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United to Sydney and back

United to Sydney and back

Old Nov 23, 09, 8:56 pm
  #1  
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Join Date: Feb 2007
Programs: BAEC GGL, Air Canada SE100K, AA Lifetime Gold, SPG Platinum, Fairmont Presidents Club
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United to Sydney and back

Living in Montreal and travelling too frequently to Geneva, Tel Aviv, Singapore and Sydney for work, I have tended to limit my flying to oneworld carriers to maximize frequent flyer mileage in my BA account. Generally, each year I fly a minimum of six round-trips to Geneva, usually on negotiated business class fares on BA (unless competing carriers such as AC or AF are having business class fare sales, which then trump the contract BA fares). Two to three times a year I fly to Tel Aviv, usually on AC to Frankfurt connecting to LH, or SWISS via Zurich. To Singapore I fly generally twice yearly, usually in combination with a trip to Europe, which means I’m more likely than not flying on BA. To Sydney, I generally fly twice annually on AC via Vancouver.

This week, I returned from a business trip to Sydney. My company’s in-house travel agency booked a spectacularly well-priced business class excursion on United, which came in at slightly below CAN $4950. In the past, I’ve flown on tickets costing more than double that amount. I was not looking forward to the mix of aircraft, three connecting flights in each direction, and flying on United, which is poorly regarded by many of my frequently flyer acquaintances. Because I was so pleasantly surprised by United, I decided to take the time to prepare this trip report and share it with my fellow Flyer Talk members.

11 November
United Express 7595
Montreal YUL to Chicago ORD
Embraer 170 (operated by Shuttle America)
Seat 1A


I arrived at Montreal YUL about three hours before departure. Using United’s premium check-in, I was pleasantly greeted by an agent and within three minutes had all of my boarding passes for the journey to Sydney. I decided to check my one bag since it is 23 inches long (it’s a Samsonite that isn’t manufactured any longer) and I didn’t want to have any hassles at security or the departure gate in either Montreal, Chicago or Los Angeles. I have a rather chequered history of luck with my bag arriving at the same time I do, but with the rare exception due to a baggage meltdown at LHR’s Terminal 5 several years ago, any mishandled bag has arrived within 24 hours after my arrival.

The check-in agent reminded me of my access to AC’s Maple Leaf Lounge, which I did not visit on this trip since I wanted to get some lunch, shop for a Canadian gift for an Australian friend and sit quietly at the gate to read the New York Times, the Montreal Gazette and The Globe and Mail. I often find the Maple Leaf Lounges noisy as a battle of who can have the loudest and most inappropriate discussion on a mobile phone in an enclosed space usually has three or four contestants, which ruins the comfort of the lounge for me.

As an American living in Montreal, I’m always astounded at how unpleasant my fellow countrymen are who work at the pre-clearance customs and immigration facility at Canadian airports. Today was a rare exception, with a friendly immigration officer who joked with me about the coming winter and welcomed me back to America, if only for a short while until I take off for Sydney.

As usual, the U.S. departure gates were clean and generally quiet. I sat to read my newspapers and soon it was time to board. Much to my surprise, the boarding announcement was made only in English even though the gate agents were francophone. Boarding was efficient.

My assigned seat, 1A, had excellent leg room. The cabin was clean, which was a pleasant surprise after years of flying BA and AA where the cabins are often dirtier than a Montreal subway car at rush hour. After take-off, the flight attendant offered beverages and a small bag of “premium mix” to First Class passengers. Refills were offered throughout the flight. Much to my surprise, the lavatory was spotless, had an ample supply of liquid soap and paper towels, and the sink actually worked properly. I can’t tell you how often I’m on American Eagle and the sinks don’t work properly. Instead, there’s a pile of packaged moist towels in the sink with no apologies.

We touched down ahead of schedule and I made it to the Red Carpet Club to check e-mails before catching my connecting flight. I neglected to ask for wi-fi access when I entered the club, so I used my boingo account, which worked perfectly well.

I drank only water in the club and gave my drink chits to my neighbor, who happily went to get another beer.

United 839
Chicago ORD to Los Angeles LAX
757 (equipment change from a 777)
Seat 1B


When I got my boarding passes in Montreal, I wrongly assumed that I have received a coveted “op-up” on the ORD to LAX segment since my boarding pass said “United First”. Unfortunately, that was not the case; my flight had an equipment change – a downgrade from a 777 to a 757.

Boarding was an unbelievable scrum of passengers jostling each other to get on board. I regretted checking by bag as most passengers on the premium line had suitcases of a size (and number) that should have never made it past security. I couldn’t believe the gentlemen (a 1K – I saw his boarding pass) who had the nerve to bring not one but two roll aboard bags, a computer case and a large shopping bag.

As was the case with my flight from YUL to ORD, the cabin was clean and the lavatory well-stocked. The flight attendants were warm and gracious. For dinner, I was offered a choice of steak with béarnaise sauce or four-cheese ravioli. I chose the ravioli which tasted like it was one-cheese at most. Dessert was served separately and was a delicious dark chocolate cherry cake. The flight attendant read my mind and quickly offered me a glass of milk. Shortly thereafter, the film “Julie and Julia” was screened.

We arrived at LAX on time. I was worried whether I would have enough time to comfortably make my connecting flight, which had originally been listed as departing from Terminal 1. I had checked Flyer Talk earlier in the week to see if anyone had posted information on making a connection from Terminal 7 to Terminal 1 and was prepared to walk through a parking lot (as recommended) and clear security again. Fortunately, the Sydney flight was scheduled now to leave from Terminal 7. I decided to skip the Red Carpet Club and instead sat at the gate where I learned that my flight was going to be delayed three hours due a hydraulic problem. Departure was tentatively scheduled for 1 a.m. I was starting to wonder if I should have taken my chances and not guaranteed my hotel reservation for the night before since my check-in would not be at 8 a.m. but more likely at noon, Sydney-time.

The gate agents working the Sydney flight were amazing. They keep all passengers well-informed on the status of the delay, including giving us details on the fact that a mechanic had flown up to SFO to obtain a necessary part. The announcements continued at fifteen minute intervals. I had never experienced such a concern for providing passengers with updated departure information on any other airline in all my years of flying. Soft drinks and United’s snack boxes were brought to the gate for the waiting passengers. When the mechanic’s flight from SFO had arrived in LAX, the gate agents announced that they would do their best to get us on board as soon as possible, but that testing the new part would take approximately another hour. In the end, we were able to board at 11:45 p.m. and, to the best of my recollection (I was exhausted), took off about 40 minutes later.

United 839
Los Angeles (LAX) to Sydney (SYD)
747-400
Seat 10B


The aircraft featured United’s new lie-flat business class seats and entertainment system. I was hoping to have an empty seat next to me for the flight, but no such luck. As a Gold member of the BA Executive Club, I pick the aisle bulkhead seat for my BA flights so I don’t have any crawling over me to get to the bathroom mid-flight. With seat 10A occupied, I knew that once I feel asleep I’d be awoken by my seatmate at some point.

As was the case with my other flights, the cabin was spotless. There was a pillow, blanket, amenity kit and headphones on each business class seat. I was feeling drowsy but hungry so I decided to try to stay awake for dinner.

The seat was amazingly comfortable and I was able to lower the armrest on the right side of my seat for additional comfort after take-off.

Forty minutes after take-off, flight attendants started the meal service.

The menu was as follows:

To Begin:

Smoked salmon, prosciutto and vegetable crudités
Fresh seasonal greens with creamy Caesar or Asian sesame ginger vinaigrette

Main course:

Grilled mahi mahi
Braised beef with peppercorn sauce
Spinach lasagna rolls with rosetta sauce

Express dine:

Roasted red pepper and smoked gouda bisque
Hot cilantro shrimp salad with Asian sesame ginger vinaigrette
Eli’s Chocolate Caramel Pecan cheesecake

Dessert:

Eli’s Chocolate Caramel Pecan cheesecake
International Cheese Selection – 4 year cheddar, St. Rocco Triple Crème

The flight attendants were among the most senior crews with whom I have ever flown. In fact, I would venture that the average age of the attendants was mid-sixties but with – at least in my part of the cabin – the energy of new-hire flight attendants. Water glasses were topped up constantly.

For dinner I selected the braised beef. I cannot tell you whether dinner was good or not, as I fell asleep after two or three bites. When I woke up my tray had been cleared and glasses of water were waiting for my seatmate and me.

After about six hours of deep sleep I woke up hungry. The flight attendant offered me a choice of snacks – a mesquite smoked turkey and swiss cheese sandwich or a cucumber and provolone sandwich. I choose the turkey, which was heated, and had some Sun Chips and mini chocolate bars.

Feeling sated, I then proceeded to watch “Julie and Julia” again, which had been shown on the Chicago – LAX flight, followed by “The Hurt Locker”, one of the best Iraq war films I’ve seen, and “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”. I enjoyed all three films and then it was time for breakfast…

For breakfast, the menu listed two choices:

Canadian Cheddar Cheese omelette with sautéed turkey sausage and Canadian bacon, or a seasonal fruit plate. I choose the omelette, as I always do when the choice is available on any carrier I’m flying.

After landing, I cleared immigration quickly thanks to the express lane invitations the crew handed out. For the first time in my history of flying any Star Alliance carrier, my priority-tagged bag was one of the first to arrive.

As I had prescription medicine with me, my medications had to be examined. After a twenty minute wait in line at Customs, I was out the door and in a taxi (after a short stop at the ANZ ATM for Australian currency) and on my way to my favourite hotel in the South West Pacific – the Westin Sydney.

Having earned Platinum status with Starwood for the first time in 10 years, I had hoped for an upgrade to a standard suite. Thanks to Flyer Talk, my expectations were low for an standard suite upgrade but I did receive what I had reserved -- a double bedded room. I was given a letter explaining Platinum benefits at the property, which included lounge access and breakfast, but since breakfast was already included in my room rate, I decided to eat in the open and airy Mosaic restaurant each morning. I have no complaints about the hotel other than I wish they’d stock the mini-bar more often. The Westin offers some killer chocolate chip cookies in its mini-bars and I appreciate a daily fix of them. When the mini-bar isn’t restocked on a daily basis, I miss those cookies.

After five days in Sydney, it was time to return home.

18 November
United 870
Sydney (SYD) to San Francisco (SFO)
747-400
Seat 10B

On departure day, I decided to check out of the hotel at noon and head to the airport four hours before departure to do some shopping and lounge hopping. I was hoping to find an interesting item for my apartment to remind me of my many pleasant visits to Sydney. Unfortunately, I found the prices on Aboriginal art to be very high, so instead I purchased lots of chocolate covered macadamias, Tim Tams, and a tube of Vegemite (just in case I ever have Australians visiting me in Montreal).

Once I was done with spending money, I decided to head over to the lounges. Knowing how everyone on Flyer Talk raves about the Singapore Airlines Kris Lounges worldwide, I decided to see what one was like. Like my personal experiences flying Singapore Airlines, the lounge left a lot to be desired.

First, when I presented my Lufthansa Miles and More Senator card along with my United boarding pass, the lounge dragon informed me that I was in the wrong lounge and that I needed to head down the corridor to the Air New Zealand lounge. I coolly responded that I understand that I was entitled to use any Star Alliance Gold lounge of any Star Alliance member on day of departure. The lounge dragon then responded that the lounge was “very busy” but that she would have ask if I could visit. After glaring at her for under two seconds, I received a smile and was welcomed to the lounge. To say I was unimpressed by the lounge dragon and the “very busy” lounge with all of 4 other passengers is an understatement. After twenty minutes in a lounge I was not welcomed in, which had little of the food that Flyer Talk members wax rhapsodic about, I decided to head to the Air New Zealand lounge where I was heartily welcomed by a United employee named Annie. I was given wi-fi access, enjoyed the view of the aircraft and had a pretty decent hot dog while waiting for my flight to be called.

At about 3:45 we were welcomed to proceed to the gate for boarding. I was selected for supplemental screening at the gate and after a five minute wanding and removal of shoes, I boarded the aircraft.

The aircraft was spotless, as I was becoming accustomed to from my three previous flights on United. We left the gate on time; I enjoyed listening to channel 9 and we had a lovely climb over Sydney’s suburbs.

Once the seatbelt sign was turned off, I headed to the lavatory, which was – again! – spotless. When I returned to my seat, beverage service had begun.

To begin:

Smoked salmon with ratatouille and whipped goat cheese dressing
Fresh seasonal greens

Main course:

Filet mignon with peppercorn sauce
Brie and onion stuffed chicken breast with jus
Spinach and ricotta cannelloni

Dessert:

International cheese selection – Victorian Blackjack Red Leicester, King Island Camembert
Pavlova

I selected the Spinach and ricotta cannelloni, having learned that you rarely can go wrong with selecting a pasta dish. Unfortunately, some of the tomato sauce ended up on my favourite Brooks Brothers shirt and not even my trusty travelling Tide Stain Remover stick could save the garment.

Oh, well. I drowned my sorrows in the Pavlova and proceeded to watch two episodes of “Top Chef”. I think United’s AVOD system is great but it could use a few more films. Copying Continental’s AVOD film menu, or Air France’s, would be a good start.

I managed to sleep for five hours and when I awoke I kept myself busy eating snacks such as warm Australian chicken and roasted pumpkin meat pies, assorted chips and Dairy Milk chocolate bars, reading, and jumping from uninteresting movie to movie on the AVOD system.

Before landing in San Francisco, we were offered a breakfast option of a fresh seasonal fruit plate or a chorizo and potato omelette, which was my choice. It was delicious but the accompanying croissant was stale and rubbery in texture. When will airlines give up serving poor excuses of croissants and instead serve a better type of breakfast bread?

Landing was smooth. It was a long walk to Immigration and the lines for clearance moved at a glacial pace. After 35 minutes, I finally cleared immigration and assumed that my bag would be waiting for me. I was wrong; we had another ten minute wait for our luggage to arrive. My bag, which had been priority tagged in Sydney, was among the first 10 bags out. Interestingly, all the bags coming out had priority tags on them. I have no idea whether this happens on a consistent basis with United but I was pleased, especially after years of a priority Club World tag on BA being a guarantee that my bag would be among the last to arrive…

I went to the arrivals lounge for a shower. When I arrived I was asked where my lounge invitation was. I explained that I did not receive one in Sydney. The lounge dragon checked my reservation and after a minute or two welcomed me to the club.

After a nice hot shower, I felt much better and decided to head upstairs to Boudin’s for a cup of coffee and buttered sourdough toast before boarding my next flight.

United 886
San Francisco (SFO) to Chicago (ORD)
777-200
Seat 12A


After having enjoyed the new Business Class seat on the 747-400 from Sydney to San Francisco, the old-style cradle seat on the 777-200 to Chicago came as a bit of a surprise. Even more surprising was for the fifth time in a row, the United aircraft was clean! Why don’t I have such luck on American or BA? I’m always dusting off dried food, lint, and god knows what else from my seat on those two carriers.

Boarding took an extraordinary amount of time as the flight was oversold and every seat was filled. Again, there was a scrum when GS, 1K and First Class was called to board with folks coming from all directions.

The flight attendants weren’t quite as senior as the crews to and from Sydney but it wouldn’t take but a few more years. I really do love a senior crew when they love their job and this crew worked together beautifully.

We were offered pre-departure orange juice or water by the crew, who also helped passengers find space for their hand luggage due. For the past five years or so, I’ve witnessed flight attendants refuse to assist passengers store bags in the overhead citing risk of injury; this crew helped shift bags around to make certain everyone’s bag would be accommodated overhead instead of being gate checked. I was amazed.

There was no meal choice on this flight. All passengers in Business Class were served a hot steak salad. The steak was tasty if a bit tough. I was surprised to see the flight attendants carry the trays from the galley rather than use the service carts. It reminded me of the days of the 707s! An interesting touch was the double portion of salad dressing on everyone’s tray, which ensured that passengers had the right amount of dressing for the large salad rather than too little.

After lunch I slept most of the way to Chicago. If I recall correctly (and wasn’t dreaming) we were served chocolate chip cookies for dessert. I can’t guarantee that since I was in a jet-lag haze.

Landing was smooth but we had a lengthy taxi to our gate. Deplaning was quick through the first class door.

I had less than a two-hour wait for my connecting flight on United Express.

United Express 7636
Chicago (ORD) to Montreal (YUL)
Embraer 170 (operated by Shuttle America)
Seat 1A


As I had become accustomed to, I was on a clean aircraft. The flight crew on United Express greeted passengers warmly and after boarding was completed offered water and orange juice to passengers in First Class. Once empty cups were collected, the Canadian customs forms were distributed. Since we were still at the gate, I took out my tray table to start completing the form. The First Class flight attendant instructed me to put the table away until after take-off since we’d be leaving momentarily. “ Momentarily” ended up being another twenty minutes. I’ve never been told to put away my tray table while the cabin door was still open.

After take-off, beverages were offered with a small bag of pretzels. The flight was uneventful. We flew over the downtown Montreal and it was a pleasure to see all the city’s lights aglow.

We arrived at one of the gates farthest from Immigration. The walk from Gate 85 seemed endless but I finally made it and cleared Immigration at the Nexus/Canpass machine. By the time I got to baggage claim, the bags from my flight were out, mine included.

Overall thoughts:

I was pleasantly surprised by United. I found the service to be among the best I have experienced and certainly better than my last four flights on BA, which have benefited from the new “customer improvements” (i.e. cutbacks in service). Flight attendants were engaged with passengers, and worked consistently throughout the flight unlike my experiences with American’s flight attendants, who tend to do as little as possible in Business Class. Food service was comparable to Lufthansa business class. Aircraft cleanliness was consistent.

Will I fly United more as a result of this trip? I believe I will but United still won’t be my carrier of choice because I am heavily invested in oneworld and the BA Executive Club. My current employer pays for business class travel so I don’t need E+. If and when I leave this job and move back to the U.S., I could see myself shifting my business and travel to United, especially if I return to the Washington, D.C. area.

Last edited by AmericanMontrealer; Nov 24, 09 at 2:14 pm
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Old Nov 23, 09, 10:44 pm
  #2  
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Very nice report! I have had a couple good experiences on UA flying to Australia, with wonderful senior crew—I am glad I am not the only one.

Quick question, why did you not use your NEXUS card on the way down? Or do you only have a CANPASS card?

-Brian
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Old Nov 23, 09, 10:57 pm
  #3  
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I did use my NEXUS card but NEXUS card holders must still present their customs declarations and machine-printed card to a U.S. customs and immigration officer. It's much easier on the return to Canada, where I just walk from the NEXUS/CANPASS machine to the baggage belts and hand my customs declaration and NEXUS machine-printed card to the Canadian customs officer on the way out. Upon entering the U.S., the NEXUS card saves time in jumping the queue but doesn't eliminate the human review of the customs declaration.
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Old Nov 23, 09, 11:25 pm
  #4  
 
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AmericanMontrealer - I enjoyed your trip report. FYI Annie is well known to UA fliers transiting through SYD.
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Old Nov 23, 09, 11:43 pm
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Originally Posted by restlessinRNO View Post
AmericanMontrealer - I enjoyed your trip report. FYI Annie is well known to UA fliers transiting through SYD.
on both accounts. Lots of nice description on the report.
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Old Nov 23, 09, 11:58 pm
  #6  
 
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Great Report.

Yes, the SQ Lounge at SYD is nothing to write home about. I had a similar experience trying to gain access to the MLL, as you did at SYD with SQ, at LAX- it really wasn't worth the bother in the end.

Have begun to hear to hear some great stories about the service on UA on the Aussie flights.

Annie is a legend.

I never knew they served Hot Dogs in the lounge, though I am ususally there in the mornings.
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Old Nov 24, 09, 4:04 am
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Good report! Very enjoyable
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Old Nov 24, 09, 5:17 am
  #8  
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Originally Posted by AmericanMontrealer View Post
I did use my NEXUS card but NEXUS card holders must still present their customs declarations and machine-printed card to a U.S. customs and immigration officer. It's much easier on the return to Canada, where I just walk from the NEXUS/CANPASS machine to the baggage belts and hand my customs declaration and NEXUS machine-printed card to the Canadian customs officer on the way out. Upon entering the U.S., the NEXUS card saves time in jumping the queue but doesn't eliminate the human review of the customs declaration.
*nods* As an NEXUS user myself I am aware of this, I just read your report as a 'normal' entry. I am surprised the CBP agent did more than scowl at you while asking if you had more than 10K on you....

Again, nice report.

Brian
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Old Nov 24, 09, 6:32 am
  #9  
 
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I often find the Maple Leaf Lounges noisy as a battle of who can have the loudest and most inappropriate discussion on a mobile phone in an enclosed space usually has three or four contestants, which ruins the comfort of the lounge for me.
It’s unfortunate the terminal is actually quieter than the lounge, some people lack courtesy.
Really nice TR!
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Old Nov 24, 09, 11:53 am
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Nice report, thanks!

Having flown UX EMB 170 flights and UA TPACs to SYD quite a few times and read a lot of the UA board complaints, I have to say I found your perspective refreshing. The Shuttle America flights are nice -- and the planes are quite clean. The service to SYD can be great. UA folks may get a bit jaded but all in all these can be enjoyable flights -- and it sounds like the price was quite reasonable as well.

Thanks again,
-C
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Old Nov 24, 09, 11:56 am
  #11  
 
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Thumbs up Very nice report

Originally Posted by AmericanMontrealer
I often find the Maple Leaf Lounges noisy as a battle of who can have the loudest and most inappropriate discussion on a mobile phone in an enclosed space usually has three or four contestants, which ruins the comfort of the lounge for me.
The contestants you mention do not just reside in AC clubs.
They've been seen at most clubs in North America.

Great report
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Old Nov 24, 09, 1:50 pm
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Great report! As a Chicago resident, UA is my go-to airline, and I find that it is generally quite underrated. Glad you had a good experience!
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Old Nov 24, 09, 3:04 pm
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Originally Posted by AmericanMontrealer View Post

We arrived at LAX on time. I was worried whether I would have enough time to comfortably make my connecting flight, which had originally been listed as departing from Terminal 1. I had checked Flyer Talk earlier in the week to see if anyone had posted information on making a connection from Terminal 7 to Terminal 1 and was prepared to walk through a parking lot (as recommended) and clear security again. Fortunately, the Sydney flight was scheduled now to leave from Terminal 7.
I don't know what gives you the impression your SYD flight would leave out LAX on UA in T1. If you look at the terminal maps in the Hemispheres magazine, all UA flight depart and arrives at T6 and T7, T1 is only for US flights.

Glad you enjoy your flights on UA.
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Old Nov 24, 09, 3:22 pm
  #14  
 
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Really nice, well written report. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.
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Old Nov 24, 09, 5:04 pm
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Really nice report. In the 90s, UA was my favorite airline. I may need to look at it again. Thanks so much for writing it up.

Last edited by Turnus127; Nov 24, 09 at 5:05 pm Reason: Saw a grammar mistake!
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