Business Unusual: Ukraine International Airlines (777-200ER) in Biz From New York to Kiev
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I have a fascination with all things obscure, and when a rare flight deal popped up to a variety of exotic locales, I knew it was my one shot of flying on an airline that most Americans have never heard of.
Ukraine International Airlines is Ukraine's flag carrier. Established in 1992, the airline is rife with corruption and tries to fight off competition in a unique fashion by strong-arming airport authorities. It has a long-haul fleet of three newly refurbished Boeing 777-200ERs and four shabby 767s, but only flies to one destination in the US, New York City, which has a large Ukrainian expat population.
I was curious to see how the relatively unknown airline's business class stacked up against larger carriers, and expected to be on a flight that would not be so conventional.
The first thing you'll notice when trying to book a flight on UIA is that it's relatively difficult to do it with miles. The airline is not part of any major alliance, so you won't be able to redeem whatever hoard of American, Delta or United miles you have saved up. However, the airline is partners with Air France-KLM's Flying Blue program, and you should be able to book the flight with miles that way.
After some serious searching, I wasn't able to find any award availability on Flying Blue's online search engine. Instead, I discovered that you had to contact Flying Blue's customer service to book flights on some of its partners that aren't in the SkyTeam alliance, including Ukraine International.
Flying Blue is partners with all three major transferrable points programs — American Express Membership Rewards, Chase Ultimate Rewards and Citi ThankYou.
Since booking miles wasn't feasible at the time and we found a great sale on paid airfare, we decided to book the ticket with cash. I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve to pay for the $1,594 round-trip fare — with about $1,250 for business class on the outbound to Kiev Boryspil International Airport (KBP) and another $344 for economy class coming back to New York-JFK. I earned 3x points on the purchase, netting 4,782 Ultimate Rewards points worth about $96, according to TPG's valuations.
You could also earn Flying Blue miles on UIA, although its website prohibited me from adding my Flying Blue rewards number to the reservation. Apparently, you have to call Flying Blue after the flight and request a mileage credit, and the airline will then retroactively award the miles. Since it was a business-class Z fare, I should receive 150% of the 4,693 flight miles, or 7,039 Flying Blue miles worth $84 at 1.2 cents apiece, though nothing's shown up yet.
As far as cash business-class tickets to Europe go, $1,250 wasn't too bad. The airline seems to offer consistently cheap business-class fares to Kiev and other destinations in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, so it's always worth keeping an eye out if you're short on miles and need to book with cash.
Ukraine International flies out of JFK's Terminal 7 daily in warmer months and reduces its frequency to thrice-weekly flights during the winter. While most flights to Europe depart from 5pm to 11pm, UIA Flight 232 leaves at 12:30am. It's not the most desirable time if you want to enjoy the lounge or be awake for most of the flight, and it also means you end up arriving in Kiev at 4:20pm local time with most of the day gone.
The check-in desk was a bit hidden and away from the rest of the other carriers' areas. You'll want to head right as soon as you get into the terminal.
There wasn't much of a line for either coach or premium cabins when I arrived. (Granted, I was there hours before my flight.) Business-class passengers had their own line.
I dropped off my bag with the friendly check-in agent, who processed my reservation quickly. He handed me a pass to the lounge, and I headed off to security. Business-class passengers were entitled to two free checked bags in addition to a carry-on and personal item.
It was quite obvious how proud the national airline was to have a nonstop long-haul flight to one of the most important cities in the world, as evidenced by its branding and the Ukrainian flags displayed throughout its territory in the airport.
It may be annoying to some that the flight leaves so late, but it actually worked in my favor. Since UIA wasn't part of the TSA PreCheck program, there was no expedited security. But since I had arrived after most other flights had departed, I was able to breeze through security.
Business-class passengers had access to the British Airways Galleries Lounge, which was under renovation. It'll be great once the lounge is refreshed, but it was an eyesore to see the fake walls all around the space to hide the construction.
The first thing I noticed was that the lounge definitely needed a serious facelift (although the attached first-class lounge just finished renovations). The chairs were slouching, and the decor was about 10 years past its time.
Still, there was plenty of seating and, because of most of the other business-class passengers who would normally be in the lounge had already departed, it was quiet and I didn't have to fight anyone over food, or what was left of it.
The food options were limited, and it appeared that the lounge staff was slowly shutting down the space so they could go home. I scoured the place for sustenance and only found tiny sandwiches, cheese, crackers and cookies.
I loaded up a plate and headed over to the self-serve bar. There were the normal liquors, like Glenlivet and Grey Goose and refrigerators full of soft drinks and bottled beer.
If wine and bubbly are more your speed, that was available too, although the varietals were not outstanding — Mionetto prosecco, a 2017 Roblar chardonnay and a Broncott Estate sauvignon blanc, for example.
In one corner of the lounge there was a "pub" with a variety of bottled beers (Brooklyn lager, Coors and O'Doul's) but also two beers from Blue Point Brewing (from Patchogue, New York) on tap. I filled up a glass with the toasted lager, which hit the spot after a full day of work.
I grabbed a seat to eat my grub and test the lounge's Wi-Fi. I had an eggplant caponata with white-bean spread and a ciabatta sandwich with grilled chicken, lemon-artichoke pesto and fresh mozzarella. For food that appeared to have been sitting out for a while, it wasn't too bad. The quality seemed fresh, and the chunks of cheese were tasty enough.
I whipped out my laptop to test the Wi-Fi speeds, which were quick but not lightning-fast.
If you wanted to refresh before your flight, you could use one of the few showers in the lounge. I took a peek, but what I found was dim, dank and old — not a place I'd want to freshen up. There even appeared to be rust on the floor.
One serious frustration I had with the lounge was that power outlets were hard to come by. It was so bad that British Airways had placed charging stations throughout the lounge. Hopefully, this will be fixed once the lounge is renovated.
Boarding was pretty uneventful. I got there after they had started boarding business-class passengers, who got to board first. I handed the gate agent my ticket and descended down the jetway ready to fly on the little-known airline.
UIA had a classic livery that instantly brings to mind the idea of what an ex-Soviet state's national airline would look like. Decked out in white, blue and yellow, the branding mirrored the Ukrainian flag and felt to me reminiscent of Lufthansa’s old livery.
This aircraft, registered UR-GOA, was a 13-year-old Boeing 777-200ER and was formerly operated by Air Austral, a small French airline based on the island of Réunion, and then Orenair, a Russian carrier that merged with Rossiya in 2016. The new wide-bodies were a welcome addition to an aging and subpar long-haul fleet. UIA installed lie-flat seats in business, while its 767s still feature business-class recliners.
As we settled in, the flight attendants came around with welcome beverages that included sparking wine, orange juice and water, all of which were served in actual glassware.
Ukrainian and English-language newspapers were offered too, although the New York Times Europe edition and Business Traveler were the only publications in English. The Times had a customized spine, a classy touch and something I had never seen before.
When we pushed back from the gate at 12:30am as scheduled, all the flight attendants came around and asked if I wanted to stay asleep or be woken for dinner. They also made sure all our seats were upright by pushing the seat controls for us. At 12:54am and with the cabin's blue mood lighting in full effect, we took off for Kiev.
Cabin and Seat
There were three cabins on UIA’s 777, with 21 seats in business, 16 in a tiny premium economy cabin and 324 in coach.
Business seats were laid out in a 2-3-2 configuration. I choose Seat 3C so I had access to the aisle.
Unlike many other carriers updating their premium cabins with private suites that all provide direct aisle access, this one was set up in a more traditional fashion. It was the same hard product as Kenya Airways' new Boeing 787, though this configuration added an extra seat in the middle section.
That meant some people would be stuck in a middle seat. While this might seem like a bad sign, I think this configuration actually allows for more room. Many of these newer seats have tiny footwells and aren’t very long, meaning tall travelers have to scrunch their legs up.
I was lucky that the flight was about half full and I didn’t have anyone sitting next to me. Had there been, it would have been awkward to have a stranger jumping over me midsleep. Still, the cabin felt quite new, fresh and clean, which made sense, considering it was delivered to the airline this year.
While upright, I had plenty of room to stretch out. The official length was 74 inches, and it felt like that. I had to really extend my legs to reach the footrest, and I'm 6 feet, 1 inch.
There was a large armrest that extended out if you needed to store or charge anything (power and USB ports were available) and allowed you to grab the inflight-entertainment remote. When raised, it could also act as a divider for more privacy.
This space doubled as a great place to put drinks, and I found the seat controls there too. An adjustable reading light above my shoulder came in handy on the red-eye journey.
Google Flights said that UIA’s biz seat was angle-flat, but it still felt I was sleeping at 180 degrees.
In bed mode, the seat easily lived up to expectations: perfectly comfortable, plenty wide( so you can easily toss and turn if you’re that kind of sleeper), and long enough that tall folks (think TPG) could stretch out without having to hit the seat in front of them. You could store your shoes and other personal items under the footwell in a spacious cubby.
The mood lighting throughout the aircraft helped guide my way down the aisle when everyone else was sleeping but still wasn't bright enough to wake me when it was me snoozing.
I couldn't find any special amenities in the bathroom, which was disappointing for international business class, but both of the private lavatories in our cabin were clean.
On every seat was a thick fleece blanket and large, comfortable pillow. This, along with the mattress pad and extra blanket, made for a sound few hours of sleep. The flight attendants happily transformed my seat into a bed with all the sheets, pads and blankets when I was ready to snooze. The cabin temperature was perfect, not too hot and not too cold.
Business-class passengers received noise-canceling headphones. Though they were comfortable to wear, the noise-canceling aspect didn’t work very well. It muffled the drone from the 777's Pratt & Whitney engines but wasn't the audio you'd experience with a better pair. But unless you have a three-pinned headphones jack, you're going to be stuck using these on the flight.
The amenity kit was a bit of a joke, and looked like something you'd find in premium economy or even economy on a Middle Eastern carrier. Inside was an eye mask, earplugs and a pair of thin socks. Apparently, I received a pared-down version, because UIA's website said its kits are supposed to contain a toothbrush and toothpaste too.
The IFE was controlled by a remote and was also accessible via a large, high-definition, touch-sensitive screen.
UIA had few entertainment options, definitely one of the most sparse selections I've seen on an international flight. There were about 30 American movies and another 30 films I didn't recognize. Fortunately it did have newer selections like "Rampage," "Ready Player One," "Red Sparrow," Tomb Raider," "Date Night" and "The Heat" in addition to older movies like "The Dark Knight," "Beetlejuice" and The Hangover." Television shows were even more limited, with about 39 shows that were mostly older programs, like "Friends" and "Two and a Half Men" — each show had about two or three episodes to choose from. They did have some newer choices like "This Is Us" and documentaries from National Geographic and Discovery.
There was also a hilariously random assortment of music like Hall and Oates, Mariah Carey and Billy Joel, which felt like a non-American had picked what they think Americans would listen to.
You could use the remote to play games that included "Tetris," solitaire and chess. The system's interactive map was more advanced compared to other flight trackers I've seen, as you could click on cities around the globe and get descriptions of each place.
Other than the limited film and TV choices, there was quite a bit of distance from the seat to the 16-inch screen, which meant I had to strain to watch it. I tried to connect to the airline Wi-Fi, which appeared when you searched for internet, but had no luck, as it was not yet turned on. It was a frustrating experience and hours of lost productivity for business travelers.
Food and Beverage
The sparkling wine I drank after boarding was fine. We were given hot towels before dinner and breakfast.
The first thing I noticed about the meal service was that no menus were provided — quite unusual for an international business-class flight. The flight attendant didn't have a real answer about the lack of menus. I wasn’t able to peruse the list of drinks or read what each dish was dressed with, and this could be dangerous for someone with food allergies.
However, she did read me what was available for an appetizer (tuna or chicken) and for the main course (four-cheese ravioli, salmon with mashed potatoes or beef with veggies. I went with the tuna to start and beef afterward. I then ordered a beer, which they were supposed to bring out with warm nuts before the appetizer. But there was another snafu, and they delivered everything at once.
Dinner was served at 1:45am, which was a bit annoying considering it was already so late. I was a little worried about how the food would taste, given the lack of menus, but everything was great, right down to the plating, which featured real silverware and high-quality dishes. The tuna appetizer was solid and served over sweet beet sauce. It came with a small side salad.
I was more than impressed with the quality of the meat, as it was juicy and topped with the perfect amount of sherry sauce — it completely fell apart when I started chewing. The side of steamed veggies wasn't cooked fully through, making them a bit too crunchy, and they didn't have any sauce or seasoning. As a sucker for carbs, I asked for two rolls, which were warm and fluffy.
The FAs removed my plate and inquired if I wanted any coffee or tea. I asked for decaf, but they said they only carried decaf in instant packets. I decided to skip the real java, since I planned on sleeping once I landed.
Another miscommunication occurred with dessert service: I could see all the other business passengers had been served dessert, but I had not. The crew promptly apologized and brought out a tiny piece of chocolate-mousse cake and carrot cake, both of which were sweet and moist.
I woke up right before breakfast service started, about 90 minutes before we were supposed to land. Breakfast was served in two courses with either smoked salmon and potato salad to start or pasta with tomato sauce — two very opposite choices.
I went with the more traditional morning item and the potato salad, which was great though the smoked salmon was just OK and not very flavorful. It was accompanied by a weird orange gelatin that the FA called mousse, although it wasn't like any mousse I'd ever tasted. It had the consistency of my mother's cranberry salad that she serves on Thanksgiving.
Next up was a plain omelet, which could have been way better with peppers, cheese or even hot sauce, but it at least it was still fresh. On the side were sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes and potatoes. The sausage was rubbery and flavorless.
There were some hiccups with the meal service, but most everything was tasty, fresh and contained high-quality ingredients. The flight attendants quickly corrected any mistakes and completed all their tasks with smiles on their faces, and they actually seemed to enjoy their jobs.
Ukraine International Airlines 777-200ER business product isn't world-class, but it still offers a solid hard and soft product that most travelers would be satisfied with. Even though it's not in an alliance, you can still earn (and redeem) Flying Blue miles that can be used on SkyTeam carriers. Reasonable paid business fares to Europe and other destinations make flying the airline a little more attractive, too.
Although the crew did drop the ball a few times during meal service, all other interactions were delightful, especially compared to some American carriers' flight crews. If the entertainment choices were expanded, I think I would have appreciated UIA's large, high-quality IFE screen more. I had a few other, smaller complaints, like the puny amenity kit and lack of menus. Both could be easily fixed and would vastly improve the inflight experience.
While the British Airways Galleries lounge is in a bit of a sad state, that should change once the airline completes renovations, and will definitely improve the overall experience with UIA.
All images by the author.