After passport control and an extensive security check, where we were selected and taken over to a side screening area in the terminal, we made it to our gate for United’s old-style 777 to Washington-Dulles.
Approaching the gate there was a man directing everyone to see one of several US agents with laptops, they were re-entering everyone’s passport information and then being told to queue for the flight. No sitting around the gate area, everyone must get in line! And it wasn’t time for boarding yet..
There was a general boarding line and a priority line, after we had our passport data re-entered we were walked to the front of the priority line. We got a couple of nasty looks, and the man directing everyone asked why we had gone to the front of the line? I simply pointed to the “Man From the Government” and said, “He told us to stand here.” End of discussion.
They called boarding and I was soon onboard the United 777. Now, in some ways this was like old home week or even stepping back in time. I hadn’t flown United’s old-style international first class in three years, though I had been in the cabin countless times before that. It was just like I rememered! I actually got a tinge of excitement.
My wife knows the drill. Old United suite, the first thing she must do is test the seat, going into full recline mode and then switching it back. That way we’d know if there’s anything wrong with the seat prior to takeoff, while it would still be possible to have United switch our seats with a non-rev in the cabin. Discover the problem after takeoff and those were going to be our seats for the next 8 hours.
Fortuantely, recline worked just fine!
We had an amenity kit at our seat, and though it’s certainly not high-end I thought United was doing a pretty good job with the limited investment they’d be willing to make. There’s no Ferragamo or Hermes in the bag, but thoughtfully a Purell antibacterial bottle, Scope mouthwash, and Crest toothpaste. These are things I’ll actually use inflight, though not things I’ll treasure.
The standard United noise cancelling headsets were there, and while they’re not the latest technology they work just fine. In fact, it’s amazing that United provides better headsets than Lufthansa, and actually several other carriers.
The 777 has the old Empower system for seat power, and for awhile they were carrying adapters for passenger use since the converted aircraft all have standard outlets. I asked the flight attendant whether they had any for this flight and she said they didn’t carry them any longer. A woman a row up started getting very agitated, her iPad didn’t have much juice and she had a flight’s worth of work to do. After some drama, the flight attendant shrugged her shoulders and said, “you should consider taking the earlier flight, it always has regular outlet power.” Indeed, the 767 departs an hour and 15 minutes earlier. I’d have taken it myself had their been award seats open..
Flight attendant came around with the box of tapes, since the old 777 doesn’t have video on demand but you can insert a tape into the video player and make your own ‘on demand’. But there wasn’t anything I especially wanted, I have plenty of entertainment available on my laptop (even without seat power, and for the one flight I hadn’t brought my adapter), so I gave it a miss.
Menus were distributed.
- Grilled scallop and shrimp braised in herbed oil with Thai noodle salad
- Creamy corn soup
- Fresh seasonal greens with cherry tomatoes, julienne carrots, radishes and croutons
- Grilled filet mignon with bordelaise mushroom sauce
Roasted potato wedges and asparagus, carrot and red pepper julienne
Roasted chicken with sweet chili sauce
Mixed pepper risotto and green beans with sun-blushed tomatoes
Beechwood wrapped grilled salmon with tomato and olive concasse’
Roasted potato slices and root vegetables
Gemelli pasta with a mild sun-dried tomato sauce
Roasted eggplant and zucchini
- Ice cream
With your choice of sundae toppings
Hot fudge, caramel, and whipped cream
- Served with red grapes and crackers
Bavarian Bleu – a tangy and incredibly smooth and flavorful Rocquefort-style cheese
Red Cheddar – sufficiently aged to produce the predictable sharpness and golden color
Strolch Pepper – a mild, Camembert-style cheese infused with peppery flavor
Shortly after takeoff, warm nuts were served.
I noticed that my armrest didn’t stay attached to the seat. The flight attendant who had listened to the customer rant about seat power had already broken into the stack of Skykits, the postcard vouchers that you use at united.com to get a discount certificate or miles as an apology for problems inflight. Since the woman without standard outlet power on an aircraft that didn’t offer it got one, it was time for me to as well.
But I didn’t want to make this the highest priority, I held back for a few minutes which was extra convenient because my wife pointed something out to me.. now, my usual drill on United starts with checking the reading light to make sure it’s functioning. Because when you log into the United website to enter your apology card number, that’s actually one of the pre-filled out reasons/problems they offer. And it’s usually got for $200 or so.
Well, it seems my wife’s reading light didn’t work. And neither did mine! Waiting a few more minutes and looking around with everyone else fiddling with their lights, it appeared that none of the reading lights were working in the first class cabin!
When I got a flight attendant’s attention, I pointed out my broken seat. She was mortified. I believe she was genuinely embarassed by the product that United was offering and calling first class. Before I could finish my story, she was getting up to run get an apology card. But I held her back because I shared with her the reading light issue.
She excused herself and just started handing out apology cards to every passenger in the cabin that wasn’t a non-rev.
That meant that the woman who complained about seat power got a second apology card. Gee, I suppose I should have asked for a second one as well, since I had two issues, a broken seat and a non-functioning reading light. But I had gotten one for my seat, and my wife had gotten one for the light, I figured that between the two of us two cards was sufficient for the flight. Plus I had gotten ‘Skykits for everyone!’ so I really would have felt like a pig asking for more.
Plus the flight attendant offered to move us because of my broken seat, the whole cabin was full but she said she’d switch us with employees in the cabin. My understanding is that they’re only supposed to make those sorts of switches prior to the door closing, not inflight, and besides it was an armrest and not a non-reclining seat. So I declined.
Meal orders were taken, and featured one of the things that I like domestically but that I feel somewhat uncomfortable with in international first class: taking meal orders by status. Since United doesn’t load enough of each menu item for everyone to have the same thing if they wished, they prioritize meal choice based on elite status. Some flight attendants are quite adept at the procedure, asking for a first or second choice where needed, while others ‘bounce around the cabin’ starting with the highest status person and moving down. That’s especially uncomfortable when on this flight they’re taking one person’s order and not the order of the person next to them. And it’s wholly unnecessary on a flight where half the cabin is a non-rev, since those folks get their choices last and it’s extremely unlikely that any of the other passengers wouldn’t be able to have their preference.
The scallop and shrimp (cold) appetizer:
It was actually quite flavorful, but still manages to underscore one of the most salient elements of United first class — that they don’t do the little things, or that something extra, to make it special. The soup would have been much better if it were corn and crab with a lump of crabmeat in the middle. But perhaps I want too much, this is United. To just paying attention to presentation, if they had wiped down the edges of the bowl the soup would have looked far better. And a sprig of parsley could have helped, too, so it wasn’t just a big bowl of yellow.
My wife had the salmon (which was rather beautifully plated):
And I had the steak:
Followed by a bowl of ice cream:
I slept for a couple of hours, watched an episode of The Wire on my laptop (I’m on the season where they de facto legalize drugs), and the flight zipped along rather quickly. The old United seat is still fairly comfortable for lounging and sleeping, even if it’s rather in disrepair. A couple of pillows help with the spots where the seat is worn thin, and I managed to be quite comfortable.
The flight attendants came around with the pre-arrival snack:
anytime a la cart
- Chilled deli plate with gruyere cheese
Smoked salmon, honey ham, salami, asparagus and egg wedge
With basmati rice and an apple curry sauce
I had the prawns, which were fine.
Soon enough it was time to land, we boarded the ‘mobile lounge’ to immigration. And once we arrived at the main terminal – wow – the immigration line on Sunday afternoon after Thanksgiving was massive. Announcements were made that everyone who had volunteered for overtime would be getting it. Shortly thereafter an announcement was made that everyone would be staying for overtime, whether they had volunteered for it or not.
When we finally made it to an immigration officer I was questioned about why I would have gone to India for the holidays. I just replied “because it was cheaper than visiting family.” I got a quizzical look but no more questioning. It was true after all, I had used miles, but it does warp folks’ minds to think about it.