Austin to Prague and Back in United BusinessFirst (Part 1)
I have never been much of a writer of airline trip reports. Most flights, I end up not keeping track of a lot of the details, food options, and interesting tidbits. However, on my most recent trip to Prague and Berlin, I decided to take a few pictures and keep a few notes from the experience. The trip was done in United’s recently revamped BusinessFirst cabin as well as their domestic first class cabin and Brussels Airline’s economy cabin.
The first segment of the trip was Austin to Chicago on a United Express CRJ-700 (operated by GoJet Airlines). These aircraft feature a small first class section as well as Economy Plus. These aircraft do not have any entertainment so I spent the flight reading and watching a couple of shows on my phone. They also do not have ovens so the crews do not serve meals in first class. Instead, first class customers are given a snack box that contains things like Rondele Spreadable Cheese and Milano cookies.
We actually ended up arriving in Chicago about 30 minutes early, but things went downhill from there. I knew something was up when we taxied to the “penalty box” and sat for about ten minutes. The pilot announced that we were a little too early and were just waiting for a gate to open up. These kinds of things happen and I was not too worried since we still had a decent amount of time to make our connection. But we sat. And sat. And sat. Over an hour later we made it to a gate and were deplaned. While I stood on the jetway waiting for the gate check bags to arrive I overheard our pilot talking to the rest of the crew about the plane that was occupying our gate and the circumstances for our delay. Apparently, the previous aircraft’s pilot was claiming a maintenance issue as a form of protest against a new pilot contract with United. Whatever it was, it forced us to run to our next gate and come very close to missing our connection.
Our Chicago-Brussels segment was operated by a pre-merger United 767-300. We were seated in the business class cabin which features lie-flat seats in a forward/backward configuration. United has recently renamed business class “BusinessFirst” which is what business was called on Continental Airlines. I had picked the backwards facing 6A and 6B because the reviews I had read stated that they were fairly quiet, being just behind first class and the furthest seats from the mid-cabin galley. The first thing I noticed when I walked on-board was the attitude of the crew. Every single crew member had a smile on their face and were greeting each passenger as they boarded. That was a good sign of things to come.
After settling in, the flight attendant offered us champagne, water, or orange juice and handed us each an amenity kit and a dinner menu. The new United amenity kits are slightly smaller than what Continental provided but bigger (and better) than what pre-merger United offered. The skin care products are by philosophy and are a welcome change.
My expectations for plane food, even in business class, are relatively low. I know that making a gourmet meal at 35,000 is a near impossibility and do not keep any illusions that the meal will be amazing. What I do look for is something that is edible, fills me up, and has some element of flavor. The main courses for this flight was as follows:
Grilled Pork Chop – Green peppercorn sauce, shiitake mushroom bread pudding, white asparagus, and broccolini
Osso Bucco-style Breast of Chicken – Chanterelle mushroom ragout, garlic polenta cake, and broccolini
San Francisco-style Cioppino – Seared hake and grilled shrimp in tomato-seafood sauce with mixed vegetables
Spinach Cannelloni – Four cheese sauce and roasted tomatoes with Parmesan cheese
None of the options really jumped out at me so I decided on the grilled pork chop. The quality was about what I expected. The meat was a little overcooked but the sides were quite good, particularly the mushroom bread pudding. I had trouble taking pictures of the food due to the low light in the cabin, so I have not uploaded a lot for this part of the trip.
After finishing the main course, the flight attendants came around with the cheese carts. The selection was ok and I picked a few that looked good. Looking at my watch I realized that service was going on hour three and I really needed to get some sleep since we would be landing in five and a half hours. I passed on the ice cream sundae service, made my way to the restroom, and changed into my Lufthansa pajamas from our trip to Germany a couple of years ago. I converted the United seat to a bed, put in my earplugs and pulled on my eyeshades, and slept for close to five hours.
When I woke up the crew was preparing to serve breakfast so I changed back into my jeans and shirt and prepared all of my carry-on stuff for arrival. When the breakfast tray came it consisted of the normal transatlantic breakfast, yogurt, some fruit, and what was essentially a plate of cold cuts. I think this is really where United could improve its BusinessFirst service. First, the fruit was close to being inedible. The pineapple was turning brown and the rest of the fruit was melon. Throw some strawberries or grapes in there. Second, why serve cold cuts? I know it’s more substantial than the croissant that used to be served but it’s just as underwhelming. I just decided to eat the yogurt and pass on everything else.
Before we had left Chicago I had spoken with the purser about arrival service in Brussels. He let me know that he would contact the airport staff there and ask that they meet me when we deplaned. When we arrived, there was a United employee waiting at the aircraft door. He asked what it was we needed and when told about the shower quite bluntly said, “we only sometimes provide that to United Global Services members” but added that I could talk to the United employees at the ticketing desk. I knew we had to exit security anyway to make our connection so I told the employee thank you and walked to the ticketing desk.
I greeted the ladies working the ticketing desk and described what I was looking for, the arrival shower service that United offered to their business class customers. At first I received a couple of weird looks, then they told me that this was a service that they only offered to Global Services members and even then it was rare. Now, I had spoken with a couple of United employees before the trip and both had assured me that there was arrival service for BusinessFirst travelers. Since this trip, I’ve been told that Brussels screwed up and I should have been given a room at the Sheraton across the street from the airport.
Anyway, back to the trip. Since it was now clear that getting a shower would be a near impossibility, we looked for a deserted restroom, gave ourselves a “sink bath”, changed, then found the luggage lockers and locked up our bags, and headed into Brussels via the train.
Four Hours in Brussels
When I booked this trip, the most desirable connections to Prague were also the most expensive, leaving us with a six hour connection in Brussels. Not wanting to spending that time hanging out in the airport, we paid the 10 Euros each to take the train into town.
We visited the Grand Place and the Mannequin Pis (who, oddly, was dressed up for the Fourth of July), but most importantly, we paid a visit to Poechenellekelder, a great little beer hall with outdoor seating. We enjoyed a couple of Belgian beers before realizing how tired we were from only five hours of sleep and decided to head back to the airport.
We knew that we would have to check our remaining carry-on due to European carriers being much more stringent regarding the size of luggage brought on-board. After the most efficient check-in and security experience I have ever had, we were walking to the Brussels Airlines lounge in the “domestic” Terminal A. There are a number of lounges, including an SAS lounge, controlled by a single access point. We were given the option of visiting any of the Star Alliance lounges and opted for the Brussels Airlines one just to see what it was like. On entry we were handed two WiFi cards that were good for one hour of access each. Besides the great tarmac views, the lounge was rather stagnant. All of the lounges share a bathroom located near the security desk. After reading other reports on the lounge, it definitely seems that the SAS lounge would have been a better choice.
About ten minutes before boarding, we walked to the gate and waited. Being in coach on this segment, I figured it would be the normal boarding scrum that we have experienced on carriers like Lufthansa and Austrian. Surprisingly, Brussels Airlines made a call for business class passengers and Star Golds. We made our way to the gate and were allowed to board before the rest of the plane. Nicely done Brussels Airlines!
The flight itself was uneventful. Brussels Airlines charges for just about anything, including water, unless you are in one of their two premium products (Economy.Flex and Business). We landed in Prague a few minutes early and received our bags at baggage claim and start our adventure in Prague.
In the next installment I’ll give you a quick tour of Prague, express my love of Berlin, and show you what the BusinessFirst product looks like on United’s Boeing 757-200s.