Now that Qantas has abandoned its direct service between Sydney and San Francisco – the last flight was on May 10th, with SYD-LAX now Qantas' suggested route if you want to travel to Fog City – United is the only airline offering direct flights from Sydney to San Francisco.
We're hopeful that the impending tie-up between Virgin Australia and US carrier Delta will provide a second direct SYD-SFO alternative. Until then, if you want to travel straight from Sydney to San Francisco without a time-consuming stopover, United is your only option.
At least its UA870 flight is a daily service, so United is already one up on Qantas – the Red Roo’s QF73 to San Francisco used to run just five days a week, which added an extra element of hassle to planning your schedule.
The big question for business travellers: how does United's service stack up against what Qantas used to deliver? Should you stick with Qantas and transit via LAX, or shift to United for a fast direct flight into San Francisco?
To help you make that call, Australian Business Traveller checked out business class on United’s 747-400 flight UA870.
United’s check-in counters are located at the northern end of Sydney International Airport. There was no queue at the business class check-in area when I arrived an uncharacteristically tardy 50 minutes before the flight.
United’s website has a very handy list of check-in details for all its airports which includes advice on the busiest hours and days for the security check as well as the typical time spent in the security line.
The standard luggage allowance for all business class passengers is two checked bags up to 32kg each, with carry-on limited to one bag and one personal item (such as a cabin bag and laptop bag).
High-status frequent flyers – including Premier Executive and ‘1K’ members of United’s Mileage Plus scheme and anybody holding Star Alliance Gold or equivalent – can dump an extra bag onto the belt free of charge.
United has yet to introduce smartphone checkin and paperless mobile boarding passes to Australia, although that's under discussion – the service has only just been launched to non-US airports, among them London, Munich, Amsterdam Geneva, Zurich and Moscow – although you can of course checkin online.
The flight itself was uneventful, with Sydney departure and wheels-down in San Francisco pretty much on time.
There was a 20 minute wait at SFO to collect checked baggage – even those bags tagged for business class priority handling – but this was no doubt exacerbated by the fact that we cleared the immigration lines at SFO within minutes (another plus for flying into SFO compared to the ever-crowded LAX).
The business class cabin was full both upstairs and down, which the flight attendants say is most often the case for UA870 these days – it will be interesting to see how United copes with increased demand once Qantas drops its own San Francisco service.
I’ve been on some UA flights, even in business class, where the attendants serve the meals and then bolt for the privacy of their own nook, but this time around we were well looked after throughout the flight.
The only annoyance was the stream of PA announcements before and directly after take-off – not only did these seem to be non-stop but the volume was set to 11 on a dial which topped out at 10. You could see passengers grimacing at the blast of each announcement and abandoning conversations with seatmates.
United has one of the more interesting business class seat configurations. While most airlines have conventional fully forward-facing seats, and some are adopting angled or herringbone layouts, half of United’s 52 business class seats on the 747-400 face backwards.
Thankfully there’s little difference once the plane is in flight – it’s not like you’re travelling backwards on a train or a bus.
The seats are arranged in pairs on the upper deck in a 2-2 configuration – two seats on the left and right side of the cabin (seats AB and JK, respectively). Downstairs there’s an extra three rows of four seats in the middle, for a slightly busier 2-4-2 layout.
In front of each ‘pod’ of seats is a low wall containing the 15 inch flat-screen monitor plus a shelf for storing items during the flight, so the seat is in effect a two-part module.
Each business class seat is 23.5 inches wide, which is an extra two inches over the comparable Qantas 747 Skybed Mark 1 seats.
There’s exceptional legroom, with a 74 inch pitch on the upper desk and 77 inches downstairs compared to the 60 inches of legroom for Qantas flights to San Francisco.
The biggest win for business travellers however is that the United seats convert into a fully lie-flat bed.
While Qantas has lie-flat Skybeds on its Airbus A380s, on the San Francisco route Qantas runs Boeing 747-400s fitted with the first generation Skybed. And while this is officially a flat bed because it extends to a full 180 degrees, instead of lying fully flat it remains tilted at an angle, which many passengers find difficult for sleeping.
The armrests on both sides can be manually lowered to add a little extra shoulder and arm room, but those in a window seat may wish to keep the window-side armrest raised – when lowered there’s a sizeable gap between the lowered armrest and the side bin.
My seat on this flight was 12K which is an upstairs window seat in the first row. Like many travellers I prefer the smaller and more ‘intimate’ space upstairs, while the window seat also gives you access to under-window storage bins which aisle passengers don’t get.
The downside of 12J and 12K is that these seats are directly behind the only two lavatories on the upper deck so there can be a fair degree of traffic past your seat during the flight (as well as a flurry of activity when the pilots wish to use the loo, as a crewmember will stand guard at the toilet doors to prevent any passenger from using them, then when the area is free of passengers a light but solid-looking security gate is pulled out from the wall and latched into place to block off the toilets and the cockpit door before the door is opened.)
And the downside of any window seat in United’s 747 business class is that it’s difficult to get into the aisle if your neighbour has extended their seat, because the lie-flat seat extends all the way to the dividing wall. Unless you’re a regular practitioner of Pilates or Yoga you’ll need to quickly master a what’s best described as a grab-lean-leap-and-land maneuvre.
The seat itself was exceptionally comfortable, with an oversized headrest. Add all that to proper pillows and a very long, soft blanket and it’s the recipe for a very good night’s sleep.
Seat controls are within easy reach on the edge of the centre armrest and gently backlit so there’s no fumbling in the dark.
What’s missing is in-seat storage. Window passengers have long deep bins under the window, and each passenger has a shelf running underneath the video screen in front of them – but there are no nooks for stowing personal effects which you want within easy reach.
Pre-dinner drinks and the famous bowl of warm nuts came out shortly after take-off from Sydney, with the main meal following a half-hour later.
While the meals weren’t fancy Masterchef-inspired works they were solid business class fare.
The starter was a tasty chicken tablouleh salad which if larger could have been a decent snack in its own right. For mains I chose the Australian filet mignon with a quiche-like 'potato cake', baby carrots and asparagus, which proved to be a very straight-down-the-line dish – nothing to get excited about but nothing to make you wish you'd chosen the fish. Also on offer was a snapper fillet and cheese & spinach ravioli.
A cheese platter and passionfruit tart rounded out the early dinner nicely.
Mid-flight snacks were limited to a palm-sized beef curry mince pie; thin cheese, cucumber and lettuce sandwiches; and the mandatory chocolate and chips.
For breakfast the crew offered a passable ham and Swiss cheese omelette with mushroom; a small dish of sliced fruit which was thankfully not frozen solid; and a light croissant. The healthier option was a seasonal fruit plate served with yoghurt.
United serves Starbucks coffee. Enough said.
Entertainment & Service
Facing each seat is a large 15.4 inch video screen with a modern-looking menu system but an odd selection of content. While the latest release movie was Black Swan, the only ‘classic’ titles – United’s description, not mine – were the first two Austin Powers movies.
I found the supplied noise-cancelling headphones were rather basic and happily fired up my own Audio-Technica cans.
There’s an option to connect your iDevice so that videos can be viewed on the big screen, but the necessary cable – which is designed for and works only on Panasonic in-flight entertainment systems – will cost you US$40 from United’s onboard duty-free store.
That's a pretty poor show when airlines with similar setups, such as Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, will loan the cable to you. After all, you've already paid a hefty fee for your business class ticket – having to shell out another $40 for a cable which can only be used inflight and then only on certain airlines and aircraft is a bit rich.
If you’re more of a ‘BYO entertainment’ passenger there’s a laptop power socket and USB port for each seat to keep your tech topped up with power.
The cabin crew were easy-going, friendly and highly attentive during this flight, most notably with regular visits to refill our small glasses of water. There’s a reason for this: United doesn’t serve bottled water on its flights, which I consider quite an inconvenience if you want to stay hydrated at your own pace (and I’m not going to hit the call button every time I want a refill).