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Earlier this week, TPG Contributor Sarah Silbert flew from San Francisco to Sydney in United’s 777-200 business class, which leaves a bit to be desired. (All photos by Zach Honig.)
This weekend I’ll be flying Etihad’s new first-class product, the First Apartment, from Sydney to Abu Dhabi. I don’t get quite as excited about flights as certain TPG staffers, but this is definitely one segment I’ve been very much looking forward to. Since we had to get to Sydney to catch Etihad’s A380 and I’m currently working to re-qualify for United’s top-tier 1K elite status, we opted for a United BusinessFirst segment for our positioning flight.
Booking United BusinessFirst
I had to be in San Diego for a wedding last weekend, so we booked the six segments below as one reservation:
Segment 1: United BusinessFirst JFK-SFO (Upgraded from economy using a RPU)
Segment 2: United First SFO-SAN (Upgraded from economy using a RPU)
Segment 3: United First SAN-SFO (Upgraded from economy using a GPU)
Segment 4: United BusinessFirst SFO-SYD (Upgraded from economy using a GPU)
Segment 5: Swiss business class DXB-ZRH (booked in “Z” class)
Segment 6: Swiss business class ZRH-JFK (booked in “Z” class)
At $2,965 total, this was by no means a cheap ticket, but it was definitely a good price considering that the first four segments were booked in upgradeable economy and the last two were booked in business class. The itinerary would have run me closer to $2,600 if I hadn’t been traveling to San Diego during Comic-Con.
United’s 777-200 8-Across Business-Class Cabin
The 777-200 we flew on was configured with 8 seats in Global First, 40 in BusinessFirst, 113 in Economy Plus and 108 in economy. In BusinessFirst, the plane’s cabin layout feels a bit, well … cozy.
The lie-flat seats are arranged in a 2-4-2 configuration, with alternate sections facing forward or backward. That means half of the passengers are seated in the crowded middle section — hardly ideal if you’re traveling alone, though the arrangement is perfectly suited to families of four.
Having flown United’s Dreamliner from LAX to Melbourne in BusinessFirst last year, I was pretty underwhelmed when I first stepped on board. We had considered taking that same flight this time around and redeeming Avios for the short Qantas trip from SYD to MEL, and I sort of regretted not opting for the less-direct route once I got on board.
Compared to the Dreamliner (which is slightly narrower than the 777), our plane to Sydney felt quite cramped, with less storage space, armrest room and personal privacy. For one thing, I was facing forward while those in the middle section faced backward, making it awkward to look anywhere else than directly ahead of me.
If I hadn’t been traveling with a companion, even the two seats on the side would have felt like close quarters, as there’s no partition and the 20-inch-wide seats themselves don’t feel particularly roomy.
The one saving grace was the cool temperature that the crew picked for this flight — pairing the warmer cabin of an Asian carrier with United’s cramped seats would have made the journey far less enjoyable.
My BusinessFirst seat featured a screen for in-flight entertainment, a footrest, a sliver of storage space to the side of my seat and little else.
Passengers in business and first on this plane can’t stow any luggage under the footrest during takeoff and landing, and truthfully, there is hardly room for even the smallest of bags.
The forward storage cubby is so small that United’s relatively compact business-class blanket doesn’t fit.
Happily, the controls for adjusting the seat are pretty intuitive, but the downside is that the buttons are barely raised, making them take more effort than ideal to press. (I even thought my seat was broken for a minute!)
On a 14-plus-hour flight, I like to charge my phone and other gadgets, but with scant storage space it’s awkward to keep items anywhere but on the ledge beneath the IFE screen. Luckily, there are two USB ports (and two universal power ports) located between the seats, so it’s not too much of a stretch to place the phone here.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
American currently features kits sporting logos of old airlines that merged with AA, and United is also offering a limited-edition twist on its in-flight amenities. My kit came in a drawstring bag with a PGA theme; the sleep mask and socks sported a golf-appropriate argyle pattern and even some tees.
Beyond that, though, the contents were the same as usual: toothbrush and toothpaste, earplugs, a pen, tissue and Philosophy toiletries.
On my last several United flights in BusinessFirst, I’ve found the pillows to be surprisingly awful. They’ve definitely gotten more lumpy and uncomfortable. I don’t expect much, but even still the uneven, cotton-balls-bunched-together texture of the pillow makes it a challenge to get comfy.
The in-flight entertainment system features a ton of movies and TV shows, including plenty of new releases. I was also happy to note that the full first season of Broad City was available.
As usual, flight attendants came through the cabin to offer us drinks before takeoff. I enjoyed a glass of Champagne as I got things organized in preparation to stow my bags in the overhead compartment.
Shortly after boarding, we received printed menus. Unlike on other United flights/routes, this menu didn’t provide a wine list; it merely offered very broad, vague descriptions that could apply to vines from just about anywhere in Europe. Once the meal service began, our friendly flight attendant showed us the options: a Sancerre or Chardonnay for the whites, and a Côtes du Rhône or Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds. I tried the Côtes du Rhône, which was very drinkable.
As a vegetarian who’s had mixed luck getting a meat-free option when sitting at the back of business class, I usually opt to reserve a Hindu vegetarian meal ahead of time. In the past, I’ve been told that my request didn’t register (as recently as last week’s p.s. flight from JFK to SFO, which was on the same itinerary), but thankfully that was not the case this time.
As usual, the special meal still includes the same salad and appetizer served to everyone. I passed Zach the smoked salmon and enjoyed the salad with a tasty sesame vinaigrette dressing.
Compared to the many other Hindu vegetarian meals I’ve had on board United, this was one of the weakest. Most of the dish was comprised of cous cous, and the chickpeas were a bit undercooked. Not that I’m complaining too much; I’m glad my meal made it on at all!
Zach had the chicken entree, which he found to be adequate, though a bit dry. Both of us saved room for the ice cream sundae, which is always pretty tasty. Our friendly flight attendant was extra generous with the caramel and cherries.
Overall, the service on board was great. The FA working our side of the plane checked in frequently to refill our glasses and see if there was anything else we needed, and another kindly provided me with a jumbo bottle of water when I stopped by the galley to get a drink.
Our 777-200 was equipped with internet access, and I took advantage of the connectivity to get some work done (and test the performance).
Speeds were quite good, considering we were 38,000 feet above the Pacific Ocean. I got more than 7 Mbps down, which was fast enough to catch up and work and to do some online shopping. Zach even made a few phone calls with his new Google Fi phone (review coming soon!), and while there was a bit of a delay, they otherwise sounded great without any signal issues.
Book United BusinessFirst with Miles
We opted to pay for our flights in order to use up some Global Premier Upgrades, but at 70,000 miles each way, United’s BusinessFirst to Australia is a decent redemption. Availability is generally pretty decent, particularly on United’s flights from Los Angeles. The airline tends to open up unsold BusinessFirst and Global First seats just a few days before departure (including on this flight), and if there are award seats open in economy but not in business on the dates you’d like to book, you might be able to waitlist for business class by calling United.
You can earn 30,000 MileagePlus miles after signing up for the Chase United MileagePlus Explorer Card and spending $1,000 within the first three months. And if you add the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and meet the minimum spending requirement of $4,000 within the first 3 months, you’ll earn 40,000 bonus points which you can transfer 1:1 instantly to United, giving you the 70,000 miles necessary for this one-way flight.
While the 8-across BusinessFirst configuration was too cramped for my taste, I got a solid 9 hours of sleep on the flight, and arrived in Sydney at 6:30am feeling perfectly rested and ready to go.
If you’re looking to reach Sydney from the West Coast and don’t mind a connection, I’d take the United Dreamliner from LAX to Melbourne to enjoy a roomier seat with more privacy. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for the convenience of a nonstop trip, so it depends on your travel style and tolerance for potential eye contact with fellow BusinessFirst passengers.
If it weren’t for the cramped seating configuration and the lack of privacy, the only sticking point about this flight would be the lack of storage space in the seat.
Overall, I can’t say I’d recommend flying the United 777 from SFO to Sydney in business class, as there are more comfortable options. That said, friendly flight attendants and a surprisingly good night’s sleep made the long trip pass by pretty painlessly.
Have you flown United’s 8-across business class?
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
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