Review: United BusinessFirst Buenos Aires To Houston

Some of you may remember my friend Nick, who reviewed JetBlue’s A321 Mint Class last August. He’s back with another trip report, this time from his recent trip to South America. Nick is possibly the biggest Delta/SkyTeam apologist funniest person I know, and despite the fact that he toned it down a bit for the trip report, I hope you still find it interesting/amusing. 😉

Unfortunately due to a seat mishap his phone disappeared, so half of his pictures are gone. Or to quote Nick: “can you add an editors note that United ate my phone – to be discussed in UA post – so like half my photos were lost forever hence back off bitchy commenters?”


Introduction
Copa Airlines Business Class Los Angeles To Panama City To Buenos Aires
Layover In Panama City
Park Hyatt Buenos Aires
United BusinessFirst Buenos Aires To Houston


Argentina and, to a lesser extent, the beaches of Uruguay have been covered relatively in-depth by this blog and many others, which is why I’m glossing over much of my time on the ground in order to give you perspectives you might not otherwise find on the BoardingArea blogs.

One of the common threads on this blog and others is how atrocious Aerolineas Argentinas is supposed to be.  While I won’t go into a full-length trip report on Aerolineas (and all of the photos I took of the flights were on my phone, which my United BusinessFirst seat ate, as you’ll read shortly), I will say that all of our expectations were exceeded by a country mile.

We flew Aerolineas from Buenos Aires’ downtown Aeroparque airport to Montevideo, where we rented a car (an adventure in and of itself, but not worth delving into here) and drove to the beach towns of Maldonado province, and we flew Aerolineas back directly from the Punta del Este airport to Aeroparque a few days later.

I was prepared for the worst, for hours-long delays, shoddy service and planes that were held together with Scotch tape.  Guys, if you’re just flying Aerolineas for a short haul flight within the Southern Cone, don’t worry about it!  Yes, we got a few emails from Aerolineas in advance of schedule changes and even a flight cancellation (though we were rebooked on a flight leaving a couple of hours earlier, so it was not the end of the world), but once we got to the airport, everything operated smoothly.  Not only did the AEP-MVD flight board on time, but we boarded onto a brand spanking new Embraer E90 with leather seats and seatback televisions with a decent selection of IFE.  Service was perfunctory – it is, after all, only 20 minutes in the air – but included a snack container with a granola bar, candy bar, piece of fruit and juice box.

Our return flight from PDP was on a slightly older 737-700 without seatback entertainment, but similar snack service (I did not check to see if they had an on-board fax machine per Lucky’s obsession, which would have provided a level of entertainment that no episode of “The Big Bang Theory” could offer). No hiccups.  I would absolutely fly them short-distance again.  But, if you’re still skeptical of Aerolineas, it’s worth noting that Air France, of all airlines, flies from Buenos Aires’ larger Ezeiza Airport to Montevideo on a 777.  I checked and there is wide open award availability using SkyMiles in business and economy.  Unless the paid airfares for that route are astronomical, however, it’s not a redemption worth thinking about, since you’re literally not in the air long enough to finish a half-hour sitcom.

In any event, after a lovely New Years’ Eve in Buenos Aires and a quiet New Years’ Day (note: nothing is open in Buenos Aires on New Years’, not even brunch spots in trendy neighborhoods, except for a few isolated hotel restaurants and bars), I went to check in online for our United flight from Buenos Aires to Houston to Los Angeles only to discover that the phone agent who assisted me in November in moving our flights up by a couple of days accidentally booked the IAH-LAX leg for 1/1/15 rather than 1/2/15 (since we were arriving in Houston the day after departure), which meant our itinerary was held up by red flags.

After a few maddening minutes on the phone with United’s U.S. customer service line via Skype, I hung up and used a trick you should all use for United customer service: I called the U.K. customer service line, which actually just gets you straight to a U.S.-based call center with relatively helpful agents (as opposed to the U.S.-based customer service line, which puts you through to an overseas call center).

Most of the seats on the IAH-LAX morning flights were taken, but she was able to book us into United First on a 6:47am departure, meaning we had an hour and seven minute layover: tight, but doable if all worked out.  And with that, we cabbed it to Ezeiza Airport.  (It’s worth noting that, while Ezeiza is a good 30-45 minute drive from central Buenos Aires, it’s only about a $20 cab ride at most.)

All of the lounges at Ezeiza are brand-new and far above the quality you might expect from similar trip reports of lounges in Sao Paulo and other South American gateways.  We had the choice of two lounges – the American Express Centurion Lounge and the Star Alliance Lounge – and we visited both of them.

The Centurion lounge is spacious and well-decorated, with a decent food selection and a relatively unimpressive wine/liquor/sparkling wine selection, but it is packed.  We did a quick loop around the lounge and found it much too crowded to enjoy, with no seats available and poor air circulation, so we walked over to the Star Alliance lounge a few gates away, which was spectacular.  I had had my doubts, but the lounge is beautifully furnished with chic leather and cowhide accessories, high ceilings, plenty of seating space and a beautiful buffet of food with a good display of local wines and liquors.  Because imports are incredibly difficult to come by in Argentina, you simply won’t find European wine anywhere in the country (unless you want to pay $500US for a bottle of Moet), so the champagne selection is not going to impress Ben, but we really enjoyed the sparkling rose from a local producer that was more than drinkable.  In any event, if you’re flying United, by all means avail yourself of the Star Alliance lounge.  We walked by the new OneWorld Lounge, as well, which had floor to ceiling glass windows opening up to the corridor, and were unimpressed: the furnishings were middle-of-the-road, the buffets were swarmed, and there seemed to be more customers than seating.

United 818
Buenos Aires (EZE) – Houston (IAH)
Thursday, January 1
Depart: 10:05PM
Arrive: 5:40AM +1
Duration: 10h35m
Aircraft: Boeing 767-300
Seat: 6K (BusinessFirst)

So, guys, funny story.  You know how this blog is all about great redemptions of miles, about leveraging your points for the best possible value?

This is not one of those redemptions.

Originally, many many months ago, I booked us on two first-class seats on TAM from Sao Paulo to JFK when the availability was wide open.  I didn’t quite have a plan to get us from JFK to LAX or from Buenos Aires to Sao Paulo, but I figured that TAM First was too good a deal to pass up and I could figure out those legs later.  Well, when TAM decided that, like a Monarch butterfly, its impossibly beautiful first class cabin was too beautiful to live for very long at all, it was time to consider a new routing since I had no interest in flying EZE-GRU-JFK-LAX in substandard business class seats.  At that point, so late in the game, I was kind of screwed: pretty tough to find two award tickets from South America to California returning after New Years’ weekend!

And that’s where a United standard award  (I can hear some of you gasping) fit in.  I was lucky enough to have a ton of United miles at my disposal, and sometimes the best use of miles – even if it’s 150,000 miles per person one-way – is to get you where you need to go.  So our very direct EZE-IAH-LAX routing was thanks to an exorbitantly priced MileagePlus redemption.  But hey, if you have the points, it’s strongly worth it, especially since paid fares, even in economy, were also exorbitant.

In any event, boarding was swift and the BusinessFirst cabin was welcoming, a nicely sized 30-seat cabin with lie-flat seats in a 2-1-2 configuration.

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The cabin crew had set a pillow, blanket and amenity kit at each seat, and the amenity kit was actually very nice, with Philosophy branded toiletries, and the usual suspects, including and – this is a good one – a packet of breath mints (off-brand Altoids, basically).

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As we settled in, the purser, Riitta, came around to introduce herself and present us with a business card (which I thought was a classy touch) while the male flight attendant passed around trays of champagne and water.  While, again, the photos of all of the menus were on my phone which was about to die a horrible death, meaning I can’t recall every detail as I type this up, I do recall that United recently changed its menu descriptions.

Instead of listing the brands and wines available, the wine list was vague – apparently fine French champagne was served on board (the wine list did say champagne and not sparkling wine, so it couldn’t be all bad).  The flight attendant didn’t recall the brand of champagne offhand, but I know in the past United has served Nicolas Feuillatte.  In any event, I had a glass of champagne, but having filled myself with bubbly in the Star Alliance Lounge, switched over to red wine shortly thereafter.  Riitta came by to take our food order and strongly recommended that I order the sea bass.  The food service was impressive.  Our appetizer was a lovely salmon-and-tuna starter, and Riitta was spot on that the sea bass was very good, in fact, quite delicious for seafood on an airplane.  I finished with an ice cream sundae that was great (how could it not be?).

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As you’re about to read, though, I was a little distracted during the food service.

The seat is laid out in such a way that you have a cubby next to your headrest with a power outlet as well as a USB port, and some storage nooks for headphones, magazines, etc.  I plugged in my phone and set it on the wide armrest while I focused on the in-flight entertainment system.  United’s IFE is (at least compared to Copa’s) extensive, with no shortage of great movies and TV shows at our disposal.  I settled in to watch Boyhood (you guys, such a good movie).  After a few minutes, I started playing with the seat controls to recline my seat fully.  The seatback would start reclining and then… about halfway down, it would switch gears and return to an upright position.

Noooooo, I was telling myself, I can’t be in a seat where the lie-flat function doesn’t work at all – not possible!  So I kept hitting the “flat bed” button and the seat kept going halfway down, only to return to an upright position.  After a few minutes of this, I started playing with the manual seat controls, where I was finally able to get the seat to lay fully flat.

Note: when your seat won’t recline all the way and it keeps bouncing back to the upright position, it may be because there is a foreign object, say, an iPhone 6, in the way.

Yep, at some point my phone fell off the armrest (which had no lip to prevent such a mishap) and into the crevice between the seat and the arm, which happens to be where the mechanical gears for the seat’s lie-flat function are located.  At some point a few minutes later, I went to reach for my phone to take a photo of my appetizer so that I could get a good photo for you guys only to frantically search for it.  I stuck my hand underneath the seat and felt a strangely shaped object.  As I pulled out the object I realized it was once my phone, and now a horribly mangled and shattered piece of steel and glass that might work very well as a modern art installation but definitely very poorly as a functioning telephone.

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As I picked up the poor, defenseless iPhone from the cabin floor, Riitta, the purser, walked by.  I showed her the phone – as sort of a “holy crap, can you believe this happened?!” gesture – and her face instantly showed genuine concern.  In my mind, this was just a stupid mistake and mostly my fault, but Riitta was horrified that this happened on her flight, and she pointed out that United should be aware that the armrests should have a lip or some other sort of pouch to hold passengers’ charging phones.  She immediately fetched a claim form for me to fill out and then spoke to the Captain about the situation, which was above and beyond what was necessary.  She reported that the Captain had heard complaints about people’s phones falling between the armrest and the seat before, and would call down to IAH to ensure that a “red coat” agent was waiting for me at the jetbridge to take down my information.

Anyway, after that incident, Riitta felt bad for me and made sure the cabin crew took good care of me, liberally refilling my wine until the Pinot Noir numbed the pain of losing my phone.  I reclined the seat to a fully flat bed, took a Xanax and another glass of Pinot, and enjoyed Boyhood.  Following the movie I fell into a deep, trauma-induced sleep that was one of the best sleeps I have ever had on a plane.

I woke up in time to refresh myself in the bathroom and sit down for an omelette breakfast that was not bad, though certainly not one of the better breakfasts I’ve had on a plane.  We landed at the gate in Houston a few minutes early, which was helpful since our connection was so tight, although there was a mechanical jetway issue which delayed our deboarding by about 15 minutes.  I had told Riitta that while I appreciated that the “red coat” would be waiting for me, it was more important for us to make our connecting flight.  We sped through Global Entry and were able to get our bags and recheck them, and go through security, in just enough time to make our connecting flight to LAX which, thankfully, was also in Terminal E (normally Houston’s terminal for international departures).

All in all, United really impressed me on this flight.  The service was wonderful, warm and personable anyway,  but when my phone got mangled by the plane seat, Riitta and her crew stepped up their game, making me feel truly cared for and cared about, and making sure that I had a way to file a claim with the airline.  The food was quite good, the IFE had plenty of options and the seats were comfortable and lie-flat (or at least, the seat lied flat when there wasn’t a $700 Apple product in its way).  I was expecting a middling flight at best, but was blown away.

In the end, I really do think that enjoyment of a long-distance flight does hinge on service (and, to a lesser but important extent, food and beverage).  With enough Xanax and wine, I can sleep on an angled-flat almost as well as a lie-flat, and of course a tasty meal helps, but the flights I remember are the ones where the flight attendants and cabin crew exuded a warmth, personality and helpfulness that put me in a good mood for my journey.  The fact that I left the plane in a great mood despite losing my phone to the seat recline is a testament to the power of great service.  I felt like Riitta, as the purser, set the tone for the whole crew, and so long as United employs wonderful people like her, people who can literally turn an unfortunate sequence of events into a pleasant one, I’ll remain impressed.

Of course, I’m aware – having flown United quite a bit – that not every United cabin crew is so warm, certainly not domestically.  But it had been a long time since I’d flown United internationally in a premium cabin, and every one of my (admittedly, not very high) expectations was exceeded.

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Comments

  1. thanks for the review and sorry about your phone. Must be nice to have to many miles that spending 150k miles on a one way trip is even an option.

    Your comment about not being able to find European wines in BA is not accurate. Elena restaurant at the Four Seasons has Moet for ~$160 USD which is lower than most high end restaurants and bars in LA would charge. Even the trendy Faena hotel has champagne at lower prices than LA.

  2. Whenever Barclays has the 50K promo for the Lufthansa card I get it ($79 fee) and use it for United flights to Buenos Aires or Sao Paulo.

  3. Good report. Although I would disagree on the fact that there are plenty of excellent local wine produced in Argentina, including Chandon Argentina, so why insist on European wines? It would be like asking for a Bordeaux in Napa.

  4. Lucky, I know that you do not live in Argentina, but you said “all of our expectations were exceeded by a country mile”. According to the argentinian people, the airline losses 2M USD every day, so you should not be impressed by the quality of the service. Otherwise, without the money the service would be quite different. I think it is one of the few airlines that serve a snack in such a short flight.

  5. Hi Nick,

    Nice review, but I wanted to tell you what you missed when you canceled your TAM first class tickets to take this flight.

    I was in the same predicament as you. I immediately jumped on the opportunity to fly TAM first class within hours of hearing about it and booked three first class seats for my family JFK-GRU-SCL and return for Xmas week.

    Imagine my disappointment when I learned through this blog that there would be no first class and that the seats in the downgraded business class cabin would be sub-par. However, we decided to rough it and maintain the itinerary.

    I was a little surprised when we checked in at JFK and an additional agent started talking to us and seemed to know all about our itinerary. However, I didn’t think much of it. The outgoing flight was an an A330 that still had the old first class cabin and they changed our seats to put us in there. They also gave us access to the AA First Class Lounge. We were very happy at that point.

    At GRU, we were met by a TAM Special Services escort, which was another surprise. On our connection to SCL, we were driven to the plane and got to board it ten minutes before everyone else. The entire rest of our trip involved escorts.

    On the return, SCL-GRU, we were finally on the 777 with the four-seat first class cabin that was like a living room. They again changed our seats to put us in that cabin and we had it all to ourselves. The highlight was the three of us having lunch together at a table for four. The seats in the middle section enable you to do that! (like the bed for two Ben loves to talk about). Although there was no table cloth or fancy china or first class food, we were at least in first class. The FAs closed the curtains to ensure we had privacy. I felt like we received first class service. Three FAs served our business class lunch.

    The real surprise was when we were about to land at GRU to connect to our JFK-bound flight. I took a short nap after lunch, knowing I had just under an hour before landing at GRU. However, I slept for over two hours, wondering why we hadn’t landed, and then heard some kind of announcement in Spanish containing the word Rio de Janeiro.

    Apparently there was a major wind and thunderstorm over GRU and the entire airport was closed down. Our flight had circled the airport hoping it would clear, but when it ran low on fuel, we were sent to Rio.

    At Rio we refueled and then headed back to GRU. It was nice to be in the spacious first class cabin but I was sweating bullets that we would miss our connection to JFK. I tried making cell phone calls to rebook our connection while on the tarmac in RIo but couldn’t get cell service.

    When we finally landed at GRU, perhaps four hours late, the plane pulled onto the tarmac and we were told there was no gate for us yet. However, almost an hour later, they wheeled up some stairs, and a special agent came aboard, grabbed us, told us not to worry, said that they had rebooked us on a flight leaving in a few minutes, said we were given the best seats on the plane although there was no first class cabin, said that they already taken our luggage and retagged it, and then drove us to the gate at a different terminal, where she escorted us onto the flight! Everyone on the plane that we left thought we were celebrity VIPs. We were the only ones who deplaned at that time. I never had any kind of service like this before! Those TAM special service agents were incredible!

    No one else on our delayed flight could have possibly made their connections and would have had to overnight at GRU. If that was us, we would have had to pay the reciprocal visa fee to leave the airport for a hotel, so we were very relieved. (The flight we got on left about midnight). The flight we missed would have had us sitting in the first class cabin again, but we were very happy to just have an immediate connection in business class, which at least was 2-2-2 in a modern cabin (could have been 2-3-2), although with slanted flat seats.

    Overall, I was very happy we stuck with TAM. We received the essence of first class service for the most part, received some incredible customer service and escorts, and received a refund in points for the difference between first and business.

  6. Pro tip: keep your phone in the cubby with the chargers. It’s not too hard to reach back there when you need to take a pic.

  7. Similar thing happened to me on a Delta flight with their business class seats only with prescription glasses. Fortunately we landed on a weekday in London and there was a dispensing optician within walking distance of my hotel where I was able to get new lenses and frames within 2 hrs. I still have yet to be compensated from Delta even after repeated attempts. Good luck with United.

  8. Have very much enjoyed your reviews from this trip! I am scheduled to fly United First from IAD to Sao Paulo in March while my husband will fly business (he’s cheap with miles). Do you know if either of these are also angled flat?

  9. @Kate: all international “businessfirst” seats are lie-flat on United. But the seat pictured in this review is from a 2-class, Continental style plane, whereas 3-class planes (that used to be United planes before the Merger with Continental) have a different seat, narrower but longer, less privacy but perhaps better sleep for some people. Neither seat is the best in the world, but United Businessfirst is a solid product and in many ways superior to TAM, Lufthansa, Air France, KLM or any other airline that still uses slanted seats. I find the food to be just ever so slightly better than on Delta, and much, much better than on AA.
    But, domestically United is not a very good airline unfortunately.

  10. @ptahcha – Chandon Argentina was everywhere. I personally didn’t enjoy it. It tasted about on par with (but different from) a $12 bottle of U.S. Chandon.

  11. @Luis, so you got me, I guess the Four Seasons serves French champagne and probably the Faena, too, for a price. I’m not a Krug-obsessed champagne snob (sorry, Lucky!), but on New Years’ Eve it would have been nice to toast with something other than Chandon. I just meant to convey that Chandon and a couple of other Argentine brands (e.g., “Baron B.”) were ubiquitous and anything else was difficult to find. As far as red and white wines are concerned, I quite enjoyed the Argentine and Uruguayan wines we tasted, and wasn’t missing out on imports.

  12. @Craig – your experience with TAM sounds amazing. Seems you really lucked out and they took care of you despite the change in class of service, at least on paper. For us, personally, the TAM leg GRU-JFK was out of our way anyway (since we were really trying to get from EZE-LAX) but something I thought would be fun for the value in First, and in the end I’m glad we had the direct EZE-IAH-LAX routing back rather than a convoluted AEP-GRU-JFK-LAX itinerary. I’m certainly very jealous, though!

  13. @r – That’s what I’d typically do, but these particular seats didn’t have netting or a cubby that would hold my phone.

  14. @Kate, if you’re flying either GlobalFirst (which you’re doing) or BusinessFirst (which your husband’s doing), you should both definitely have fully lie-flat seats. You’ll have a bit more width and a lot more storage/personal space around you. It’s a solid product.

    Based on my understanding (and reasonable folks will disagree), I’d rank the legacy carriers’ international business class as:

    1. Delta — good lie flat seats and IFE, great bedding/pillows, and very good food
    2. United — good lie flat seats and IFE, decent bedding/pillows, good to very good food
    3. American — either great lie flat seats or mediocre angled flat seats (for now), good IFE, decent bedding/pillows, mediocre food

    Some people will put the most value in American’s upgraded reverse herringbone business seats and rank that the highest, but the food/beverage and service are inconsistent to bad, and the fact AA is still running many routes with the old business class seats for now brings it down a couple notches. Personally, I’d put as much value, if not more, in service and food/beverage, where American is lacking.

  15. Hi Ben,

    You’re reviewing your South America trip now ? What happened to your EY 388 Apartment review ?

    I am checking your blog daily or even more frequently very much looking forward this write up, if I’ve somehow missed it can you please link me to it. I remember you said that the full EY 388 Apartment write up was coming after you finished writing up your dads trip but that’s been done for a while now.

    What’s the go ? If its not done yet can you please kindly advise when can we expect it

    Thanks

    Nizar

  16. Absolutely. Argentine wine is world class and no need to drink imports when you are there. Hope you had some of their famous beef to go along with the red wines.

  17. Also flew in one of these exCO biz seats last week, a pleasant change from the exUA sardine cans that pass as business class seats. Service too was exemplary vs exUA. I did want to mention that in the same area where the electoral outlet is, there’s a webbed pocket that holds the headphones. In future when charging a device, just set it in the pocket where it will remain safe and secure. (Not that I haven’t suffered the pain of a destroyed iPod touch myself under somewhat foolish circumstances.)

  18. @Nizar: this is Ben’s friend Nick writing a review about his South America trip, see top of the page

  19. Can people not read the introductory section at the top that’s completely italicised? Or is it selective blindness?

  20. This is one of those sugarcoated reports that misses out on some crucial information especially referring to United airlines.

    Although you mentioned you got screwed over on the miles, you left out that Jeff he has a policy of bringing value to shareholders before bringing value to flyers. One of the secretaries told me the same.

    What exactly does this mean for the flying public? The answer is as a frequent-flier United is no longer a value in any dimension. In the old days one could justify spending a little extra on a revenue ticket in order to earn United miles to then use them for premium class travel, nowadays that “benefit” is gone. What’s taken place is quite probably one of the least generous carriers which has over optimized their product to the point of being a very poor value for the flying public.

    You left out the relatively poor dinner, poor wines, and all the seats in the back of business class that sit next to a very loud refrigerator. I’m glad you thought you got good service, that’s really the exception on that flight. Over the past few years United has removed two of the three flights off the city pair and this flight at a very high revenue, yield management basically is optimizing to the highest extreme level every single seat on board.

    At least in this market I don’t think united airlines is competitive with any of the American carriers, obviously they beat the Argentine national airline…

  21. @UA MM+ — I was in the back of BusinessFirst on that flight and didn’t hear any noise from a refrigerator. I also thought the food was very good and the wines completely quaffable and enjoyable. I was reporting my experience with United flying BusinessFirst EZE-IAH, and I had a very good flight. Seems like you have some issues with United that run far deeper than I do; then again, I’m not a United frequent flyer much anymore.

  22. Also, to those who asked, I submitted a claim online but have not heard from United. I haven’t been very proactive about it because I have phone insurance. There’s a deductible, but frankly I’m not sure I want to go through the long, bureaucratic process of trying to have my deductible reimbursed from UA when I feel it was just a preventable accident on my part. I’m sure that this has happened before and that a case could be made that the seats have a design flaw / defect because the armrests don’t have a lip, but I’m not a litigious type by nature.

  23. @Daniel ‘Can you follow up with what happened with your phone? Did UA replace it? Offer to repair it?’, On the other side, I hope his 700$ phone didn’t break the 10,000$ seat system. And we always take good care of our phones.

  24. I have lost 2 Apple products to United premium seats.

    A then-new iPad to an old PS first class seat. It’s now a beautiful piece of art in my living room.

    A brand new iPhone 6 during launch week in the same seat you broke your phone. Similar display damage. Apple let me pay the cheap $100 or so display replacement cost for it.

  25. Wait a minute, do my eyes deceive me? Is that a foot rest in the E+ seat, in the background of the seat picture??

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