I traveled to Tokyo last week and was greatly anticipating a five-star experience onboard United Airlines in international first class. But my optimism proved greater than the service I received.
Certain elements were indeed solid, such as comfortable seating and an ample selection of food and beverage choices. Other aspects, however, fell significantly short of similar overseas trips in first class I've taken on premier airlines, including Asiana, Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa. My last international trip on United was much more of a success. (Read more: Road Warrior Tested: United Airlines International Business Class)
Read on to find out why this flight disappointed in my Road Warrior Tested series.
Route: Nonstop from San Francisco to Tokyo, Japan.
Aircraft: A Boeing 747-400 seating 12 passengers in Global First (first class), 52 in BusinessFirst (business class) and 310 in economy.
Cabin/Seat Assignment: Global First seat 2K, an individual lie-flat suite along the windows with direct aisle access offering 78 inches of space between rows and a 31-inch wide seat.
Comfort: All of United's 747 offer lie-flat seats in both first and business class. First class passengers receive two pillows, a soft duvet cover and an additional 250-thread count sleeping cushion as part of United's new turn-down service. (Read more: Nighty-Night: United Launches First-Class Turn-Down Service)
Sadly, the turn-down service wasn't even mentioned or offered by the flight crew, something many of United's frequent-fliers I've spoken with have experienced.
Slippers and an amenity kit stocked with skin care products, toothpaste, toothbrush, eyeshades, earplugs and other items were also provided.
The seat itself was very comfortable in both the upright and lie-flat positions. Whereas I didn't sleep all that well in business class on United last year, I had no troubles on this flight. Even at 6'1", I had ample room to spread out and find a comfortable position in bed mode.
Entertainment: This aircraft features on-demand entertainment in both first- and business-class, including up to 150 movies, 185 television shows, thousands of songs and 20 interactive video games. The large 15 inch screen is positioned directly across from the seat above the footwell.
In-seat power (110V) and a USB port for connecting Apple iPods and other capable devices are also available at each seat.
Meals: Last year, United upgraded the meals offered to premium cabin passengers on international flights. (Read more: United Airlines Upgrades Premium Dining Options)
First-class passengers now receive a six-course dining experience with a choice of four main course selections. To begin, I was served a vegetable and mushroom-filled pastry and beef empanada with Amazon sauce, as well as a sushi selection of pickled ginger and wasabi. The sushi wasn't quite what you'd find in a five-star restaurant, but was acceptable for an airline flight.
Shrimp and roasted corn chowder (which was only lukewarm) followed the appetizer along with a mixed green salad with either roasted garlic dressing (my selection) or red wine vinaigrette.
For the main course, I selected the tenderloin of beef with potatoes, green beans and roasted tomatoes. Other selections included chicken, Newburg-style seafood and a multi-dish Japanese "Washoku Zen" offering.
My beef was delicious, mostly due to the Delmonico's steak sauce, but the rubbery and flavorless green beans were a disappointment. An international cheese selection, followed by a made-to-order ice cream sundae completed the dinner service.
Mid-flight snacks of assorted sandwiches, fruit and nuts were available at any time following the main meal. About 1.5 hours prior to arrival, two breakfast choices were offered — herbed scrambled eggs with potato gratin and turkey sausage (my choice), or a cold selection of cereal and a banana. The egg dish was nothing special, similar to United's domestic first class offering, but satisfying nonetheless.
As for beverages, United did offer a generous selection of champagne, red and white wine, premium liqueurs, beer, soft drinks, coffee, tea and soft drinks throughout the flight.
Service: There were three flight attendants serving the first-class cabin. One lead, one primarily assigned to the galley and the chief purser for the flight who divided her time between first and business class.
The best way I can describe service on this flight is that it was too casual. There was very little done to make the journey feel remarkable in a first-class way. The lead flight attendant was friendly enough to each passenger, but in a buddy-buddy kind of manner versus a focus on delivering professional first-class service.
Also, most flight attendants serving premium cabins internationally try to inject a respectful use of your name sometime during the flight. While it's not truly a big deal and I'm not trying to come across as an elitist, I was never acknowledged by name at any point during the flight. Simple service gestures go a long way to make a flight memorable.
Summary: I was able to take advantage of an unadvertised promotional airfare for this trip and paid only a fraction of the cost of what a normal Global First ticket would run. While nothing was particularly awful about the flight, certain service elements (or lack thereof) really leave United at a disadvantage when compared to their non-U.S. airline competitors.