finally retire the remaining 744s on those Asian routes, UGF is toast.
4) No Jammies, even in UGF? Come on! As you have noted, the better half of the foreign-flagged carriers offer them **In Business Class**! Essential? No. Worth their weight in comfort during a very long flight? Yes. I just changed my mind about ‘essential.’ YES. Where is UA?
5) I must agree again; those Wine List Games are horrible and horribly awful service. Where the wines ‘Available on Today’s Flight,’ marked in any way or explained before your request? The FA’s response and impatience is horrible. As for spirits, offering ONLY Dewer’s White is a major sin. While not horrible, This blend is far from even the medium shelf. How many bottles, mini or otherwise are really necessary to service a UGF flight with eight to twelve UGF seats? UA cannot afford to provide an excellent blended Scotch and/or a single malt? Come on UA!
6) Your review did not say much about the food, other than that the arrival breakfast was (ahem!) horrible. On flights that originate for out-stations, I can accept a (very) few compromises. Outbound from UA’s major Pacific access hub, they should be able to do great things. My notes for the six UGF legs that I flew between SFO and Asia, all but one to NRT, suggest that in most cases, the catering on the Eastbound trip was far superior to that from SFO. Is UA missing something? Obviously. My best guess is that they simply do not want to compete on the First Class market to Asia and will settle for a full load of corporate contract PAX in the Business Class cabin.
7) While you did not spell-out many of the finer details, I get the clear impression that UA’s cabin staff in UGF either have no interest – or – have been instructed to dumb it down a bit. In my experience, if there are major differences between UGF and International Business on this airline, it is likely limited to a)service of individual courses vs. a full tray all at once and b) perhaps a larger pillow.
For about the thirty-fifth time, Amerika’s flag carriers do not really want to compete in the First Class markets – and cannot.
Thanks again for an excellent report. IMO, you were far too easy on UA. If UA really wants to remain in some (most) of those international markets and regardless of airplane size, perhaps they should consider offering ~~24 “J-Class” seats and fill the remainder of the aircraft with comfortable, decently pitched Economy Plus seats. Just my two cents worth on an otherwise fine report… -C.

Blaine Nickeson

Thanks for all the thoughts, Cook. I have some more pics from the flight, including the entire menu, at this link https://flic.kr/s/aHsk3j4p5i

Nice review Blaine. I agree with your review, as I have had the opportunity to fly both Global First twice this year on the 777 (LAX-SYD) and twice in Business First on the 787 (DEN-NRT). The MB ground transportation and the GF lounge are really nice perks to differentiate the GF service. Once onboard, the meals and wine are the same in Business as in First (except for the soup). I do like the fact that no one sits next to you in GF and United offers a turn-down service and places a mattress to lay over the seat when you turn it into a bed. The extra padding makes the seat that much more comfortable.

As for BF on 787, the planes are new, clean, well lit, and great service with the ratio of FA to PAX. My personal preference is flying to NRT on the 787 and skipping the 747s as they have been encountering a lot of maintenance delays and cancelations out of SFO as the fleet continues to age.

Looking forward to your EVA review.

What a faux entitled snob

How so Todd?

When a passenger is in a First Class product, no matter if it is from money or miles, I think it is okay to have a certain expectation of product and service.

David

I have road in coach my whole life but once I got bumped to first class and I appreciated it. I read enough to know and he admitted American carriers do not match the level of service of international ones so to complain about it is asking what is not my expectation what should be his? Nothing happened that adversely affected his trip and he knew UA reputation so just enjoy. By the way… pass up a non stop on a 787….who does that?

Blaine Nickeson

I’m gonna keep flying 747s for as long as I can. I’ll have plenty of years (decades) to fly Dreamliners.

Understand. I don’t fly as much as you do but I do treasure my one ride on a Pan Am 747 in 1983 from JFK-IAH.

Do you have a pic out the window of 1A while on the ground? I’d love to see what the view looks like.

Blaine Nickeson

Sorry Rob, I didn’t get any good shots.

Plane-Crazy Joe

Blaine, I’m a United Mileage Plus Member; for many years. Have flown their 744 and 772, and 7-LATE-7 across both the Atlantic and Pacific. ( I’ve done SEVERAL trips to NRT / Tokyo on United ). Many times on the 744 and 772; three flights / segments on the Screamliner. Have been in Y Cabins on all flights except one segment, ORD>LHR, in Business Class. This exception was due to the Gate Agent giving me a complimentary upgrade; when I told him I was Plane-Crazy and going to London on a Spotting Mission. He was the ONLY Gate Agent of any airline I’ve flown who was what you call an AVGeek. I was underwhelmed by United’s Business Class product! Btw, have had innumerable Domestic Segments on UA, as well.

UA has been CONSISTENTLY ranked as the worst so-called ” Legacy ” carrier in the US – even after being acquired by Continental! Just yesterday, I saw a report on Fox News that ranked UA & AA as tied for LAST in that rating / ranking! I CONCUR WITH ALL COMPARABLE POOR RANKINGS! It was ONLY because UA Captains offered CH 9 ATC – on most of my flights – that I tolerated and endured UA’s mediocre product and ” service “! However, my patience with United has expired; since their ” product ” has deteriorated over the years rather than IMPROVE! ( That is, in Cattle Class ).

UA 744s in the Y Cabin have no in-seat Video; no AVOD! In other words, I’ve had no access to their Flight Map details. Their IFE is vintage 1970s! I’ve had 763s across the Atlantic when their Audio crapped-out on me! I’ve had TWO flights on 772s that had Windows in such BAD condition – having innumerable scratches and condensation – that it was IMPOSSIBLE to clearly see out ANYWHERE through the window; impossible to employ my camera!

Oh, I mustn’t forget to report that I’ve been sickened TWICE on UA Trans-PAC NRT flights! Once, apparently from an unsanitary / contaminated Tray Table; the only reason I can conclude. Whatever I ingested gave me the ” trots ” all the way across the Pond! When we reached NRT, I was fully ” purged “! This past May, on a UA 744 from NRT>SFO, an Indian national sat on the aisle next to me; aside from the Open Middle Seat. He coughed and hacked from gate to gate; for nine hours!! NOT ONCE did he cover his mouth! UA’s unobservant Cabin Crew failed to notice the obviously ill passenger and RELOCATE and ISOLATE HIM!( There were Open Seats on the airplane – at least, in Y Cabin ). The result? I was sickened for TWO WEEKS by this unhygienic, inconsiderate passenger! I had to be seen by a doctor and given meds! Unless I fly on United, I SELDOM suffer ANY sickness – not even a ” cold “! It’s VERY UNUSUAL for me to become sick / ill!

So, guess what?! A couple days ago, I booked my next trip to NRT on Singapore 380s: LAX>NRT>LAX. I’ve had MORE than ENOUGH of United’s mediocrity, apathy and various ” service ” related shenanigans! Not to mention them frequently CHANGING my flights and seats; between when I book and fly! I haven’t the time to MICRO-MANAGE my bookings; having to CALL UA several times due to these changes! UA’s computer always automatically changes my selected seats from where I booked ( Window Seats ) to over the wing! WTFO!?

It MUST be nice to be a UGF! You apparently enjoyed your flight in First Class!

BikeandGolf

Thank you for the well written and researched article. As a 10 year plus United 1K (100,000 mile annual filer) member from 1997 to 2008 I can attest that UA service and experience was nearly identical to your SFO/NRT flight in 2014. Even in the late 90’s UAs 744 fleet was beginning to get long in the tooth with regard to maintenance and cleanliness. The food was always mid-grade, but they used to wheel a cart down the aisle with really wonderful wines, brandy, ports, whiskey and cheese platters – as a snack! The food in business and in first was genuinely good (Asia and to UK/Europe). The 772 introduced from JFK/NRT were really wonderful planes, faster than the 744 just seem to leap off the runway and into the sky, but I digress …

My biggest beef with UA (and I can personally say the same about AA and DL/NW) – the planes are just run into the ground. UA planes just seem dirty inside and the outside paint job is just embarrassing, especially compared to JAL, ANA, SIN, ER even QT. I mean the last time I flew to Asia on a UA 744 the paint on the roof was peeling, the fingerprints on the engine, around the doors and luggage area reminded me of what an old Indian Airlines 742 might look like. It is OK to fly older aircraft, as long as they are clean and well maintained. I mean even DL has cleaner planes!

Finally, the staff on the international flights always seem to leave a bit to be desired – the flight attendants tend to be more senior, so they request these flights for less overall travel – but my god my last SFO/HKG trip two years ago these old ladies seemed to be better off in a nursing home then on a 14 hour trans-Pacific flight.

It is a vicious cycle for the American carriers – they have to keep costs down, so the sweat the assets and keep the planes flying for 20 to 25 years, keep non-essential maintenance to a minimum and when they begin upgrading their fleet you are at risk of a flight on a newbie or a clunker … I started a new career and no longer need to travel (at all) … I mostly the foreign airports, the food and cultures … I DO NOT miss airports and airplanes and lines and hotels and rental cars and …

Blaine: Perhaps the staff realized from your demeanor as well as your wonderment that you were a “mileage” flier vs. a full paying fare flier. Not saying its right, but they will treat one different than another.

Blaine Nickeson

Pete, let’s get real. Almost everybody in United “Global First” is either a mileage ticket or an upgrade. And, despite the fact that this was a ticket on miles, I’m a United elite too.

Stephanos

I flew on an ex-CO 772 (with no GF), IAH-GIG in BF this past June on my way to attend the World Cup in Brazil. They served soup before our meal!
FYI, if UA does away with GF, I hope they switch to the BF seats on the 787 and the ex-CO 772’s across the whole fleet, instead of the 3-class sardine-BF seating they have now in ex-UA planes. Since that’s what they put in the 787’s, I’m hopeful that’s the direction they’re moving towards.

Thanks for the nice trip report, and Go Dawgs!

Hi,

Thanks for the report. I have to say that breakfast looks very good to me. I like eggs, ham, sausage and a potato item. That is the typical american breakfast after all. I hate when they serve some spicy chicken item or worse yet a “breakfast” with bread and cold cuts. Yuck. Eggs, meat and potatoes are breakfast! 🙂

Yaterspoon

Blaine,
Very good report. Thanks for taking the time. I have a fair amount of time in J and a few great flights in GF under my belt thanks to mileage. Nothing like jumping on a completely packed bird at Christmas time and finding your way to seat 1A or 2K on the grand 744.

What I sincerely appreciated about your report are your criticisms. Pretty much spot on, IMO. Wait for all the other Priority 1s to board? Why? Military, Global Services and First Class should be the first to board. Hack through a wine list; really? And Dewar’s White Label – what kind of a dog track is UA running here? You might be able to get by with a single brand of vodka – but a single Scotch? No single malts? What a joke.

Again you are correct in regard to catering. Outbound from a hub – on a signature route – in GF? The meals should be spot-on. Every time. One of my huge complains in GF, J and eco… why aren’t these meals hot? It is as if the stews are afraid to turn the ovens up? Or do they want to get the meals out so quickly, so they can sleep, that they don’t give the ovens enough time to heat the meals properly? I “taste” this way too much.

UA’s staffing and service has been up and down over the years. I’ve had some great crews and some very lame ones. Pot-luck, I guess. Not the way it should be or what I normally experience from Asian carriers. Having said that I’m looking forward to Xmas flight in GF: BOS~ORD~NRT~SIN. Let’s hope I get lucky.

-Yater

Blaine Nickeson

Yater – thanks for the great comments. Let me know how the Xmas flight goes.

On the low-temp food, I’m actually guessing that they are trying to avoid drying the food out too much with heat. But that is JUST a guess!

Thanks for your review! I’ve always flown BF from SIN/US and next month will be my first UGF flight SIN/NRT/ORD/AUS. Any idea if there will be a Tarmac transfer at ORD to make my ORD/AUS flight?

Extremely bummed about the scotch list tho. Looks like I will need to bring some mini bottles up myself.

Blaine Nickeson

Hi George – Not sure on the tarmac transfer. My guess is no, since you’d have to clear immigration/customs coming in from NRT.

-Blaine, AirlineReporter

David Curtis

I enjoyed your inflight report and must agree that I have never found United first class product to be anything memorable , and with all due respect its full of either Americans on upgrades or UA staff which seems to compromise the experience. Being an Australian means travelling in First or Business is the only alternative due to the distances we have to travel to get to the rest of the world. The United Businessfirst product on the 787 which had business seats that were apparently ordered by Continental before the merger are atrocious and yet another reason why I won’t fly them ever again. I have always found it astonishing that a country the size of the U.S has not one airline that is ever rated decent by world standards or even Siytrax? In any case thankyou for sharing the photos and your experience.

JohnPaul Flores

I road Global First from NRT to HNL and even though I slept most of the way, it was the best flight I have taken. Maybe others are much better, I don’t know because I have never flown them. Great review though!

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