Almost a Review: United Airlines Business First B777-2, Chicago – Sao Paulo


One of the flights I was most looking forward to was our international long haul flight on United Airlines. It’s often tough to find international reward space in Business Class on United. As a result, I was looking forward to flying with them and trying out their product. Unfortunately, after best efforts, our plans went a little off road right and we got swapped onto another Star Alliance Carrier.

This post is one chapter on our trip to South Africa, a Safari in the Maasai Mara in Kenya and Mauritius. This trip was redeemed through Air Canada’s Aeroplan and through Starwood Preferred Guest (Marriott Bonvoy) and Hyatt Gold Passport. For more information on how this trip was booked, please see our trip introduction here. For other parts of the trip, please see this index.

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Almost a Review: United Airlines Business First (Business Class) B777-2, Chicago O’Hare – Sao Paulo

I was pretty stoked to try the United Business First long haul business class product. A full flat bed, a large personal TV and no fuel surcharges on reward tickets. What’s not to like? Unfortunately the flight didn’t pan out for us as you will read here. I’ve decided to include what we experienced here for the benefit of others who face cancelled flights on tickets and how we dealt with it. 

At about an hour before the flight, we left the United Club Chicago Terminal One Concourse C country club lounge and walked over to Gate C18 A. Tonight’s boarding for the flight to Brazil was through a double bridge boarding with separate boarding counters for Group 1, First and Business, and patrons of the Global First Lounge. A document check at the counter was also conducted for the Brazil Visas needed for most passengers. We had gotten Brazil Visas in advance at the Consulate in Vancouver and at the time, they were printed versions in our passport.

Getting Ready to Board Group 1
In the Priorty Queue after the first wave of travelers
United Airlines
Business Class
ORD-GRU (Chicago O’Hare Terminal 1 – Sao Paulo Guarluous)
UA 845 – Business Class (I)
9:25 PM – 11: 40 AM
November 4, 2013
Booked: Boeing 777-200
Flown: Boeing 777-200 – Flight was cancelled due to mechanical issues (radar)

On Board United Airlines Long Haul Business Class:

After boarding Group 1, we headed on board. As we found our seat, we passed the United Airlines International First Class product, which has now hit the airline graveyard of discontinued products. At it’s time, it was a nice pod configuration, with an extra course here and there on the otherwise business class menu.

United International First Class B777-200; while it lasted

We found our way to our seats and settled in on board. The United Business Class product on their Boeing 777-200 aircraft is in a 2 – 4 – 2 configuration. It’s also worth noting that some of the seats face backwards, dependent on row assignment. If you are unfortunate enough to be stuck in the middle bank of four, the two middle seats have no direct aisle access without climbing over the seat next to you. I’ve reviewed the Boeing 777-200 Business First product before on a domestic First Class flight with United Airlines Denver – Houston but I had never experienced the product on a long haul international flight.

Getting to the seat itself, we settled into a comfortable, but narrow seat. I personally found the seats a little compact when lying down. As a 6ft 2 inch tall person, I had to curl up a bit to lie flat in the seats. In other highlights, we had 3 windows to our seat on the Boeing 777-200.

United Airlines Business First Forward Facing Aisle Seat

While we settled in, a pre departure beverage offered. Tonight it was sparkling wine in the “elegant” picnic plastic cup. Looking around, there was not much sign of wear and tear on tonight’s plane. 

A Classy “plastic” way to start a flight
Settling In to our View for the next 11 hours
Large Advanced Video on Demand

The video screen was a Giant IFE screen – or giant by comparison to what is normally on offer out there today. 

View from our seat, with the cargo hatch still open

Food and Beverage: A Full 3 Course Dinner

While we were waiting at the gate, the crew came around to take dinner orders.

Star Anise Featured Prominently on Tonight’s Business First Menu
Starter Menus
Dinner Menu that, surprisingly, doesn’t feature Star Anise

The Amenity Kits:

After the dinner orders were taken, the flight crew offered newspapers from the cart, including Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The flight attendent handed out Amenity Kits. These were well stocked and the United kits is personally one of my favourites and the best Business Class Amenity Kits we received on the trip. 

Convenient Carry Pouch; Useful
With a see through side; also useful
Full of reasonably useful items and one of the better and durable amenity kit combs out there

As we buttoned up to depart we started to taxi out to our departing runway. I decided to listen to Channel 9 on the way out. For many years, Channel 9 on the audio “From the Flight Deck” that allowed travellers to listen to Pilot – Air Traffic Controller conversation on Channel 9. It’s not every day that you can take advantage of it, since it’s at pilot discretion (or accidentally left on). Luck was on my side today since I was able to locate it and pick up some conversation traffic.

Unfortunately, I was able to hear that a mechanical issue with the aircraft’s radar had identified itself. We were nearing the hold line of the runway and we ended up parking on a taxi way while the flight deck attempted to re-boot the system. 

After about 30 minutes of aircraft idle, the decision was made to return to the gate and off load the plane along with all our personal effects and checked baggage.

Headed for the United Club while they fixed the problems:

The plan was to have the United engineers trouble shoot the system. United planned to open the United Club for travelers in First and Business to accommodate us while they fixed the aircraft. 

I’ve never seen a line like this rushing for the United Club (laughing). . .

Re-Enterinng the United Club to wait out a flight delay

Unfortunately, the bar staff in the United Club had gone home and the only things left was leftover snack silos and the instant coffee machines.

Re-Boarding UA 845 to Sao Paulo:

After about an hour, ground staff announced that they were ready for re-boarding. Everyone crushed together the holding area gates. To make matters worse, the supervising gate agent announced that although the problem hadn’t completely been fixed, if the plane were to leave tonight, that the ground staff had 40 minutes to get the plane fully loaded with all passengers completely seated otherwise the crew would be illegal and over time. Somewhere, somehow, they were given the green light and we all rushed on board, eager to get underway.

Re-Boarding UA 845 ORD-GRU for the Second Time

Flight Officialy Cancelled:

Our re-booking efforts with United

We returned to the United Club lounge in Terminal One Concourse C to handle our re-booking. You’ll note that I say “re-booking” here and not “re-ticketing”, although at the time we were non the wiser. . .

I knew we may be in for some challenges with the irregular operations situation given that we were traveling on reward tickets and that UA did not normally fly all the way to Johannesburg through Sao Paulo. I was also little worried that we were going to be subjected to a downgrade to economy with little or no protection on our behalf given we were booked on a reward ticket and generally, there are challenges due to high demand in finding reward business seats to South Africa. 

I had a hunch they would re-book us into a paid fare bucket but I didn’t know what routing they would propose, or whether they would attempt to stick us immediately back into any available Star Alliance business reward bucket “I” inventory based on currently available reward space. As we were waiting, I whipped out the laptop while we were standing in line and using the UA Club wifi, was lucky enough to find 2 Lufthansa business seats ORD to FRA and then FRA-JNB (Airbus 380) the very next day. I kept this information up my sleeve in case they proposed something bad. 

As we approached the counter, I explained our situation of Johannesburg being the final destination and that Brazil was a means to an end, a method of getting to South Africa. The agent initially had no idea where JNB was or where it was situated. OH boy. This isn’t going to turn out well… 

After a few keystrokes on the computer, I was asked “ What about Dallas?” – my brain immediately thinking, what carrier flies from Dallas to Jo-Berg? Did she mean United via Houston and Lagos? The Chicago accent was a little thick and I was corrected – “No – Dulles as in Washington DC”. Would we be interested in tickets departing IAD-DAK-JNB in paid revenue fare bucket? Of course- we accepted this prior to any mind changing and she started to work on our re-booking.

After about 20 minutes, and the last ones in line to be re-booked we were placed on a routing ORD-IAD-DAK-JNB. Turns out we didn’t need that Lufthansa booking after all. Although, it was really nice to have this information up our sleeve in case we needed it. I should add that by this time, this re-booking was being completed at 2:30 AM. While my wife finished this off at the counter, I got on the internet and started making alternate arrangements for our paid South African Internal flights. Since we needed to get to Cape Town, we had booked a separate paid ticket from Johannesburg to Cape Town on South African Airways. We initially had a 5 hour delay between the reward and paid tickets, but with the flight cancellation, even that was not enough slack time in the travel plans. 

As my wife returned with $42 USD in food vouchers and a hotel voucher courtesy of United, we eventually got booted out of the UA Club at about 2:45 AM as all the staff wanted to go home. United Club staff told us our luggages would be located, and re-tagged to Johannesburg. We asked for the bags back but were assured that the bags would be looked after. This was my second mistake in not being insistent on having the bags returned. We were given a new baggage claim voucher.

Not knowing what the internet situation was at the hotel we stayed outside the UA club and looked up numbers for SAA ticket offices to rebook our separate paid JNB-CPT tickets to a later flight which cost us $161 in change fees and fares differences which we would have to eat. We tried to change this ticket on line, but despite purchasing the ticket through the website, the booking portal was being stubborn and refused to allow us to change the ticket. As the North American Ticket office for South African was well closed for the evening, we called the South African Airways ticket office via International Call in Johannesburg and had the tickets changed. 

Concourse C at O’Hare is absolutely deserted at 3 AM. I’d been through here many times but never this quiet.

O’Hare Concourse C at 3 AM

My thoughts on United Business First and Our Cancellation:

As the day came and went, I started off really looking forward to our first flight in United Business First’s comfortable lie flat seats. While we were almost underway, our efforts were a little bit foiled thanks to mechanical issues. It’s always a mild disaster whenever things go south on a wide body flight cancellation since carriers are never resourced appropriately with enough human capital in order to deal re-arranging two hundred passengers. Despite this, United did a reasonable job in getting us going on alternate transportation flights and did the best that they could given the circumstances. I’ll look forward to flying United Business again one day.

2 Comments on “Almost a Review: United Airlines Business First B777-2, Chicago – Sao Paulo

    • Thanks for reading 100 Country Trek.

      It’s a great example of how close the margin for delay is when operating these ultra long flights, especially when the flight isn’t double crewed.

      Fortunately, it’s not my usual experience with United. Most of my flights with them have run reasonably on time.


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