Review: Life on the other side of the pleated curtain: United First Class

I just spent 5 hours in a $1500 seat, and it wasn't front row at U2 either. I simply flew from San Francisco to New York City, albeit a United's P.S. (Premium Service) passenger, thanks to a friend at United Airlines ... as long as I adhered to the dress rules.

Now before I'm arrested by eco-police I'll admit my languish in the lap of lux burned almost 100 gallons of fossil fuel and created 1005 tons of carbon dioxide, according to To offset this carnage I will purchase $9.95 worth of carbon offsets, good for the return trip also. Now that my conscience is slightly clearer ...

Traveling United First Class - A glimpse from the large padded seat (an attempt to film and be discreet at the same time).

The United First Class Dress Rules

No jeans, no tank tops, no gym wear and no revealing your assets, natural or otherwise. No thongs, tennis shoes, or hiking/'military style' boots. Now usually I travel in my wicked silver-plaqued, Harley Davidson elasticized boots, bomb-proof shoes that have taken me around wet'n'windy Ireland on a bicycle, yet are groovy enough to team with fishnet stockings and a short skirt for raves. I can pull them on and off easily at the airport security check - I can't believe people still labor over laces. This time, I thought I might err on the safe side.

"Business casual," said Suzi, my United pal. "I usually wear slacks and a tunic."

Slacks and a what? What does a gal who rides a bicycle for a living wear on United First Class? In the end I opted for black, a color that never gets dirty and hides a multitude of sins. But at the very end I could not resist throwing on my Adidas Lipstick Pink Long Coat. After all, the dress code did not list tweed, fawn, navy and beige as mandatories. If it was me writing that code I'd ban the aforementioned colors.

Being offered a companion pass by a United insider is no guarantee you'll actually fly. You're on stand by, that is, you wait until everyone including someone's pampered pooch is allocated seats before you get called up, if at all. The flight still cost my United friend money, which I must reimburse her for, but substantially less than retail - especially inside the 14 and 7-day advance purchase window. In fact, it's not a 'real reservation' right up until you're almost on the plane, so is a boon for flying last-minute, as I was.

When I trundled down the gangplank to the door of the aircraft the natural tendency is to head right for 'cattle class'. This time my boarding pass pointed me left, into what is normally a kitchenette. On this 'Premium Service' aircraft, I stepped like Alice through the Looking Glass into a whole new inner sanctum.

The first impression: giant seats floating in a sea of leg and elbow room. The seats resemble something like an inflated dentist's chair, with dashboard of controls to tilt your body in multiple positions, from sitting to reclining and every contortion in between. The seat in front of you is so far away, you have to get out of your seat and walk to your sick bag and SkyMall stuffarama catalog.

That pocket is actually a fully compartmentalized seat back to hold your laptop, Blackberry, Bose noise cancelling earphones, copies of Forbes and the New York Times ... those were the goods and chattels of the young gent beside me. I filled mine with my water bottle in its sock and my Mac Powerbook. I would have preferred a water bottle holder on my armrest, like at the movies, but see, you're supposed to sip from glasses delivered on trays in this class. At your shoulder is an additional light and - hallelujah - a power outlet, a holy grail for laptops with a pathetic 2 hour battery life like mine. At forearm's distance is a little table where drinks of whatever your request are gently laid down. In the case of my seat buddy, Jack Daniels on ice.

"Here, let me help you put that up," he said, jumping to his feet and hoisting my backpack into the overhead. Aaah, even the class of seat buddy is 'up there'. Bill was a 31 year old sapling of a finance executive, young enough to make me wish I'd studied harder and read the money pages instead of watching Sesame Street. His job required him to fly cross country a couple of times a month, staying just a few days before jetting back to his executive carpeted cubicle. For this constant to-ing and fro-ing, he considered First Class necessary to stay sane.

"It can really wreck you," he said, removing his noise canceling earphones and swigging his Jack Daniels. The constant drone of the aircraft engine seemed no quieter up here than in peanuts-not-toasted-almonds class, in fact, could have been slightly louder. He let me try the headphones and the noise cancellation was indeed uncanny - now I know why people swear by them. Apparently it makes the difference between arriving and feeling haggard or refreshed for the next day or two. Another gadget to buy from the Skymall stuffarama emporium.

I sat down and suddenly realized I left my bicycle helmet in the Brookstone stuffarama store back in the terminal. Panicking, I bolted back up the gangplank, and was bailed up by an officer who rightfully insisted my boarding pass be re-scanned for security reasons. On returning the stewardess quipped that I might want to wear my helmet "just in case". I imagine the only bicycle helmets they'd handled in First Class were that of Lance and the like.

A stewardess came around offering a personal portable DVD player to each passenger, but people were too busy buried in their laptops, stock picks, and up until the doors closed, their Blackberries.

We weren't far off the ground when the food parade began - a real focus when you're on a long flight and you've read the inflight mag cover to cover.

The first course was a serve of nice warm nuts - the premium kind, no peanuts - and more offers to get tanked.

Then a stewardess came to each passenger, addressing them as 'Mr Burns', Mr Strickland', 'Mr Knox' and taking their meal order from the nicely printed menu. I felt sure when they got to me they'd simply ask me what I wanted, but it was 'Ms Chiang' - and even pronounced my name right. They are clearly experienced in international relations.

The menu read like something from a swank restaurant. I ordered the sea bass with some impressively worded sides. Bill ordered the lamb. The meal was preceded by a seafood appetizer, consisting of the largest scallop I'd ever seen, a shrimp, and a piece of grilled squash. Then came an organic Ceaser salad. I was already full. It was served on linen and China, with cute little salt and pepper shakers I was thinking of souveniring, but the heavy, frosted glass construction suggested they were re-used. It as a rich meal, and I ate it all. It reminded me of long haul flights 25 years ago, when I was in my teens and this caliber of meal was standard in economy, albeit with plastic knives and forks.

Would I like some wine? I rarely drink, but hey, why not, it's full of antioxidants ... I ordered a glass of red, and the stewardess told me I'd have to drink the entire bottle of Bordeaux as she 'opened it 'specially'.

One thing I felt sure they'd offer were reading copies of the New York Times, but I guess that's back in Business Class. (Have you seen that funny ad - where the gentleman complains that he's paid for Business Class, so the stewardess simply grabs the curtain in front of him and swishes it behind him?). In First you're supposed to be reading the sequel to War and Peace, because you don't need to work.

"Actually, most of the people riding first are business people, it was probably booked out so they get upgraded," said Bill, handing me his copy.

Next came the dessert - home made ice cream, cheese, or a plate of monster strawberries with a dipping sauce.

Then fancy chocolates.

All through the stewardesses were attentive and friendly - they even cracked jokes, although not the hilariously brazen kind you get on Southwest Airlines ('Those passengers with small children - we're sorry'). Perhaps they have to attend a special school to served their beige and grey suited, $3000 round-trip paying clientele. If there was a tip jar I suspect they'd earn more than the pilots.

The toilets, however, were fairly standard - "with a few more flowers" - said Bill. They did have an array of lotions and spritzers with seaweed and deep sea minerals listed as ingredients, but did not mention the preservatives, which tend to give me problems. The paper had no more 'plys' than normal. I think a nice and completely unnecessary touch would be to offer people disposeable slippers. You don't want to go walking in a airplane toilet in socks, you never know what's been dripped on the floor ...

I had a great time with the seat controls, sinking below the floor, lying out flat, trying to find a comfortable angle being someone who's 5' nothing. Ironically, I derive no benefit at all from an ocean of legroom, the problem of a short person my feet not quite touching the floor - most chairs are simply not designed for people shorter than some national average.

The little touches are what make a service great. The fact the nuts were warm, just like warm bread rolls at a restaurant. Unnecessary, but nice. One brilliant touch I always cite, and have never seen on any other airline, is a simple button riveted to the seat backs on this Irish airline Aer Lingus. This is for hanging your jacket. It is such a no-brainer. On all other planes, including United First Class, your jacket has to be squashed beside you, or falls down between the window and the chair. Why not put it overhead? I just like to have it near me. I could see the gent across the aisle look up from his Sony Vaio and squint at my lipstick pink coat, which was bright enough to hurt your eyes among the sea of beige, navy and gray.

So does this service compare with other first class offerings? My experienced seat neighbor Bill felt it was a step up from Continental, and a step up from their 'regular' first class that goes to Newark.

"It's really the best for this route," he said. "Nicer seats, nicer food, nicer ambience."

He did, however, admit that Cathay Pacific's First Class was 'out of this world.'

I settled in my seat with it's nice, full sized pillow, opened my laptop and thought, I should've stuck to my day job, I could really get used this ...

Thank you Suzi and United for a safe and sumptuous passage to the Big Apple.

Copyright 2007


Anonymous said…
Sounds like you need to become an evangelist for United! - John

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