The Reality Check That Is United Airlines Global First Class

I’ll post my full flight review in the coming days, but I feel compelled to dedicate a post on the less than international first class service I received and observed in United Global First last week.

It’s no secret that United is remarkably inconsistent when it comes to in-flight service and I think it’s most evident when flying internationally. Last year, I had a terrific experience in United BusinessFirst from Los Angeles to Sydney with attentive and professional flight attendants who were sincere in their desire to provide exceptional service. My return from Sydney was the exact opposite with indifferent, stoic flight attendants who seemed to treat service as a chore.

I was optimistic for my San Francisco-Tokyo Narita-San Francisco flights in Global First knowing that in the past, flights to/from Japan were a particular quality control focus. While the crew I had (the same on both flights) wasn’t stoic or indifferent, the service they provided wasn’t what you’d expect for international first class. I know, I know… not really a shocker for a U.S. airline when compared to foreign carriers. But here are a few unique observations from my flights.

On the ground, the reaction by two Global First passengers arriving in the gate room in Tokyo and being told to queue in the already huge 75+ passenger Group 1 boarding lane was priceless. They were visibly shocked there wasn’t priority given over business class (or even coach passengers with elite status).

Onboard, the dislike between the purser and lead flight attendant serving Global First was palpable, something unprofessional to visibly allow and express in view of the cabin.

When a passenger couldn’t immediately find storage space for his carry-on (a problem on the 747-400), a flight attendant who wasn’t working in First told him he’d have to put it in business class and to “write to the company to complain” without offering assistance. Fortunately, the purser was more proactive and found space for him in first class.

In many cases, the menu, amenity kit and slippers are presented to you after you’re seated in first class. On both of my flights, the menus were nicely displayed on the console, though the amenity kits and slippers were stored away in the seat compartments. Not a huge deal, but there’s just something about the presentation of them personally that adds a touch of class.

United introduced turndown service in Global First? Absolutely no mention of it was made on the outbound. And on the return, I overhead the lead flight attendant say, “What are we… a hotel?!” when telling another passenger about it after he found the seat cover in his compartment. She even went on to say that flight attendants love to take them to their crew bunks for use. Sigh.

Now I should mention that the flight attendants were each friendly in their own way (particularly when I reappeared on their return flight the next day), but service elements and overall cabin management on my flights certainly weren’t worth what a normally priced Global First ticket would run.

I was hoping for a stellar experience, but I drew the short stick on these United flights. I know there are flight attendants at United who pride themselves on delivering exceptional service. It’s just a shame that the amount who don’t or won’t step up will prevent United from ever being on par with their global counterparts.

Related posts:

I’m Off on a Weeklong Mileage Run… In Style!

Amenity Kit Review: United Airlines Global First

Flight Review: United Airlines BusinessFirst Los Angeles to Sydney

Flight Review: United Boeing 787 Dreamliner Inaugural



  1. Had the same type of service in UA F from SFO to SYD. No room for limited carry ons. Flight attendants rude to F pax. I asked for some water to take an ibuprofen and got the third degree as to what I was going to take. She proclaimed, “If you are taking Ambien, I need to know.” Funny…the guy two rows behind me on the other side of the aircraft raised his hand to let her know. They are a sad old bunch of “entitled” flight attendants that need to be made redundant.

    • @trvlguru: Oh my… too funny the FA “required” to know what pill you were taking.
      @BOShappyflyer @Barry: I definitely agree it isn’t worth it to outright pay more $ than business. While the seat is better, it’s not by multiple $1000s so. One perk Global First does have is occasional better award availability for a single seat than business.

  2. I flown UA first for the first time last year. Super excited about it, though I set realistic expectation (it’s not like BA F). Let’s just say i’m not super excited about it anymore, and I don’t think it’s worth the difference (in $ or miles) for the premium cabin.

  3. I’d disagree that UA Global First isn’t worth the extra miles. Note: just as long as they are saver miles. The seats, while not the new Asiana suite or Singapore’s are very, very good & the entertainment system is excellent. I flew Asiana, Thai, & United 1st class 3 months ago & United’s food was 2nd best of the bunch. I get the service will not compare to the foreign airlines, but still worth taking if the option is available.

  4. I remember booking my flights on Singapore last year and the only option for my return was SQ Business Class or UA First Class. I didn’t hesitate to ask for Singapore. I told the reservations agent, point blank, there’s no way I’ll waste my miles on United when I have any other option.

    • @Scottrick: Agreed. Given a choice, redeeming miles on United in a premium cabin internationally would be last on my list. This, fortunately, was a paid ticket. My exception on United is Australia – I will burn miles for a biz/F ticket there.
      @Gary: Also agreed. Getting the necessary buy-in from flight attendants who could care less about delivering exceptional service is near impossible, sadly.

  5. The problem is that no matter how much of an investment in hard product United makes, the product is still delivered by their crew.

    And while there are certainly flight attendants at United who provide great service, fundamentally they do so of their own volition rather than because of the incentives or culture of the airline.

    They are the exception — delivering great service despite working for United — rather than the result of the airline.

  6. It’s F class seat with F*kg services! Dont get me started…I was horrified when we got no amenity kit, no menu, no headset, and a very old attendant who can’t remember a thing and came around talking our meal order three times…& how they rough handled my cabin bag as they tried to close the overhead compartment… *ouchhh*

    I will never pay to fly on UA F!

    • @Pete: Tempered expectations are indeed required.
      @LufthansaFlyer: So true.
      @MilesFromBlighty: Fingers crossed for you that you get a stellar crew!
      @Erndog: A United management rep who knew I was going to be flying Global First asked me directly, “I’ll be interested to hear your feedback on the service” before I flew. I’ll certainly follow-up with him at the minimum.
      @Seb: Ha! Loved your last bit… maybe LufthansaFlyer knows something about that. 😉

  7. Forunately star alliance has far better Intl F choices……Couldn’t imagine burning miles or cash on UA intl F —especially when you can fly LH C or F from the US to HKG via FRA or MUC for the same miles! 🙂

  8. Hey Darren –

    Just wondering if you’d consider putting this blog post in a letter format and sending into United. I’d love to see what sort of response you’d get (if any), and what they would say in a written response.

    Sorry that United is so bad . . . imagine the impression foreign visitors get of the US when traveling to the US for the first time on this carrier.

  9. These turkeys have been up to this for as long as I can remember. I have found that usually 1-2 in 10 are world class, the rest are, well, NOT. There are no controls in place for providing a bad product. Ergo, I (half tongue-in-cheek) tell my friends to use part of their quart size TSA bag for your favorite lubricant. Good chance you’ll need it.

    For what they charge you’d think they would chauffeur you to the plane, give you a special lounge, pre-flight meal and enough booze to calm an Irish, maybe even a rubber ducky in your hot pre-flight bath… wait, what?

  10. The CEO of United really needs to take grip of his company. There is an entitlement attitude that runs throughout e company. How do they expect to reduce the rate of passengers abandoning United for other airlines if they can’t provide a professional service. Not having a first class lane on an international flight is beyond shocking. How much will that decision lose? And yes, we do expect a hotel service.

  11. I was on UA F from Frankfurt to IAD last year, and they would only allow me take one fruit selection. Nope, not even a banana and apple, EITHER a banana or apple. Complete BS. The IFE is great, and the seat is not half bad, but the service is absolutely terrible.

  12. One day I plan to write a book titled “The Death of Service.” Chapter One will be dedicated to USA airlines.

  13. Surprisingly I don’t feel the same way…I’m ok with the hard product, and I like that FAs don’t bother me on UA. I wish it were more self-service for the whole flight…just leave out the beverage cart and plenty of ice.

    I disagree with LH C, at least on the 346 to MUC, that is a horrible seat.

  14. As so many have said before, UA F is an upgrader’s or mileage purchaser’s cabin and, as such, is never going to be top notch.

    @Darren. I wouldn’t worry too much about the impression foreign visitors to the US receive from UA. The memory of the queues at and the treatment by the Immigration staff will expunge all thoughts of the flight itself.

  15. I fly United Global First about twice a year from the West Coast US to Australia [originating in Ottawa]. I don’t choose United because it is good but because I am most often using miles and they have availability. I would prefer to fly Air Canada in business but they have extremely limited award availability. So if I am paying, I fly AC business; if I am using miles, I fly United First.

    The service has seen a steady decline over the past few years and you are very correct in pointing out that the flight crew can make a big difference. United no longer hands out pajamas and the food selection is certainly not caviar and high end champagne. [On my most recent flight, the soup was served in the tiniest bowl you have ever seen!]

    It is also quite unusual that United makes First class passengers line up with business and the frequent flyers. A nice touch in LA is that Rebecca [wonderful lady!] from the lounge escorts you to the plane. In San Fran, you have to make your own way and fight the crowds.

    I’m flying in March outbound through SF and return through LA and am looking forward to my trip but would certainly be more excited if it were closer in quality to first on Thai or Singapore! It is a bit confusing as to why United seems to cut corners in First as a revenue ticket in First on United from North America to Australia is quite a bit more expensive than a first class ticket on Qantas or Emirates from London to Australia.

  16. How much does the union contract and seniority rights interfere with delivering an excellent Global First experience? I believe that on UA aircraft, the staffing is totally seniority based, and the airline has no ability to evaluate and select which FA’s will work in F. I believe that on airlines like LH & SQ, the alrline actively evaluates the FA’s and only ones that deliver the service to the airline standard work the F cabin. Seems like if US airlines want to offer a Global First product, either they need to be able to staff that cabin from a separate roster, or the union has to be signed on to monitor and select staff to the Global First quality level. It could be in the union’s long-run interest if it were to result in more revenue GF pax, but it’s difficult to believe that they would agree to that.

    UA itself seems ambivalent about the Global F product since they have cut back on the catering such that it’s not much more than Business First.

  17. I just a weekend trip to IST on the old Ghetto UA 767-300…i have to admit those planes are fantastic now..the 2-1-1 seating is great and they have air nozzle (my biggest gripe with the old CO intl fleet)…service on the two cabin plane (and this was served by a UA crew) was great. I flew on a 747 biz class to HKG a few months ago and found the 2 cabin BF service a signification upgrade to the three class biz cabin. No trays, a full 5 courses served one at a time including a nice cheese cart display. I’d be tempted to just seek out these 2 cabin planes, although they do not fly to all destinations like Australia. My 2 cents, but overall was very impressed (for UA standards) for both of my flights and the hard product was great too!

  18. I’m not surprised and similar to my own recent experience. I use United’s domestic service because it is convenient. International: on a cold day in you-know-where. Even hoofing it to another gateway city is better than enduring their terrible service and miserable food on the long, over-water routes.

  19. I truly enjoy reading these posts, sincerely. I am a UA flight attendant, and all I can say, w/o getting trouble/ being terminated, I am very sorry for all the bad service you all have experienced. I hope that helps a little, but if it doesn’t, I’ll understand. No hard feelings, but please keep sharing your experiences, it helps me know what is happening, thank you very much!

    • @RD: Thanks for stopping by! Many flight attendants at United provide exceptional service. It’s just sad that the inconsistency is prevalent, particularly on ultra-high-yield international flights.

  20. @ Erndog – Foreign visitiors who fly UA just beucase of the price, not because of service. If they can afford they would have flown the airlines from their own country. Just for an example, everyone would fly CX from HKG to US instead of UA, but people also know CX is consistently more expensive than UA. Majority would also fly Y instead of F or C. And when you talked about Y, they are all the same
    @ Charles R – United NEVER have PJ, it is not something they no longer have or discontinued.

  21. @Darren: I appreciate the kudos sir, thank you! I empathize wholeheartedly with all those posting here. I grew up in the airline industry, my dad was a Ramper for Ozark/TWA/American his whole working life after the Air Force. The industry is definitely how I remembered it as a kid, but we adjust to what life hands us, but what I’ve seen recently is cringe worthy at times.
    Please feel free to share the good and the bad, trust me, there are no hard feelings at all.


  22. Why oh Why would you use miles on United First? Business class on Thai, Asiana, ANA, Singapore are all better! The only reason i fly united is i’m close the 1MM mark, and once i hit it, i’ll be switching programs since MP is a joke. Sure, systemwide upgrades are good (if can get upgrades) for the price of coach, but upon learning that i can’t get upgraded, i paid the extra change fee of 200 USD from Singapore to NYC to ANA, which has much better service.

    Word to the wise, fly united, SPEND the miles on Singapore, ANA, Thai, or even Asiana. The crews are younger, eager to serve and please you, help you with luggage, and don’t rush the meal service only to go back and chat with each other and read the newspaper and do crossword puzzles (a favorite pasttime for sorry UAL employees). I flew ANA and they are coming back and forth every 10 min with drinks, snacks, and i wanted a mix drink and snack and they did that too very happily.

    Plus, i just can’t stand the darn sarcasm of the employees.. I know UAL employees have gone through some hardship over the years.. but seriously, don’t take it on the customers!

    • @Cheldog: Agreed. I earn my miles on United to redeem for international Star Alliance premium cabins. Best way to manage your MileagePlus account, in my opinion.

  23. It is such a shame that UA has allowed their long distance Global First descend so far down, but all the American companies are equally bad. I always fly Global First and for a while I was a Global Services customer which basically for 5 years got me in contact with really professional people in Dearborn who actually cared about their customers. And once I got a ride to a gate at ORD to make a tight connection. Nothing else was offered, so I slowly started to realise that I was going to be !K forever (3million miles gets you that status) and with that status you can get on a plane in the first 50 scramble and watch what has become United Baggage handling people who were once flight attendants manhandle baggage on and off an in and out of the spaces. I am old fashioned and I get on the plane last after all the mayhem of boarding and baggage management is finished. I am usually the only person on the plane who wears a jacket so the flight attendant doesn’t offer to hang it and anyway the closet is full of bags.
    Once United decided to compete with Southwest we were all given the short shrift which is the future for all. I feel sorry for all the employees because I know they expected something more glamorous than handling adult males baggage, and serving sad and pathetic little meals on plastic to people who are afraid to complain to the MANAGEMENT. When I get a good flight, I always make sure to say “Thank you for a good flight” and I think as the world allowed all the bad mannered people to mingle with us educated and alert people with good manners, we should have shown them the correct way, as UAL should have explained that a flight attendant was actually a wait person who could carry large carry on bags for men and women who are too stupid to manage their own stuff! I do get carried away don’t I? and after all this I did 200 k on UA this year and not 300 k as usual having discovered LH and Singapore Airlines who know how to do it. Surely the management should fly a few trips on those airlines to see that it can work without plastic glasses and soup and salads made in Hades?

    • @Peter: United is certainly no comparison to Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines, that’s for sure. And most of management knows it. Kudos on your 3MM 1K for life – while 1K doesn’t provide the same level of benefits and consideration it once did, it’s still a nice status to have locked in.

  24. Flew United Global First from Frankfurt to San Francisco a couple months back.

    Got served a warm beer half-way across. Asked for a cold one and they replied “They don’t give us dry ice anymore.” Then the lead purser came by and repeated it and said to complain. “it’s because of the merger” he said.

    Wow. Cold beer and white wine in Global First? That’s a new low!

    I’m flying Global First to Shanghai in a couple of weeks. Stay tuned…

    Oh, and you still can’t upgrade from JFK to SFO (even if there are empty biz class seats)! This airline is just a mess…but what can you do? They rule SFO.

  25. I just wanted to mention that I recently fly Delta’s BusinessElite from JFK-BRU-JFK and I was ASTONISHED at how exception the service was. I really couldn’t believe it. granted, the new delta BusinessElite product is quite solid in its own right but the crew (on both outbound and inbound flights) really made the flight experience all the better. They were actually much friendlier than the BrusselsAirlines business class crew, who were also great too of course.

    I just booked a ticket on United Global First 747-400 (which is how i came across this blog post) and I’m quite upset to read this blog.

    • @BartNY: Delta certainly gets more accolades for their service than United or even American from what I’ve heard. I’m glad you had a great experience with them and I really hope you get a better crew than I had on my last Global First trip on UA!

  26. i for one would take it as sign that management does care a little bit if they start getting with the program to hand out pajamas in GF!

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