Flight Review: United (777-200) Business From Frankfurt to Washington, DC
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On Monday, we launched our first-ever Business Class Battle, starting with my review of Lufthansa's 747-8 between Washington DC’s Dulles (IAD) and Frankfurt, Germany (FRA). Today, we present a full review of United’s option on this route: the 777-200. Check back Friday evening for the comparison between the two.
And while the customer service failings I experienced on this trip have been covered separately, this is the full story of what happened on my first — and perhaps last — United Polaris flight.
This flight was booked as a combined United multi-city award ticket with my Lufthansa 747-8 flight. If booked on its own, this return flight from Frankfurt back to my home in Austin (AUS) would have cost 57,500 United MileagePlus miles plus about $118 in taxes and fees.
Lufthansa's Miles & More program charges 52,500 miles and Air Canada's Aeroplan charges 55,000 miles one-way for the same routing. However, both of these programs tack on expensive fuel surcharges, making United MileagePlus the best option for booking this routing on United's aircraft.
We transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points from TPG's Chase Sapphire Reserve Card to complete this award booking, putting the taxes and fees on a corporate card. If I were booking personally, though, I would put the taxes and fees on my Citi Prestige Card for the comfort of having its excellent trip delay protection.
I arrived at Frankfurt Airport from the city via the S-Bahn metro and headed to the check-in desks for the Z gates. Once there, the large departure board directed me to the B gate check-in area. This was only a minor inconvenience for me since I just had a carry-on bag, but the walk would've been annoying for anyone with luggage in tow.
The 501-506 check-in desks weren't easy to find once I got to the B check-in area — they were hidden in the back of the terminal hall behind some supporting pillars. Inspired by one of my fellow passengers on the Iberia premium economy inaugural flight, I inquired how much it would cost to upgrade to first class, but the Lufthansa contract agent said that my ticket wasn't eligible for a paid upgrade.
Boarding pass in hand, I walked back to the Z gates to clear border control. Thanks to my EasyPASS-RTP registration, I was able to skip the line for All Passports and go through the automated eGates for European Union passport holders. The next security line was especially slow and intense. Almost every passenger was either personally selected for pat-downs or their luggage was selected for additional screening. While myself and my larger carry-on bag got through with no issues, my small backpack was pulled aside for two levels of additional screening.
Lounge and Boarding
At check-in, the agent invited me to visit the Lufthansa Business Class lounge once I was airside, located in the opposite direction and about a seven-minute walk from our departure gate.
The lounge was large and sported a very modern design. Even with poor weather outside, it felt bright.
In addition to numerous seating and TV areas, there was a prominent dining section.
The food wasn't anything special, with the main meal options being hot dogs and sliced hard boiled eggs. Vegetarian stew and chicken noodle soup were also available, as well as a wide variety of drinks.
Back at the gate, passengers lined up into United's five standard boarding groups well before the boarding process had even begun. As the gate area was too small to handle a 777's worth of passengers, groups 3-5 were instructed to line up in a separate area. Gate agents were in place to make sure that order would be kept.
Boarding began promptly at 11:35am, starting with Global Services passengers. At 11:36am, the long line of Group 1 passengers was invited to board. Passengers then had to climb down a flight of stairs, an annoyance for those with rolling suitcases, before being split between the forward door, for first and business-class, and the second door, for those seated in economy.
Cabin and Seat
United's 777-200 Polaris business-class cabin is arranged in five rows of 2-4-2, with groups of seats alternating between facing forward and backward.
Note that there was no privacy divider between passengers sitting next to each other, which is fine if you're traveling with a companion but is less than ideal when you're next to someone you don't know. Other airlines still have eight-wide business-class cabins on their 777s, but at least British Airways alternates passengers between facing forward and backward, providing movable privacy screens between almost all the seats. No such luck on United's 777-200s.
For this flight, I'd selected window seat 6K in hopes that the aisle seat would remain empty, which unfortunately it did not. Due to the lack of storage space at my seat, this meant I'd not only have to climb over my neighbor to use the restroom, but also to retrieve my laptop from my carry-on bag, which was stored overhead, and my pillows and blankets that were not-so-gently stored during taxiing.
I measured 20 inches of space between armrests, but the window-side armrest is laughably narrow, while the middle armrest is only a few inches wide. Thanks to this flight, I've now had the experience of fighting for an armrest on an internationally configured business-class seat.
Using the seat controls on the center armrest, you can lie these seats flat into an approximately 75-inch bed. Note that once flat, they are especially narrow if you've got wide shoulders and like to lie on your back. Unfortunately, the leg rest on my seat collapsed under just a slight amount of pressure, which prevented me from comfortably reclining.
Each seat has a 15-inch in-flight entertainment (IFE) screen directly above the footwell, offering an impressive 15 languages from which to choose.
There was a wide range of movies, TV shows, music channels, audio books, kids' programs and another option called Games & Learning. Under movies, there was a solid selection of new releases to choose from.
Headphones were stocked at each seat, and while the sound quality wasn't bad, they didn't seem to have any active noise-cancellation and I could easily hear the cabin and engine noise while watching a movie. However, it seems that this may have been an issue with my seat's IFE system or the headphones stocked there. Once I was settled in my new seat (more on that later) the headphones seemed to work better.
However, noise-cancelling was the least of my IFE issues. The remote couldn't seem to distinguish between the down button and the select button, which made it hard to navigate the menus. A few times, the remote sensed a phantom "Menu" button push, exiting out of my movie and forcing me to have to re-navigate to the place I'd left off. Between this and the lack of power from the universal power plug, I eventually convinced a flight attendant to care enough to reset the IFE system at my seat. While this fixed my power plug issues, the remote still continued to be a problem.
Shortly after reaching cruising altitude, I approached a flight attendant to address how my seat-mate was chewing and spitting tobacco — at this point, I wasn't sure if it was allowed on the plane, but expressed how grossed out I was by it. The flight attendant (wrongly) said that chewing tobacco wasn't prohibited by United's rules and dismissed my suggestion to let me move to one of the empty middle seats.
With the other issues mounting — from the broken leg rest to my malfunctioning IFE system — I pushed harder to be re-seated. After about five hours, the flight attendant finally relented, saying he'd figure out which seat to move me to. And then we hit turbulence and I didn't see him again.
Finally, about 6.5 hours into my eight-hour flight, I pushed the issue again and was directed to take aisle seat 8H. Well aware that there were no aisle seats available on the seat map, I asked if that seat was taken. The flight attendant shot back, asking if I wanted to move or not. Sure enough, 8H was assigned — but the passenger was sleeping in the middle seat, 8G, seemingly for some privacy. Thankfully, this passenger was understanding when he awoke to find someone else sitting in his seat and that he'd been relegated to a middle seat for the rest of the flight.
There were three pricing options for the Wi-Fi on this flight:
- 1 hour: $8.99 or 1,390 United miles (~$21 of value based on TPG valuations)
- 2 hours: $12.99 or 2,010 United miles (~$30 of value based on TPG valuations)
- Full flight: $23.99 or 3,700 United miles (~$56 of value based on TPG valuations)
While reasonably priced, the Wi-Fi didn't have a solid enough connection to run an Ookla speed test through the app on my phone or on my laptop. I found the speeds too slow to effectively use my laptop to work on the internet, so I relied on my phone to stay connected with the ground.
One annoyance about the Wi-Fi purchase process: If you want to be able to switch between devices, you're going to have to have your United MileagePlus number and password memorized since before being allowed to connect to the Wi-Fi, you need to log into your United account in order to have the option to switch between devices. Otherwise, you'll have to buy separate plans for each device.
Food and Beverage
During the boarding process, we were offered a choice of drinks and a piece of chocolate. The disposable plates and glasses were designed with stems to help keep drinks from tipping over.
Once airborne, an initial drink service was complemented by a bowl of nuts.
Shortly afterward, the first meal service began with:
- Chilled appetizer — buffalo mozzarella, Kalamata olives, tomato, basil and a balsamic glaze
- Salad — butter lettuce, cucumbers, Kalamata olives, radish, tomato and feta cheese
30 minutes after the appetizer and salad course was collected, the flight attendants announced that there was a delay in the service of the main course due to "an oven not working."
For the main course, passengers had the choice of:
- Roasted rack of lamb
- Roasted chicken breast
- Roasted halibut
- Butternut squash ravioli
- A seasonal salad with grilled chicken
I chose the chicken breast, but was then confused when I was asked for my "next selection." After all, I was seated in the first row of business class and the FAs took orders from front to back. I wondered if lunch would be served with two smaller entrees, so I asked for the rack of lamb. It turns out only the lamb was served.
I found the green beans and potatoes that accompanied it to be pleasant, however I was very disappointed when I tried to cut into the meat. Between the high fat content and apparent undercooking, I was unable to choke down any of it.
The disappointing main course was followed by a less-than-appealing ice cream cart. After hearing stories of life-changing United ice cream sundaes from TPG's Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig, I was underwhelmed when the new sundae cart rolled up with pre-packaged ice cream containers.
The only flavor? Honey & Stem Ginger. It was the first time I've even heard of ginger being an ice cream topping, and the last time I ever want to try it. The small sweets and Polaris-branded chocolates were a nice way to end the meal, though.
Thankfully, there was also a tray of snacks next to the emergency exit to hold me over until the next meal.
For the arrival dining service, passengers had the choice of:
- Grilled chicken — tomato basil sauce, vegetable couscous and green beans
- A fruit and cheese plate
Although somewhat turned off by the first meal, I decided to try another meat-based option. While the first meal had seemed undercooked, the FAs seemingly overshot the cooking time on it this time around — the chicken was dry and the green beans were soft.
As we've detailed in other Polaris articles, United has added an overwhelming amount of amenities in its new Polaris soft product. At boarding, seats were stocked with two large pillows, a plastic-wrapped comforter and a plastic-wrapped throw blanket, each of which featured Saks Fifth Avenue branding. Plastic-wrapped headphones were also provided. Sadly, the one amenity I was hoping for wasn't present: the Polaris bear.
During boarding, flight attendants also handed out Polaris-branded amenity kits.
The number of large items, the crowded configuration and lack of in-seat storage combined to make it hard to find places to store these items for takeoff. As I wanted to avoid having to climb over my seat-mate, I tried wedging my items in the footwell and cubbies in front of my seat, however, during taxiing, the flight attendants noticed. After trying to find storage in the overhead bins, the FA ended up tossing my items onto the empty middle seats in my row — where I'd later have to retrieve them.
Inside the amenity kits, the items were grouped into four categories: Sleep, Relax, Rest and Refresh.
Cowshed-branded moisturizing hand cream, chamomile refreshing toner and a lavender gentle cleanser were also available in the bathrooms.
The service on this flight began on a positive note, with a warm welcome from the crew and standard pleasantries during our pre-flight beverage service. After boarding was complete, the flight attendants noted that German, Dutch, Spanish and French speakers were on board. All announcements were made in English and followed up in German.
Unfortunately, it all went downhill from there. For my first meal — at my original window seat — the flight attendant simply wouldn't lean over my neighbor to serve or collect any dishes, forcing me to awkwardly stretch out to take or hand back my food trays and glasses. Later, as this flight attendant was clearing my neighbor's dessert dishes, a spoon fell off his tray, ricocheted off my tray table and fell to the floor. She waved it off as lost forever and moved onto the next row.
Whenever I was around the galley, I noticed that the flight attendants treated passengers as if we were invisible, not letting us interfere with their conversations, meals or iPad games. After using the restroom half-way through the flight, I started a conversation with a reluctant flight attendant, saying I'd flown Lufthansa over and was excited to experience Polaris for the first time. Rather than taking the opportunity to discuss the benefits of Polaris, she launched a series of disparaging remarks about Lufthansa, including that it had bad service, seats that did "not lie flat" and food that not good because it was left in the fridge too long.
From there, she continued to frustratingly detail how United and Continental flight attendants are still on separate contracts and how the much more experienced (and thus, expensive) United crew members don't end up getting to work on the long Dreamliner routes. While this inside information was interesting to me, she seemed to be misinformed about some of these things and I found it far from appropriate for a flight attendant to readily rant about a partner airline — and the internal policies of her own airline — with a passenger she'd just met.
This was by far the worst business-class flight I've experienced. I can easily think of a few economy products that I would've rather flown instead: Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Lufthansa come easily to mind. While the easy rebuttal is that United's business-class seats are lie-flat, my broken leg rest and the crew's hesitance to allow me to change seats eliminated that advantage. Plus, I'd rather have the economy meals from any of those three airlines than the ones I was served on this flight. The in-flight entertainment systems and power plugs worked well and the service was much more personal and responsive on each of those airlines in economy than on this flight in United's business class.
I assume that my experience was a perfect storm of hard and soft product failings, however United furthered its poor performance by initially offering just $100 of compensation for this miserable experience, giving me an indication this wasn't too far from the ordinary.
So, how did Lufthansa stack up to this United business-class flight? Check back Friday evening to see the head-to-head comparison between the two.
Have you flown in business class aboard United's 777-200? Tell us about your experience, below.