Trip Report & Review – United Global First Washington-Dulles to Tokyo-Narita

by Enoch

When people think aspirational First Class awards, United is usually not the first airline that comes to mind. Indeed, United doesn’t have a very good reputation in general. ..and while this flight didn’t really wow me, for the most part, it helped United gain some favor in my book.

This is the third installment of my reviews on my latest trip to Asia in First Class. See also:

Something about “seat 1A” makes me excited—I mean, it’s literally the #1 seat on the plane, right? I was the second person to board and I quickly settled in my home for the next 14 hours.

United Airlines (UA) Flight 803
Washington (IAD) – Tokyo (NRT)  |  Boeing 777-200
1220/1515+1  (13 hours 55 minutes)
First Class  |  Seat 1A

United’s Global First cabin is organized in a 1-2-1 configuration, feature eight fully flat beds. All seats have aisle access and face towards the aisle, in a “herringbone” manner. The Global First cabin took off with 6 of the 8 seats occupied, and the remaining 2 blocked for the pilots.

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Two pillows, duvet, headphones, and slippers were already waiting for me at my seat. There was also a blue seat “cover” in the side console, which served as the seat padding.

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The seat was fairly spacious and there was ample storage space available.

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The purser, Bill, stopped by to say hello and presented the menu. Another flight attendant distributed the amenity kits. I didn’t snap a picture, but United’s Global First amenity kit is actually one of my favorites, and one that I travel with regularly. It’s the only amenity kit I can recall that provides a small bottle of hand sanitizer, which is very useful when traveling.

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Small stain on the seat, but moving on…

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The flight attendant took my order for a pre-departure beverage and came by with refills every few minutes or so. She wasn’t over-the-top enthusiastic, but she chatted briefly with all the passengers in First Class and seemed genuinely interested in what everyone was doing.

For reasons I still can’t understand, United serves pre-departure beverages in a plastic coach cup, even in international first class.

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Before pushing back, the purser returned to take my meal order. Unlike what I have experienced in Business First (United’s international Business Class product), I was not asked to identify a second choice, which I appreciated.

Shortly after we reached cruising altitude, the crew began the meal service. The flight attendant started by circulating the cabin with table cloths in her arms, semi-shouting “tray tables down please, everyone put your tray tables down!” This may be an isolated incident though, because virtually every time I have flown in Business First, the flight attendant would always reach over and deploy the tray table for me.

To start, water was served with a ramekin of warmed nuts. I also asked for a Bailey’s on the rocks.

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A selection of appetizers were presented on a cart and the flight attendant encouraged me to sample everything I wanted. I selected the vegetable spring roll, coconut shrimp skewers with mango chutney, and a few pieces of sushi. The spring roll was a bit soggy, and the sushi rice tasted a bit too frozen. The shrimp skewer, however, was on point.

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I then had the roasted tomato and red pepper bisque, which was rich, creamy, and delicious.

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Here were my thoughts on the choices for the dinner entree – Beef is usually over-cooked on flights (see – Trip Report – Best Fillet In-Flight Ever?, the chicken sounded ok, and I’ve had salmon on United before (and it’s always so dry and hard). Almost by process of elimination, I went with the Japanese selection.

Short Rib of Beef
Red wine sauce, all amarillo mashed potatoes, fine green beans and carrots

Tamale-filled Breast of Chicken
Creamy corn sauce, grilled yuca and tomatoes

Fillet of Salmon with Lump Crabmeat
Beurre blanc sauce, barley with vegetables, collard greens and tomatoes.

Japanese Selection
Appetizers of green tea shrimp sushi, fish cake skewer, nori-crusted chicken, squid, broad beans and asparagus. A main course of deep fried fish fillet with soba noodles, shitake mushroom and carrot in a gin-an sauce, clear soup with bamboo shoots and seaweed, squid with plum dressing, vinegared fish salad, simmered vegetables, steamed rice and Japanese-style pickles.

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Oh boy did I make a mistake (actually, perhaps it was still the best of all the choices…). The chicken from the appetizer was dry and bland and the squid was still frozen. The fish cake was relatively tasty and flavorful, but the green tea shrimp sushi was a bit too pasty for my taste.

In regards to the main course, the fish fillet was soggy (hey United…deep…fried…?), and the breading was very thick. But perhaps most importantly, the fish was the most flavorless thing I have ever tasted. The soba noodles were decent, but the steamed rice must have been over-heated because it tasted a little…well, crusty.

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I really don’t like to hate on the catering. Truth be told, I really wanted to like the food, but it was so much of a disappointment that I almost wanted to call the flight attendant over and ask if I could have a coach meal instead.

After carefully selecting a wine form the wine list, I was told my selection was not available. I asked for another two and neither was available. Finally, the flight attendant told me that only two of the ten wines were catered for the flight.

The remaining courses were classic United, including the cheese plate and ice cream. I am not a fan of cheese, so I just went with the ice cream sundae. I know, I know, there are much better desserts, but I appreciate an ice cream sundae because it’s truly the one thing that cannot be messed up.

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Shortly after dinner, the flight attendant brought over a bottle of water before dimming the cabin lights.

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Turn-down service was mentioned in the back of the menu, but was never explicitly offered. I found the blue mattress pad in the side console and decided to just put it on myself. The pad was about as thin as the exam table paper you see at a doctor’s office, but the seat itself was padded enough that I actually got some really quality sleep. The duvet and pillows were very comfortable as well.

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Breakfast was served about an hour and a half prior to landing—the meal service began with a beverage and hot towel.

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Swiss Cheese Omelette

Broccoli potato gratin, turkey sausage and grilled ham

Chicken Katsu
Curry sauce, steamed rice and vegetables

Cereal and Banana
Served with milk

I went with the chicken katsu—I figured the omelette is available as a breakfast option on United’s domestic First Class and I didn’t really find the cereal and banana option appealing.

I really, really liked the chicken katsu—the chicken was tender and crispy, and extremely flavorful. All in all a delicious breakfast…I would have loved this as my dinner.

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We landed a bit ahead of schedule to some rainy weather and it was a short taxi to the gate. United has a fairly big operation at Narita and I wasn’t surprised to find the stretch of occupied United gates.

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My first experience in Global First was fairy positive and while the crew wasn’t dazzling, they were professional and for the most part genuinely friendly. The food could certainly benefit from some improvements, but based on previous experiences with United, I wasn’t expecting greatness…it’s not their strong suit.

In a way, United’s Global First felt more like a very good business class experience instead of a true first class experience to me. The soft and hard products were decent, but by no means best in its class.

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United Trip Report related – SQ First Journey to Bali Begins…with UA 767-300. I’m Impressed!

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9 comments

Stephen March 30, 2015 - 8:49 am

I guess if Greyhound had a first class United would be its equal.

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Bill April 1, 2015 - 5:43 pm

What snacks were offered? I remember the days in UAL business class when they provided Godiva chocolates and left the boxes out. On UA’s first class, they offered an even higher grade of Godiva chocolates!

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Enoch April 1, 2015 - 6:31 pm

Sadly I don’t recall seeing Godiva chocolate, but they did set up a cart by the galley with some Ghirardelli and onigiri.

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