A tale of two jumbos – United and BA transatlantic First Class

In the past week I was lucky enough to fly two trips on my favourite plane, the Boeing 747-400. Operated by two very different airlines, United and British Airways. Each airline is a member of a different alliance, Star Alliance and oneWorld respectively.

The trips were both upgrades from cheap revenue business class tickets. With UA, it involved 20,000 miles and a $550 co-pay, whilst my upgrade with BA was by using a certificate they award when you reach 2,500 Tier points in a year and does not require a co-pay.

The United flight was from San Francisco to Frankfurt and the BA one was from London to New York, JFK airport.

Connecting

In each case I was connecting at the airport where my First class flight departed from another flight.

United at San Francisco

My connecting flight was late arriving due to Air Traffic but I had plenty of time to walk from my arrival gate (61) to the International Terminal, a 15 minute walk. There was no escort from the gate but I knew my way to the Global First Lounge.

BA at Heathrow Airport

My connection from Copenhagen arrived early and at the main A gates at Terminal 5. A ten minute walk, with a check of my passport and boarding pass and I was at the Fast Track security check. Anything but fast it took 15 minutes to get through even without alarming at the metal detector nor having a bag marked for extra attention. There was no escort here either.

Lounges

Global First Lounge at San Francisco

Located about halfway down the International pier at SFO, the receptionists are on the upper level and the lounge downstairs on the ground floor. Whilst initially empty when I arrived, it filled fairly quickly with passengers from the Shanghai flight which had to return to SFO following an engine problem after take off.

The lounge is large and feels spacious with a Far Eastern decor. There was plenty of hot and cold food and a selection of drinks. These were all self service with staff collecting used items fairly often. There are toilets and showers in the lounge.

United Global First Lounge SFO

The champagne was out and again was self service.

Concorde Room at Heathrow Terminal 5

Concorde Lounge, Terminal 5 Concorde Room Terrace LHR T5 Concorde Room T5 Dec 15 Concorde Room T5 Dec 15 Concorde Room T5 Dec 15

The Concorde Room is large and has inside and ‘outside’ areas. The outside area is more open and is above the main terminal areas at T5. To secure access you need to be travelling in First Class or have a Concorde Room Card (5,000 Tier points are required).

The food and drinks are brought by the staff who work in the area. If you cannot attract the attention of one, just pop to the bar where they will be happy to help. There are two menus – one for the seating areas and one for the sit-down restaurant. They are different with the seating area have a bistro-style menu and the restaurant having a more fine-dining feel.

There are loos in the lounge and you can get access to the Spa and showers located just outside the lounge.

Access to the Gates and Boarding

The flight from San Francisco to Frankfurt with United boarded a few steps away from the lounge. The plane to New York at Heathrow left from the B gates, a walk and then a two-minute train journey from the lounge.

United pre-boards Global Services members, passengers with special needs and passengers under the age of 2. After that all passengers in Group 1 board. I am not Global Services and so boarded with Group 1 – no special treatment for being in First Class. Once on board there was no overhead space left near my seat as the Global Services members in Row 1 had occupied it all.

United 747 United 747

BA does Priority Boarding which includes First, Club World as well as elite passengers, there is no special treatment for First Class, although as it gets mentioned first passengers tend to get a chance to board first. The agent didn’t believe that I was a First Class passenger, and as I was going to the podium he said ‘you shouldn’t be boarding yet, it’s Priority passengers only.’ No apology of course when I showed him a boarding pass for 2K.

Once on the plane, United directed me to my seat whereas BA accompanied me to find it.

The cabin and seat

United only has 12 seats in the cabin whereas BA has 14, this invariably means that the cabin feels more cramped with BA. The BA seat is more private though.

British Airways seats are angled in to the window and each passengers has two windows with an electronically controlled window shade. United has the old fashioned pull down blinds common to most 747’s.

The United seat is pretty much parallel to the window, but you get 4 window panels. United is on the left and BA on the right in the picture below.

Cabin and Seating UA BA

Pre-departure

Both airlines provide noise reduction headsets and duvets. Only British Airways provides a set of pajamas. On both airlines the crew offered amenity kits and drinks. Menus were handed out and orders taken. I was able to pre-order with BA, but had to take my chances behind higher status passengers on United. Although this is not normally too much of a risk as UA serves essentially the same food in Business class as First. BA serves different menus. In both cases I am one elite below the top, and so received my first choice of entree.

Food

This is United’s food:

United Menu

UA SFO-FRA Aug 16

There was a coconut shrimp starter, with a single shrimp, a soup course and beef entree. I skipped dessert as it was the inevitable ice-cream sundae. The food was good and hot and the beef tasty.

This was British Airways food:

BA LHR-JFK Aug 2016

The asparagus starter was superb, one of the best courses I have had on a plane in a long time. The Beef was dry but the chips well cooked which I guess is a trade-off. The sponge pudding was excellent and a great way to finish the meal.

I had a latte before settling in to watch a movie.

The food on BA was much better than on United.

Service

The United staff were as grumpy as I have ever encountered. There was no polite interaction, simply plates dumped on the table and cleared away. The BA staff were superb in contrast! Nothing was too much trouble, the champagne was topped up as needed, and once it was clear I wanted a nap, they set up the bed. With United I had set up my own bed.

Both airlines provided bed pads, pillows and duvets.

Second Meal

I skipped the second meal on both flights – an omelette on United for breakfast and afternoon tea on BA.

Arrival

In both cases we arrived at gates with jet bridges and were able to disembark from door 1 – typically at Heathrow you have to get off at door 2. The gate was close to passport control and my connecting gate. At JFK, the immigration hall was empty and I was outside in about five minutes having used the Global Entry machine.

Overall

I have to say that BA was a much better experience. United wins on how the cabin feels as it has less seats, but the service and food was lacklustre to poor. The BA food and service was much better. I won’t be flying First Class on either airline in the near future ┬ábut as these both happened in the week of my birthday, it was a great treat.

Comments

  1. It is amazing how much difference a positive crew can make on an overall experience. I recently flew on United First from AMS-IAD (August 5th) and had one of the friendliest crews I could imagine, and had a great experience, although the food was lackluster almost felt this was competitive to the ME3 (the service was literally fantastic, although the seat and food were not as good of course EY or ET – F). Then on another flight I had a sourly purser and First class stewardess and I have to say I will never spend my money on United again.

    I think if they would spend more attention and time to improving their service it would potentially overcome some of the shortcommings. I guess with Polaris coming United will eventually drop first class all togather, which is a shame. So for me its a game of either improve your product or improve your service….

  2. Your experience on UA is typical and definitely not the exception. “Global First” is just a better seat than business, but the same food and indifferent service. UA is phasing out F and AA is removing it from their older 777-200’s.

  3. In general, after 21 years of experience in business travel, there is a difference between European airlines and American airlines. The service is better and the overall experience is better. If you want even a better service, you go east. Turkish airlines is ahead of the European. Asian airlines are the top. There may be some exceptions. Also this is based on United, American, BA, Lufthansa, Swiss, Turkish, Thai, Cathay Pacific and few other airlines.This is true for both coach and business classes. So, if you you have the choice go for Singapore or Thai. Than comes most of the European airlines and unfortunately, the US based companies are ranked the lowest

  4. Recently flew UA in business LHR-IAD, one gentleman asked FA to take his jacket. She refused. Why? Because “I’m the chef” she said AND repeated it 3 times!

    Who knew UA had chefs onboard?

  5. The entrees on your UA first class menu are identical to the menu I had in biz on UA from EWR-LHR yesterday. So you didn’t upgrade there.

    FAs were friendly on my flight, but did nothing to go out of their way to be helpful at all. My drink was never refilled the whole flight, I was told that my entree choice was out until I heard another agent offer that selection to another passenger (then was told they each get their allotment of each entree — my FA had never suggested that she could check with the others when she simply told me no at first).

  6. I flew business class on Thai Airways from Bangkok to Heathrow two years ago. Wonderful experience. Then business class from Heathrow to Newark on United. Lousy experience. Female cabin attendant couldn’t even handle meal order. When I complained to male flight manager about the meal service that I had opted to delay, “they were busy”.

    I filed a complaint and got the usual generic response. US carriers will never improve. Look at the auto industry.

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