The Best-Laid Plans: United First Class San Francisco to Tokyo

As I was checking up on flight loads the day before my trip, I noticed that the day’s UA915 (HNL-SFO) flight had been canceled and my flight to Honolulu showing no seats for sale in either cabin.  Since SHARES’ (apparent) inadequacies prevent adding one’s name to the volunteer list anywhere but at the airport for the segment in question (unlike United’s Apollo system, which let me volunteer at La Guardia for my connection in Chicago to Portland in February), I waited at my gate at Newark hoping for an on-time departure (and a subsequent on-time arrival) so I could volunteer before they found enough people willing (or not) to take another flight.

We arrived on-time from Newark and quite fortunately, my next gate was only a hundred feet away.  The gate lice had already swarmed the boarding area, but I was able to make it up to the podium.

“Do you need volunteers?”

“Yes, we’re oversold by 11.  We’re offering $400 in travel credit, a hotel, meal vouchers, and a first class seat on tomorrow’s flight.”

“I’m not actually going to Honolulu.  I’m going to Manila today.  Do you think you can make that work?”

While it’s not a 777-worth of people, being oversold by 11 passengers at T-45 minutes certainly left the gate agents pressed to take any volunteer they could find.  With a US passport and no checked bags, they were able to reroute me, even on a moderately complex international itinerary.  When I was standing at the podium with my netbook, I did a few searches with ITA for United inventory, coming up with the flight to Tokyo, reaching Manila via Guam about 24 hours later than I had planned.

They came up with something better (allowing me to avoid ditching a night at my hotel in Manila):  United GlobalFirst to Tokyo followed by the ANA nonstop to Manila.  Why ITA failed to show this itinerary to me baffles me.

As I was leaving the podium, I asked–having not looked at my boarding passes yet–whether they were able to find a way of sticking me in business or first class.  “Oh, we managed to keep you where you were.”

Having only 50 minutes prior to departure, I took off for the international terminal (which thankfully is connected airside).  With Gate 100 in sight, I found myself next to the United Global First Lounge and with a few moments.  I looked at my boarding pass for my seat number:   4A.  A thought crossed my mind:  “Huh, I think that’s first class.”

I took a moment to pop into the lounge, but only had a few minutes to check my email before the announced that boarding was starting.

Our Tulip-bearing 747:

United’s Business product comes with a single pillow; Global First (as well as p.s. First Class) gives you two.

United 837
San Francisco (SFO) – Tokyo (NRT)
Thursday, May 24th
Depart:  11:48PM
Arrive: 2:11PM
Duration:  10 hours, 23 minutes
Aircraft: Boeing 747-222
Seat: 4A (First Class)

(For reasons that are not fully clear to me, the first class “suites” on United have shoulder harnesses but the business class seats do not.)

The amenity kit was consistent with the new (Tulip-less) branding of Continental d/b/a United Airlines.  (The plastic-wrapped slippers, however, still had Tulips.)

When I flew to Sydney, I was on the right side of the aircraft, giving a terrific view shortly after take off of the Golden Gate Bridge (at night).  Between being on the left side of the aircraft and a bit of cloud cover, the views after take off weren’t as good.

With 5061 miles to go, I was fully prepared to relish every moment of it.

The menu read as follows:

As a legacy United flier, I’m supposed to cheer that Continental’s management kept the warm nuts served in a ramekin, so here-here! (Economy Plus seems to be the other vestige of United Airlines.)

First came the bread (I skipped the tuna appetizer):

Rather than the on-menu tomato-basil soup, they were serving a wild mushroom soup that turned out to be quite good (and I’m not much of a mushroom fan).

Prior to takeoff, I was able to secure the pasta for myself on account of being a “vegetarian who got put on this flight less than 30 minutes ago.”  While United no longer prioritizes meals by status (except for Global Services members), a combination of my sob story, being in full-fare F, and having 1K status worked (or perhaps no one else wanted the pasta).

I took the ice cream.  One of these days, I’ll be adventurous and try the cheese selection on an international United flight.

Our five course meal got me most of the way through my movie, so I finished it up and then tried to get a bit of sleep.  Rather fortunately, I had lucked out by having a minimal amount of sleep the night before, so I was able to actually fall asleep.

I woke up at the western tip of the Aleutians.

I chose the fruit and yogurt for breakfast.

For some reason, I like the shrubbery of Narita.

For all of the moaning that occurs on the Internet about how “US-based airlines suck,” I was impressed by the United Global First product.  As far as hard-products go, the seat was quite comfortable (aided, of course, by the two pillows provided) and offered substantial storage space in the compartments next to the seat. While the legacy United Business class product doesn’t provide aisle access to every seat (and even has, gasp, middle seats, as I complained last week), the suites are well arranged.  As far as the soft-product goes, the crew was excellent (I had a vegetarian meal to eat!) and the food decent (I wasn’t on Swiss).

That said, if not for award tickets or VDB reroutes, the next time I need to fly from San Francisco to Tokyo, am I going to pull out my American Express Premier Rewards Gold card (3 points per dollar on airfare, of course) to buy a $8538 walk-up, one-way fare?  I’ll be realistic:  Of course not.

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