Monday, March 8, 2010

United Airlines Business Class Review

I have a compulsive need to describe my adulterous experience in cheating on Delta with United.

I was led to play the field away from Delta because of the strength of Delta's (and it's skyteam partners) business class product.

"Wait…What?", you may ask.

You see, on the few chances I've had to fly in business class on Delta or it's partners I have loved loved LOVED the luxury of the seats, the treatment by the crew, the business class lounge access, etc. Just fabulous. Delta, seeing the value in their business class product is very stingy with their upgrades. They do offer upgrade certificates to top tier elites such as myself, but you can only use them to upgrade from a full fare coach ticket. That's sort of like putting the luxury Italian sports cars on sale for only $90k; doesn't help much if you still can't afford it. United however is much more generous with their upgrade certificates- they are good on several discounted coach fares. Also, United has a flaw in their pricing model (a software bug) that allows one who knows what they are doing to knock off a couple hundred dollars from any standard fare when purchasing online. Based on these two factors (and my ability to secure two complimentary upgrade certificates from kind fellow frequent fliers) I decided to try on United for size because if their business class is as fabulous as Delta's AND easier to get into, why not right?

Rather than a first impressions approach that would meander into a closer inspection analysis I'll just lead you through a listing of pros versus cons over Delta.

Check-in Process
On the outbound segment to London I checked in online and did not check any baggage
On the return segment I checked in at the airport using a kiosk and then did a bag drop at the counter. I was treated kindly and customer service of the front line staff was excellent.
Overall I'd put Delta and United on equal footing in this area.

Boarding
Delta board passengers in this fashion: special assistance, First/Business class, Delta Medallions, and then everyone else by zone numbers (I'm not sure the pattern to their standard zones). United boards passengers in this fashion: Global services (a special class of flier that is high revenue or VIP), First, Top Tier elite (1k)/Business, then lower level elites, then everyone else. Unless you're in the very top tier, the Delta system is preferable because it lets all medallions (even the lowest level silvers) board at the same time, yet before everyone else who isn't elite. I don't like the way United ranks elites for boarding any more than I like they way they rank their business class passengers for lounge access (see below for details on that).


Lounge Access
Pros:
  1. United actually has a club (multiple in fact) at IAD (Dulles) whereas Delta has none (You can only use the Air France lounge if flying on an international ticket in business or are Elite Plus and flying internationally that day).
  2. Lounge at IAD is bigger than the only other DC Metro area Delta lounge at DCA.
  3. KitKat bars in the snack choices in the afternoon (presumably all day). Yum!
  4. Fanta in the beverage choices.
  5. Star alliance lounge in London for departing international flights is very nice with a great food selection. The day I was there they featured Indian and Thai food.
Cons:
  1. Bar service is not included free of charge. Edit: as a business class passenger I was eventually offered a coupon for 2 drinks before leaving the lounge.
  2. Arrivals lounge access (with showers and the only lounge available if your final destination is London) in LHR is limited exclusively to PAID business class or first class members. Customers in business class from an operational upgrade or through the use of a systemwide upgrade certificate are denied access. This is true even if you normally qualify for access under Elite Plus (err I believe it's called Star Alliance Gold) to regular international lounges. Completely ridiculous. Delta/Skyteam gives you access to business lounges when you fly business period. There is no petty ranking of your business class ticket worth. Although I was able to talk my way into the arrivals lounge despite not officially meeting the entrance qualifications (because I'm smooth like that) it should be offered to all business class passengers.
  3. IAD Lounge, while near empty mid-day became packed to the point of overwhelming about an hour before the flight. There wasn't a single seat available. Delta lounges, while sometimes entertaining a lot of people (especially in Atlanta) have never left someone without a seat as far as I have witnessed.
Because of the limited lounge access for arrivals and the extra charges for the bar with United I'd put Delta above United on lounge access.

In Flight Experience
Pros:
  1. One of our two flight attendants on our IAD-LHR flight was more gracious then many Delta flight attendants I have flown with. He really had a heart for customer service. He gave me a key lime pie serving from his own meal tray b/c it was not available to general passengers (see cons below for why it wasn't available). I loved this man! (He should come work for Delta).
  2. We left on time. This is not often the case for Delta.
Cons:
  1. Although one of our attendants was A+, another was quite the rude flight attendant. In the first place, she looked at me as if I said I wanted to eat babies when I asked if they had Fanta. She literally twisted her lips into a scowl before answering with a definitive "No". Second, she took my hot mixed nuts away before I was done with them without even asking me and just proceeding to walk off with her back to me.
  2. The attendants made a big show of passing out menus as is typical in business class. Unfortunately after enticing us to make the difficult decision between exactly which of the three entrée choices we'd like and between the two desserts (oooh key lime pie) it came to pass that none of the items were available for passengers. Apparently the menus were from the last food cycle (so sayeth the flight attendant) and so we had to pick different items. Only the crew gets the "old cycle" items on their trays. This happened not only on the flight to London, but also on the way back the desserts offered on the menu were not current.
  3. I am on a 777 and these seats are like rocks. Rocks! I didn't think a business class seat (or even a coach seat) could be this hard. And if it's this bad in business my rear end is sympathetically clenching for those poor passengers back in coach.
  4. Sleep accessories: the blanket on United is comparable to Delta's domestic first class service but substandard to Delta's cushy down blankets on their Business Elite product. Also, the pillows on United are pretty much similar to the dinky pillows you normally get in coach on airlines except they put a nicer case on it whereas Delta has large almost full size soft pillows in their business elite cabin.
  5. Seat mechanics: Whereas every other carrier I've flown in business has seats that recline in a fluid mechanical range of motion, United's seat mechanics are quick and forceful. Sort of like pulling the handle in an old recliner and whoop there you go. You've got to put some physical effort into raising the leg rest or the backrest. Blah. I've read Delta still has a few planes with the same kind of seats that they inherited from Northwest during the merger, but I've luckily never encountered them. (Allegedly the new seats on United are better, but they are just beginning to roll them out and it is a slow process).
  6. In flight entertainment is much more limited than Delta. Where is my trivia against other passengers? Where is my HBO? Argh.
In Flight Experience overall: Delta, Delta, Delta. Even if I could find 10 more great things about United the HARD seats that are causing my rear to go excruciatingly numb right at the very moment I am typing this (we are actually in the sky somewhere over the Atlantic ocean right now) cancel everything else out. I am starting to see why Delta hoards their business class seats as though they are worth paying for- because they are (at least compared to United).

There you have it.

I think my long term strategy for flying will be to stick with Delta. As for the complaint I had regarding Delta hoarding their business class seats (instead of making them available for operation upgrades or through certificates redeemed on low coach fares) I will just have to hope they find it is a feature worth offering at some point. It's not worth jumping ship to United. In the meantime I may try to go for Delta ticketed flights on Air France metal because they often do operational upgrades for elites when overbooked.
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