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.
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.
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.
The champagne was out and again was self service.
Concorde Room at Heathrow Terminal 5
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.
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.
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.
This is United’s food:
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:
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.
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.
I skipped the second meal on both flights – an omelette on United for breakfast and afternoon tea on BA.
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.
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 but as these both happened in the week of my birthday, it was a great treat.