United Global First Class Lounges – Washington-Dulles and Los Angeles

Fifteen Days in Australia

A Trip to Sydney, Cairns, Melbourne, and Diving the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea

TPA-IAD

I awoke on Christmas morning anticipating one of my longest travel days of the year.   My mom dropped my dad and I off at Tampa International Airport where we boarded our first flight of the day, a two-hour flight from Tampa to Washington-Dulles.  We were seated in first class on a B737-800.  The flight was quite nice and went by pretty fast.  There was not a full breakfast service, but scones were served.  I watched some SportsCenter and took a nap, waking up just before we landed at Dulles.

Long couple days of flying!  TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD

Long couple days of flying! TPA-IAD-LAX-SYD

5 hours at Washington-Dulles (IAD)

Due to award availability, we were forced to spend a five-hour layover at Dulles.  Because of this glut of free time, we headed over to Terminal B to spend some time in the Lufthansa Senator Lounge.  Since we had a same day international first class ticket, we had access to the lounge (I also have access as a Star Alliance Gold member).  This lounge is without a doubt the nicest Star Alliance lounge at Dulles Airport, and is one of the better lounges in the US.  We had a couple of drinks and lunch in the lounge,  as Lufthansa has a decent spread that features four hot items and a variety of cold sandwiches and salads.  After a couple of hours, we decided to try out the United Global First Class Lounge.

Food offering in Global First Class Lounge IAD

Food offering in Global First Class Lounge IAD

Upon checking into the Global First Class Lounge, the lounge agent informed us that we didn’t have access to the lounge since our International flight was out of LAX, and not IAD.  I questioned this logic, since that’s not what the United lounge access policy says, so the lounge agent begrudgingly allowed us access to the lounge, but really acted like she was doing us some sort of favor.   This rubbed us the wrong way since we were, after all flying in global first class out of LAX later that day, and were in first class on IAD-LAX later that afternoon.  The lounge itself was completely empty, as my dad and I were the only two people in the lounge.  There was a small food spread, which didn’t look all that appetizing.  We did help ourselves to the open bar for a drink though. The lounge agent requested us to leave the lounge at 2pm since it was the end of her shift.  We found this strange, but we did so anyway and went next door to the regular United Club.  Upon checking into this United Club, the lounge agents here were rather bewildered as to why we weren’t using the Global First Class Lounge.  We explained to them the hassle we were given upon entering the Global First Lounge, and that really upset the lounge agent who offered to escort us back to the lounge and have a word with the agent there.  Since at that point we only had twenty or so minutes until boarding time, we declined, as we just didn’t want there to be a scene since this United employee was pretty bothered that we had been given a hard time.  United just really needs to figure this out and preach more consistency on the education and/or enforcement of policies by their employees.  This whole experience really did leave a sour taste in mouth to start our long day of travel with the airline.

IAD-LAX

Finally, it was boarding time for our flight to LAX.  We were seated in seats 2A and 2C for this flight.  I enjoyed a pretty decent diner of pasta, and then watched a few Anthony Bourdain videos on Sydney and Melbourne before dozing off for a nap.  I must have been really tired since I didn’t wake up until the flight attendant was preparing the cabin for arrival into Los Angeles.  This was actually a very nice transcontinental flight — things were improving!

Dinner on IAD-LAX

Dinner on IAD-LAX

LAX Global First Class Lounge

We only had about two hours at LAX before our long flight to Sydney, so we headed straight to the Global First Class Lounge and were greeted by an extremely friendly lounge agent.   The offerings at the LAX Global First Class Lounge are far superior to that of Washington-Dulles.  Apart from a full bar, there were several warm appetizers and snacks.  We were also provided a limited menu from which we could order a small meal.  We each ordered some udon noodles, which were brought out to us after about ten minutes.  They were delicious, and proved to be a great little snack since unbeknownst to us, it would be more than a couple of hours before we ate again.

Overall, the LAX Global First Class Lounge was far superior to that of IAD.  The employees at the LAX lounge were friendly, accommodating, and provided great service — the complete opposite of our experience at Dulles.  The physical facility, while not amazing was much better than the Global First Class Lounge at Dulles.    At the end of the day, I feel that United needs to vastly improve its consistency.  While lack of consistency is a major weakness throughout the United brand at the present time, it was never more painfully obvious than it was given our two experiences at two of United’s “premier” lounges. Next:  United Global First Class Los Angeles to Sydney

United’s Premium Service Business Saver Award Availability is Much More Sparse than its Competitors’

It’s been widely documented that United Airlines has implemented a series of devaluations to its MileagePlus loyalty program.  First, there was the move to add a dollar spend amount to Premier Status qualification through the added criteria of “Premium Qualifying Dollars.”  Then, United announced a major devaluation of their award chart which hit premium international travel particularly hard.  It also created essentially a separate, more expensive chart for travel redeemed on one of United’s Star Alliance partners — the partners that supposedly make membership in Star Alliance so valuable.  Finally, last week, United announced their new plan for accruing redeemable miles in its 2015 MileagePlus program — it will based purely on ticket price, and not on the mileage flown, which is essentially bad for anyone who is somewhat price-sensitive, and is buying their own tickets.  This revenue-based system appears to be a carbon-copy of the same plan that Delta announced this past February, leading many to accuse United of simply copying Delta on things that arbitrarily “sound like a good idea.”

To counteract these devaluations, one might think that United may increase award availability so it’s not all bad for the consumer.  Alas, that is not the case.  Though United continues to have pretty good saver award availability on international awards, it has become increasingly hard to find a saver award — particularly for a premium cabin on a transcontinental domestic flight.

Case in point:  United’s Premium Service flights from New York (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO).

These flights are operated by two-class Boeing 757-200s with a special, two-class configuration featuring 28 lie-flat, business class seats.  I was alerted by a friend that the availability of these seats is absolutely dismal, so I looked into it and then decided to compare it with the availability of “saver” level award seats in both Delta and American’s programs.

What I found was much worse than I thought.

United Premium Service Award Availability

Below are the availability calendars for United’s Premium Service Saver-level award availability for JFK-LAX for the entire schedule.
*Yellow denotes saver economy space is available.  Blue denotes BusinessFirst is available, and Green denotes both economy and BusinessFirst is available.

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That’s right.  For the entire year, there is award space for only three dates for BusinessFirst — and all are within the next three days.

The availability is much the same for the opposite direction:  LAX-JFK:  3 dates in the next year; ironically enough including Christmas Eve.

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I then decided to look at the other United Premium Service route to San Francisco, only to find similar results (I’ll spare you all the calendar shots.)

JFK-SFO:  Slightly better, with 6 days of BusinessFirst open

SFO-JFK:  The worst of the whole bunch:  only 2 days with BusinessFirst saver open, and very little economy space open at all.

After seeing this paltry availability for United, I figured that surely it was probably just as bad for Delta and American.

Notsomuch…

Delta Transcontinental BusinessElite Award Availability

Upon studying the Delta award availability (which is much more difficult to navigate than United’s), I found that on its JFK-LAX premium route with all flat-beds in its Transcontinental BusinessElite product, there was actually pretty good availability for saver-level seats after September.  In fact, in October, it’s pretty wide open (the Green dates indicate Saver availability).  The same was true with return flights from LAX-JFK.

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Delta’s Domestic Award Chart

It is worth noting that Delta has a couple different levels of “Saver” awards, based on seasonality, so a Saver award could cost you either 50,000 or 65,000 round trip (since no one-way awards are offered on Delta).  Delta’s online award search engine is also vastly inferior to that of United, so there’s always that.

American Airlines A321T Award Availability

American Airlines had a simllar pattern of availability as did Delta.  Though this summer’s business or first class “MileSAAver” level availability was slim-to-none, it looked pretty good after August.   Below is American’s chart for Business class MileSAAver awards on its non-stop JFK-LAX route on its new A321T, 3-class “Flagship Service” flights.  It’s also worth noting that first class availability was just as readily available after the summer time.

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 So what does this tell us?

For starters:  don’t plan on being able to use your United miles to fly on its Premium Service flights anytime soon.  This is just another deficiency that’s a result of a littany of #flyerUNfriendly “enhancements” to United’s formally industry-leading MileagePlus loyalty program.

Though it faces major competition in a continually evolving US air travel market,  United seems to cherry-pick the things that it copies from other airlines, such as Delta’s Skymiles medallion qualification and revenue-based earning program.  At the same time, it seems to ignore other very important things such as creating operational efficiencies by decreasing the reliance on regional carriers, and rewarding customers with at least making premium transcontinental flights obtainable with miles.  It could always mean that United is filling all these high dollar seats with paying customers while their competition is not, but given United’s recent reports of profitability (or lack thereof), I really doubt it.