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United Airlines B757 First (short-haul)
First impressions: United's premium service has three classes: economy plus, business and first. I arrived two hours before my 8.55am flight to find no queue at business class check-in, so I quickly cleared security and went to the United First International Lounge, which offers wifi via T-Mobile, including discounts for United Mileage Plus members. There were no freestanding computers, but plenty of workstations with data ports.
Boarding: We were called to board about 20 minutes before flight time, and I headed over to Gate 7. The premium service is a fairly radical concept which is unique to the JFK to Los Angeles and San Francisco route: an international class service on a domestic flight. The B757 aircraft is configured with 110 seats: 12 in first, 26 in business and 72 in economy plus, whereas United formerly operated 767 jets with 168 seats on this route. My seat was by an exit row in business class, so I had lots of leg room and ample overhead space. The cabin crew offered water, orange juice or champagne, and then luckily, I was told I had been upgraded to first.
The flight: The physical product is the most impressive aspect of the premium service. The first class seats, designed by Avio Interiors, have a 170cm pitch and recline into lie-flat beds. Leg room is generous, with more than five feet of space between rows. Each passenger receives a portable DVD player, noise-cancelling headphones that hug the ears and a case full of DVDs. I was on a morning flight, so had a large breakfast including egg omelette, fresh fruit plate and Starbucks coffee.
A major benefit is the ability to work in your seat. Economy plus passengers get five inches more leg room than in United's standard economy, plus laptop power (no adaptors needed) and phones. The JetConnect access programme allows all passengers to send and receive wireless email from their laptops (costing $5.99), and the built-in Verizon Airfones provide five free minutes of air-to-ground phone calls. Verizon Wireless subscribers can forward their wireless phone number to the phone in their seats.
The only disappointment was the service. The passenger sitting next to me had a couple of drinks spilled on his trousers and our cabin crew seemed to be constantly in a rush, serving us water, coffee and juice in quantities that we didn't ask for and didn't need. That said, however, the crew on my subsequent United international flight was much friendlier and more professional, so I'd be willing to chalk it up to a bad day.
Arrival: We arrived in Los Angeles on time.
Verdict: United's premium service is, in my opinion, the best domestic product in the sky and also offers value for money, particularly for frequent flyers. First and business are excellent, and economy plus lets travellers work throughout the flight. Premium is available on two of the most important and competitive routes in the country. United, Delta and US Airways all fly non-stop from JFK to LA and to San Francisco International, and carriers such as America West and Alaska Airways fly non-stop between JFK and LAX.
There's no doubt that United is taking a gamble by offering international class service on a transcontinental flight, especially since it is not even raising the airfare. Currently, United has no specific plans to expand premium into other markets, but officials have said they might consider the service on transcontinental flights from Washington-Dulles, where United has a hub. Seats are very hard to come by on this service and seat upgrades are in high demand on this flight.