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TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen took advantage of some great summer business class airfares to Europe this spring to score a cheap ticket to Rome in August on United. Here’s his review of the airline’s flagship BusinessFirst cabin aboard a Boeing 767-300.
Back in April, The Flight Deal found that United was offering some amazingly low business class fares to Europe over the summer, and I convinced my mom that we should jump on it for a trip to a destination that’s always been at the top of her list: Italy.
Lucky for us, one of the inexpensive routes was from San Diego (where she lives) to Rome. As you can see from the fare breakdown below, each of our tickets was $500 in base fare plus about $980 in taxes and fees, so for $1,480 each we flew business class to Europe. Coach fares on the same route were actually above $1,700!
Our itinerary included a cross-country trip from San Diego to Washington Dulles in United’s old domestic first class aboard a 737 on the outbound and a rickety old 757-300 on the return, and in BusinessFirst aboard a 767-300 between Washington and Rome.
I don’t think anyone needs another review or slideshow of United domestic first, so in this post I’ll just focus on the transatlantic portion.
United operates two versions of the 767-300. One has three cabins and one has two. The two-cabin plane has Continental’s BusinessFirst lie-flat seats that are angled toward the walls. There are 6 rows in a 2 x 1 x 2 configuration. Our flights between Washington and Rome were originally supposed to be on one of these aircraft, but about two months before our flight, the airline switched it out to the other version.
The second version has a small forward cabin with six Global First seats in a 1 x 1 x 1 configuration. Behind a divider is the BusinessFirst cabin with four rows in a 2 x 2 x 2 configuration, and then a final rear-facing row of just two seats.
The BusinessFirst seats on this version are like those aboard the airline’s 747s and most of its 777s (those with a Global First cabin), as opposed to the seats on the redone 757s (including the transcontinental premium service planes), the 787, and the other 767. That means that about half of the seats face the rear and are oriented with the cabin rather than angled away from the aisles.
There are 26 seats total. They recline to a fully horizontal 180 degrees, and are 20 inches wide with a pitch of 6’4”. That’s about 1 inch narrower than on the other 767s, but with one more inch of sleeping space. That doesn’t make a huge difference to the height-challenged Rosens, but the orientation of the seat also makes the foot cubby feel a little roomier when you’re fully reclined.
On the negative side: though each of the two-seat sections face the same direction, the seats across the aisle from you face the other direction. That means you end up making eye contact with someone practically every time you look up. I’m not antisocial, but I’d rather not spend my flight staring at a total stranger a few feet away. I can’t figure out how that layout saves room, but it is what it is.
The entertainment systems were quality, with 15.4-inch screens controlled by a handheld remote, and over 100 movies and TV shows, plus games and music. Flight attendants handed out “noise-cancelling” headphones that worked okay (so long as the prong was shoved pretty forcefully into the socket), but they definitely weren’t high quality.
The amenity kits came in simple gray bags, and contained a toothbrush and toothpaste, eye mask, ear plugs, socks, tissues, a comb and Philosophy “Purity” products including lip balm and hand cream.
Our outbound flight left just before 6 pm ET, so about 30 minutes into the flight, the attendants wheeled around the beverage cart and brought out bowls of warm nuts. I was looking forward to the beverage service since I like wines, and the menu listed quite a few interesting selections such as Nicolas Feuillatte Brut Champagne, La Chablisienne La Sereine Chablis from Burgundy, Bodega Piedra Negra Alta Colección Malbec from Mendoza, a few red Bordeaux and a Peter Lehmann Shiraz from Australia.
Sadly, when the cart came around, the only selections were Gabbiano Pinot Grigio, Rodney Strong Chardonnay, and some non-descript California reds, all of which you can find on the under $10 shelf at the nearest grocery store. And that Nicolas Feuillatte? Nowhere to be found. I can’t say I’m surprised, but the airline shouldn’t bother listing all those other wine options – 21 in total – if they’re only going to stock the least interesting of the bunch. Okay, wine rant over.
Meal service started out with a smoked salmon appetizer and green salad. It wasn’t bad, but wasn’t great.
Mom had the beef in a wine reduction with steamed veggies, while I had the chicken with southwestern spices, roasted tomatoes, corn tamale and yucca – pretty starchy.
There was a quick cheese and Port course, followed by ice cream sundaes with a choice of chocolate or caramel sauce, nuts, cherries and whipped cream for dessert. At 8.5 hours, the flight isn’t too long, so after dinner we settled in to try and get some sleep.
Our lunch choices on the way back were pretty much the same. Service started with an appetizer of shrimp and smoked salmon in a smoky chile sauce with salad. Mom had the beef tenderloin in Marsala sauce with potatoes, carrots and green beans, while I had the Peruvian-style chicken breast with veggie quinoa, sautéed spinach and bell peppers.
The other choices were salmon filet with balsamic vegetable sauce and herbed couscous or four-cheese ravioli with pear-honey sauce and parmesan. The main course was followed by cheese and sundaes again.
The mid-flight snack served prior to arrival was a chicken flatbread wrap with marinara sauce and a side of fruit and chocolate. I wasn’t very hungry and the wrap was really cheesy and heavy, so I only nibbled at it and figured we’d get a snack at the airport in DC before our flight back to San Diego.
On the outbound night flight to Rome, I pretty much passed out after our long day of travel, and only woke up about 75 minutes out of Rome as the flight attendants started passing out breakfast. I eschewed the hot choices for some yogurt, cereal and fruit (all that pasta awaited in Italy!). The coffee was terrible, but I needed some caffeine to wake up for the day ahead.
Breakfast service was quick and efficient. My tray was removed pretty much as soon as I had finished, my coffee was refilled, and I was free to get up and change back into my clothes while other passengers finished eating. That was a good thing, since the front lavatories are for Global First passengers only, and BusinessFirst ended up sharing two lavatories with the first several rows of economy, so there was often a line during the flight.
One final note: we were granted access to lounges throughout our journey since we held international business class tickets. Although Dulles is a United hub and the lounges there are huge, they look like they were last redone around 1994 – totally drab, with lackluster snacks and drinks, and dated toilet facilities.
The lounge in San Diego’s new Terminal 2 was quite nice, with marble floors, a lovely lounge area with café tables and banquettes overlooking the terminal, and a kitchen/dining area with snacks.
In Rome, we were given access to Alitalia’s Giotto Lounge. I don’t have any photos because there was a power outage during our visit, and our flight was boarding by the time the lights were back on. Luckily, the outage didn’t seem to affect the cappuccino machines, so we had a last coffee in Italy before the flight.
All in all, this was far from the best international business class experience I’ve had. More direct routing and better food would have been appreciated. However, given the cheap airfare, this was a great way to get to Europe. United’s lie-flat BusinessFirst seats are very comfortable and allowed me to get a good amount of sleep, the entertainment options were great, and the crew was friendly and efficient.
Have you flown a United 767 internationally? How was your experience?
United MileagePlus® Explorer Card
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