Friday, November 27, 2015

To Delhi via Dubai: The United Ultra Long Haul Experience

This trip report will focus on my first major flight with United Airlines. (I've flown the old Continental long distance a couple of times, on their US-India nonstops. This while CO was still with SkyTeam.)

This past Sunday, I had occasion (see post below) to need a last minute ticket to the Subcontinent. Fares in coach on SkyTeam were through the roof. I had a bunch of Avianca LifeMiles stored up (a good way to get affordable business class fares internationally). Not really expecting to find award travel availability, I went to the LifeMiles website anyway. I needed a flight late in the evening on Sunday, that would let me take the morning Masses in my parish, and give me enough time to get to Hartsfield, 90 minutes away from Athens. Flights out of Atlanta, Miami and Chicago were unavailable. Out of Boston, there was a weird connection via Geneva and Zurich, on Swiss Airlines. It looked risky: short layovers at both airports? I don't think so. United's popular (and lucrative) Newark-Delhi flight was available only a few days ahead. Air India (EWR-BOM/JFK-DEL) was unavailable, though I could have shelled out more points and flown First Class a few days later. And then, I plugged in Washington Dulles. IAD-DXB on UA, connecting to AI on to DEL, with an ~4h layover. Bingo! A few minutes later I had booked that flight, followed by a decently priced flight from Atlanta up to Dulles on Delta.

The 4+ hour layover at Dulles was more than enough to pick up my bags from the belt off the Delta flight, and hike them over to United's premier check-in counter, which was practically deserted. "This is a one way, sir? When are you returning?" I said I wasn't sure. "Well, we have to put in something for immigration." I pointed out that I had permanent residency status in India (Overseas Citizenship of India) and showed her my card. "Oh that's all I needed to know!" A few minutes later the bags were checked through to Delhi and I received the boarding pass for the first leg. I would have to go to the transfer desk in Dubai to get my Air India boarding pass. I headed out to the curb, and was picked up by a classmate from seminary. There was more than enough time for a leisurely dinner nearby.

The United lounge at C17, IAD
At 2050, I was back at Dulles. The line for security was quite short. I hadn't plugged in my Global Entry number while making the reservation, so I didn't get TSA Pre-Check access. So, off came the belt and the shoes, and the jacket and so on. A little after 2100, I was in United's lounge near gate C17. It didn't really seem any different from a Delta Sky Club (I wasn't hungry, so I didn't really look to see what the food offerings where). At 2130, an agent approached to say that the lounge was closing, but that the one at gate C7 would be open till 2200. It was time to head to the gate anyway. Boarding was well under way, but I was let through as a Premier Access customer. 

Of course there'd better be enough legroom! 
Seat 8A on UA's B777-200 to Dubai is a rear-facing seat. It was one of two windows still available when I bought my ticket. This was a first! It felt a little weird at first, but I soon got used to it. Besides, it was night, and there was nothing to see outside. Of course, there was plenty of legroom, however, very little stowage space around the seat itself (a problem I've noticed in many J class cabins!).

That's one long flight! 
The flight departed nearly 30 minutes behind schedule (because of delayed baggage loading). Take off felt really funny -- one normally expects to be pushed back into one's seat by the increased thrust forces. Here, one was pushed out of one's seat. The climb to cruise was smooth, and I soon settled in comfortably to watch a movie, as the dinner service started on the 12h30m+ flight to Dubai.

Business class means lots of food. I wasn't disappointed. Start out with drinks and a small bowl of nuts, followed by a salad and salmon appetizer. For dinner I chose the rack of lamb (it was actually pretty horrendous. Completely flavorless.), followed by a cheese plate and port. I had a cup of tea afterward, and passed on the gelato. By about 0230 or so I was ready to sleep, and stretched the seat out to lay flat, and did my best to snuggle under the blanket.

Yay! Food photos! Why do we do this? 

The most completely flavorless main course I've ever eaten.
Frommage au port! 
United's BusinessFirst seat was a thorough disappointment. They squeeze 8 seats across a B777 in Business Class in a 2-4-2 configuration. This means the seat is only 20" wide, only 2" more than Economy. I don't have really broad shoulders; however, I couldn't really get comfortable in the sleeping position. It felt terribly confined, and could only get comfortable crossing my hands over my lap, like I was sleeping in a coffin! The footrest was tiny, and at an angle, so one had to angle one's feet to stretch them out. Of course, I didn't fit (I'm 6'3", so I rarely fit comfortably most Business Class sleepers). Eventually, after a little tossing and turning, I returned the seat to half-recline, where I could stretch my legs out comfortably, and then got several hours of fairly decent sleep. If I had paid full fare for a Business ticket, I'd be a little upset.

One thing that I did enjoy was the availability of WiFi. $19.99 for the entire flight (comparable to Virgin's £14.99). Non MileagePlus members (such as myself) could only log on to one device (that can't be that hard to rectify!). I had some trouble logging on: it took me a while to realize that the browser wouldn't accept an auto-fill email address. It kept returning and "invalid email" error! Once signed up, it worked fantastically, with decent speeds, and only some very minor interruptions. Oh yes, UA's amenity kit is nice, and comes in a nice leather pouch.

Heading in to land
I woke up with about 2h50 min left till landing. A decent hot breakfast was served, with tea and juices. I spent some of the remaining time chatting/texting with folks back in the US. Given the time difference, it was nearing the end of the day. I needed to pray the entire day's Liturgy of the Hours, so I got right to it! Soon, we were descending over the Persian Gulf. We did one loop over the water (with tons of ships shimmering below, waiting to get into Jebel Ali port no doubt), and then flew straight in, past the glittering skyscrapers on the left, to land at runway 12R at about 2035 local time (1335 back on the East Coast on Monday).

At the gate in DXB. 
Off the plane, I made my way to a transfer desk, and soon had my Air India boarding pass for AI 996 to DEL. After printing it out, the agent said, "Oh, you have an American passport. You know, you look American too! I need to see your Indian card." Well, there you have it!

Farewell, rear-facing seat 8A! 
On this layover I was meeting up with some friends as well, so I didn't get to experience the Marhaba lounge used by AI. United gives its premium passengers a Fast Track pass for immigration. For whatever reason, there was no Fast Track available in the crowded immigration hall. It took about 30 minutes to get my passport stamped, and I walked out into the arrivals hall. We went to the nearby Premier Inn for some Tiger beers and snacks.

The useless Fast Track immigration card handed out by UA
By 2250, I was back at DXB's Terminal 1. A shorter line for passport control and security. I was through by 2305. The immigration officers at Dubai crack me up: they're always chattering in Arabic with each other, in their flowing white thawbs, completely ignoring the passenger in front of them. According to my boarding pass, boarding began at 2300. I went to gate 15, to find a giant line snaking out into the corridor. There was no separate line for Business Class. It moved fast, and after my documents and boarding pass were examined, I was in the crowded boarding area. I found a seat next to the door to the gate, and for a rueful moment, wished I had stopped off at the lounge first. At about 2340, an announcement was made that the flight was boarding. "Our Business Class customers may board at will." However, there was no actual boarding process! Just a mad rush for the door, like this was a bus stop in Delhi. Since I was close by, I made it through before most of the hordes.

Hello 787! 
A better seat than United
The Business Class cabin 
Yup. Comfy. Nice footrest!
AI flies a 787 on the DXB-DEL route (Mumbai merits only an old A321!). Executive Class has a 2-2-2 layout with lie-flat seats. The seat was a lot better than United. It was certainly wider (22" vs 20"), and less cramped, with a much wider footrest. The cabin was almost full (I counted two empty seats). There was a welcome drink (mixed fruit juice, orange juice or water), and AI's sad amenity kits (a paper envelope with socks and an eye mask) were passed out. The pillow was smaller than the generously fluffy one on United, but not uncomfortable. At precisely 0005, the doors were closed and we pushed back for the short (2h30m) flight to Delhi. A decent dinner was served soon after take off (options of vegetarian or non-vegetarian. Indian food. Sucks if you don't like that. However, don't travel an Indian airline and not expect Indian food!), and before long, I was stretched out and fast asleep. We were woken up about 20 minutes prior to landing, and given, IIRC, a hot towel to freshen up. 

The lone meal on the 2h30m flight: Chicken Biryani. Quite good! 
I've traveled Air India on an ultra long-haul flight before in Business Class (too/from the US to the Subcontinent). It's got good service, good food, comfortable seats. The IFE is a bit deficient, but on a short flight like this, it didn't really matter. After this experience, all things being equal, I'd choose Air India over United, if I had a choice between a nonstop too/from India. Even my recent experience on Aeroflot was miles ahead of United! Nor can I imagine shelling out anywhere near a full fare to fly in United's Business Class. However, if it were a choice between, say, a LifeMiles Star Alliance award ticket on UA J, versus coach, well, that would be a no brainer. 


Anonymous said...

How would you compare Delta business class vs. United? In my admittedly pretty limited experience, (1 trip to Australia, 2 or 3 trips to Europe) business class on Delta was very plush (although the lie flat bed was surprisingly hard! Sherry Weddell

Fr. Gaurav Shroff said...

Delta's Biz Elite (sorry "Delta One" now) seats are a little wider (21 vs 20" according to Seatguru. Also I don't recall being as confined in them). The service is, in my experience, better, and I've never encountered the kind of tasteless food I did on this UA flight. However, I've not been up front on DL enought for this to be anything but anecdotal.

As to the bed: I describe biz seat-beds as sleeping on a friend's couch or fold-out sofa. One friend calls them "ironing boards." On an airplane, this is the height of luxury! :)