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Not all business-class products are created equal, and even on the same airline, there can be vast differences in the quality of seats and service. Look at the business-class cabins on American Airlines’ 777-200s, for example, and you’ll find either the carrier’s second-best seat or the worst premium seat it has on any aircraft. This makes it very hard to know which airline and aircraft is best to book.

Starting with this comparative review, we’re launching a series of Business-Class Battles that compare flights head-to-head across a diverse set of criteria: the booking process, check-in, the lounge, cabin and seats, amenities, in-flight entertainment, food and beverage, service and operational performance. For each of these battles, the author has booked and flown on two different airlines from the same alliance on the same route, just days apart — check out the individual reviews of Lufthansa’s 747-8 and United’s 777-200 for more details. Without further ado, here’s Lufthansa vs. United on the transatlantic route between Washington, DC (IAD) and Frankfurt, Germany (FRA). Let the business-class battle begin!

In This Post

Booking

There are many ways to book these flights:

Airline Loyalty Program Lufthansa
IAD – FRA
United
FRA – IAD
Transfer partners
United MileagePlus 70,000 miles + taxes 57,500 miles + taxes Chase Ultimate Rewards & Starpoints
Aeroplan 55,000 miles + taxes + ~$500 of fuel surcharges 55,000 miles + taxes Amex Membership Rewards & Starpoints
Lufthansa Miles & More 52,000 miles + taxes + ~$500 fuel surcharges 52,000 miles + taxes + ~$140 fuel surcharges Starpoints
Avianca LifeMiles 63,000 miles + taxes 63,000 miles + taxes Starpoints (or buy miles with frequent sales)
Singapore KrisFlyer 65,000 miles + taxes + ~$500 of fuel surcharges 65,000 miles + taxes Amex MR, Chase UR, Citi ThankYou points and Starpoints

*Taxes on the flight from IAD to FRA vary between $5.60-$23 and flights from FRA-IAD cost around $115-130 depending on the program.

For the purposes of this comparison, I needed to book my first flight aboard Lufthansa’s 747-8 from DC to Frankfurt and the return aboard United’s 777-200 from Frankfurt to Washington. One large benefit that United has over Lufthansa right off the bat: cheaper awards. If you book with MileagePlus miles, you’re going to pay less for United flights (57,500 miles) than partner flights (70,000 miles). If booking through another program, Lufthansa’s substantial fuel surcharges are generally going to make that option more expensive out-of-pocket than United.

The Points Guy has earned lots of Chase Ultimate Rewards thanks to the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card’s 3x earnings on travel and dining and has a sizable stash of American Express Membership Reward points as a result of using The Platinum Card from American Express to book flights directly with airlines for 5x points. While booking through Aeroplan gave us the option to save a significant number of miles for the round-trip, the fuel surcharges would have been a bitter pill to swallow.

It wasn’t just the fuel surcharges, though. Aeroplan’s website wouldn’t display the IAD-FRA and FRA-IAD flights that we wanted when we used the multi-city search tool since I was starting my trip in South Florida and ended it in Austin, Texas. Aeroplan’s phone agents aren’t empowered to book awards that don’t show up on the website, so that wasn’t an option either. In order to use Aeroplan, we would have had to book a simpler routing and pay for positioning flights to complete the trip, which would have essentially eliminated the benefit of booking through that program in the first place. In the end, we transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United to book this trip for 127,500 United MileagePlus miles and $189 — including the $75 close-in booking fee.

Verdict: United wins for charging fewer miles or no fuel surcharges on award flights.

The Lounge

United Club (IAD Concourse C Gate 17) vs. Lufthansa
United Club (IAD Concourse C, Gate 17) vs. Lufthansa’s business-class lounge (FRA Z Concourse)

Due to award availability, we booked these flights “backwards” — with the Lufthansa flight departing out of the US and the United flight departing from Germany. This complicated the lounge situation, as I ended up visiting a United Club before the Lufthansa flight and a Lufthansa Business Class lounge before the United flight.

Lufthansa:  I visited the United Club lounge in IAD’s Terminal C and then the Lufthansa’s Business Class lounge in Terminal B just before the flight. United has three lounges in IAD’s Concourse C and I visited the one near gate C17 on both the outbound and the return. Both times, it was quite crowded and even as a solo traveler, it was hard to find a place to sit that wouldn’t be at someone else’s table. The crowding was also exacerbated by the number of travelers using seats to hold their luggage. Food options at the United Club included the standard durable snack foods you’ll find at a US-airline domestic lounge, although I was pleased by the healthy options being offered, like salad, edamame, orange ginger couscous, carrots and celery sticks. For beverages, there were coffee machines and cold water dispensers, with and without lemon. The bar also provided several complimentary house wines.

The Lufthansa Business Class lounge was disappointing compared to the rest of the excellent Lufthansa experience; it felt crowded and there were no staffers at the self-serve-prohibited bar. However, Lufthansa’s Business Class lounge still beat the United Club lounge for providing a self-serve buffet of hot food and sandwiches. It also earns bonus points for having a special boarding door that allowed you to skip the crowds at the gate and enter the plane directly from the lounge.

United: Before the United flight, I went to the Lufthansa Business Class lounge in FRA. As one of the main lounges in the airline’s hub and it was large, bright and modern. Interestingly, the food options were less appealing and plentiful than the options in IAD.

Verdict: Pitting United’s Club in IAD vs. Lufthansa’s Business Class lounge in FRA, Lufthansa’s FRA lounge would win for better ambiance, food and drink options. However, once United opens its Polaris lounge in IAD later this year, that could catapult United’s ahead of both Lufthansa lounges.

Cabin and Seat

Lufthansa
Lufthansa’s 747-8 seating (left) provided much more space than United’s 777-200 (right).
Criteria Lufthansa 747-8 United 777-200
Cabin Arrangement 2-2-2 main deck
2-2 upper deck
2-4-2
Number of Business-Class Seats 80 seats across 16 rows 40 seats across 5 rows
Space Between Armrests 20 inches 20 inches
Lie-Flat Bed Length 76 inches 75 inches
At-Seat Storage
(for Take-Off and Landing)
4″ x 12″ small cubby
28.5″ x 9″ x 14″ and
23″ x 9″ x 22″ window-side
storage bins on upper deck
None
 Power Plugs Two universal plugs
per pair of seats
Two universal plugs
per pair of seats

While neither provides all-aisle access or much privacy, Lufthansa’s business-class seat far outperforms United’s cramped eight-wide layout. Both aircraft are arranged in pairs of two seats, however on United, two pairs of two seats are put together to form a four-wide middle-seat block, which leaves two passengers per row with a middle seat in business class. Lufthansa’s 2-2-2 (downstairs) and 2-2 (upstairs) arrangements mean there are no middle seats and the only passengers without aisle access are those seated at the windows. And, on Lufthansa’s upper deck, a window seat means you’ve got large storage bins to store your stuff, giving you fewer reasons to get up and potentially climb over your seatmate.

The United seats also have no at-seat storage areas suitable for storing items during takeoff and landing, so you have to rely on a simple tray under the IFE screen to hold your things. This lack of storage is especially problematic now that United stocks a large pillow and two large blankets at each seat, amenities that are better suited for United’s new Polaris seats, which we hope will be added to these European markets soon via United’s newly retrofit 767s.

Verdict: Lufthansa wins.

Amenities

Lufthansa stocked its seats with a large pillow and blanket at boarding. When I flew United, I received double: two large pillows and two blankets. Since my flight, though, United has cut back to just one large pillow. Still, while United beats Lufthansa on the number and quality of on-seat amenities, the eight-wide seating on its 777-200 leaves no room for storage, meaning many of them have to be stuffed into gaps in the overhead bin for takeoff. United’s amenity kits were also chock full of items, including some Polaris-branded products, floss and even a “relaxing pillow mist.”

Lufthansa
Lufthansa’s amenity kit (left) just isn’t at the same level as United’s new Polaris kit (right).

Verdict: United provides more and nicer amenities, but where to store all of these items is a significant issue on the 777-200.

In-Flight Entertainment 

Lufthansa
Lufthansa’s in-flight entertainment screen could have been better, but at least it worked!
Criteria Lufthansa 747-8 United 777-200
IFE Screen Size 15 inches 15 inches
Noise-Cancelling Headphones Yes, decent quality
but could be better
No active noise-cancellation from the headphones at my original seat — the ones at my second seat worked better.
 Headphone Availability From boarding to
disembarkation
From boarding to
disembarkation
Unlimited Wi-Fi Pricing $19 for up to 24 hours $23.99 for the entire flight
Wi-Fi Speed Test 738 ping
7.89Mbps download
0.35Mbps upload
(Speed test never successfully loaded)

For in-flight entertainment and power, the experience between the two should be about the same, however my United IFE remote malfunctioned, making it a pain to try to work through the menus — it also randomly exited out of my movie from time to time. The power plug at my United seat wouldn’t power any of my devices until the IFE system had been reset. It seems I got the bad luck of the draw on the United headphones as well; the pair at my original seat did not have active noise-cancelling, but the pair at my second seat worked better.

When it comes to Wi-Fi, Lufthansa provided a cheaper and faster option. That said, the United connection might have been slowed down due to the number of passengers connecting during a daytime flight vs. on the nighttime Lufthansa flight.

Verdict: Lufthansa wins for better and cheaper Wi-Fi — and a functioning IFE system.

Food and Service

While both airlines began service with a welcome drink, Lufthansa’s was served in glassware and United’s was served in a plastic disposable glass, although it was complemented by a piece of chocolate. Note that United has since phased out these celebratory Polaris Champagne glasses and plates and now uses standard plastic cups for the pre-departure beverage.

Both airlines served sparkling wine at boarding — Lufthansa (left) in glassware and United (right) in plastic.
Both airlines served sparkling wine at boarding — Lufthansa (left) in glassware and United (right) in plastic.

The first beverage service was a draw, with each airline serving good-quality Champagnes in glassware, accompanied by nuts.

The first drink service — accompanied by nuts — were quite similar.
The first round of beverage service was similar across the two airlines. Both were accompanied by nuts.

Lufthansa soared ahead during the first meal. United either ran out of a lunch option by the first row of business class or didn’t stock a meal choice that had been listed on the menu — either way, I ended up with my second choice and the entrée was undercooked and overly fatty. While it could’ve been plated better, the Lufthansa dinner was well-cooked and delicious.

While Lufthansa
Lufthansa’s food (left) could have been plated better, but was delicious. Not so much for the undercooked meat on United (right).

Lufthansa finished dinner with a choice of cheese, fruit or ice cream. The cheese plate was small but tasty. Meanwhile, United’s ginger-topped packaged ice cream was a strange way to end the meal.

Lufthansa
Lufthansa’s cheese plate vs. United’s ginger ice cream.

The second meals are harder to judge: on the red-eye flight, Lufthansa’s breakfast was a modest meal to start the morning. Next time, I’d probably trade the meal for extra sleep and then eat something in the FRA Arrival Lounge. Meanwhile, United’s daytime flight meant a full second meal was justified — it was overcooked, but still a filling way to end the flight. I was impressed when I received a full second meal, rather than the lighter “meals” I’ve had on similar, daytime, business-class transatlantic flights.

Lufthansa (left) had a basic breakfast for the redeye second meal and United (right) had a full second lunch service for the daytime flight.
A basic breakfast on Lufthansa (left) and a full second lunch on United (right).

In terms of service, there wasn’t much competition. Lufthansa flight attendants were stellar throughout the flight, asking passengers for our preferred names and responding to call requests with surprising speed. Meanwhile, United flight attendants focused their attention on bad-mouthing Lufthansa, complaining about its supposedly bad service, seats, food and company policies rather than providing actual service to their passengers. The FAs further botched the situation when I asked to be moved away from a seatmate who used chewing tobacco throughout the entire flight. They refused to move me to another free seat, misstating United’s policy, then deflecting when I asked for the purser and refusing to let me switch seats until more than six hours into an eight-hour flight.

Verdict: Lufthansa wins by a landslide.

Operational Performance

Criteria Lufthansa IAD-FRA United FRA-IAD
Average Departure Delay (April 16-June 14) 40 minutes 31 minutes
% of Arrivals Delayed (April 16-June 14) 29% 29%
Boarding (review flight) 10 minutes late To the minute
Departure (review flight) 1 minute early 3 minutes late
Arrival (review flight) 8 minutes late 26 minutes early

Checking FlightRadar24’s data over 60 days, Lufthansa’s flight 419 from IAD to FRA averages almost a 40-minute departure delay, mostly influenced by three delays of more than two hours and six delays between one and two hours. For United’s flight 988 from FRA to IAD, there’s an average delay of 31 minutes. This too is skewed by larger delays: two flights over three hours delayed and three delays between one and two hours. Just to be sure that one airline isn’t padding its schedule, I compared schedules — in both directions, United schedules just five more minutes of duration than Lufthansa.

Verdict: United beats Lufthansa on these review flights, and overall.

Overall Impression

Here are the final rankings for all categories, a result of my two review flights. Scoring is based on a scale of 1 to 10 where 10 is best and 1 is worst.

Criteria Lufthansa 747-8 United 777-200
Award Pricing 5 8
Lounge (Lufthansa Business vs. United Club) 5 2
Cabin & Seat 7 1
Amenities 6 8
In-Flight Entertainment 7 4
Wi-Fi (Pricing and Speed) 8 5
Food and Beverage 7 3
Service 9 1
Operational Performance 5 7
Grand Total 59 39

With United’s recent improvements from its new Polaris branding, I expected this to be a competitive race. While I knew Lufthansa’s 2-2 upper deck would trump United’s eight-wide seating, I imagined United might score points on soft-product improvements. Ultimately, though, this comparison review was laughably one-sided. Lufthansa took the prize in almost every category, from service and food to Wi-Fi speed and pricing. Based on my experience, there’s no doubt that Lufthansa provides the better value — even if you have to pay 12,500 more United miles to book it.

The Winner: Lufthansa

Check back next week when the Business-Class Battle continues, this time with British Airways vs. American Airlines. 

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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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