Bad, Bad, Bad: Ukraine International Airlines (777-200ER) in Economy From Kiev to New York
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Ukraine International Airlines isn't an airline most Americans are familiar with. It operates just one direct flight to the US, flying from Kiev's Boryspil International Airport into New York-JFK airport — a route that's only been active since 2014.
I had flown in the airline's business class to Ukraine and was pleasantly surprised with the service, even though there were hiccups.
I was curious to see how its coach class compared to flying up front. I know many people find cheap fares to Israel and other cities infrequently visited by US citizens, but is it worth it to connect on the little-known airline to other far-flung destinations in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East?
After seeing a rare flight deal on Ukraine International, we decided it would be a good time to book a ticket on the airline.
UIA does have its own mileage program, but it's not transfer partners with any of the major banks' transferrable-point programs. It's also not in any of the alliances, so you won't have any luck booking through one of those partners.
However, Air France-KLM's Flying Blue program allows you to book flights on UIA with its miles. Flying Blue is transfer partners with Amex Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou and Chase Ultimate Rewards. You can move those points to the airline program at a 1:1 ratio. According to Flying Blue's calculator, an economy award on the route from Kiev (KBP) to JFK starts at 21,500 miles.
Note that you'll have to call in if you want to book an award, since they aren't available online. If you want to earn miles, you'll also have to add your Flying Blue number to your reservation over the phone — another nuisance for award-minded travelers.
We decided to book the flight with cash, and it was ticketed as a round-trip itinerary with business on the way there and economy on the way back so I could review two different products. The business flight there was about $1,250, and the economy ticket was $350. I used the Chase Sapphire Reserve to pay, which earned me 3x Ultimate Rewards on all travel purchases for 4,782 points, worth about about $96, according to TPG's valuations. I also wanted to use the Sapphire Reserve for its great trip-delay insurance, since I heard the airline has issues with adhering to its schedule.
I tried checking-in with UIA's app the night before departure, but the app told me to call the airline if I wanted to complete the process, which made the app feel somewhat pointless. Once I spoke to an agent, he was able to push a boarding pass to my phone and I was able to change my seat from there, which I could do for free. I opted for a seat in the back of the aircraft so I could grab pictures of the empty cabin once everyone deplaned.
My flight departed from Kiev's Boryspil International Airport, about 21 miles from the center of the city. I'd recommend taking an Uber on the 40-minute drive — a ride shouldn't cost more than $15.
I arrived at Terminal D, mostly used for international flights and all of UIA's departures. Opened in 2012, the atrium still feels new, with a distinct Eastern European vibe.
I headed over to the UIA signs and saw a self-drop bag station. I entered my info, put my luggage on the scale and attempted to get a luggage tag for my bag. A sign appeared telling me that they were unable to process my reservation and to see an airline representative. I flagged down an agent, who told me to wait there, and after a few minutes he came back telling me I'd have to go another baggage drop-off point.
I was pointed to the business-class check-in to drop off my bag, where there weren't any lines and a helpful UIA employee tagged my bag, which was free to check on this route.
With the check-in process for flight PS231 complete, I headed to security and customs ready to receive a new exit stamp in my passport.
I checked my Priority Pass app to see if there were any lounges in KBP that I could access. Luckily there were two, both called "Business Lounge" and seemingly affiliated with UIA. I followed the signs for airline lounges, which brought me to a level above the main departures area.
I have a Priority Pass membership through my Chase Sapphire Reserve (although it's available with a handful of other credit cards) and handed my membership card to the check-in agents, who quickly processed my entry. Normally, my Priority Pass membership significantly elevates my experience when flying coach, so I was hoping that the lounge would do just that.
What I found may have been the worst lounge I've ever set foot in. The small, drab, windowless room contained about a dozen couches decked out in blue and gold, obviously inspired by UIA's livery, and Ukraine's national colors. There weren't many people there (I wonder why ...), so I was able to grab a seat.
There were a few publications to peruse, although I couldn't find anything in English.
The lounge had a handful of foods and just a few choices for drinks (water bottles, Coke and coffee). Pastries, bread, fruit, cheese and cold cuts were up for grabs.
The hot food included grilled vegetables, broccoli with herbs and what the lounge called an "omelet" but looked more like an unappetizing egg-square to me. I passed, since it appeared to have been sitting out for awhile. Instead, I grabbed a croissant and apple danish, both of which were pretty bland but not completely horrible.
There was one nice touch to the space, a barista who could whip up a latte or espresso.
There was a small computer workstation and attached printer in the corner, and the lounge also contained a single shower. The shower stall wasn't totally private, somewhat exposed to the rest of the bathroom.
Though the space wasn't dirty or gross and the staff was friendly, after about 15 minutes in the lounge I decided that a place with better views and natural sunlight was more up my alley.
While heading to my gate, I was able to catch a glimpse of a few UIA aircraft and even junked Antonovs in the distance. An aging Boeing 767-300ER, part of UIA's legacy long-haul fleet, was at a gate getting waiting to depart.
The airline's narrow-body fleet was on display too, including its Boeing 737s and an Embraer ERJ-190.
My gate was at the end of the terminal, and when I arrived, there was a line that snaked for at least 75 yards because of an extra security check for passengers traveling to the US. After getting to the front of the line, I saw an agent was weighing everyone's carry-on bags. Fortunately, my backpack made it through with no issues.
By the time I finally made it through, the aircraft was already being boarded and there were no other lines to wait in. I just had to hand my ticket to the gate agent.
I spotted my bird, the 777-200ER, one of three wide-bodies that UIA had recently taken delivery of. This one was registered UR-GOC, first flown by Asiana in 2001. UIA started flying the 17-year-old aircraft last June as part of an effort to update its long-haul fleet with a more competitive product compared to its 767s.
The second I stepped foot onto the plane, the two flight attendants at the aircraft door told me to put my tiny camera away, which was turned off, rested in the palm of my hand and not pointed at anyone — which didn't make for an especially warm welcome. Ukrainians in general seemed to be very paranoid around cameras, and this interaction with the flight crew was similar to a handful of other experiences I had when exploring Kiev.
Our flight was supposed to take off at 11:35am, but we were delayed about 20 minutes and had no explanation from pilot or flight crew. At one point, the entire aircraft sounded like it powered down. While we waited, I chatted with one of my seatmates, an Iranian-born man who had been living in the US for the last few decades. He was making his way back from Georgia (the country) where he had just purchased a house and planned to retire because of the low cost of living and proximity to his family in Iran.
The cabin was a diverse representation of people who visit Ukraine: There were at least a dozen Hasidic Jews, an older woman patrolling the cabin with a medical-escort badge (who seemed to be caring for an older gentleman), a family who appeared to be flying for the first time together and two kids no older than 4, who ran up and down the aisle for hours while their mother lay down across her seat and tried to sleep. As a journalist, it was fun to ponder what their stories might be and what brought them to fly UIA to New York.
Cabin and Seat
UIA had three cabins on its 777, with 21 lie-flat seats in business, two rows of premium economy and then a whopping 324 seats in economy. Like many other airlines (even well-respected ones), UIA had set up its coach cabin in a tight 3-4-3 configuration — and, boy, could you feel it. I was seated in 36H, an aisle seat toward the back of the aircraft.
(Note that most of the cabin pictures were taken after the aircraft landed, so it looks much messier than it did when I boarded the aircraft. The aircraft was quite clean when I boarded.)
The seats were compact both in width and length. According to SeatGuru, seats were 17 inches wide.
There was 31 inches of pitch, about average for a plane used on international routes. However, it felt more like 29 inches, and when the person reclined in front of me, I could barely move my legs. While there was decent padding on the seat, this was still probably the most uncomfortable I've ever been in economy — scrunched in from both sides.
I'm not normally one to complain about economy. I fly long-haul coach segments quite often and don't really mind it, but this was one of the first times I was upset about my seating situation. If you're a taller traveler like me (I'm 6 feet, 1 inch), I'd definitely look into purchasing a bulkhead seat.
Another frustrating aspect of the coach cabin was the lack of air vents, and for about 40 minutes while we were waiting on the tarmac, the cabin was hot. The crew finally got the temperature right before we took off and turned on some sort of air conditioning.
The last four rows in economy were 3-3-3, and although the seats weren't any wider, you did have a better shot at getting a spot next to the window or aisle. This layout accommodated the 777's narrowing fuselage as you moved toward the back of the aircraft.
Armrests and headrests were adjustable, and the leather upholstery of the seats felt new and were relatively comfortable.
Even though it was a daytime flight, I did appreciate the mood lighting UIA had installed.
I thought economy's seat pitch was the most atrocious thing I'd experience on this flight. But I was in for another treat. This 777 had not just one lavatory that was out of service ...
... but three bathrooms that were completely out of order. I don't think if I've ever been on a flight where just one toilet was out of commission, but I found three out of the six coach-class bathrooms were locked and covered with tape that read "INOPERATIVE."
This is probably the biggest warning sign on an airline. If you can't get the basics right, like a functioning toilet, then you should seriously consider how you run your airline. I asked one of the FAs what the issue was, and she just shrugged and pointed me to one of the functioning lavatories.
The flight was about 85% full, and lines were forming for the one working toilet in the back of the cabin — luckily it never appeared to be a huge problem, but I can imagine other scenarios where it could turn into a major issue on the 10-hour flight between Kiev and New York.
Surprisingly, each seat came with a decently thick blanket, which is better than some American carriers I've been on.
Since the interior of this 777s was relatively new, UIA had decent seatback inflight entertainment, which featured high-definition, touch-responsive screens that actually operated like they were supposed to. Each display measured 9 inches and contained an uninspired selection of movies and TV shows. It seemed like they were the same options as my flight in business, about 30 American movies and 30 films I didn't recognize, in addition to a few dozen TV shows. TV selection was more sparse than the movies.
In addition to the music and games, there was just enough to keep me from becoming bored, but that doesn't mean UIA shouldn't give their flyers more choices in the future.
It did have a more in-depth flight tracker, which displayed PS231's journey and allowed me to read about cities across the globe by scrolling around and clicking on them. The IFE system also a had a built-in USB charger, although that was all the charging you were able to do. Power outlets were reserved for those in the premium economy and business cabins. Plebeians in coach had to juice up their batteries or bring reserves if they wanted their laptop to survive the 10-hour flight.
Make sure to bring your own wired headphones, because the earbuds UIA provided might as well have been an early phonograph — I had to watch the movies with subtitles to actually understand what was going on.
UIA's website said it has onboard Wi-Fi, but as with my flight to Kiev, the system was never turned on — meaning I was totally off the grid and stuck with UIA's mediocre entertainment choices.
Food and Beverage
Meal service started about an hour after takeoff, with the drink cart making the rounds first. Economy passengers were extremely limited in what they could order for free: water, tomato juice, orange juice and coffee.
Welcome to Spirit or Norwegian — if you want a soft drink or juice, get ready to cough up. All drinks were either 3 euros or $4, and you could only pay in cash.
After drinks, we were served the first meal (complimentary), either chicken or pasta. I ordered the pasta, which came with a side of turkey, cake and bread roll.
The penne was served lukewarm with a glob of cheese that attached a few of the noodles together. This was by far the worst meal I’ve ever had on an airline — the "sauce" and cheese that covered the pasta were completely tasteless, and the olive chunks were way too bitter. My elementary school's shrink-wrapped instant meals were more complex and flavorful than this.
The turkey felt like low-quality deli meat, although the green beans and carrots that accompanied it tasted normal. For dessert, I had a small piece of sponge cake. It was moist and had hints of apricot and was probably the most edible thing I was served.
The flight attendants got two thumbs up. About halfway through the trip, I headed to the galley where the FAs were eating their own meals when I asked for a cup of tea. They happily obliged and whipped up the beverage just for me. The crew came around the cabin a few times with water and to pick up trash.
With an hour and 45 minutes left in the flight, the flight attendants came around with another meal and a few more snacks that we could purchase alongside the main course. I was offered a meat or vegetarian wrap and opted for the veggie, betting I'd have a better go with that after my earlier battle with lunch. I was right, as this was much more palatable, containing zucchini, bell peppers, onions and Chinese long beans. Still, it was mediocre at best, and I'm glad I got the croissant to cleanse my palate.
Comparing Ukraine International Airlines' economy product to its business-class offering is like comparing night and day. The airline's coach seat is small and uncomfortable, and its soft product is arguably worse. If UIA wants to improve, it has to start with the basics, like providing passengers with a plane where all the bathrooms are operable. From there, it can try providing a meal that people will actually enjoy and not hastily scarf down because edible food costs extra.
The main advantage of UIA is its route network and direct flights to Kiev. Its IFE isn't horrible but could easily improve. But if I ever have to choose between UIA and another carrier, I'd only choose UIA if it had an insanely competitive price and flight schedule. Otherwise, I'd take an extra stop just to avoid having to experience this again.
All images by the author.