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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
- In flight: Newark to Stockholm in United BusinessFirst
- Appetizers over Charlottetown (in-flight: EWR-FRA)
- Bring back the classic in-flight map, please!
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