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Road Warrior Tested: United Airlines International Business Class

Monday, 30 Jul 2012 | 11:38 AM ET

Clocking in at more than 14 hours and 7,000 miles, nonstop flights to Australia from the West Coast are among the longest commercial airline journeys.

United Airlines Seats
Photo by Darren Booth for CNBC.com
United Airlines Seats

I've flown to Australia more than a dozen times and have experienced the long-haul trip in all classes of service. Flying first class is pretty much effortless and coach can be a bit tough. Here's a review of my United Airlines flight two weeks ago in business class in this installment of "Road Warrior Tested."

Route: Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia.

Aircraft: A Boeing 747-400 seating 12 passengers in first class, 52 in "BusinessFirst" (business class) and 310 in economy.

Cabin/Seat Assignment: BusinessFirst seat 14K, a lie-flat window seat on the upper deck, which offered 74 inches of space between rows and a 23.5-inch wide seat.

Comfort: All of United's 747 offer lie-flat seats in business class, offering a more comfortable ability to sleep than some of their other international aircraft that have older generation lounger-style seats. A large pillow and ultra soft duvet cover are provided, as well as an amenity kit with skin care products, toothpaste, toothbrush, eyeshades, earplugs and other items.

I've flown in this seat many times in the past and never had trouble sleeping. But I had some difficulty on this flight. The multi-position headrest is fantastic in upright mode, but I was particularly bothered by its sturdy design when lying my pillow over it to sleep. Some people can scrunch down to avoid it, but being 6'1" tall, I end up needing the entire seat space and found it too rough on my neck this flight. Reader tip: the business class seats on the lower deck offer three more inches of space between seats and taller passengers might be more comfortable there.

Otherwise, I found the seat incredibly comfortable in all other positions.

United Airlines Entertainment System
Photo by Darren Booth for CNBC.com
United Airlines Entertainment System

Entertainment: This aircraft features on-demand entertainment in 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 (as pictured left).

My only gripe as a frequent United flier is the television shows haven't been refreshed with new episodes since May, at least. Many of the movies are recent releases, however, and they also offer some classics and other box office hits worth a second viewing if you've already seen them.

In-seat power (110V) and a USB port for connecting Apple iPods and other capable devices are also available at each seat.

United Airlines Meal
Photo by Darren Booth for CNBC.com
United Airlines Meal

Meals: Unitedrecently upgraded the mealsoffered to premium cabin passengers on international flights and this was my first time being offered the new selections.

A chilled salmon-wrapped seafood appetizer and salad began the multi-course service, followed by a choice of four main course selections — a grilled pork chop (my choice, as pictured left), osso bucco-style breast of chicken, San Francisco-style Cioppino or spinach cannelloni.

My pork chop was huge and delicious accompanied by shiitake mushroom bread pudding, white asparagus and broccolini. 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 two hours prior to arrival, three breakfast choices were offered — herbed scrambled eggs with potato gratin and turkey sausage (my choice), a chilled deli selection with cheese, ham, salami and turkey, or a cereal dish with yoghurt and a banana. The egg dish was nothing special, similar to the domestic first class United offering, but satisfying nonetheless.

Service: Flight attendants at United bid for routes based on their seniority with the airline, and the ones flying to Sydney are typically the most senior. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but the service I've received in the past from Sydney-bound crews has typically been marginal at best. That wasn't the case two weeks ago, however, as the flight attendants serving the upper deck were the best international crew I've come across at United in years.

They were friendly (yet professional), always smiling and weren't "hiding" away from passengers during the middle of the flight as I've experienced in the past. When I requested a coffee mid-flight from one of them in the galley, she offered to bring it back to my seat in lieu of me standing and waiting for it.

Passenger names were acknowledged when meal orders were taken, a la, "Mr. Booth, what is your preference for dinner this evening," and they all seemed genuine and pleased to be serving the cabin. As they were the best I've experienced in years, I sent an email to United after landing complimenting the crew.

Summary: While United doesn't make the cut of top-rated airlines in the world, this flight was the best I've experienced with them internationally in years. Flying business class (or first class, of course) makes this ultra long-haul journey almost pleasant.

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