Arriving at the Brussels airport was easy from Ghent. The car return was quicker than expected (returning rental cars in US is much faster than other places) and it was a short walk to the terminal. Check-in was fast, but lacked the environment one might expect from an International First Class flight. I am not sure if it was the airport or just the United check-in area, but you felt you could have been flying from Wichita to Denver. It had been a while since I was in the Brussels Airport and from my memory there was a vast shopping area that was being expanded at the time. So we arrived a little early to explore the airport. However, we departed from Concourse B and there were only a few shops on the way to passport control & security. I therefore assumed there would be many shops after security. There was a separate line for premium class so security took less than 10 minutes (would have been longer without expedited lane). Once we arrived in Concourse B I could see this was not the same place I had been in the past as there were very few shops. Only 2 Duty Free that I remember. So we went to the lounge and as I reviewed before was a very disappointing experience. I realize that airlines that only have a few flights from an airport do not have their own lounge, but United has at least 3 flights from BRU so you would think they would have a better option for 1st Class than that Brussels Airline Lounge. This lounge was very crowded, had little food, and there were no restrooms inside the lounge. If flying Business Class, I think I would have not been quite as disappointed, but certainly was for First Class. (for a review of Brussels Airline Lounge; http://patstravelreviews.com/?p=261)
I was looking forward to flying the new United Global First product. While I had flown their new business class a few times and thought that it was a big improvement (especially the entertainment) over their old business class I was excited to see if First was the same. There was a delay in boarding (this added to the unpleasant experience in the lounge) and after 20 minutes we were allowed to board. Boarding was a little hectic but we were soon on the plane after it had started. Global First on this 777 is 1x2x1 (seats 8) and we had the two seats in the middle. They are not exactly together as they are angled away from each other, but I was happy with the space between (if traveling alone would provide plenty of privacy – I think there is even a screen that comes up in-between)
We were offered pre-departure drinks. I choose orange juice while my wife had a glass of champagne. There was an amenity kit on the seat along with the menu and pillow & blanket. The amenity kit came in a tri-fold bag with a pen, toothbrush, toothpaste, a good size bottle of Scope and Purell hand sanitizer, standard ear plugs, eye-shades, socks, comb and a small packet of philosophy (Hope) lotions and lip balm. This was a big improvement over the amenity kit I remember United providing in the past.
It took me a while to find all the storage areas the seat had to offer. At first I thought the seat was limited in storage space, but there was a button on the armrest and the top opened to reveal a large storage area. A convenient place to store your pillow, amenity kit and blanket. There were additional storage areas where I was able to put my personal belongings in. The flight attendant came and introduced herself, but in an apologetic manner. She told us this was the first day that United was using Continental’s system of storing the on-board meals and beverages. So it could take them some time finding where everything was. She also said they were short one flight attendant and she would have to cover in business class a bit. Maybe because I fly United so often I never look at it as providing a luxurious service. More just the basics. So neither of these announcements bothered me. I actually don’t like being pampered that much (a little is nice) and really just don’t want to wait to get a drink or for the meal service to start. After another few minute delay at the gate we finally pushed back 25 minutes late and were in the air a few minutes later.
The service started with a selection of drinks. I had my usual Coke and my wife ordered a cocktail (as a side note, I must apologize as many people want to know about wines on board, but I do not drink so I can not comment to much on that, plus I lost the menu portion that had the wine list). This was accompanied with a small cup of cashews and almonds (that they didn’t refill like they do in business). The meal service consisted of 5 courses (unlike 3 separate servings in business class). The first was a Warm Vegetable Spring Roll appetizer followed by a small bowl of Wild Mushroom and Asparagus Soup that my wife and I both enjoyed.
Then came a very nice salad. Which was crisp and very fresh looking and tasting.
There were Four choices for the main course. Beef Tenderloin in a port wine sauce, Breast of Chicken in a creamy morel mushroom sauce, Thai-style Fillet of Fish and Shrimp, and Porcini Mushroom-filled Tortellini. I had the Beef which had a slightly better presentation than the entree’s in business class. The beef was tasty (although in photo it looks dry) and spaetzle was a nice change from potatoes.It also came with an asparagus filled pasta and carrots. While none were out of this world tasting, they were all above average. My wife had the Tortellini (against my better judgement – I wanted to taste the chicken) and was not crazy about it. I tried a little and also did not like it that much (but I am not a huge fan of mushroom – although soup was good)
Because I did not eat half of my wife’s entree as usual I was not that full and was able to enjoy my dessert a little more. There was the usual selection of cheese, grapes, and crackers served with Graham’s Vintage Port (which my wife had) and I enjoyed a ice cream sundae topped with hot fudge and whipped cream. It looks kind of plain from the photo, but I love hot fudge sundaes and it beats the small piece of cake you would receive in business class so I was very happy.
In between the meal service there was supposed to be mid-flight snacks available. After I took a few hour nap I went to the toilet and did not see any so I walked back to business and grabbed a few pieces of Toblerone Chocolate and a bag of chips. An hour later I did see a tray put out in First, but the selection was basically the same as business class. Prior to landing United served their traditional unappealing snack. On London flights they at least have scones and something different, but on all their other routes heading West from Europe I do not think I have ever enjoyed the snack served prior to landing whether in Business Class or First. This day was no different. I was hoping in their new Global First they would improve this meal, but we were served (no option) a Chicken Tortilla Wrap. That tasted slightly better than it looked.
The flight time was eight hours so even with my nap I had plenty of time to enjoy United’s new entertainment system. As I said I had flown their Business Class a few times so knew what to expect. There are plenty of options with over 150 hours of entertainment. While the screen size is a generous 15.4 inches, it is the same as the business class seat. There is a choice of new releases, classic movies, foreign films, TV shows, sit-coms, moving map, games, as well as music (you can listen to CD’s from many genres of music or make your own list from the CD’s available) and I think you even have the ability to plug your ipod into the seat to listen.
United’s new Global First is certainly an improvement over their old International First Class. The seats are more comfortable and spacious and have much more storage space. They recline to a full 6 foot 6 inch bed (but old first class seats I think were lie-flat as well), but where they improved the most is in the entertainment system. It is a huge improvement over their old system. Unfortunately, the service is the same. That is not a complaint or bad review as much as just a fact. The service is professional, but for First Class you expect more. US carriers (and European as well) can not match the service you would receive on a First Class flight from Asian or some Middle East Airlines. There are many factors in this and I guess I do not expect it to be the same. So really outside of the mid-flight snack taking so long to be displayed I did not notice that they were short the one flight attendant (cabin was only half full though) and the service was fine, just not great.
As a comparison, outside the entertainment system our Lufthansa flight in First Class was slightly better and more luxurious than this return flight on United. If we had a plane with the new Lufthansa seat I imagine it would have even been even a bigger discrepancy. Despite that it still was a very comfortable and pleasant flight .
Unfortunately due to our slightly late departure we arrived almost a half hour late. After an additional hour in passport/customs and security we were unable to use the Global First Lounge in IAD. Of course our flight to SAN was leaving at the opposite side of the terminal and after a 15 minute walk/run we just made our flight. Our flight from IAD to SAN was fine other than they had the same choices for dinner on that flight as the previous four flights I flew in First the month prior. Same pasta (I can’t remember what kind) or Chicken Cacciatore. So it was the 4th time in four weeks I had their Chicken Cacciatore (I guess I liked it if I kept ordering it).