Sunday, April 26, 2009

Seat Review - United Airlines International Business Class

Back in the USA this week for work in Los Angeles and Chicago. Allowed me to try the newly refurbed United Airlines International Business Class (proud brewers of Starbucks Coffee!). When launching the new product at PhoCusWright in LA last November Tim Simonds (United’s MD of Customer Strategy and Metrics) candidly admitted that the product was not “as good as foreign flag carriers”. That is was designed to compete with other US based carriers.

Simonds was
right. As an overall experience the United International Business is well behind my preferred rides (Qantas, Singapore, BA, Virgin-Atlantic and Cathay Pacific). However in terms of the seat itself, the gap has been dramatically closed. On the Pacific route specifically Qantas maintains a clear lead in terms of quality of the food and the lounges but judged by seat and in-flight entertainment United is now on par with a world class product. The challenge for United is that it is charging the same price as Qantas. This means that on a same cost basis I will continue to fly Qantas. But if circumstances dictate that I fly United I will be approaching the flight with thoughts of comfort and productivity rather than with fear and loathing.

The BOOT rating for United's International Business Class is a 3.5 stars out of 6 or "Good Seat". Here detailed review
(More reviews and details of scoring system here)

Getting on Board

Score 0

Nothing remarkable about the United boarding process. But when competing with Qantas’ Pacific route United’s lounge set is vastly inferior to Qantas. It is an unfair benchmark as the Qantas First lounge in Sydney (which my status allows me to visit) is one of the best in the world. But even against a industry average the United lounges are second rate – especially when travelling westward (ie from the US home). For the business traveller with choice it is not enough to put a seat next to a post mix machine and call it a lounge (even if there is free ranch dressing for the bendy carrots on offer).

The Seat

Score 1.0

The seat is long, comfortable and fully flat. There is little more that a traveller can ask for. Sure I prefer the larger herringbone of Cathay Pacific or the privacy cocoon like set up of a BA window seat. Sure I wish the tray table was a little more flexible to allow for easier exits with a computer of meal on the table. Sure I wish there were a few more seat level places for putting books, laptops and iPods. But all this borders on being picky. The seat does the two main things you need from a 14 hour flight across the Pacific – sit comfortably to work with connected power and sleep peacefully for 8 hours.

The Service

Score 0.5

How to describe the service on United? It is like a very pleasant experience at a 24 hour Denny’s restaurant where the staff average age is about 50. Lots of cheery smiles and “how can I help yous” from smartly dressed silver surfers. It is Airline folk law that during a emergence from Bankruptcy United granted lots of stock to staff an entrenched seniority in route bidding by crews. The result being that premium routes (those with the best away from home allowances and timings) are monopolised by the most senior staff. Does not make for a bad experience on board but the crew tend to fall into habits and routines.

The Food

Score 0.5

Bland. Edible but Bland. I have actually flown four legs (US and back twice) in a very short space of time. Each time, the dinner menu has contained only slight variations on a choice between Steak with veg, Chicken with veg or Vegetarian pasta (with veg). Nothing to run from the room screaming about but nothing to sit their raving about either.

The Entertainment

Score 1.0

The new United VOD is up there with the best. Good selection of 25 or so movies and same for TV shows. As well as a full audio compliment that enables you to build a play list. There are airlines with greater selections but I love that United starts the entertainment before take off and keeps in on until you land and reach the gate. This is an advantage over Qantas that waits until 20 minutes or more after cruising altitude has been reached before turning on the system and then forces you to watch the crappy DVT busting exercise video. The headsets are not as good at cancelling noise but this a complaint at the margins. On a side note, United has tried to be innovative with an iPod jack for power but it uses a unique connector that has to be bought separately (not the standard iPod connector). Defeats the purpose.

The BOOT factor

Score 0.5

You would not expect many “BOOT factor” elements from a US carrier and you would be right. I do like the arrivals lounge at SFO – while not on par with the Virgin-Atlantic and BA equivalents in London it does allow for a shower and toasted bagel before heading on your way. A quirk of the seating layout is that not all of the seats face the same direction. The set up is not the alternating direction style of BA. Rather some pairs face forward and some backward. Does not bother me – except when the magazine folder is faulty and everything falls out on take off. Finally it is also clear that to make room for the new seats United had to skimpt on the size and number of bathrooms

Final Score

3.5 - Good Seat

Details and scoring system for airline seat reviews

thanks to Majiscup - Drink for Design for the photo

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