Chase Sapphire Reserve℠

Comparing Domestic Business and First Class: United Airlines

This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.

Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr examines the value of United Airlines’ First and Business class products.

When it comes to premium classes on domestic flights, not all products are created equal. This post kicks off a series that compares the premium offerings on major domestic airlines. I’ll present an overview of each carrier’s domestic First and Business class products, and analyze the value of each in terms of revenue fares and award ticket costs versus the quality of the product you receive.

I’ll start with United Airlines, which offers many different aircraft configurations on its domestic flights, sometimes even using internationally configured planes.

Classes of Service

United First — The majority of routes within the United States are served by United First class. This is essentially a leather recliner seat that gives you more space than Economy. Pitch ranges from 36-39 inches, and seat width is generally 20.5 inches depending on the aircraft. Some of the turboprop planes have United First class seats that are only 17″ wide … ouch.

You’ll get pre-departure beverage service (although this is sometimes missed), complimentary beer, wine, soft drinks and spirits, and meals are offered on flights longer than 2 hours. On planes equipped with in-flight entertainment, you get free DIRECTV and movies on flights longer than 3 hours. You receive Premier check-in, boarding, and security lines, but no lounge access.

United First consists of leather recliner seats and extra leg room.
United First offers leather recliners and extra leg room.

United BusinessFirst — 180 degree flatbed seats are standard on 747, 757-200, 767, 777, and 787 planes that offer BusinessFirst. In-flight entertainment is offered on 15.4″ screens, and there is in-seat power. Eye shades, ear plugs, and dental kits are handed out, and you receive multi-course meals on most flights. There is pre-departure beverage service, and you receive Premier check-in perks.

United's BusinessFirst offers seats that turn into 180 degree flatbeds.
United’s BusinessFirst offers seats that turn into 180 degree lie-flat beds.

United Global First — While not a standard offering on domestic flights, the 3 class internationally configured Boeing 777’s and 767’s do occasionally make appearances on routes between hubs. The big difference in Global First is the flatbed seats that turn into 6’6″ beds with built in lumbar support and back stimulation. You have the same 15.4″ video screens, power connections for your laptop, USB chargers for cameras and cell phones, premium dining, noise canceling headphones, additional storage compartments, free alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. The big thing here when flying this plane domestically is you get a much nicer seat. According to United.com, you will not be allowed access to the Global First lounges unless you’re flying on a long-haul international flight.

United's flagship GlobalFirst suite.
United’s flagship GlobalFirst suite.

For transcontinental flights from New York JFK to Los Angeles or San Francisco, United has introduced p.s. Premium Service crafted from 757-200’s retrofitted with BusinessFirst. Flights from JFK to LAX/SFO include all the regular United BusinessFirst amenities, with nothing extra really standing out. You do have access to United Clubs with these p.s. Premium Service BusinessFirst seats.

United's p.s. fleet consists of reconfigured 757-200s with 28 BusinessFirst seats.
United’s p.s. fleet consists of reconfigured 757-200s with 28 BusinessFirst seats.

When flying United domestically, your plane type will determine the premium classes onboard:

  1. Economy — ATR-42, Embraer 120/135/145, Bombardier Q200/300, CRJ-200;
  2. Economy and First — Bombardier Q400, Embraer 135/175, A319/320, CRJ-700, 737, 757-300;
  3. Economy and BusinessFirst — 757-200, 767, 777, 787-8/9;
  4. Economy, BusinessFirst, and Global First — 777-200, 767-300/400, 747-400.

What interests me are the random dates when I can find an internationally configured 767 or 777 with three classes flying domestic routes for seemingly no rhyme or reason. They generally fly between United hubs, sometimes on flights shorter than three hours. For example, on March 5th, United 777-200 registration N206UA flew Washington Dulles to Houston to set up its next flight from Houston to Sao Paulo. On March 18th, flight 373 from Houston to Washington Dulles will be flown by another 3 class 777-200. Prices for the 3 different classes on a one-way flight? Economy is $277, BusinessFirst is $436, and Global First is $670.

Dining

Food service is one area where United has fallen flat since its merger with Continental. To illustrate the decline and get a few good laughs at the expense of United dining, one Flyertalk member posted pictures of United Ice Cream Sundaes taken over the course of a year, and it’s a pretty poor showing. In response to many complaints, United announced a multi-million dollar investment in onboard dining, which rolled out last month.

United is taking steps to upgrade its domestic dining options.

Depending on the length of your flight, you will now have 3 entrees to choose from instead of 2, with options including lobster mac-and-cheese, better desserts, meal service on shorter flights, and a pre-landing snack or refreshment. United plans to roll out more upgrades to p.s. Premium Service flights later this year.

Service

Service on United is another pitfall drawing criticism from frequent flyers. I’ve had mixed experiences; sometimes I get friendly attendants running the cabin, and other times I get ones who don’t know the aircraft or seem to be angry at the world for the sun rising. Even on the best of days, I still don’t think any U.S. domestic carrier stacks up to many of the international carriers I’ve flown. The former Continental crews are sometimes easy to pick out, and the merger is still a sore spot for many of them.

Does United offer good value on domestic First and Business class flights? Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Does United offer good value on domestic First and Business class flights? Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Value

Value means different things to each of us, and it’s hard to pinpoint one aspect to say definitively whether United BusinessFirst and First classes offer good value.

For award redemptions, a one-way domestic flight in the lower 48 states is 25,000 MileagePlus miles in First or BusinessFirst, and 35,000 miles if Global First is offered. This is in line with the other domestic legacy carriers, but offers a leg up on Delta since you now don’t know what you should be charged for a one-way flight using SkyMiles.

I always look at how many cents per mile a redemption offers to help me decide whether to pay cash or redeem for an award flight. TPG’s latest monthly valuations peg United miles at 1.5 cents apiece, so if I can get better than that, I’m content.

25,000 miles for a p.s. Premium Service flight could offer good value, but availability is tough to find.
25,000 miles for a p.s. Premium Service flight could be a good value, but availability from JFK to LAX/SFO is tough to find.

There are many factors that determine United First and BusinessFirst revenue fares on a particular route. When booking 60 days out (which is roughly the best time frame for booking), I generally find United to be on the expensive end of domestic business and first class fares. Looking at round-trip fares for a 6 night stay in Los Angeles on a JFK to LAX transcon flight in May, United is asking a minimum of $1,809 for p.s. Premium Service flights.

That’s more than comparable service on Virgin America, Delta, or American, and a whopping $611 more than JetBlue’s Mint service. Searching fares in May, June, and July showed that United offered the most expensive business class transcon flights of all carriers. This is only one route, but it lines up with what I generally find when searching domestic business and first class fares.

United often has the most expensive transcon business class flights.
United often has the most expensive transcon business class flights.

What I would be most careful about when booking United First or BusinessFirst is double checking the aircraft type scheduled for my flight. You could pay for a premium ticket and end up on an A319 United First seat, when you could be on a 787 Dreamliner BusinessFirst seat for the same price. Both aircraft have been used on the IAH-EWR route.

I personally wouldn’t pay extra to fly United First for any flight under 3 hours. You’re likely getting little more than a slightly bigger leather seat and a few free snacks. I can deal with a seat that’s only a little smaller and save a few hundred bucks or 12,500 miles for such a short flight. Taking into consideration direct routings offered, the value of United Mileageplus miles earned, on-time reliability, poor dining (perhaps on the upswing) and the quality of seat I would receive, I think other airlines offer better value for business class equivalent fares.

What has been your experience in United First, BusinessFirst, or Global First?