Flight Review: United Airlines Global First, San Francisco to Tokyo Narita

I flew an eight-segment mileage run last month that included a roundtrip from Boston to Tokyo via San Francisco. And due to an unadvertised promotional first class fare (about $3,000) out of select U.S. origins to Tokyo (or Beijing), I was able to fly in comfort and nabbed my favorite seat onboard any United aircraft – 2K on a Boeing 747-400.

a plane parked at an airport

My Boeing 747-400, N174UA

My flight into San Francisco from Boston arrived just about on schedule, leaving me with enough time for a quick visit to the Global First lounge to catch up on emails. At the check-in desk when I was welcomed as “Mr. Booth,†the person next to me asked, “Darren Booth?†Turns out he reads my blog – what a small world. It was nice to meet you, Sean!

I headed to the gate ahead of boarding time to… well… be a “gate louse†and position myself near the front of the Premier Access lane. Why? Because those darn 747s have such limited overhead space in first class that I didn’t want to stow my bags in business class, which often happens. I was about the 10th person on and I settled into my seat (and yes, got my coveted overhead bin space). Oh, and for those unfamiliar with United, there’s absolutely no priority given to Global First passengers over business class (or many elites).

a seat in an airplane

Seat 2K

a tv on a seat in an airplane

View Forward at Seat 2K

The menu, pillows and blanket were awaiting me at my seat, and the amenity kit and slippers were already stowed in the side console compartment. Pre-departure beverage service was slow as the lead flight attendant in Global First spent an inordinate amount of time gabbing with a couple of passengers. And I noted some friction between the lead and purser, which I wrote about in my “The Reality Check That Is United Airlines Global First Class†post.

Newspapers were offered and positioned on the console across from my seat. We pushed nearly on-time and were airborne within about 15 minutes.

a aerial view of a snowy mountain range


The lead noticed my camera and said, “You’d better get your pictures in quick before we take the left turn toward Japan!†I chuckled and said “Thanks,†but little did she know my main intent was to capture the meals. Hot towels, warmed nuts and beverages started the lunch service. Check out the turbulence in that water glass.

a bowl of nuts and a glass of water on a tray

Warmed Nuts and Water

Here’s the menu:

a menu of a restauranta menu of a restaurantAnd the separate wine & bar service list:

a white paper with black texta menu of a drinkMeal service began shortly after the seat belt sign came off with linens, silverware and bread presented first.

a plate of bread and a glass of water on a table

Table Setup

The warm appetizer and sushi were served nearly in tandem. I did quite like the beef empanada and pastry, but didn’t touch the sushi as I’m not a fan.

a plate of sushi and rice


a plate of food with sauce

Beef Empanada and Veggie & Mushroom Pastry

Besides a warm vs. cold appetizer, the only other noticeable difference from Global First to BusinessFirst meals is the addition of a soup course. It was only lukewarm and required a bit of salt to make it tastier.

a bowl of soup on a plate

Shrimp and Roasted Corn Chowder

A rather basic salad followed and I went with the Parmesan-pepper dressing.

a salad with dressing on a plate


For my main course, I chose the Tenderloin of Beef. It was very tender and delicious, the latter likely due to the Delmonico’s steak sauce. I have had decent green beans in-flight before, but these were rubbery and tasteless. And the potatoes cooled off very quickly and were equally bland. More salt.

a plate of food on a table

Tenderloin of Beef

By this point, I was ready for a nap having been awake since very early Boston time to catch the 6:00 a.m. flight. And so I skipped the cheese and ice cream sundae. Here’s the remainder of the menu:

a menu of a restaurantThere was absolutely no mention of the “new†turn-down service for Global First passengers where flight attendants will lower your seat into bed mode and spread the sleeping cushion over the seat. And on the return flight with the same crew, the lead was very vocal how she felt about it saying, “What are we a hotel?!â€

The crew spruced up the lavatory as best they could.

a group of hand lotion bottles

Lavatory Amenities

a bottle of liquid with a white towel on top of itA cart was setup near the galley with the assorted sandwiches and nibbles from the “mid-flight snack†menu appearing above. They looked identical to what’s offered in BusinessFirst and not particularly appealing.

About 1.5 hours before arrival, breakfast was served although it was 2:00 p.m. local time in Tokyo. Other airlines flying this timeslot will serve a more time-appropriate meal. I went with the herbed scrambled eggs, ham, turkey sausage and potato gratin… err… tater tots.

a plate of breakfast on a tray

Breakfast at 2 p.m.

While each flight attendant was friendly in their own way, there was certainly nothing exceptional about their service. It was just a typical United flight and I suppose worth what I paid. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to pay full-fare for United’s Global First.

Related posts:

The Reality That Is United Airlines Global First Class

United Global First Amenity Kit Review

Lounge Review: ANA Suite Lounge Tokyo Narita

I’m Off on a Weeklong Mileage Run


  1. I wonder if united management is aware of the reputation their premium cabins have. You would think they would want to get better at this game in order to compete in the global market…

  2. Thanks for sharing, but I must say those J/C food aren’t that appealing 🙁 at least compared to ANA J.
    AC J isn’t that good either, but slightly above UA IMO

    • @Gull: I’m pretty certain they’ve been hearing all about it… and they know they’re not competitive.
      @Jerry: United’s food definitely doesn’t compare to ANA, Asiana, Cathay, etc., etc.
      @Bryan: So true. Glad you received the pamphlet and service on one of your flights!
      @Mike: Yeah, I do quite like 2-cabin BF… it’s pretty darn good.
      @Amol: I think GS should go together with Global First in their own separate group.
      @DTO: Yep, BF is the way to go on United, unless you have upgrades or a corporate contract that’ll get you into Global First at the same/similar rate. And I’m not even sure “wasting” an upgrade is worth the trouble.
      @Dave: Great idea!

  3. The lack of turn down service just highlights the lack of consistency. I flew FRA-IAD in mid January and was given a one-page pamphlet explaining the new service. After meal service the crew came around with the blankets and asked if we wanted turn down service. I did have a FRA based crew though…

  4. I flew in BusinessFirst back from Europe back the other week and had the same menu, minus the soup course. Have you flown a legacy CO 2-cabin in BF? I honestly think it is VERY similar Global First, except the GF seat is better. I thought it was a signifant upgrade over the Business class on a 3-cabin place. I was burning a regional, so it was worth the W fare, but I would certainly not pay for any premium cabin with UA as you said.

  5. “Oh, and for those unfamiliar with United, there’s absolutely no priority given to Global First passengers over business class (or many elites).”

    IIRC, on my UA GF flights, Global Services members boarded BEFORE Global First, which really doesn’t make any sense to me. If anything, it should be at the same time.

  6. As long as I get full flat seat in Business, I can’t imagine ever paying for full fare F, no matter how good the service/food is. It’s just not worth it. Even the best French fine dining is less than $1000, while the price difference between F and J is fare more than that.

  7. I think some of the crew from United should be flown on Cathay Pacific to show them what good flight service to Asia is all about. I like the domestic flight staff always complaining about wanting more money for the service they do, but they never want to do anything more for such pay. I think United should get some undercover corp. people to start flying and see what’s really going on, the CEO talks a good talk but his people never follow his lead.

  8. I flew a similar run from MIA to PVG at the end of last month (777-300) and had the same meal on the LAX-PVG leg (might have been the same on the transcon legs too but I don’t remember). While the food was acceptable, the service was disappointing as you said – I would have been depressed if I had paid $8 to 12K for my ticket instead of the $3k which I was happy with for the 19,500 actual miles in Global First. I have nothing against old people (I am one) but the average age of my crew was well over 60 while the average age of my crew in first class on CX last year was probably under 30 and they were so much more friendly and attentive.

  9. What was that old “Saturday Night” skit called/ Oh yes, I remember now…”Lowered Expectations”…sort of like flying a US based carrier to/from anywhere!

  10. While I am not a reader of your site, I came across it because of my first non-Business Class crossing to Rome from Portland, OR. In over 15 flights to Italy, I can pick the former Continental employees out from the United Crew. As a lifetime member of Continental’s President’s Club, and now United’s, I have to say the merger is not going very well. Continental clearly had their act together, and United’s has sucked for some time. I think your insights are good, and wish you the best in trying to keep United on its new toes. Good luck!

    • @Martin: Someone who noticed it posted it on Flyertalk… it seemed to be a competitive strike against American, as Dallas and Miami were also origins (mine was Boston) sporting the fare. Beijing was also another destination at the time with the same F-sale.

  11. We just had a highly disappointing experience NRT – IAD in Global First. Service was surly at best. Having read about the turndown service experience that Darren detailed, we were sure to ask about it right after boarding. The flight attendants basically through down a mat with a whole lot of attitude and said “Here’s your mat.” Having paid $4k for the ticket, it was a horrible overall experience. I am planning on writing a detailed report. Here are the highlights of what I felt was not up to par:
    1. no wine list – two reds were offered. I was in 1C and the first served cheese. They had already run out of port.
    2. 1st class bath was quite often occupied by the flight crew and we were sent back to business
    3. pilots were given first meal choices
    4. meal was sub-par – thin soup, no beef option, poorly presented, horrible cheese selection
    5. Mid-flight snacks were KitKats, apples and bananas
    6. Surly and dismissive crew
    7. Felt less special than even some business class flights

    Bottom line: United should be ashamed for providing such horrible service. In the future, I certainly would not pay to fly in a UA first cabin. But quite honestly, I wouldn’t even use miles to upgrade from business. Disappointing.

  12. As someone who remembers the days when UA international first was a genuine first class product (caviar etc..) the current product is laughable. I am not aware of any worse first class service in the air today. All other international airlines that I am familiar with are so much better I doubt UA could catch up even if they aspired to, which I doubt. Try Thai, Cathay, Emirates… etc, its a totally different experience, and no more expensive.

    • @GLW: Oh yes, I remember the caviar and sorbet days of United… they even gave parting gifts (a box of Godivas in my case) back in the day. I doubt United will ever return to that, as well… such a shame.

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