The absurdity of the old United 777-200 BusinessFirst experience

The absurdity of the old United 777-200 BusinessFirst experience

Note: this is a vintage airline review, and a lot has changed since this was originally written:

  • Be sure to read my latest United 777-200 Polaris review to see what international business class on the United 777-200 is like today. 
  • The seats you’ll see in the review below still exist, but only on the sub fleet of domestically-configured 777-200s (aircraft that no longer venture outside of the United States). You can read my United domestic 777-200 first class review to see what that experience is like.

Long story short, this United 777-200 BusinessFirst review wasn’t supposed to happen. I was rebooked onto this flight due to a last minute cancellation of another (which I’ll explain below), so it kind of caught me off guard.

I will say this however: the oddly claustrophobic 2-4-2 configuration of the United BusinessFirst (business class) cabin has always intrigued me, and I was excited to get the opportunity to try it out. Even if I wasn’t quite ready for it.

Hong Kong (HKG) – Chicago, IL (ORD)
Wednesday, September 23, 2015
Aircraft: 777-200
Registration: N786UA
Seat: 10G (Business Class / BusinessFirst)

United Airlines 777-200 (N786UA) side view
United Airlines 777-200 (N786UA) side view illustration by
hong kong to chicago route map
Our route from Hong Kong to Chicago today as UA896

My full review of United Airlines 777-200 BusinessFirst from Hong Kong to Chicago

Here’s the deal: my plan was to fly Air India 787-8 economy to Osaka, connecting to United 787-8 business class to San Francisco. From there, it was going to be United 737-800 economy class to San Diego. I couldn’t care less about the 737, but that Air India flight was the one I really wanted. It didn’t quite work out that way – but of course I didn’t know that as I was making my way to the airport.

hong kong taxi
Leaving the hotel in a taxi – let’s go to the airport and fly some new-to -me airlines!

Arrival at the Hong Kong Airport (Terminal 1)

In true over-excited aviation geek form, I arrived at the airport way too early, but there was no way I was going to miss that flight to Osaka. Or so I thought.

Hong Kong airport terminal 1
The entrance to Terminal 1 at HKG / VHHH
hong kong airport exterior
Despite the really early hour, I was not the first one here this morning
inside hong kong airport
Walking into Terminal 1 – this is a beautiful airport in and out.

It was a long and boring wait for the ticket counter to open, but I killed time by walking back and forth for the entire length of the ticketing hall. On my third or forth trip across, I noticed that there were some other airlines with later flights that had already opened for check in. But not Air India. Not yet.

What was going on? It wasn’t long after that when they posted a 3 hour delay for the flight. Damn! That would pretty much ruin my connection chances at KIX, but it didn’t matter to me at that point. I wanted a ride on that Air India 787, and I didn’t care about missed connections!

delayed flight to osaka
Exactly what I didn’t want to see: AI310 to Osaka slapped with a 3 hour delay.

Despite the delay, the ticket counter opened and I got in line. And what a line it was. There were four agents checking passengers in, but for some reason they forced everyone to stand in a single file line that snaked through the ticketing hall. Weird, but oh well.

air india check in hong kong airport
The long, awkward, single file line to check in

Then it got nuts. One of the Customer Service Representatives walked out into the queue and loudly proclaimed that the flight was massively oversold and they were desperately looking for passengers who could be rebooked on other flights. The crowd stirred and mobbed the man with questions, but I stood back, mute, trying not to be noticed. I wanted a ride on Air India dammit!

The orderly single file line was destroyed at that point, with everyone rushing the ticket agents and leaving me pretty much at the back of the pack now. Damn. I knew I would be standing in line for hours at that point, so all I could do was just laugh it off and deal with it.

air india check in mess
The orderly line was destroyed in seconds, leaving me at the back of the pack

There was another man ahead of me in line looking just as frustrated, and we eventually started talking. He said that he flies Air India a lot and this chaos and confusion is nothing new to him. We had a good laugh about it, and it was cool to chat with him for a while about airline stuff while we waited.

We ended up being the last two customers in line – he got on the flight, but I didn’t. The ticket agent took my passport, typed a few things into the computer, then handed it back to me and told me to go over to the United Airlines desk since the ticket was booked through UA. Seriously? I’m not going to get my first ride on Air India today? What a letdown.

air india check in counter hong kong
Waiting patiently to check in

I trudged over to the UA customer support desk and explained my situation to the agent. She got to work right away, typing a lot of stuff into the computer and making a handful of phone calls. She actually had to call Air India at one point, and I felt bad because I could see her getting frustrated with them. She was a genuine trooper though – holding firm trying to get me the best seat possible for my ride home.

After about 30 minutes of work, she offered me an economy class seat on United to San Francisco (I think it was SFO – not sure), or BusinessFirst through Chicago. Gulp. Chicago connecting to San Diego? I took the business class seat, and thanked her profusely for working so hard for me. She was so kind – and I wish I had a gift to give to her in appreciation for the time she spent trying to fix my reservation. She worked hard to get me that business class seat!

It had been one heck of a morning so far (arrived at the airport way too early + I lost my chance at that Air India 787), and I still had over 20 hours of flying ahead of me. Oh well – that’s the way things go sometimes.

Walking around inside Terminal 1

After a brief stop at the HKG United Club, I wandered down to the main floor of the terminal to gate 69 – the departure gate for the flight to Chicago.

walking through hong kong airport
Making the trek through this massive airport to my departure gate
planespotting hong kong airport
There was lots of nice scenery along the way though
huge hong kong airport
Getting closer…
Finally - gate 69!
Finally – gate 69!
UA 777-200 hong kong
A closer look at the United Airlines 777-200 taking me all the way to Chicago today 

I still had about 30 minutes to kill before boarding, so I took the opportunity to record a time-lapse video of the 777 getting prepped for the 15 hour flight:

The boarding process for flight number 896 to Chicago

This would be my first experience with United Airlines BusinessFirst, so I was really anxious to give it a try. I’ve heard mixed reviews about it, but based on what I’ve seen on other flights, it didn’t look so bad. Because of that, I wasted no time in gathering my belongings and boarding the aircraft when the time came.

I’ve flown Chicago to Hong Kong (and return) in United Airlines economy class before and it was downright painful – and getting to experience it in business class was making me feel pretty good as I stepped onto that 777-200.

hong kong airport jet bridge
Walking down the jet bridge to board the plane
united airlines 777 hong kong
I would have much preferred to be boarding an Air India 787, but oh well…
stepping onto a united airlines 777
Here we go!

First impressions of the United 777-200 BusinessFirst seats

To cut right to the chase, my initial reaction when seeing my seat (10G) was: “really?”. It looked like a glorified economy class seat, especially the way the cabin was arranged. BusinessFirst is a 2-4-2 layout on the 777, which is awfully economy-class like. That means there ARE middle seats, and I had one of them.

It looked like a middle seat, and it sure felt like one. This is a very tight layout, and United succeeded magnificently in cramming as many of these seats as they could onto that cabin. This tight layout also results in minimal storage space – there aren’t many places to store personal items such as tablets and phones.

united airlines 777-200 business class cabin
That’s the tightest business class layout I’ve ever seen
united airlines 777-200 BusinessFirst seat
Yikes. That middle seat (10G) is mine. Looks as tight as economy class!
united BusinessFirst seat
There’s no privacy (and very little storage space) in these seats
united business class cabin
I don’t like being very social on airplanes, so I thought this was a bit of an awkward layout
united business class foot room
Leg room was actually a bit tight as well. Those of you with really long legs might not like this configuration.
united BusinessFirst center console seat controls
Center console with a decent variety of seat controls (and a little bit of storage)
united airlines business class cabin
Cabin layout is a mix of forward and rear-facing seats
united airlines business class layout
Even before we pushed back from the gate I was worried that this would be an uncomfortable flight. This is a really tight configuration. (November 5, 2021 update: The good news its that United eventually figured out how to do business class properly -I mean, Polaris business class on the 767-300 is phenomenal).

On the plus side, these are fully lie-flat seats with tons of leg room (if you aren’t really tall, that is). Although a bit narrow, they are comfortable with a wide variety of adjustments sure to make anyone happy – it didn’t take long for me to get situated and feeling cozy. And that’s a good thing, considering the 15 hours of flying time ahead of us…

ready to depart
Alright – we’re ready. Let’s do this!

The amenity kit

I’ll admit it. The amenity kit that they handed out on this flight was nice enough to take my mind off the fact that I was wedged deeply into a middle seat (that I felt like I would barely be able to escape from). It was easily one of the nicest amenity kits I received in a while, rivaling something you might get in first class.

United Airlines BusinessFirst amenity kit
The United Airlines BusinessFirst amenity kit
Amenity kit with the main flap open
Amenity kit with the main flap open
Contents of the amenity kit
Contents of the amenity kit

The departure out of Hong Kong

Being wedged into a middle seat far away from any window, I couldn’t tell which runway we departed on – but I do know that we didn’t have to wait in line for very long, which was nice considering how long this flight was scheduled to be.

Hot towels, menus, and US customs forms were distributed shortly after take off, and the lack of storage space meant having to fumble with these things as I tried to get organized. I should mention that the hot towels weren’t hot. Lukewarm was more like it, but still refreshing nonetheless.

The first meal service

I watched episodes of Big Bang Theory (a series I discovered in British Airways 747-400 Club World a short while back) while enjoying the warm nuts and a glass of water. The lunch service began shortly after that.

united airlines business class nuts
Nuts and a beverage served just after departure
United BusinessFirst menu cover
United BusinessFirst menu cover
Appetizer menu
Appetizer menu
Main course menu
Main course menu
Desert menu
Dessert menu
united BusinessFirst appetizer
Appetizer: chilled shrimp and scallop with a green salad
united airlines BusinessFirst main course
Main course: three cup chicken with jade fried rice
united airlines BusinessFirst dessert
After dinner cheese plate

In addition to the cheese plate, I was offered an ice cream sundae. I had to decline though – I was thougrougly stuffed, and ice cream was the last thing on my mind at that point. It was a good meal, I was satisfied, and now…it was time for sleep.

A few words about sleeping in United BusinessFirst seats

I didn’t sleep well at all while in Hong Kong, and my body was starting to feel it. With still over 12 hours of flying time left, I figured it to be a perfect opportunity to catch up on all that lost sleep from the last few days.

And sleep I did. I slept like a rock, waking up with only a tick over two hours left before reaching Chicago. I’m pretty sure that was a new in-flight sleeping record for me. I don’t think I’ve ever slept 10 hours on an airplane before! And it was good sleep too – I couldn’t believe my eyes when I woke up and saw how much ground we had covered while I was asleep.

The second meal service (breakfast)

Breakfast was served with about 1 hour and 30 minutes of flying time left, and I went with the tried-and-true United Airlines omelet. If there’s one thing about that omelet that I like, it’s the fact that’s it’s consistent. It tastes the same every time I have it (no matter if it’s economy class or first class), so I know what to expect going in. A little bit of comfortable familiarity is good sometimes, right?

Breakfast menu
Breakfast menu
united airlines BusinessFirst breakfast
Breakfast: mushroom omelet

The arrival into Chicago O’Hare (ORD)

We dropped into Chicago on a beautiful and clear fall afternoon (exactly on time FWIW), and it actually felt pretty good to be back at O’hare again.

united airlines 777 BusinessFirst cabin layout
Arrival in Chicago. This wide angle shot gives a pretty good perspective of how tight the BusinessFirst cabin really is.

It had been a while, and ORD was the heart of my stomping grounds back in my aviation photography days in the early 2000’s. I’ve spent countless hours there walking the terminals here taking pics in a former life, so it was good to get reunited, if at least for a few hours.

Final thoughts

So that was my first experience with the United Airlines 777-200 BusinessFirst business class product. It was ok. The seat was comfortable (proven by my 10+ hours of uninterrupted sleep), but the cabin felt obnoxiously tight and cramped. And those middle seats. Middle seats in a business class cabin? If you can’t deal with that, then UA BusinessFirst might be a premium product you want to avoid.

Comments (4)

  1. Brandon

    April 30, 2016
    • SANspotter

      May 1, 2016
  2. Albert

    January 30, 2019
    • SANspotter

      January 30, 2019

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