Flight Date: 02JUN13—Asiana and United are the two Star Alliance members offering first class service on the busy Tokyo-Seoul sector. I would have preferred to try Asiana, but out of their five daily flights between Narita and Incheon only one has a first class cabin. OZ flight 101 departs Narita at 12:30pm and since my Delta flight from Honolulu arrived at 1:05pm, United was my only choice.
For those of you familiar with this blog know, I’m not a huge United fan—in fact I try to avoid them as much as possible. That said, today’s flight was equipped with the ‘new’ first class seats so from a review perspective everything worked out well in the end.
I had five hours to kill so I cajoled a friend to make the journey from Tokyo out to Narita Airport (about an hour away by express train) to meet for lunch. This meant I had to actually go through customs and immigration, but luckily both were virtually empty and I was out in less than 15 minutes.
The Star Alliance has a dedicated terminal located at Narita’s Terminal One, South Wing. Instead of individual airline check-in counters, the terminal is divided into sections for: First, Business and Economy regardless of airline (this is a general rule as some airlines, notably Singapore Airlines, still have their own dedicated check-in counters).
Check-in was quick and efficient. United provides a separate express security lane for first class passengers and this makes a big difference when the airport is busy. Immigration was nearly empty today and I headed over to the United Club lounge located next to gate 31 after a short two minutes. The lounge is huge. Business class and gold card holders use the main floor and first class passengers are escorted to a glass elevator leading to the first class lounge one floor up.
The United Club first class lounge offers an expansive view of the tarmac and the main runway—perfect place for airplane geeks like me. The main buffet and drink area is located at the far left of the lounge with window-side seating facing the tarmac. Design-wise the lounge is decorated in a quasi-Asian style and although pleasant to the eye, it’s starting to show its age here and there.
Buffet choices are marginally better than the business class lounge downstairs and the drinks are all self-service. The first class lounge is much quieter though and while not anywhere near the level of Lufthansa’s first class lounge at Frankfurt or Cathay’s ‘the wing’ at Hong Kong, it’s still cozy and comfortable nevertheless.
Boarding was called for my flight and I collected my pc and made my way to gate 33. The flight was full and long lines had formed. I don’t particularly like the recently introduced ‘premier access’ scheme with United. In the good old days passengers with young children or those needing assistance boarded first followed by first class and global services followed by gold and then silver. Now everyone and their uncle seem to board through the premier access line.
As I mentioned earlier this United B777-200 was equipped with the ‘new’ first class cabin and it is a site for sore eyes compared to the old product. The eight seat cabin is finished in light and dark greys with brushed metal in a 1-2-1 configuration. I was greeted at the door and quickly snapped a few shots of the cabin before it got too busy.
I was seated in 2C which is one of the middle seats. Unlike the old United first class seats, the new seats face outward. And again compared to the old style United product, more comfortable and spacious. I was soon greeted by a flight attendant passing through the aisles with welcome drinks and immigration cards for South Korea.
Although there was a pillow and a blanket, no amenity kits or dinner menus were provided. An amenity kit on such a short flight is not a show-stopper for me, but you would think they could provide a menu at the very least. I’m all for saving our forests so a digital version displayed on the IFE monitor would suffice. Instead, a flight attendant came by–diner waitress-style–with a note pad and pen taking orders. There were only two choices though: Japanese bento box or chicken sandwich so I guess they figure a menu is not necessary.
The flight departed on time and as soon as we were at our initial cruising altitude the meal service began. With US-based airlines in general and United in particular, everything is about speed and getting the passengers fed and watered. Finesse, luxury and attention-to-detail must not be in the United first class service manual. The flight attendants come through the aisles with table clothes draped over their arms and slap them down on your tray table followed by the infamous United ‘warmed mixed nuts’ and your pre-ordered drink. Don’t get me wrong all the FAs were nice and friendly and I know I sound like I’m nitpicking here, but if you are paying for first class service, regardless of flight duration; you should get more than a glorified truck-stop diner experience.
My bento box arrived and although I wasn’t expecting much it succeeded in underwhelming yet still: stale looking apple-pie-something along with some equally stale pieces of sushi, noodles and fruit. I took a good look and closed the lid on my box and told the flight attendant I had totally forgotten about a dinner meeting I had planned for Seoul that night, silly me. (not true, but I didn’t want to be rude).
So with the meal situation out of the way, I decided to try out the new IFE system and maybe catch a quick movie or TV program. The United IFE system was the only bright spot on the flight today: extensive movie, TV program and music selections and games too.
Luckily, the flight was fast and we arrived at Incheon 25 minutes early.
The more I fly United the less I like them. This is somewhat of a conundrum for me as I have 955,400 lifetime miles with United, which means I only need 45,000 miles more for lifetime million-miler status (Mileage Plus Gold status for you and a partner for life). So close! But do I even care anymore? On the plus side, gold status for life would be nice, but on the minus side I would have to fly United at least another five or six times…ugh! I’ll keep you posted should I decide to go for it. Getting back to today’s flight…the new first class cabin is a huge improvement and the seat was comfortable with ample leg room and padding. I do like United’s IFE system and the first class lounge at Narita is a cozy haven away from the crowds. All the flight attendants were friendly, however the food onboard was inedible and the first class service laughable. On this route: ANA, Asiana, JAL, and Korean all offer much better inflight service. If the price is right and/or you have some miles to burn; United may be an option for you, otherwise I would stick with their Asian competitors–so much better in every aspect.