Trip Report: United Airlines Global First San Francisco to Beijing

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01. Introduction: San Diego to Seoul on United, Air China, and Asiana
02. United Airlines economy class San Diego to San Francisco
03. United Global First Lounge San Francisco
04. United Airlines Global First San Francisco to Beijing
05. Air China First Class Lounge Beijing
06. Asiana Airlines business class Beijing to Seoul
07. Hyatt Regency Incheon
08. Three days in Seoul
09. The Plaza Hotel Seoul
10. Air China business class Seoul to Beijing
11. Air China business class Beijing to Los Angeles
12. United Express (Skywest) economy class Los Angeles to San Diego

So here it is: my first ever flight in international first class. I’ve already flown international business class a handful of times already, but I’ve never been all the way up front. And yes, I know…there are far better airlines to experience a true first class product, but I don’t have anything to compare it to at this point and I figured this would be a good place to start. Would it be as good as ANA business class (the best airline product I’ve tried so far)? Let’s find out…

UA889
San Francisco (SFO) – Beijing (PEK)
Wednesday, April 16 2014
Aircraft: Boeing 747-400
Seat: 3K (Global First)

N118UA

United Airlines 747-400 N118UA

united airlines 747-400

My ride to Beijing today: a United Airlines 747-400 (N118UA)

Boarding was called on time (to the exact minute my boarding pass said it would) with United Global Services members and uniformed military personnel first. Then came first class, followed by business, and the remaining boarding groups. Of course none of that stopped the throngs of elderly Chinese passengers from rushing the podium before the gate agent finished her first word, so it was a bit of a struggle to weed my way though the crowd when it was time for first class to board.

boarding my flight to Beijing in San Francisco

Boarding at gate G100 in SFO

Stepping onto the plane was just as chaotic, as the agents were arguing with each other about the fact that boarding was called too soon as the ground crew had not yet finished servicing the plane. They were holding passengers back at that point, but they let me past as soon as they saw my Global First seating assignment. I can get used to this first class treatment…

walking down the jet bridge at SFO

One of the perks of flying first class is being the first to board. I love the sight of an empty jet bridge ahead of me!

Walking right though the business class cabin and into first class felt just so…awesome. I quickly found my seat at 3k, and I knew right away that this was going to be a good flight. The seat, in itself, was awesome. It was big and spacious with a lot of really thoughtful cubby holes and storage bins to put stuff, along with an assortment of inputs for power, USB, headphones, and video. The only thing that stood out to me right away as being a bit awkward was the fact the seats themselves were not so private and the whole cabin seemed a bit cramped. It was so cramped, as a matter of fact, that the only way for me to gracefully place my bag into the overhead bin was to stand directly inside the seating area of the adjacent seat (3J). It’s ok if nobody is sitting there, but there’s just no easy way to access the overhead bin if there is.

united global first seat

Seat 3K in United Airlines Global First on the 747-400

united global first cabin

The United Global First cabin on the 747-400

united global first

View of the Global First cabin looking forward from the rear

united global first pillows and blankets

Pillows and blankets waiting on the seat for every passenger

global first seat controls

United Global First seat controls and noise canceling headphones

united global first storage space

There’s ample storage space in the United Global First seat

Amenity kits and menu’s were distributed during boarding.

United Global First amenity kit

United Global First amenity kit

global first amenity kit inside

Inside of the United Global First amenity kit

contents of the amenity kit

Contents of the amenity kit were fairly standard

The cabin was staffed by two very senior (in both age and experience) flight attendants, who both seemed to be friendly but just going through the motions. This was probably thier billionth international trip and they could do it with thier eyes closed, and it showed in thier speaking and interaction ways. I was never addressed by name, and one of the flight attendants seemed agitated when I asked her a question about he seat even though she was just standing in the aisle not doing anything when I asked. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining or anything, but if find that kind of reaction to be unacceptable in a first class cabin. She wasn’t rude, but it was obvious that she couldn’t care less. Classy.

video display in united global first

There’s also plenty of space beneath the video monitor for storing miscellaneous items

united global first boarding pass

Alright – I’m ready. Let’s get this show on the road!

Push back was right on time, though it did take a while to make our way to 28L for departure. I don’t mind though as SFO is an interesting place with a variety of international traffic – so there’s always something neat to watch while waiting. I almost feel like the way our cat looks at birds and other small animals from our front window at home! I’d also like to point out that this was my first time ever in the nose of a 747, and the way that the cabin walls converge sharply together at the front makes for an odd sensation. For example, when the aircraft was moving straight forward, it felt as if we were sliding slightly sideways. I’m not sure if that makes sense, as it’s difficult to describe exactly.

gate G100 at SFO

Pushing back from gate G100 at SFO

Holding short of runway 28L

Holding short of runway 28L before departure to PEK

View of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge

View of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge as we depart SFO on a beautiful clear day

Lunch service began within 30 minutes of departure, and I’m happy to report that this is where the flight attendants started to shine. Their meal presentation service was prompt and professional, and they were very attentive and proactive.

I can’t say he same thing about the food, however. To sum it up as best I can, the food in United Global first is mediocre at best – probably on par with mid-level chain restaraunts in the US. The salad and main course were plenty good, but the appetizer was far from appetizing.

United Global First menu

United Global First menu

warm nuts in global first

Drinks accompanied by warm nuts began the meal service

appetizer

Vegetable spring roll and coconut shrimp skewer with mango chutney appetizer

soup

Soup: roasted tomato and red pepper bisque

salad

Fresh seasonal greens: roasted tomatoes, Kalamata olives, baby mozzarella and croutons

salmon

Fillet of salmon with lump crabmeat

For desert, there was a choice of a cheese plate or ice cream sundae – both made to order from a cart right at your seat. I should note that while they emphasized the word “choice”, they actually came around with both carts about 15 minutes apart so you could have both if you wanted to. Since I already had the cheese plate (and was pretty full from the meal), I opted not to pig out and have the ice cream as well. I don’t have much of a sweet tooth anyway.

cheese plate

Dessert: cheese plate with fresh fruit

I watched “The Wolf of Wall Street” for the first three and a half hours of the flight, then put he seat into the flat-bed position and slept pretty well or the next 3-4 hours – which is surprising since it was still mid-afternoon according to my body and I don’t normally sleep during the day like that. After that I just tossed and turned until about two hours out of Beijing. I was even awake when they came through the cabin for the mid-flight snack (consisting of Chinese noodles) but I passed on that being that I was still quite full from lunch.

747-400 wing view

The view out the window somewhere west of Alaska

Right before the breakfast service, I decided to get up and stretch my legs a bit with a walk to the back of the plane. If there was any flight to China to be on this day, it was this one. The light load meant that the economy class passengers had plenty of room to spread out, and those all in the back had entire rows all to themselves.

economy cabin united 747-400

View of the economy cabin mid-flight

first class lavatory

The first class lavatory isn’t anything special – it looks just like any other airplane bathroom

United Airlines Global First toilet

United Airlines Global First toilet. Nothing fancy here!

view of China from 37000ft

Almost there – that’s northeastern China down there (near Harbin)

Back at my seat, breakfast was just getting underway. I chose the western option which consisted of a Swiss cheese omelet, with quiche and sausage. Not a bad meal as far as airline standards go, but it wasn’t much better than anything you could get in domestic first class in the US.

western breakfast

Western breakfast option in United Global First

The descent into PEK was exactly how I had imagined to be. Haze, haze, and more haze. I didn’t actually see the ground until we were at about 15,000ft, and I’m pretty sure we were put into a holding pattern for a bit as it felt like we were turning right for the last 20 minutes of the flight.

approaching PEK

Approaching PEK in thick haze

Once on the ground, I was immediately awestruck at the sheer size of PEK. The acreage of the place is just mind boggling, with huge terminals fading off into the haze as far as one could see. There’s nothing like this in the US!

PEK airport in beijing

The sheer size of PEK is mind boggling!

walking inside beijing airport

Inside the Beijing (PEK) airport. It was a long walk to the transfer desk but it felt good after such a long flight.

So, what’s the bottom line? Is United Global First worth it? Maybe. The hard product is really good – the seat is very comfortable and the lounges are really nice. The soft product, on the other hand, is severely lacking. What happened to the service culture in the US? Anyone who has travelled to Asia knows what I’m talking about, and I find it a real shame that customer service in this country is such a low priority. But that’s a topic for another blog…

Anyway – if you are paying for a seat out of your own pocket, there are far better first class options from other carriers all over the world. But for an award ticket (like I used for this trip), it’s pretty good. I’d do it again but I certainly wouldn’t pay for it.

    1. Bob Krouse November 17, 2015
      • SANspotter November 18, 2015

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