Yesterday, I wrote about the first leg of my journey home from the Philippines to the U.S. last fall, from Manila to Tokyo on All Nippon Airways in Economy. This post is a continuation of the trip from Tokyo to Seattle, trying out United’s BusinessFirst product for the first time.
To give a brief historical background, this passage was part of a larger voyage to the Philippines designed to give my friend B and I a thrilling experience for the love of the plane. We had booked roundtrip tickets from Seattle to Manila, flying on All Nippon Airways on the outbound and United on the return. The outbound itinerary included flying the ANA 787 from Seattle to Tokyo, and the return involved flying United’s “Island Hopper” back across the Pacific ocean. We would depart Manila on a red-eye and fly to Guam, then fly from GUM to Honolulu, Hawaii making five stops at various islands and attolls in Micronesia and the US Marshall Islands.
Essentially, one of the few ways to travel over 8,000 miles on a single-aisle, narrowbody aircraft!
A few blows…
Unfortunately, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong on this trip. My friend B and I live in Chicago, and traveled separately to Seattle to make our connecting flights to Tokyo. I used an award ticket on Alaska, whereas he flew revenue on United, and his delayed flight from Chicago resulted in a missed connection, so he did not get to fly the Dreamliner. Fortunately, he was able to magically figure out a way to make it to Tokyo, and we both flew to Manila. We were rewarded with a nice upgrade to ANA’s intra-Asia business class.
Returning home, however, our Manila to Guam flight was cancelled due to a medical diversion on the inbound flight. That instigated another nightmarish experience trying to figure out the IRROPs situation. We were separated again, him flying Asiana via Seoul, and I flying ANA/United via Tokyo.
Transfer at Narita
Transfer and security re-screening at Narita was a disaster. Our in-bound flight from Manila had been delayed nearly two hours, and on top of that experience, we had parked at a remote stand and needed to be bussed to the terminal. United operates a hub at Narita, and its intra-Asia flights on it and its Star Alliance partners connect to a “bank” of transpacific flights heading back to North America. It seemed that a large majority of the passengers on my Manila to Tokyo flight were heading back to the U.S. or Canada, and due to the delay, we were in danger of missing our connections.
There was a coup that nearly broke out in the security screening line. The lines were basically immobile and there was roughly ONE single processing point for all of the people that were flowing through Narita. I had never seen a more inefficient system in my life, and people around me were going into full panic mode. Some were getting into spats with others, a few attempted to circumvent the line to no avail, others resorted to yelling at the inane security guards, and a group of girls were in tears.
It was not a pretty sight. I still had not been issued my boarding pass from Narita to Seattle, and worried that my upgrade and seat would be given away if I did not make it through the line in time.
By some sheer act of the gods, the moronic Japanese agents decided that they should open up a second screening line, and we began to flow. 15 minutes later, I was on the other side and sprinting towards the United counter. I could not believe that the counter did not have any lines. I basically threw my passport and whatever documentation I could at the agent.
In hindsight, I should have just gone straight to the United Club, but I was hesitant to go out of my way to find it to get my boarding pass. However, at the counter, I was told that general boarding was still 10 minutes away, so I did ultimately stop into the United Club at Narita just to check it out. Here are some pics:
Today, I was flying N798UA, which was delivered to United on February 13, 1998 for its maiden flight. It was an old United 777-200 that was in the non-International Premium Travel Experience (IPTE) configuration. I had braced myself for this. The 49 JCL seats are recliner-style, with a 55” seat pitch, 20.5” seat width, and 14 degree recline. These planes are expected to be updated by June 2013.
Amenity kits and menus were placed on the seat already. The kit itself was fairly standard.
The SEA–NRT flight on UA is serviced by a VERY senior crew, based in SEA. There are a few select Japanese speaking crew members onboard, but indeed, this was back to the land of the free. Without question, the United flight attendants serving J were, indeed, typical legacy United crews that have been with the company for awhile. Nothing to complain about, but nothing to write home about, either.
Pre-departure beverages were offered on the ground. I went for some champagne: Pannier Tradition – AOP Brut NV. Meal orders were also taken (more on that later). Here are some snapshots of the menu:
In hindsight, I think that I am hugely fortunate to NOT have had the opportunity to experience United’s new International BusinessFirst seats up until this point, otherwise, I would have been plain spoiled. Indeed, a recliner seat is not a comparable substitute, but I maintain that sometimes, older-generation style seats tend to have larger, comfier cushioning that conform well to the lumbar region.
That being said, the seat still has its major drawbacks, aside from being non-lie flat. The leg rest and foot rest is an issue, given that it does not “contour” to align properly with the angle of the seat when in recline mode. As mentioned previously, the IFE is basically non-functional, since its entirely first generation. Alas, there is not much purpose to critique this seat any further given that its days are numbered for the matter of what, a few weeks?
The PTV system was also a major disappointment. Non-AVOD, swivel-screen that pretty much had 4 functional channels. The F/As chose to turn off channel 9 (for whatever reason).
Entertainment aside, recliner-seat notwithstanding, my goal was to simply wine, dine, relax and get a good night’s sleep.
Push-back, taxi and takeoff were uneventful. I settled into my seat and attempted to watch some TVon the IFE system, but gave up after a futile try. It was essentially non-functional. Channel 9 was disengaged by the FAs so that passengers could *try* to watch the non-AVOD feature film in English (whatever that meant).
The good thing about the 6PM departure time on this flight is that United FA’s pretty much spring into action in getting the meal service ready, allowing passengers ample time to sleep and wind down for the night. I appreciated this immensely as I was in no condition for an overly lavish affair.
Meal service began with a round of drinks. I went for a gin tonic, which the UA FA was happy to serve in double size by planting down two mini bottles of Bombay Sapphire without much afterthought. This was also served along with warm mixed nuts, and FA’s came around with second helpings of the nuts. This was something that isn’t usually done in domestic F on United, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much they were in popular demand by the J class pax.
FAs then began distributing the next course, which consisted of an nondescript “chilled appetizer” on the menu, which turned out to be some sort of random Japanese dish which I couldn’t really identify beyond being obviously a piece of Maki roll. Either way, I did not particularly love it, but did not hate it, either.
Served alongside this was a fresh seasonal greens salad. While presentation wasn’t amazing, the garlic dressing was delicious, and was complemented well by a piece of garlic bread we were served (sorry, somehow absent from the photos).
For the main entree, BusinessFirst passengers were given four options:
- The American standard, Tenderloin of Beef in red wine sauce, with roasted potatoes, mushrooms and green beans
- Roasted Breast of Duck, with a balsamic-cherry glaze, egg fried rice and spinach
- Hawaiian-style fillet of Sea Bass with seafood Jus, shiitake mushroom and leek topping, steamed rice and carrots, OR
- A Washoku Zen Selection, which consisted of a series of Japanese items too long to list here, so I’ve included a snapshot of the menu for further reference.
Being the poor, inexperienced global travel that I am (heavy sarcasm there) who is often relegated to Economy on long-haul flights, I had never actually had the opportunity to enjoy a USDA prime dish on a flight, so in honor of this occasion, I went for the beef.
Le steak arrived on my plate, portion size looking SLIGHTLY smaller than I had pictured, but again, this is obviously to avoid overstuffing pax between courses. Presentation was lackluster, as it look like it was all kind of strewn together last minute, but this was overcompensated with taste.
Was it the best steak I’ve ever had? Saying “yes” would have been a stretch, but it was tasty and I consumed every last morsel. The red wine sauce was a nice complement to the beef, which was cooked medium rare. The vegetables were a little bland, and the potatoes slightly unimaginative, but then again, I had arguably sided with the “safest” and “least-adventurous” item on the menu.
At this juncture, we were about two hours outside of Narita. The one functional item on the IFE screen, the moving map display, served as my entertainment for this flight.
I started feeling nice and buzzed and full, but I saved room for the final courses of the meal. I think the FA either re-filled my G&T, or I was just feeling the libations after all the exertion of the day, but whatever the case, I felt pretty relaxed.
The next course entailed the International Cheese Selection, which came in threes: a trio of gouda, soft yellow and brie, three red grapes, and three crackers (1 Carr, 1 whole wheat and one Ritz-looking situation), all served with Port. I am a huge cheese lover, and while this assortment was tasty, it was also somewhat bizarre. On the verge of sounding like a total cheese snob, I don’t really see what is “international” about these pairings as they are found on the more inexpensive end at the grocery deli. The Port was also a huge let-down, but I think that has more to do with my liking to the beverage as opposed to the option offered on the actual flight.
Finally, the finale came, which would represent another big “First” for me traveling intercontinental premium on a US airline: the Ice Cream Sundae.
While I’m not a huge sucker for desserts, this wasn’t something I could pass up, despite feeling stuffed from the previous few courses. Per expectations, these ice cream sundaes were hand-crafted by the F/As on a cart next to your seat. Toppings spanned a wide array of items from various sauces to whipped cream, almonds, fruits, you name it.
After reading several commentators on this forum feature their very-own to individual delight and delectation, here is my picture of what I chose that day. Another item to cross off the list, and yes, it was indeed superb.
All in all, a pretty satisfactory dinner.
After the trays were cleared, we were still about 7 hours left in flight, and I prepared for a good-night’s rest. I washed off in the lavatories and changed into the comfortable socks in the amenity kit, and placed the eyeshades over my head and threw on a podcast.
Amazingly, without even popping a dramamine, I fell asleep and had 4-5 hours of decent rest, waking up about 90 minutes prior to landing
Breakfast options were slightly more limited in selection than dinner, but fortunately, there was a more plentiful option between Cereal and Banana and the Herbed omelette. Despite feeling full from the meal service prior, I went for the latter.
Presentation was slightly improved this time over the previous round, and accompaniments in the form of orange yogurt (Japanese brand), sliced fruit and a slightly dry cinnamon roll were nice and filling. F/As came by with coffee and orange juice. I wouldn’t say the omelet was anything to write home about, but it was tasty and hit the spot.
And just like that, the flight was about to conclude. It was almost surreal how quickly it flew by (no pun intended) but I would say that my satisfaction levels were reasonably high given that I essentially hopped on board, ate, slept, ate and deplaned. For some people flying in premium class, that’s sometimes as much as they could want, am I correct?
Arrival into Seattle
Arrival into SEA and deplaning was fairly uneventful, but there was one encounter that involved the United flight crew that I want to draw attention to.
At the time, the escalators leading down to the immigration hall were broken, and so a group of us headed to use the elevators to reach the lower level.
The subsequent wait for the elevators took about 15 minutes, which was painful. However, there was an attractive Japanese-American woman standing near me who was clutching her stomach and did not appear to be ok.
I asked her if she was allright, and she said, “no, I think I am going to be sick.” The elevators were stuck, but I noticed there was a separate corridor that the United flight attendants (who had just serviced our flight) were using to head to the crew arrival area.
I advised the lady to follow them down the hallway and ask for assistance, so that she could be processed quickly and not have to wait in line with the rest of us, given her condition. She nodded, grabbed her things and ran after them.
She was frazzled, and shouted out to them, waving, “excuse me, please, can you help!”
What we all witnessed at that next moment was mind-blowing.
One female, middle-aged FA who had been serving the J-CL cabin turned around, and screamed back, “WHAT DO YOU WANT?!”
I am not exaggerating on these details. Literally, all three United FAs looked at the poor woman with looks of utmost disgust and exasperation, and one of them had snapped at her. I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing with my own eyes. A passenger is in need of help over a situation she cannot control, and just because you’re no longer servicing the flight, you can’t forge an ounce of sympathy or courtesy.
Worst of all, she was still wearing her United uniform and badge. I wouldn’t write these details second-guessing the nature of my reaction had I not noticed that all of the remaining J-Class passengers waiting among me for the elevator were similarly shocked at what had transpired.
In any case, I had made it back to the U.S. in one piece, so I just moved on with my life. Nevertheless, I was pretty appalled by that encounter.
In summary, United has a lot of work cut out for it. Had I actually paid revenue for that flight and not used miles, I probably would not have been equally satisfied. Moreover, the Narita transfer was pretty terrible, enough to make me not want to go through it again anytime soon. I’m still happy that despite the stress, I was able to sleep and relax on this flight and recovered decently well after a long, but fun, trip to the Philippines.