United Airlines p.s. BusinessFirst SFO-JFK

Last fall I needed to get to Toronto and was faced with two unpleasant options. I could either fly non-stop on a red-eye flight with Air Canada, or I could connect in San Francisco and New York-JFK and try United’s p.s. BusinessFirst service. Since I had never flown on the p.s. route and still had upgrade instruments to spare, it seemed like a better option if only for the sake of novelty.

Unfortunately, I don’t think United’s p.s. service is worth such a detour. Choose it if you already need to connect in San Francisco or New York (it also operates between Los Angeles and JFK), but it is overrated if non-stop flights are available from your home airport. Next time I’ll pick the Air Canada red-eye.

My frustration started earlier in the day when, despite purchasing this ticket weeks in advance and applying a Global Premier Upgrade, my upgrade status was still pending, and I was still at the #1 position despite eight seats being available that morning. Once there were only two seats left in the BusinessFirst cabin (and positive upgrade space listed on ExpertFlyer), I called the Premier 1K line and asked the agent if she could upgrade me manually. Either that or move me onto another flight, because I was not going out of my way to sit in economy class.

p.s. customers flying in BusinessFirst are entitled to use the United Clubs at LAX, SFO, and JFK even without a United Club membership. In this way it’s similar to United’s international lounge access policies for premium cabins, so I stopped at the T3 United Club at SFO for about an hour before boarding after taking care of the upgrade issue.

Boarding was relatively smooth. I found my window seat near the back of the BusinessFirst cabin and looked around to explore the seat. It’s similar to those on American Airlines’ A321T Business Class, so you aren’t sacrificing much in hard product — unless you count United’s older Boeing 757s. SeatGuru reports that United offers greater seat pitch (the distance between your seat and the seat in front of you), but I didn’t notice it. If anything, it felt like there was less space to get up and walk past the ajacent passenger compared to my more recent flight on American.

United-BusinessFirst3

Image credit: United Airlines

A pillow and blanket were waiting for me on my seat, and as usual I stowed them in the overhead bin. Domestic flights are never long enough for me to get any sleep. Headsets were provided, but they weren’t Bose. Not that it mattered to me, since I prefer my ear buds.

But once settled in, I was treated to United’s typical service as the flight attendant walked down the aisle yelling “Drinks! Drinks!” There actually are some good flight attendants in the fleet, but unfortunately this kind of indifferent attitude is common enough that it’s what I now expect when flying United. A menu was provided, offering steak or pasta, and I was able to get my first choice when the flight attendant came back around for meal orders before we left the ground.

In the air, I thought the on-demand in-flight entertainment was a significant improvement over the usual domestic offering. There were several movies and television shows, although it didn’t seem the selection was quite as good as United’s international service, even in economy class. At least it beat DirecTV, which I usually turn off as soon as the safety briefing is over.

IMG_6826

A little buggy, perhaps?

GoGo in-flight Internet was also available, but I chose not to use it. I still have yet to see Internet access on any other United flights. Even when advertised as available on regular domestic routes, it hasn’t been turned on. The p.s. service might be a good pick for those who need to stay connected and for various other reasons aren’t able to switch to a competitor with more extensive Internet penetration. Or, you could wait to see if United makes faster progress on its new satellite Internet rollout. I think it will be better than GoGo once complete. It just seems to be taking forever.

Once meal and drink service started, the flight was much like any other. Perhaps there were slightly larger helpings and larger plates, but the food was the same quality. The beef was a little overcooked and tasted similar to what I’ve had when flying EWR-SEA non-stop. The wine selection wasn’t noticeably different, though I hear there are premium wines available in economy class. It really felt like an ordinary transcon.

IMG_6823

IMG_6824

I would have preferred more peppers and fewer green beans. And what’s with all the sauce?

Except for the seat. I did enjoy having a lie-flat seat. I am not normally picky about seats on domestic flights, and it’s rare that I recline mine at all, whether I’m in economy or first class. But one virtue of a lie-flat seat is that it also has a good footrest, which is something I do value.

IMG_6822

IMG_6825

Another shot without my feet in the way. It’s not a big cubby, but I thought it was big enough.

Beware that it is easy to lose things or trap them in the reclining mechanism because of all the open gaps that form. These aren’t normally an issue for standard first class seats that recline the back and nothing else. I lost the plastic case for my ear buds, and though I retrieved it at the end of the flight it was horribly mutilated. (So that’s what that cracking sound, was…) And my laptop, which I make a habit of leaning against the side of the aircraft wall rather than put in a seatback pocket, got a big scratch on the lid. Fortunately, both issues are cosmetic, but I was very careful the next time I had a similar seat on American’s A321T.

There were a some problems with this flight, including the upgrade issue and the damage to my case and laptop, that weren’t necessarily United’s fault — or at least not directly related to United’s p.s. service. And those that were an issue were not major complaints. But I still didn’t find myself eager to try it again. p.s. is supposed to stand for “Premium Service,” but it didn’t feel like United was trying to be a market leader on this route when it’s now facing competition from Delta, American, and JetBlue.

As I said at the beginning, if you’re already in Los Angeles or San Francisco and a regular United customer, go for it. It’s better than flying into Newark. But there are lots of non-stop flights from New York to almost every major city in the country. In that case, I don’t think it’s worth the detour for indifferent service and meals just to take advantage of a better seat and in-flight entertainment.

Scott created Travel Codex after learning how to travel better on a budget during grad school. He now flies over 150,000 miles every year.
Email // Twitter // Facebook // Google+ // Subscribe by RSS

  • John

    “despite purchasing this ticket weeks in advance and applying a Global Premier Upgrade, my upgrade status was still pending, and I was still at the #1 position despite eight seats being available that morning.”

    What does purchasing weeks in advance have to do with it? And what do you know about the booking and demand trends on that flight?

    Lots of heavy business flights see walk up fares the day of departure. Or, often, people on full fares switch from earlier flights. Both reasons not to clear your upgrade in advance on an overly circuitous routing.

    This sense of entitlement about your advance upgrade is the wrong approach when you are not a high value flyer.

    • Scottrick

      Because advance purchase several weeks in advance provides (1) ample opportunity for the upgrade to clear and (2) a small advantage over those with similar status and fare class who purchased and requested the upgrade later.

      As for the claim that I’m acting entitled, if I can’t upgrade a flight using an upgrade instrument on a route that does not permit complimentary elite upgrades, then it lessens the value of those instruments.

      I don’t deny that there’s rationale for reserving seats for paying customers. I just thought that it was a particularly extreme case where the cabin went from half-empty at the time of purchase to nearly full by the time I got an upgrade. On an early-afternoon flight in the middle of the week.

  • Not a Fan

    I agree John. Scott and his awful sense of entitlement always bleeds through in his postings. He and the other Scott and Gary should all just create one blog called “Air of Entitlement – Why us being pricks of unfounded confidence and possessors of rotten character means we think what we say adds any value to the world (when it does the opposite)” Written by ‘Scott Prick’, ‘Mile Valueless’ and ‘View from the Right Wing’.

    Now THAT’S the best thing I’ve seen on this blog… like ever. Hahaha.

    • Scottrick

      You apparently find it valuable to read my posts or you wouldn’t be commenting. See my reply to John below. I’m not trying to act entitled; I’m providing commentary on the difficulty I had upgrading this flight, which may be of interest to others who do not plan to or cannot afford to buy a business class fare.

      • betty blanco

        Some people read your post just so they can bitch. Why reply?

  • mike

    Scott, you are flying between high traffic airports, what did you expect?

    And your trip report should include the aircraft type.

    • Scottrick

      I didn’t quite know what to expect, as I indicated when I said I hadn’t flown this route before. I knew it would be difficult, just not as difficult as it turned out to be. So I provided my opinion with the hope it would be helpful to other people who, like me, are considering booking it for the first time.

      Also, I did mention that it’s a Boeing 757, in the same sentence where I mention that American is phasing in the A321T.

  • Larry C

    Here is how you can convey all of pertinent information to your readers without coming across in a negative light:

    I booked my flight several weeks in advance but my upgrade didn’t clear by the morning of departure. I saw 8 seats empty so it appears United is not handing out many advance upgrades, but I had hopes it would eventually clear. Later on I saw just 2 seats available, but was able to call in and secure an upgrade. The alternative would have been to switch to a non-stop flight in Economy.

    The way you phrased alienates yourself and shows an air of entitlement.

    I read this blog for the airfare deals, but the tone of it is increasingly off-putting.

    • Scottrick

      Point taken; there may have been a better way to phrase it. However, it’s difficult to be receptive to constructive criticism when it comes in the fourth comment and the first two are dripping with name calling and profanities.

      As for your editorial comments, I think 8/28 seats available (29%) would provide pretty good odds of an instrument-supported upgrade on most routes if I were #1 at check-in. To say United isn’t releasing many seats isn’t a correct conclusion. My criticism was that by the end of the day they were mostly gone and I had still not cleared. Independent of the cause for not clearing, it would discourage me from booking the same flight in the future.

      Also, the alternative was to rebook to a later SFO-JFK flight that had more upgrade space available as I was already in SFO, not to a non-stop flight from SEA to YYZ. I would have done this, and it’s permitted by same-day change rules, but fortunately the agent was able to accommodate me on my originally scheduled flight.

  • Disgruntled1K

    I did not take it as entitlement as much as the fact that United provides loyalty program benefits that they would prefer not to give out (upgrades). Frankly that means RPUs, GPUs and CPUs are not of much use and thus not really a benefit. I’d rather that they NOT allow any upgrades on certain flights than make all of us frequent/loyal travelers go through the upgrade lottery (this way if you want the upgrade then buy it).

    Frankly, I am done with United and sadly I’m with in striking distance of 1MM status. They seem too preoccupied with cutting as much cost as possible and that translates into loss of perks. Maybe they should have thought of that before they handed out millions of miles via their chase credit cards and other promotions.

    • Scottrick

      This is more the gist I was aiming for. If United doesn’t allow complimentary upgrades on this route, then why is it still so hard to upgrade using an instrument? I would rather fly SEA-EWR and use my instrument there.

  • Amol

    There are definitely better transcon products out there, but if you’re willing to be flexible, ps is just so easy to get. I’ve flown it like 4 times in the past 5 months and I’m not even a primarily United flyer anymore. 17,000 Lufthansa miles on the mileage side, and some flights have decent R space way out (I booked the Sunday night before Christmas about 6 weeks out with upgrade confirmed, although the base fare was pretty high).

    I’ve only flown the bulkhead seats though … there’s a shelf on top of the TV monitor where you can temporarily store stuff as you get settled.

    • Amol

      By the way, on the map, that area of the map is 0º latitude, 0º longitude, it’s just the “default” GPS position.

  • bavib

    Why is everyone dissing Scottrick? Like Disgruntled 1K, I am very unhappy with United. I miss Continental, and am thinking of switching my flying business to American. Hopefully, they will value Premier status flyers a little more….

    • Scottrick

      My review of the A321T Business Class is coming out tomorrow. IMO they don’t need a first class.

  • A lynch

    Just flew first class boston to sfo first class, there were only four rows, nothing special except bigger seats. Food average to sub average. They even ran out of first requests by row 3. Better flights on the new planes from NYC but added extra time.

    • Amol

      Unfortunately, United only flies from JFK to LAX/SFO/IAD, so difficult to connect to onward destinations with ps (unless you connect to a partner like Air Canada, but that’s for international flights).

  • deltasegmentflyer

    I just want to say that I enjoy your articles and the information you bring. I learn more each day. Keep up the good work.

    • Scottrick

      Your support is appreciated, but I’ve grown a thick skin in the past couple years.

  • cj

    my 2 cents – I agree with larry c

  • Ryan J Ollos

    I agree that it’s probably not worth (a sane person) going out of way for the p.s. service (though I’ve done it at least 6 times). The SFO to JFK flight is slightly longer than the SEA to EWR flight, so you are burning the additional time it takes to get to SFO and on-board the plane a second time; at least 3 hours. If ending the trip in NY, flying United and making a stop, I’d much rather go through DEN, IAH, ORD or IAD and end up at LGA than either Newark or JFK.

    As someone that regularly goes to Toronto, I’d really like to see Alaska, Virgin or JetBlue code share with Porter. Aside from the 1 (2 in summer) flight per day on AC that goes to Toronto, every Star Alliance option has one stop. It would be really nice to take Alaska to Newark and connect to Porter. If Porter started flying to JFK that would make a connection to JetBlue an option. Landing at Billy Bishop and walking to a hotel is pretty nice!

    Given that United copies everything Delta does, shouldn’t they be adding p.s. service from SEA to JFK eventually?

    • Scottrick

      United is cutting its last international service on SEA-NRT, whereas Delta is creating a mini-international hub here at SEA with flights to Europe and Asia. Delta’s BusinessElite service on SEA-JFK is probably part of its feeder network.