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United Airlines LAX-JFK p.s. First Class Review

by on August 1, 2011 · 26 comments

in Trip Reports, United

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If you follow me on Twitter, you would know that I recently cheated on Delta and flew United from LAX-JFK. Hey, it’s good to know who’s competing on such a popular route! Here is my experience…

As I’ve moaned about before, I’ve seen airfares skyrocket this summer. On my frequent JFK-LAX hops, I’ve seen my trusty old $220 roundtrips turn into $900 affairs. Ouch! Last week I had to be in LA for a couple days, so my midweek trip was pricing at over $900 – no matter what carrier I tried. To add insult to injury, business class was sold out in advance on the Delta flights I wanted to take, so I knew an upgrade probably wasn’t going to happen.

As much as I value elite status, paying $900 for a domestic round-trip (even transcontinental) in coach, just isn’t my cup of tea. I decided to book the outbound in coach on Delta because my favorite coach seat 36C was available and as a Diamond on a Q fare, I knew I’d be at the top of the list for an upgrade. I had a little bit of flexibility, so if the other flights were to have business class availability on day of departure, a Wednesday, I could Same Day Confirm for free (see my post on tips for using same day changes to your advantage).

I was returning on a Friday, and LAX-JFK upgrades are nearly impossible, plus I had no flexibility, so I decided to burn points for a one-way award. Delta doesn’t do one-way awards, so I looked to American and United. I would have used 25,000/37,500 British Airways miles for the American business/first class award or 25,000/35,000 Continental/United miles for business/first.

I preferred business class, but United only had First class availability on my preferred flight, so I splurged the extra 10k points – what the heck! Fees were only $2.50, however since I was booking a week out and I don’t have elite status with United/Continental, I got dinged with the $75 late booking fee. Big sigh. It was still better than paying $400 for coach though, and I’d get to try a new product. I’ve flown Delta coach/business many times on the route, and I’ve experienced American business and first – but never United p.s. (Premium Service).

Airport Arrival

I wasn’t checking a bag and got an e-boarding pass, so I got to the Premium Services terminal around an hour and 20 minutes before my flight. While I had my e-boarding pass, I personally hate them and prefer traditional boarding passes (call me old-school), so I went to the First Class/United 1k check-in line to get a printed pass. The other lines were pretty empty, but I wanted to check-out how they treated their first class passengers. They had two agents working, but when it was my turn, the one agent seemed busy and gave me the, “I’m not ready for you yet look” and she proceeded to work on something else while the other agent helped a man check-in.

Trying not to interrupt the check-in agents ... at least I could admire the flower arrangement while I waited

I looked down at the other lanes and they were empty, so I ended up waiting longer as a first class passenger than I would have in coach. In the end, it was only 8 or so minutes, but it was still worth noting that the wait in the premium line was longer than any other (something that happens often to me). Does this annoy anyone else?

On a bright note, I enjoyed the unique flower arrangement – there were purple flowers in a Voss water bottle and several other arrangements around the desk. Interesting. The agent let me know that as a p.s. First customer, I was entitled to use the International First Class lounge above gate 75. Score!

I'm the sucker waiting for 10 minutes in the first class line, when there was no line at any other check-in desk

Security was also a bit of a mess as well. There was an elite/premium line, but it was a little bit longer than the regular line, so there were no real time savings there. The only upside was that I didn’t have to go through a full body scanner, which was nice.

United LAX International First Lounge

Once in the terminal, I headed straight for the lounge, since I’d only have a short amount of time before boarding. The lounge was almost empty (1 other passenger there), so it was a nice overall experience. I chose a big comfortable leather chair in the far right corner and once I sat down, I realized that you needed a card for WiFi. I trekked back to the front to get it – I really wish agents would automatically ask if you need a card or at least put a big sign-up at check-in. Anyone else with me here? Maybe I’m spoiled with SkyClubs where you don’t need a scratch-off card and can just log on once you are in the club.

United first lounge ... dome reminded me of the Narita SkyClub

There was a decent self-serve bar and some small plates of veggies and wraps, wrapped in plastic. Nothing that looked too appealing so I saved my hunger for the flight. A friendly lounge attendant did approach me and offer me sliders and other things she had in the kitchen, but I politely declined.

Self-serve bar stocked with unappealing food wrapped in plastic. My comfortable leather chair in the background.

An empty lounge ... my favorite kind!


Boarding

I boarded the 757 and turned left towards first and to my delight, the seat next to me was empty. I had selected window seat 3A because I really like the scenery out west and I was on the 4:30pm flight on a beautiful sunny day. The flight attendant asked if I wanted a pre-departure beverage and I chose champagne since it was basically happy hour. Along with my beverage I got ear plugs and an eye mask, which was a nice touch and something all carriers should do in premium cabins on flights longer than 4 hours.

Pre-departure bev, eye mask and ear plugs

Row 3 in United's First Class.

Nothing else was too notable, except the pillows were small. I think this is an area where Delta beats almost every other carrier in the world – the full-size pillow and substantial duvet blanket in BusinessElite is unmatched. I haven’t flown every carrier in the world, but I’ve flown international business/first recently on British Airways, Cathay, Singapore, United, American and US Airways and all of their pillows and blankets pale in comparison to Delta. (Check out my recent  Delta JFK-LAX trip report)

Delta's big, BusinessElite pillow

We pushed back from the gate right on time and before I knew it we were airborne and headed out over the Pacific before making our eastward turn towards JFK.

Once airborne, flight attendants were in the aisle handing out portable in-flight entertainment consoles, which I didn’t even end up using. For some reason, handheld in-flight entertainment consoles bother me.

I asked the flight attendant who handed me my in-flight entertainment device where the outlets were located and she responded: “Sorry, I have to no idea – I’m LA-based and normally don’t fly these planes,” and she went on her way and never came back (she was actually working coach).

As a veteran flight attendant, even if she didn’t know the plane, you’d think she’d ask a colleague and come back. It was a minor thing, but a noteworthy service failure nonetheless (I ended up finding the plug on my own 5 minutes later – FYI they are located in the middle of the two seats behind the seat).

Service otherwise was pretty good. Cocktails and warm nuts were served and menus passed out. Appetizer was a grilled shrimp brochette and field greens.

Beer and nuts ... life is good

Entree choices were: 1) Grilled Filet Mignon with Green Pepper Corn Sauce 2) Herb Marinated Salmon 3) Wild Mushroom Ravioli. Naturally I went for the filet and hope it wouldn’t be rubberized.

The first course was actually really good. I went with the creamy garlic dressing on the salad and the shrimp skewers were good – not too salty.

Salad and shrimp

Filet and potatoes

The steak was presented nicely and was cooked to a healthy medium. Overall, the meal was enjoyable and the red wine, a 2007 Pedroncelli Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, while not the most expensive wine, was a perfectly fine accompaniment.

The rest of the flight was smooth – I skipped dessert, but they did tempt me with a a hand-made ice cream sundae, which I’m sure would have delivered.

I laid down for a while and the seat turned into an angled lie-flat bed. It was comfortable, but certainly not the most cutting edge product. In fact, there were many signs of wear, like the duct tape holding some sort of panel in place. After I was done resting, I tried to get my seat back into the recliner position and it got stuck in a fully reclined position. I spent a good 5 minutes trying to get it to work, but finally gave up and switched to the empty seat next to me for the duration of the flight.

Angled lie-flat

These cabins have been around the block.

Why not take our your non-operational 1996 car phone and instead put in real in-flight entertainment?

Overall, my experience with domestic United first class p.s. was positive, but I wasn’t blown away. However, at 35,000 American Express points (one-way), I think it is a good value. 35,000 points can be purchased for $875, so a roundtrip first class JFK-LAX-JFK would only cost $1,750. For anyone who buys premium transcontinental tickets, that’s a pretty good deal – usually business class is around $3,000 roundtrip. Now, if United would install their new international first class seats (like I flew recently to Rio de Janeiro), I’d fly them every time I go to Los Angeles!

What are your thoughts on the p.s. product?

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=30003104 Christopher Ellis

    On PS, it’s really the only UA flights where C class is better than F. I fly PS to SFO once a quarter and always upgrade to C. On the couple times we’ve been doubled upgraded due to capacity or some other reason – I’m actually disappointed.

    C seats are more comfortable, in my opinion – and the cabin is bright and airy. Wholeheartedly agree on the cabins having been around the block…

  • http://twitter.com/trentswanson Trent Swanson

    Such a useful post. The pics, the premium service “misses”, the food write-ups are all spot on. However, too many cabin close-ups aren’t helping your chances of a future United comp. Most valuable are the many “$ value of a point” in-stream conversions you often include in your posts. Would be great to have a Sunday post comparing “$ value of a point” for CC and Hotel loyalty pgms. Keep up the great work.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Trent. I’m not on the market for airline comps. I did it once last month and I think its better for me to pay my own way- even if it does hit the wallet/points account a little hard a times!

  • Anonymous

    Interesting- I’m going to take business next time, so I’ll let you know if I agree that its better than F!

  • tivoboy

    I did this same thing last month, fares were CRAZY, read 800$ for coach roundtrip, no real upgrade chances, but I managed to get a 25K C award one way and a 35K F return (other way round actually) and got to try the F P.S. product. Personally, the C product is fine/better, it really isn’t worth another 10K for this F product

  • tivoboy

    I did this same thing last month, fares were CRAZY, read 800$ for coach roundtrip, no real upgrade chances, but I managed to get a 25K C award one way and a 35K F return (other way round actually) and got to try the F P.S. product. Personally, the C product is fine/better, it really isn’t worth another 10K for this F product

  • Anonymous

    Off topic, but speaking of Rio, any lounge recommendations at GIG?

  • David Kelly

    Flew back to NYC on the red eye from SFO in PS C last week, and have to admit, it was … okay. I had the huge leg room seat – 9A I found it a little uncomfortable to sleep. Granted we had a pretty strong tailwind and a flight time of less than 5 hrs, so I was tired the following day regardless. Didn’t have a chance at eating or watching AV.

  • David Kelly

    Flew back to NYC on the red eye from SFO in PS C last week, and have to admit, it was … okay. I had the huge leg room seat – 9A I found it a little uncomfortable to sleep. Granted we had a pretty strong tailwind and a flight time of less than 5 hrs, so I was tired the following day regardless. Didn’t have a chance at eating or watching AV.

  • Skeptik

    Sounds awful.

    I’d rather eat on my own and pay $250 fly to LAS on DL and get free UG

    $2k I’d spend TATL maybe

  • http://www.adamkornfield.com Adam

    I really appreciated this post. Contrasts against the image United gives for the p.s. service and shows it more for what it is. I’m glad you weren’t comped and could give your truest assessment of their flight.
    Nevertheless, I don’t mind you taking comps occasionally. It keeps things interesting for the readers when you go to far off places and makes the whole TPG more worthwhile for you. Since I really enjoy your site, I’d want you to be satisfied with what you’re getting out of it.

  • Jeff W

    I fly PS business class from LAX to JFK quite a bit and have commented that the business cabin looks better than first. I’ve never actually sat in first, but also never felt as if I was missing out. Business class is fine for me, although the food has never been anything to write home about. The service is hit or miss depending on the staff. The portable entertainment system is terrible. I just watch things on my iPad.

  • http://infamousdx.com infamousdx

    Thanks for the review, Brian. Makes me wonder if it’s worth it to me for the extra 10k miles each way…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=3302127 Kevin Hanson

    I think P.S. in UA C is fantastic. I used to fly it about four times a month, and I think it’s a great product. Jeff Smisek has already mentioned, though, that they will be re-vamping P.S. I think they should either axe F or stick the international F seats in there.

  • HeavenlyJane

    Just curious – why is 36C your favorite seat?

  • JonathanIT

    You forgot to mention my favorite detail about the current C/F menu that you described: the skewer in the shrimp appetizer is sugar cane… it’s delicious to chew on!

    I go to NYC frequently and I love p.s. on UA. I have flown C and F, but never Y (thanks to CR-1′s, 1K status, and a little luck).

  • http://www.spa-mart.com Jason

    Agreed on the comps. It’s a non-issue for me as a reader. Sports writers don’t pay for admission to games and we don’t question their bias. Until you start shilling for particular companies or bashing others that don’t comp you, I think you should take as many comps as you can get. The more TPG travels the better this blog is.

  • Carl

    I suppose for those buying miles, not a half bad deal. But not nearly as good as buying dividend miles on sale and using them off-peak to Europe or South America in Envoy for 55k round trip for those with the branded credit card.

  • Carl

    By the way, I could care less if you are comped your travel, as you are running a business. Just give us good trip reports, expert guidance, and keep up the good work.

  • Nyyanks9191

    1) Unfortunately, PS seats are regularly broken. This is a common occurrence (along with the portable entertainment systems which are also regularly broken).

    2) I love how United has regular plugs. But, yes, the FA should have found out where the plug was located and circled back with you. That was very unprofessional.

    3) So, how was the steak? Just okay?

    4) Your beer looks delicious. :)

  • michael d.

    I flew JFK/LAX on p.s. a couple of weeks ago. I flew C on the way out and F on the way back. Of the 12 seats available in F on that return flight, there were at least 3 seats that were empty, if I recall correctly. Two of those seats had to go empty because the seats were non-functional. That’s just embarrassing. My seat was functional … or so I thought. I had to actually physically push or pull on my seat back, while pressing the appropriate button on the seat control, to manipulate the seat. The person across the aisle from me could not get the seat to come back up after he was laying down in it for the whole flight. If you are familiar with these seats, they are unusual in that when you make them lie flat, the height of the seat gets lower, closer to the floor by several inches.

    The purser warned everyone in F over and over (I stopped counting after about 7 or 8 times — and that was when we had just taken off and we had just crossed the magic 10k ft altitude where electronic devices somehow don’t interfere with the plane as they supposedly do just below that threshold) not to leave our phones or other small electronic devices on the seat or armrests, otherwise they were going to fall into the shell of the seat.

    Of course, there’s always at least one person who chooses to ignore anything they are told and … voila. Midflight, a passenger has an crisis because she can’t get her iPhone out, as it fell into the shell and was hopelessly irretrievable.

    The exasperated purser put on a brave face and pulled out some wire-hanger-meets-toilet-plunger self-fashioned device and tried valiantly for a good 15-20 minutes to pull the phone out. Meanwhile, the iPhone owner is berating the purser for the horrible, old seat that ate her phone. I wouldn’t be shocked if the purser just used it to push that phone in deeper into that abyss — though my seatmate muttered that the purser should take that device and stick it into a different seat ….

    So later the purser told me that it’s due in part to age, but also because of these freaking phone mishaps that crews have to come in every 2 or 3 flights to take apart a seat to retrieve a phone or whatever item has fallen into the seat pods, or whatever they are called. Apparently, that’s why these seats are so dilapidated and so many of them are non-functional.

    In any event, C class is definitely the way to go on the p.s. flights. You don’t lie flat, but oddly, the seats feel wider in the C seats even though the F seats are supposed to have an extra inch or so of width. Maybe it’s because you are so mindful of the gaps in F. The extra miles or dollars simply isn’t worth it for F.

  • Tim

    I think ps Business Class is okay, but could be much better.
    The cabins really need an update and the service and food could move up a notch.
    Jeff Sismek has said new lie flat and upgrade of ps planes is coming soon.
    Look forward to that!

  • Kevgod

    Just worth noting, the lines that you saw were empty at check-in are actually the Premier/Premier executive/Gold Silver/First check-in. The economy check-ins are in terminal 7 which you cant see from the premium check-in terminal. The line you waited in is the “full service” line that they usually only have 2 people working in. There are generally no lines at the non “full service” check-ins.

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  • Urbanfoodguy

    As of September the cabins are being totally redone and it will be three class plane, Economy, Economy plus and Business first with the international fully flat seats that Continental introduced last year – it will be by far the most comfortable flight to the coast as no one else has a fully flat bed transcontinental (that I am aware of) – can’t wait!

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