Which international business class for you? Qantas vs. United

Let’s get this out of the way: yes, comparing two major airline’s international business class offering is a pretty privileged and luxurious position to be in. Some decisions in life are on par with hoping for the best restaurant in the hospital; this is not one of them and if you are flying business class on any airline you can certainly be assured of comfort. However, if you do have the advantage of choice, here’s my take.

The flights I’m comparing are Qantas QF15 and QF16 on a Boeing 747-400 between Brisbane (BNE) and Los Angeles (LAX), and United UA840 and UA863 on a Boeing 787-9 between Sydney (SYD) and Los Angeles (LAX).

The Boeing 747-400 model of aircraft has been in commercial use since 1989, revising the successful and popular Boeing 747 model in general, introduced to the world in 1969. As such, it’s a style of aircraft that has enjoyed longevity, is well-known to frequent travellers and was once dubbed “Queen of the Skies.” Due to their age, 747-series aircraft are being progressively phased out by airlines. The reasons for this are understandable – age, efficiency, technology – but unfortunately also with some detriment to passenger convenience, notably in economy class, with modern aircraft fitting more passengers into smaller areas.

The Boeing 787-9 is a variant of the Dreamliner and was first flown commercially in 2014. Compared to the 747-400 it’s a technological marvel: enhanced Android-powered in-flight entertainment system, USB charging, bigger windows, lower cabin pressure.

I’ve certainly sat in the Boeing 747-400 many, many times, in every section from the first row through the very last, to the US, to Europe, and to Asia. I’ve taken the Dreamliner far fewer times.

So, my comparisons are somewhat unequal – two international routes between Australia and the USA in different aircraft – but ultimately, I found what separates the experiences are not aircraft factors but service factors.

The airport

It all starts at the airport and both airlines want you to feel special, like a real VIP.

It starts straight away. You can check in at the exclusive business class counter, with more personable service and by far a shorter queue. From here, it’s through security and customs, but you will be given a card to skip most of this queue.

ExpressPath

Once you are through, all you need do now is wait for your flight. You could buy an expensive snack in the airport outlets, and look for an empty chair along with the noisy hordes. Or … you could head to the lounge.

Flying business class grants you access to your airline’s corresponding lounge irrespective of your status in their loyalty program. In my view, lounge access is one of the biggest perks of gold (and higher) memberships with the airlines, making your time at an airport so much more pleasant with chairs, electrical outlets, newspapers, food, drinks, and also showers and toothbrushes. You can use the lounge if you’re flying business class no matter your status in the airline’s program.

After a while, it’s your time to leave. Head to the gate, and go through, again, the shorter queue for passengers travelling business class or with an elite loyalty membership.

It’s time to see where you’ll be sitting for the next 14 hours or thereabouts.

Greeting

Board the plane and turn left, not right. You’re not heading towards the tail of the craft but the nose. There’s no doubting you’re in a special part of the plane; immediately it’s a different world to any experience you’ve had in economy class.

So far, the experiences I’ve described are largely a function of the airport. Now on the plane, you will see how the airlines differentiate themselves.

Qantas continues the VIP touch. Drinks and pyjamas are ready for collection. The staff greet you by name. The chef introduces himself and says he will be in the galley looking after your meals. A bottle of water is already waiting in a compartment in your seat.

QF_Entry

It’s the same when departing – the staff wish you well and remind you their name and say maybe you will travel together again sometime. The staff will hold back the throngs of economy class passengers as you deplane – “Excuse me, please allow Mr Williams to exit,” they say. It’s almost embarrassing, though decadently indulgently seductively pleasant.

It wasn’t the same level of fanfare and importance with United. Make no mistake, the United crew are friendly, absolutely. However, you make your way to your seat while the crew busily count stock. They offer a drink before departing, and while the glasses are nicer, it’s not terribly dissimilar to being offered a pre-departure plastic cup of water as the rest of the plane receives. If you want pyjamas you have to ask for them – nobody will offer.

Ultimately, the United business boarding experience is “just” a much nicer version of the economy experience. You walk on the plane, take your seat and stow your bag. Now, granted, the legroom is massive, the seat is huge, the storage plentiful, but there isn’t the same height of, well, “specialness” that Qantas bestows upon its business class guests.

Seating

Seriously, if you’re flying business class you can’t go wrong. Any seat is good. This compares favourably with economy where every seat is a trade-off. Don’t want to have someone climb over you? Go the window. Don’t want to have to climb over others? Go the aisle. Want to recline as far as you like without bothering anyone and have only one neighbour? Go the very back row on the side of the plane, not the middle – but then you’re also near the queue for the toilet. The best you can hope for in economy is tolerable and it’s so exciting when the seat next to you is empty. Yet, there’s no such thing as a bad seat in business class.

When you sit at, quite literally, the pointy end of the plane you will find your chair outranks the pride-of-place in some loungerooms.

In fact, you will spend some of your pre-departure time just learning about all the options available. You have legroom-a-plenty, storage space, chargers for your various devices, even massage options. Want to lie down totally flat? That’s no problem either.

Here’s the Qantas chair:

And United’s chair:

To be fair, the seats are more linked to the aircraft than the carrier. Here, I found the 747-400 more private with a larger screen between my neighbour and I. You could almost forget someone is in the seat next to you. However, the 787-9 Dreamliner had a nice shelf where I could plug my phone in (turned to flight mode and then off, of course) and charge it while sleeping.

The 747-400 entertainment unit lifted out of the seat because the seat in front was so far away you’d need binoculars and a great big stick if it was affixed to the chair ahead.

You’re still a long way from the person before you in the Dreamliner (or, the galley, if you’re in row 1) but you have an additional storage unit with shelves and a table taking some of that space away. The entertainment screen is built into it and you manage it with a controller from your seat. When sleeping you still get to lie down completely flat, but your feet go into the top shelf in the storage section.

I have to emphasise the legroom because words cannot describe just how much space there is in this part of the plane. Next time you fly economy and the person in front has reclined and you’re feeling trapped remember how good it is for those up front.

Trying as hard as I might, I couldn’t even touch the seat in front of me in the 747-400 (with Qantas pyjamas):

QF_PJs

and here I’m stretched out very comfortably in the 787-9 (yet to ask for my United pyjamas) with my feet in the shelving:

UA_Legroom

How many windows do you normally get in economy? One, or maybe half? Well, I had no less than four windows in my nice business class seat here:

QF_Windows

QF_LegRoom

Note the size of the privacy screen between my neighbour and myself also, here on the 747-400?

On my return flight, I scored an upper-deck exit row and I think I surely had the most legroom of any other person on the entire plane, even the crew:

QF_LegRoom3

Even when my neighbour in the aisle was sleeping, lying totally flat, I could easily walk around him. The space between my chair and the row in front was astounding.

Dining

Fancy dining in a fine restaurant in the air?

The menus did not photograph well, being in low-light conditions by that time in the flight, so allow me to list them here.

Firstly, Qantas –

Australian wine, aperitif, spirits, cognac and liqueurs, and a Neil Perry-designed menu consisting of:

Small plates

  • Spring pea and spinach soup with croutons
  • Antipasto of marjoram baked ricotta with tomato sugo, Kalamata olives, roasted red capsicum and butter bean salsa
  • Tataki style tuna with cucumber salad, yuzu and sesame dressing
  • Venison pot pie

Main plates

  • Warm farro with roast fennel and tomato, peas, parmesan and herb vinaigrette
  • Roast chicken roll with rocket, walnut, celery and herb mayonnaise
  • Seared ling with salsa verde, eggplant caponata and fried polenta
  • Katsu pork ramen with udon noodles, bok choy and edamame beans
  • Red mole and hazelnut braised beef with soft tortillas, tomato and jalapeno salsa
  • Green leaf salad with Rockpool vinaigrette

Dessert

  • Selection of cheese served with accompaniments
  • Chocolate glazed cheesecake with creme fraiche
  • Pat and Stick’s ice cream sandwich
  • Seasonal fruit

Plus chocolates and snacks.

Returning from the USA to Australia, the main plates were

  • Selection of cheese served with accompaniments
  • Roasted carrot soup with sour cream
  • Pumpkin, chickpea and coconut curry with roasted cauliflower and fragrant rice
  • Pork and fennel seed sandwich with kimchi, harissa mayonnaise and romaine lettuce
  • Jlangai style white sea bass with wheat noodles, pickled mustard greens, chilli and gai lan
  • Grilled chicken with sweet potato puree, broccolini and hazelnut burnt butter
  • Black Angus beef fillet with roasted potatoes, snow peas and red wine mustard butter
  • Green leaf salad with Rockpool vinaigrette

It doesn’t even end there; I had a breakfast menu much like a good hotel with full and continental breakfast options along with a wide range of hot beverages to choose from.

QF_Menu3

You can even hang the breakfast menu on your coat hanger so your order is taken while you sleep, much like you’d hang it on the hotel room doorknob.

Menus are one thing. What did the food look like?

It was a wonderful plate-after-plate of excellent dining. The steak was cooked perfectly and was sumptuous. I really enjoyed my meals on these Qantas flights and they contributed to a fantastic experience.

Next, United –

Starters

  • Chilled appetizer – Lamb shank terrine, tomato jelly, beet-horopito relish
  • Salad – Arugula, frisee, grilled vegetables served with dressing and assorted breads

Entree

  • Roasted rack of lamb – Cabernet au jus, beetroot risotto, asparagus, beans, edamame, peas, pumpkin
  • Thai-style chicken curry – Red curry sauce, jasmine rice, stir-fried vegetables
  • Steamed clams, mussels, monkfish and prawn – Bouillabaisse, edamame, fingerling potatoes
  • Parmesan and chive gnocchi – Mushroom cream sauce, bell pepper, peas

Desserts

  • International cheese assortment served with grapes, crackers and port
  • Signature sundae served with a choice of toppings
  • Various other cakes and sweet treats

Breakfast

  • Scrambled eggs
  • Fresh seasonal fruit

On the return from the USA to Australia, the entrees were

  • Seared beef short rib – Five-spice sauce, wasabi grits, bok choy
  • Spicy chicken – Thai-style coconut-ginger broth, udon noodles
  • Poached shrimp – Coconut red curry sauce, basmati rice, Japanese eggplant, mixed vegetables
  • Lentil chilli – Roasted garlic polenta, sauteed spinach

Words are one thing, let’s see it:

Special mention must be given to United’s sundae cart. This is truly a sight to behold.

UA_Food3

The hostess wheeled a cart laden with delightful treats like you might imagine from the trolley lady in Harry Potter‘s Hogwarts Express. The choice was too much for me, and she was only too happy to encourage me to indulge in a sundae with cream, and chocolate topping, and caramel, and the works. It was great.

Yet, there is a negative here, for United.

The Qantas crew asked how I wanted my steak cooked, and it was delivered superbly. I really enjoyed it.

However, my beef short rib with United less so. I noticed, travelling back to Australia, all the main meal options (or ‘entrees’ as our American friends call them) were all spicy options which, in itself, seems strange coordination. I asked just how spicy the five-spice sauce was on the beef. The hostess kindly said it was not too spicy but she’d have it put to the side so I could try it but have the meal without it if I preferred. Yet, she soon reappeared to say they’d all just been prepared with the sauce put on them – there was no customisation or personalisation of any meals, it seemed. I resigned myself to that fate, though she again reappeared to let me know she’d intercepted one in the other business class galley before the sauce was applied, so she had that one sent to me.

I tried the sauce, it wasn’t quite to my liking, but that’s my personal choice and shouldn’t reflect on United. Yet, without it, the beef was really bland. As in quite flavourless. While my Qantas steak was so good, this beef short rib was a big disappointment. I didn’t finish it.

United’s sundae station was truly awesome, but apart from this, there is no real comparison between Qantas’ meal options and those provided by United, both in terms of quantity and quality. Qantas really delivered an experience of being in a good restaurant with personal meals, while United delivered an upmarket mess hall with dishes churned out and any variation being a disruption to their process.

Bedtime

I’ve spoken already about the pyjamas. Qantas gives you pyjamas when you board, while United will only give them to you if you already know they exist and ask for them. However, they’re worth getting – despite Qantas’ greater largesse, I prefer the look of United’s black and deep blue colouring to Qantas’ grey. Still, I kept them all and wear them around the house 🙂

You saw my legs in the Qantas grey above; here’s the United colours:

UA_PJs2

As the plane goes into night mode – “night time” being somewhat of an abstract concept when you are crossing the international date line – the Qantas team will slip a thicker, fitted mattress onto your seat, fitting it in as passengers stretch their legs or use the bathroom. This, along with two sheets – one thick, one regular – makes for a warm rest as you lie your chair all the way down, converting it into a two-metre bed. After breakfast the Qantas team discretely collect them again, folding them and putting them away, shuffling around passengers using the bathroom and getting dressed again.

(Note: the 13″ MacBook Pro with Touch Bar was kindly loaned to me for six months by Apple Australia, and was light and ultraportable, as well as powerful.)

QF_Blanket2

United don’t do this. Whether it’s needed or not I don’t really know, but it was interesting to observe the difference of approach. It again speaks to the greater degree of attention and service Qantas consistently demonstrated throughout.

Verdict

What can I say? Business class on any airline is awesome, it’s special, it’s comfortable and wonderful. If the only challenge you face in life is choosing which business class to fly with you are doing pretty well.

It’s not out of reach. Frequent flyers know the best use of loyalty points is flight upgrades on a value-per-point basis, and this is attainable after only a few international flights in the rear of the plane.

Even so, flying business class spoils economy for you. When you only travel economy you are blissfully ignorant of the whole other world in the front of the plane. Your neighbour is annoying, your seat is tiny, the person in front of you reclines too often and too much, your headphones are functional, and your single plate meal is acceptable. You look out at your single, or even half, window at the view and remark that air travel is almost magical. You drift above the clouds in a metal tube, some 10km above the earth.

Yet, at the front of the craft – far removed from the hoi polloi – there are other human beings lying flat on two-metre beds, undisturbed by anyone around them, selecting their multi-course meal and beverage selections, warmer, snugger, and ultimately arriving fresh and ready to go.

So, whichever you choose, you’re a winner. However, for me, Qantas is in the lead. I do enjoy United’s sundae cart and blue pyjamas, but for all else, I really felt Qantas delivered a higher quality experience.

Some things are more important than others. I don’t require Qantas to halt other passengers so I can disembark, and as much as I’ve talked about (and like) the pyjamas I can live without them. In fact, I can do without a lot of things. Ultimately I want to land safely, and beyond that, I want to be comfortable, to be rested, and to enjoy a good meal. Qantas hit all these, and in my view, delivered a higher standard than United.

If I were to sum it all up, with United I was a passenger – a very comfortable passenger, of course, but with Qantas I truly was made to feel like a guest.