In flight: Newark to Brussels in United Business Class


I never actually bought the ticket from Newark to Brussels. I didn’t even buy a ticket from United Airlines. And yet, on a Friday afternoon, I found myself sitting in the lounge at Newark airport, watching basketball on TV and waiting for my flight to Belgium in the new business class seats that United has on their Boeing 777-200 airplanes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OSvTtben2Jg

I originally purchased a flight on Air Canada, connecting in Montreal. I was going to spend the day out sight-seeing prior to my onward journey across the Atlantic. That plan came screeching to a halt when I woke up to an email alert from AC that my flight was cancelled. Oh well. I made use of their excellent online rebooking engine and scheduled myself out of Newark instead. When I got to the airport the agents were chatting about the flights being overbooked and I offered up that I’d be happy to take the non-stop flight on United, if they wanted to free up a seat. Much to my surprise – and great pleasure – they agreed.

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Once I had the ticket pushed over to United I was able to apply an upgrade voucher and so it was that I found myself in seat 10K, a rear-facing window, for the hop across the pond.

The Seat

This was my first experience in the new United configuration and my first time flying facing backwards since the party seats on Southwest 737s so it was a good opportunity to try something different. The flying backwards part didn’t bother me at all. I honestly don’t think I noticed, other than while trying to look out the window (not particularly easy from this seat as there is no window aligned with where you are when upright) and during takeoff/landing. From that perspective I’ve got no issues with the United product. There are a couple areas where I do, however.

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The width of the seat is pretty tight. The 2-4-2 layout across in business class means that they necessarily have to make the seats narrower to fit that many in. I’d read the specs and understood that, by the measuring tape, they aren’t too cramped, but actually sitting in one it felt like I was. When upright I felt that I was pressed into the side wall of the airplane, with my shoulder resting against it. When in the sleep position the seat was slightly wider thanks to the armrest moving out of the way, but it wasn’t fantastic.

I was somewhat surprised to find that the foot well when fully reclined was a tight fit. It makes sense, I suppose, as when the seats meet each other in the adjacent rows the feet sections can be split between the two sides, reducing the pitch a few inches while still keeping the overall length high. But at the bulkheads, where there is no need to save those 6 inches, the foot wells are still half size, unlike other carriers with a similar product. Probably a few dollars saved on the engineering and manufacturing side there, but a definite loss on the comfort side.

Finally, there is virtually zero storage space available at the seat. The photo below shows my Kindle resting in basically the only place it could. And it was too big to fully fit there. I certainly wouldn’t leave it there longer than a few minutes here or there. Not so great for passengers.

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Food & Beverage

Like most business class products, the meal was a multi-course affair. A number of carriers have been stepping things up on the meal service lately (I was quite pleasantly surprised with the Lufthansa meal EWR-FRA a few months ago) and the new United has the advantage of owning the their own catering company with operations in Newark so I was looking forward to trying the meal. The flight attendants took orders by asking for first and second choices, the legacy United approach where they reconcile things in the galley and prioritize by status. In this case it probably worked in my favor as I was one of the last to order, but I don’t know that anyone actually didn’t get their first choice; the cabin was only booked 33/40 so there was some wiggle room.

Like always, dinner started with a beverage and nuts in a warmed ramekin. I don’t get the obsession with this part of the service, other than that some people really love salt. Beyond that, it is really a strange thing to me, I picked out a few nuts and waited for the real meal to begin.

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The first course was a salmon appetizer along with a salad. Both were fine, but nothing particularly special. I was definitely missing the Continental version of the appetizers with a few more choices and larger servings offered, especially on the salad.

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For my main course I had the Beef Short Ribs. The flavor was actually quite nice, though the meet a tad over-cooked. More sauce would have been useful for helping out with the fact that the meat was a bit dry but no real complaints there. The portion size on the beef seemed quite reasonable as well. The bread basket options were basically white or wheat. No pretzel roll nor garlic bread on offer. Most unfortunate.

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Finally, for dessert, the offering was a cheese cart and ice cream. This is a course that I look forward to on most flights. I was rather disappointed. One of the two cheese options (a Manchengo, if I had to guess, and I do because no one knew what they were) was OK. The second cheese was some sort of sun-dried tomato flavored goat cheese-ish spread that seemed more like an Alouette container in the store than good cheese. I like both, but one is for pre-dinner snacks and the other is for dessert with a drink before sleep. This was the wrong one. And the ice cream is just a scoop of ice cream, not a sundae. That was most disappointing. Oh, and seedless grapes, which I like for the convenience, but the flavor of which wasn’t as good. At least the flight attendant was able to find the after-dinner drink I ordered, after initially claiming they don’t stock Grand Marnier on the flights.

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Also of note, my seatmate ordered the express meal service. I think he finished no more than 10 minutes earlier than I did. Not that his wasn’t fast but the regular meal service on this particular night was also quite quick, without feeling rushed. I was done well before we cleared Gander, meaning 4+ hours to sleep.

In-flight Entertainment

I was mostly sleeping during the flight so I didn’t play around with the IFE system too much, but I did like what I saw. The screens are large and the movie selection was reasonable. My seatmate watched The Adventures of Tin Tin which meant that I also watched it, though I did so without the audio track. I actually think I came out ahead in that regard, though the animation was pretty good. I’d place the IFE towards the top in terms of relative rankings, though that is also generally pretty low on my priority list. Give me a decent moving map and a plug for my laptop and I’ll stay entertained for hours.

Lounge/Ground Services

The lounge in Newark is nothing special. Never has been. I like the views, but otherwise just somewhere to sit before the flight. I actually got bored and left early to go walk the terminal before my flight. Not bad, just not particularly good. At least I had a couple packs of carrots to up my vitamin intake for the day.

One thing that I’ve always loved about flying Business Class on Continental was the arrivals service they offer. You get access to a shower or day room at most destinations if you’re flying up front. I inquired about this at the lounge (twice, because the first agent was a bit unconvincing) and was told, as usual, to ask at the gate and then again upon arrival in Brussels, but that the facility was the Sheraton hotel (they were reading this out of the DRS screen). I asked at the gate and the lead agent made a call to operations who confirmed that I should ask the arrivals agent and that the Sheraton was the facility. I asked upon landing and the agent confirmed that they had day rooms at the Sheraton and that I should go to the ticket counter to get a voucher.

Imagine my surprise when I showed up at the ticket counter (after a rather ridiculous immigration experience) and the woman informed me that she had never heard of such a thing and that there was no way it was accurate. Oy. After 10 minutes of calling around and checking on various things they confirmed that assessment, leaving me out in the cold, so to speak, without a shower. A rather unfortunate conclusion to the trip on two levels, both that I didn’t get the shower and that no one seems to know what’s going on. The good news is that I was in Belgium for the day and there was plenty of beer and fun to be had.

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Overall, I rate the trip as a pretty mediocre business class experience. The flat seats are nice for being flat, but I would imagine that folks taller or wider than me would find them rather confining. And the meal was fine, but nothing special; with both the appetizers and the desserts I think they missed the mark.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and .

11 Comments

  1. The arrivals service in BRU was a bit of a clusterf%*&

    But the rest of your experience really sounds like a pretty average business class flight on a U.S. carrier. In fact, about as good as you are likely to get. A lie-flat bed. On-time flight. Passable food and service. When I get that combination I consider myself lucky.

    If that’s your definition of mediocre, then most of my flights are mediocre.

    Or are you mainly saying “It’s not Continental”? Well it was CO’s lounge, and there’s no real reason why management couldn’t have fixed arrival’s policies and even aligned catering quality by now – in fact the meal was almost certainly prepared by Chelsea as I think I had the same entree on my EWR-SEA flight on Friday! But my ice cream came with sundae toppings.

  2. It really sucks that they have drug their feet for so long on aligning catering and on-board service procedures. I’m still optimistic that it’s coming, and that the service will look more like CO’s BusinessFirst than UA’s Business once everything is fully merged.

    The real disappointment is that this is taking so long. I flew AMS-MEM on a NW-operated flight well before the single operating certificate was obtained, and the service was completely DL, not NW, despite being on a NW operated and crewed flight.

    A lot of the complaints that UA is getting from customers could be avoided by getting some of this stuff coordinated between the two subsidiaries, even if they don’t have fully integrated contracts and work groups yet.

  3. PS Was the BRU arrivals service affected by the fact that you’d used an upgrade? My recollection is that pmUA only gave arrivals service to paid business passengers, not upgrades, while pmCO gave them to everyone. Seems like with marketing everything as UA now and the single PSS, those policies ought to be aligned.

  4. I personally felt the seats weren’t too narrow, though I did feel the narrowness in bed mode. What was cramped was the overall area. I felt like I was “fighting” my seatmate for the armrest. I felt everything encroached in that sense.
    But I found the actual physical seat to be a bit more comfortable than the BF seat.
    Missed CO BF food though, both in UA C and UA F.

  5. Yep, it all sounds like standard UA Business Class. I only care about sleeping and as far as that part goes, I find the new seat very good. I think UA’s onboard catering is very, very average and their onboard service can be hit and miss, although flying between SIN-NRT-West Coast tends to be better as they are often Asian based crews, and the catering ex NRT is very very good.

    1. I had the agent in the club apply the GPU. She had to call it in to get it done, but it got done. I had issues trying online because it was a paper ticket and the online system didn’t really like that.

      I have no doubt that it was the “standard” product, eightblack. And that’s unfortunate, as it wasn’t particularly great.

      The arrivals service is for everyone in the forward cabin, Carl, so the fact that I was on an upgrade shouldn’t have mattered there. Beyond that, much like eightblack, you’re correct that it seemed to be a pretty typical flight. We were only an hour late, so I guess you can call that on-time. But I did get a flat bed and a decent meal, along with clean, safe and reliable service. And, you’re quite correct that it wasn’t the old Continental BusinessFirst product. It was markedly worse in seat and food. It was mediocre in that it wasn’t as good as many other carriers I’ve tried. LX, AC and CO are better. LH had better food on my most recent trip, but the seat is angled. The LH seat is also wider. I’m not sure if the width v slope thing is a wash or tilts one direction, but I think I slept better on my last LH flight in December. And the dig about the lounges is silly; both the UA and CO lounges have sucked for a long time now.

      My only thought on aligning the service, Steven, is union rules. I don’t know if they have clauses that strictly define the meal services or something else that ludicrous that prevents them from actually offering a consistent service, but it does seem strange that they haven’t delivered on that yet.

  6. the short rib looked amazing. I agree it looks like it needed more sauce. If you would judge on the size of the roast what would you compare it too? I love the frost on the plane window.

    1. I’d say the short rib was 1.5″ x 2″ x 4.5″, plus or minus a bit. It was a decent sized serving.

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