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United's Reasonable Business Class SEA-SFO-SYD

Fri Apr 03, 2009 2:44 am

This trip report is about SEA-SFO-SYD-LAX-SEA on United in business class. There have not been that many reports about UA in business class, so I decided to write up a report. I hope you enjoy!

I finally got to take a trip to Australia which had been near the top of my places to visit list. After going to Russia last year, it was time to make it down under. My cousin in New Zealand was getting married, so it was convenient to combine the trip to the wedding with a vacation to Sydney for New Years. I decided to bring a good friend from when I was in college with me.

Coincidentally my sister and a friend of hers made a similar trip. They were scheduled to fly SEA-SFO-SYD the day before me, but with the December cancellations that UA had, their flight SEA-SFO was delayed by two hours and they missed their SFO-SYD connection. The weather on the west coast was fine, but due to crew shortages, there were lots of cancellations and delays between SEA and SFO/LAX. There was nothing they could do to make their flight, so they ended up getting a free day in SFO courtesy of United. Let us hope that I have better luck!

I wrote a separate trip report for flights between Sydney and Christchurch New Zealand. Air New Zealand Vs JetStar On SYD-CHC-SYD (by RoseFlyer Jan 11 2008 in Trip Reports)

December 26th 2007
United Airlines
Departs~ 6:40pm
Arrives~ 8:40pm
A320 Seat 2F

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Photo © Andrew Hunt - AirTeamImages

I knew that there were a lot of delays and cancellations, so I decided to head to the airport early. Every SEA-LAX flight that day was cancelled on United. I am not talking about a little early, but seriously early. I got to the airport at about 1pm. Originally, I had planned on checking a suitcase in, but with the possible delays, I decided to carry my suitcase which meant a trip to the drug store to get some 3 Fl oz containers for all my toiletries.

The agent told me that I could stand by for the delayed 2:30 flight to SFO. Check in the business class line was pretty quick. There was not much of a line. She checked me in for my normal flights and then I headed over to the security lines. I am no longer premier executive/star alliance gold on United since I have not been flying as much as I was a few years ago. The result was needing to use the normal line, but fortunately it was not very long.

I then go immediately to the gate for the delayed SFO flight from 2:30. I go up to the counter which is always a risky adventure because you run into the risk of angering a gate agent who is busy and not wanting to answer frivolous questions. I told her that I would like to stand by and would like to know when they would call standbys. She looked me up and saw that I was connecting onwards to Australia. She said that it was a good idea that I was here early since there were so many cancellations due to crew shortages. She then asked if I wanted first class. I said I would if it is available. She tells me that she will save me a seat and to come back in 15 minutes. That sounded nice, so I took the opportunity to grab a quick snack at Burger King. The food court in the N gates is limited, but the gates are not that bad. It is not the beauty of SIN, but as far as US airports go, the majority of the gates not belonging to Alaska Airlines are nice and decently spacious and comfortable.

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Photo © Bruce Leibowitz

I go back to the gate and hear the agent call my name. She was swarmed with people, but very kindly gave me a boarding pass for 4C and told me to enjoy my trip to Australia and to enjoy the sun. I was quite happy with her. She seemed to be going out of her way to be kind and make sure I would be getting to my destination. That was impressive especially because with all the delays and cancellations at the end of December on top of the holiday season probably meant that the customer service agents would be pretty worn down. Most people get time off for the holidays, yet people working at the airports usually have to pull long hours including involuntary overtime instead of spending time with their families. I always put on an extra big smile.

I get on the plane to notice first class on the 757 is mostly full already. I find some space for my bag and take my seat. Shortly thereafter I have some orange juice as offered. A pilot then comes down and sits next to me. We briefly chat and he says that the flight he was supposed to fly down to LAX was cancelled, so he was rerouted to dead head through SFO. I asked if that would delay the LAX to SEA flight, and he said yes it would be significantly delayed, but because there was a shortage of pilots and crews that they will just deal with it and take a 2 hour delay instead of cancelling.

The door is shut and the safety demo is performed. I feel like we are ready to push back, but wait, not quite. The jetbridge comes back to the plane and maintenance personnel board. The captain says we will have a half hour delay due to some indication problems in the flight deck. I start talking to the pilot next to me about general stuff and he is interested to learn what it is like being an engineer for Boeing designing the planes that he flies. After a while I get tired of sitting, so I get up and start chatting with some of the flight attendants. I told them that I was on my way to SYD and they started giving me suggestions and tips. Apparently SYD is one of those destinations that all flight attendants try to get to at some time. It was nice to get some suggestions including that Bondi beach is way too overcrowded. It was also interesting to learn that one of the flight attendants has 10 years worth of seniority, but is completely at the bottom of the list out of LAX.

We finally have the problem fixed and get to push back. The flight left at about 4pm, which is a 1.5 hour delay for most people, but is more than 2 hours early for me, so I am happy. It was a normal taxi to the north end of the airport and a southbound takeoff. As usually it was a good steep climb on this 757. It obviously had a light fuel load since SFO is only 1.5 hours away. Every seat in economy was filled although there were 3 left open in first class.

We hit a few bumps and I sit back and settle in. Tomorrow I will be in warm and sunny Sydney Australia, and I was so excited. A much desired vacation was on its way. Although there would be a lot of time on planes between now and then.

There was not a food service on this flight, so I pretty much just sat there and did some reading. They did play the typical United video by NBC, but I don’t find it interesting at all. It is really boring news show with many commercials. Essentially it is just one big commercial for NBC products. Oh well, when you are really bored on a plane, it is a diversion.

Before too long we were on our way down to San Francisco. It was a partly cloudy day as would be expected. I think I was able to spot OAK out the window on our descent. It is a smaller airport than I remember, but I hadn’t been there since I was a kid when Southwest first started service to SEA from OAK.

Landing was smooth and we taxied in to the gate. We were about 1 hour 20 minutes late into SFO according to the schedule of that flight, so people rushed off. I took my time and stayed seated for a while since I had 4 hours to go before my flight to SYD. I get up and get off the plane, but stupidly forgot my book in the seat pocket. I was kicking myself since that was the book I planned on reading for a good part of the trip, and it was pretty expensive since I think it cost about $45. Oh well, I didn’t think that I would have much chance of getting the book back. The plane was doing a quick turn to Hawaii, so hopefully the person on their way to paradise after me enjoyed it.

San Francisco

I head over to the Red Carpet Club in the domestic terminal. I would be meeting somebody who was flying in from IND via ORD. I knew she was going to try to get an earlier flight since ORD in the winter is never desirable, but I didn’t have a message on my phone. The red carpet club agent could not tell me which flight she was on. I understand information security, but it would be nice to know what she was doing especially since we were continuing on together.

Anyway, I guess that she will have made the earlier flight since it was not crowded much that day. I go to the gate and I notice her happy smiling face as the third person off the plane. She was on a 757 as well and she got first class. I love travelling around the holidays since it is usually pretty easy to get upgrades or switch to earlier flights and not having to downgrade to economy.

The two of us decide to head over to the international terminal. There is a bus in SFO that can take us, so we hop that over which gave us some nice ground level views of the terminal. It was rather quiet. The only international planes at that time were from United and Air New Zealand. We head up to the departure level which at SFO is interesting since the waiting area is upstairs with restaurants and shops and seats are down a unique escalator for each gate to a holding room. I have only taken evening flights from SFO, so it is always quiet.

We go to the Red Carpet Club which is tucked in a corner right as you enter the terminal from security. It is easy to miss. Inside the lounge we check in at the desk and are given two drink tickets, it is very nice. It is huge with lots of small areas for privacy and quietness. We walk around and eventually find my sister and her friend. The ambience is nice but the food is cheese, crackers and fruit. The drink tickets are lousy compared to the unlimited drinks you get at other airlines. The four of us go get some champagne to enjoy. Departure time is about 45 minutes away. We are all in a festive attitude. My sister and friend stayed at an airport hotel, but had gone down to fishermans wharf and china town. They had a lot of fun and United did pay for their accommodation, but since they only had two days in SYD, they were not happy that they lost a big chunk of their time.

United Airlines
Flight 863
San Francisco Sydney
December 26 2007
Departs: 10:40pm
Arrives: 7:45am
Load Factor: Business 100%
Flight Time: 14hrs 25 min
Old Config

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Photo © Simon Wong


We head over to the gate to board the plane. We walked down right as they started boarding business and first class. We head down the jetbridge. We have two seats on the lower deck for this flight. I had a business class ticket, but my companion was on upgraded economy, so we got some of the last seats next to each other in the second to last row of business class.

Instantly my colleague is amazed since she had never been on a widebody or in business class. For someone used to flying domestic, the business class seats on United are very impressive. You can barely touch the seat in front of you because of the 55’’ pitch. It is rather comfortable and spacious. I put my rollaboard in the overhead bin, which is rather cavernous on a 747. Immediately a friendly older gentleman offers champagne and orange juice. We have more champagne as we are celebrating and enjoying ourselves. My sister and her friend ended up together in the last row of business class on the other side of the cabin. They are happy to finally be on a flight to SYD and even happier that they got business class too. Economy is just not fun for such a flight and you end up extremely jetlagged when you cannot sleep.

One drawback in being in business class on the lower deck is that all the passengers to economy walk by which is quite noisy since it is a good number of people. I always feel bad too sitting up front when others have to endure many hours in a seat that is unfairly too small for a person to sit comfortably in.

The boarding door is closed and all the glasses are picked up. Amenity kits are also distributed. They are your standard affair of toothbrush, eye shades, socks, ear plugs and various creams and lotions from whomever is the current sponsor. In reality no one needs 4 different moisturizers on a single flight, but they are just advertising their expensive products so you buy them at the cosmetic counter.

The flight attendants do a manual safety briefing which I always find interesting on a widebody. We push back slowly and it takes a while for all the engines to start up and for us to begin our long slow taxi. My colleague was impressed with all the sounds and smells of the plane. And to me it is always amazing that something that is 800,000lbs can get into the air.

In Flight

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Photo © Vasco Garcia (VDG-Images)

We make a turn onto the runway for a northerly takeoff. The engines spool up and we are headed off to Australia. The plane makes a long takeoff run as it was probably very close to MTOW. We rotate and slowly climb up into the air. It was a very gradual climb. Probably the second slowest climb that I have done (the slowest climb was on SQ’s A345 EWR-SIN where it took almost 8 IIRC minutes to get to 10,000ft).

Eventually the flight attendants come out and begin preparing for dinner service. I decide to eat again since I was a bit hungry and it is ok staying up late since we will be headed west which means it is getting earlier in the day. I can’t remember the choices, but I did go for a pasta dish.

Wine was passed out with dinner and I had some California Red. I never had heard of the vineyard before. UA has ok wines on international flights, but they are a lot cheaper than they use to be. SQ by comparison seems to serve bottles that are in the $15-30 range while United seemed to be in the $10-20 on international range. The appetizer was shrimp which was not that appealing to me as I’m not a big crustacean fan. The dinner came and it was reasonable. The food on United always seems to be ok for me. The portions are decent and it is reasonably cooked. I prefer it over the likes of NZ or BA who I’ve flown recently. NZ serves portions that I have found too small in the past and BA only serves one full meal on most of their long haul flights (especially between US and LHR).

It is about midnight Pacific time at this point and I am getting really tired. The wine made me rather woozy and I was not really paying much attention to the movie. I had been watching a movie via the in seat screen. UA IFE is not AVOD and the screens are rather small. If you get up to use the lav, you might miss parts and it is hard to pay attention while eating a meal and all the distractions associated with it.

My colleage had dessert, but I prepped for sleep and put on the ear plugs and eye shade. I pretty quickly fall asleep. My sleep was pretty good for a nonflat business class seat. I woke up a few times, especially when we hit some reasonable turbulence. Over the convergence zones, it always seems to be turbulent and it can last for hours. There was a water glass that conveniently self filled itself throughout the night  Wink

Eventually after about 9 hours of sleep, I wake up. The windows were all closed in the night so it was easy to stay asleep. I always prefer flat seats and sleep usually with minimal restlessness. I had not flown an old style business class seat in a while (my last few UA international flights had all been in First Class). I pull out the IFE and start watching a movie again which was about half way through. A flight attendant asked if I would like anything. I had some orange juice and he promptly brought it and said breakfast would be in an hour. There were 4 flight attendants serving the lower deck. To my surprisement, they were all male. I had not seen that before as usually it is the other way around or mixed. But today it was all older gentlemen serving us and they did a good enough job.

Breakfast service was an omelet or cereal and fruit. It was about the same as you get on a domestic flight. I had cereal and fruit as I have an aversion to eggs. My stomach was a bit unsettled, so I mostly just ate the fruit and had two croissants (I love those fresh tasting flakey croissants that United has). My colleague woke up as well. She did not sleep as well as me, but seemed adequately rested.

We open up the window and still cannot make out land. It had been a long time over water. This is one of the longest if not the longest over water route in the world. It can be a little disconcerting knowing that you are over such empty vast space, but the good engineers at Boeing designed a good product to safely move us in comfort.

Descent began as the IFE showed we were within sight of land. The lavatories were quite crowded in the morning as they usually are on a long haul flight. I took my turn and felt a little more human and of course dehydrated. The seat belt sign came on before too long and the crew was busy preparing the cabin for arrival and all the work associated with cleaning things up. I pop my shoes back on and pull out the magazine. I start chatting with my colleague more who is ecstatic that we are almost there after quite a long journey. Fortunately it was a comfortable one.

We see land ahead and get a great view of Sydney as we are on approach. The cabin is prepared for arrival as we slowly sweep into SYD. My colleague begins snapping pictures which I would love to post here, but she ended up deleting them as she wanted more space to take pictures of the New Zealand countryside that we would be seeing later on this trip.

Landing was very gentle and we slowly taxi to the gate. To my amazement, I see an A380 out the window. The A380 had just entered service with SQ two months prior. It was a big plane, but didn’t seem as big as I had first thought it would be.

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Photo © Sam Chui

Arrival in SYD

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Photo © Sam Chui

We pull in to the gate and the seat belt sign is switched off. We slowly gather our belongings and scurry through the middle seats to my sister and her friend. We all get off the plane together. We head down to immigration. Three of us breeze through with no problem, but my colleague (who had a brand new passport for this trip) got stopped. Apparently when requesting the visa for the trip, the travel agent had entered in her wrong birthdate. My colleague was pulled aside into a little room with some people of varying ethnicities. The stress on her was too great and she started crying (which we could see through a window). My sister and I joke knowing that she’ll be fine. Australia is not going to turn her around for a simple error like that. After about five minutes, she is out. Our bags were already on the conveyer belt, so we go through a long line for customs. We declare nothing, but still it was a long wait.

We enter a very crowded arrivals area. We could barely walk through. I get the rental car after about 20 minutes and then we head off for our hotel in downtown Sydney on Darling harbor. We safely make it in after some stressful driving on the wrong side of the road in the rented Camry. It was very nice to get in after a long tiring journey.


Check In: 9/10
Ground Staff:10/10
On time: 8/10
On board service: 6/10
Food: 7/10
Comfort: 5/10

United did a good job with me and my colleague. We were on time and it was comfortable. UA is not the best at anything, but for international is reasonable. The new seats will definitely improve the product. I will fly UA again international if it is most convenient, but there are far superior airlines with more comfortable and better products out there.

On the other hand it was horrible for my sister. The crew shortages and lack of planning caused a 1 day delay. That is unacceptable to cancel so many flights for what equates to poor planning. It was a bad winter, but UA had become so lean that they couldn’t work through problems when they come up in service.

Thanks for reading. Feel free to leave some comments. I apologize for some lack of detail and the lack of pictures. My trip report SEA-LHR-AMS in BA Club World should come out soon and will have some pictures.
If you have never designed an airplane part before, let the real designers do the work!
Posts: 3208
Joined: Wed Oct 08, 2003 9:21 am

RE: United's Reasonable Business Class SEA-SFO-SYD

Fri Apr 03, 2009 4:26 am

Glad you had a good flight downunder...

Quoting RoseFlyer (Thread starter):
That is unacceptable to cancel so many flights for what equates to poor planning. It was a bad winter, but UA had become so lean that they couldn't work through problems when they come up in service.

December 2007 was kind of a disaster in terms of crew availability, they seemed to learn from it however as December 2008 didn't have any of the problems that they experienced the year prior.
I know the voices in my head aren't real but sometimes their ideas are just awesome!!!
Posts: 1233
Joined: Wed Jan 16, 2008 7:45 am

RE: United's Reasonable Business Class SEA-SFO-SYD

Fri Apr 03, 2009 8:19 am

Very nice report!

Quoting RoseFlyer (Thread starter):
We safely make it in after some stressful driving on the wrong side of the road in the rented Camry

Hehe correction the other side of the road, there is nothing wrong with it I can assure you!  Wink
Posts: 9605
Joined: Fri Feb 13, 2004 9:34 am

RE: United's Reasonable Business Class SEA-SFO-SYD

Sat Apr 04, 2009 2:47 pm

Quoting United1 (Reply 1):

December 2007 was kind of a disaster in terms of crew availability, they seemed to learn from it however as December 2008 didn't have any of the problems that they experienced the year prior.

It certainly was with how many flights ended up getting canceled. I guess cutting a huge number of planes from the fleet will help them reset the number of crew.
If you have never designed an airplane part before, let the real designers do the work!

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