AOL Mystery Flyer: United Airlines, International

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ChicagoKoz, flickr

The AOL Mystery Flyer returns to the skies to put another airline to the test.

Last time I flew United on a domestic flight as the AOL Mystery Flyer, the experience could have been friendlier (read my last United report card and you'll know what I mean). So I was curious to see how the experience would differ when flying United on a longhaul flight from Frankfurt am Main Airport to Washington Dulles International Airport, a journey of eight hours and 40 minutes.

I booked my flight using miles, and was thrilled to see that United allows one-way rewards on international flights (American Airlines also offer one-way international rewards). My taxes came to around $55, and I had to use 27,500 miles -- it seemed like a very fair deal for getting back to the US from Europe at the height of the busy summer travel season.

Checking in

Frankfurt Airport, Europe's third busiest, is a happening place any time of year. Factor in the summer travel season, and I was prepared for a long wait to check in for my United flight. I arrived three hours early and it paid off; there were only three people ahead of me in the line at the check-in counter. There's no option for self-check-in on United at the Frankfurt Airport, and I was happy to let a ticket agent help me with my reservation, as a seat had not yet been assigned to me (the downside of being a non-revenue customer). The agent was able to secure an aisle seat for me and confirmed that my bag was checked all the way to Florida.

On my previous flight that day with Lufthansa, I'd heard an announcement that passengers flying to the US should allow extra time to get through security due to enhanced safety measures. So I arrived two hours early at the security line, just in case, bypassing all the fun shopping and dining options outside the security gates. Flights to the US have their own security lines at Frankfurt, and there were four separate lines (with 10 people in front of me in the one I chose). It meant a 10- minute wait, as each person put their items on the belt, one by one (no lining up your bins behind someone else's), with a security agent there to help wrangle the appropriate things into bins and onto the belt. My purse had to go by itself onto the belt, while my belt went into the bin -- confusing, but there's someone to help you put everything in the right place. I made it to my gate with plenty of time. Unfortunately, there wasn't an electrical outlet in sight for charging my laptop; this seems to be even more of a problem at European airports than at American ones.

Onboard: Seat Comfort & Amenities
Upon boarding, I was greeted with a friendly "Hello" by an FA as I walked through the central galley to my side of the plane. I noticed an FA there preparing the first class drinks, and asked if I could have a cup of water, which he obliged in a very friendly way with a "no problem." It was so different from the bothered reaction I got from an FA for the same request the last time I flew on United within the US (she first denied me, saying the galley was closed, then grudgingly poured me some water). This flight was already off on a better note. As usual, my seat was in the back of the plane. I agreed to swap seats with a fellow passenger who wanted to sit with her friend, so I was switched to the very last row of seats on the plane. (Before agreeing to the swap, I made sure the seat would recline.)

The plane was a Boeing 777, and the seat configuration was two-four-two. I was happy to score an aisle seat with just one Yoom (or UM -- FA speak for unaccompanied minor, I learned) next to me, a 12-year-old girl from New York who listened to her iPod the whole flight. The lavatory was right behind me, but fronted by an alcove that was several steps away so I never had to worry about lines forming next to my seat as people waited to get into the loo. The seat was comfortable enough -- standard airline fare -- and the leg room was slightly more ample than that of the long-haul Air Berlin flight I'd flown across the Atlantic one month prior. A small screen in the seatback showed entertainment throughout the flight (not on demand), with several channels to choose from, but I just worked and read instead. A pillow and blanket were provided to each passenger.

Food
The FAs offered a beverage service with cold drinks about an hour into our flight. Next came lunch. Airline food is normally something I skip, but in the name of research I peeled back the foil to try the breaded chunks of chicken in a chunky tomato sauce and a small pile of gnocchi-like pasta. It was not half bad, though over-salted and greasy, as usual. There was a small salad in a plastic baggy-wrapped dish that was dry, but edible. And the desert was surprisingly tasty -- a rhubarb and cherry pastry. The bread roll was hard, cold and dense (aren't they always, unless you're on a bread-loving carrier like Air France?), and I left it untouched.

The FAs made several rounds with the beverage cart during the flight, and it was easy enough for me to walk to the rear galley, where water was always available. About an hour before landing, they came around with a snack pack: a small ham and cheese sandwich smeared, oddly enough, with cream cheese (there was a pack of German mustard, too). Paprika potato chips (a German brand) and, happily for me, a full-size Twix bar rounded out the meal. It was a nice pick-me-up before landing, especially as I much prefer my airline food to be of the familiar packaged variety (chips and chocolate), especially with all the recent news about the health risks associated with airline food.

Friendliness
The FAs on my flight were a very friendly and approachable bunch. I paid attention to how they interacted with other passengers during the flight, and there were lots of smiles. I spent time talking to two of them in the back galley during the long flight, and they were also very helpful and friendly. I especially noticed how attentive they were to the unaccompanied minors around me, including the girl next to me and two boys in front of me. The FAs repeatedly came through with treats for them (a chocolate mousse from first class here, a candy bar there), and when the kids declined the goodies the FAs offered them to me, which I found to be very friendly. Overall friendliness: Very Friendly, 5/5

Would I do it again?
Yes. And hopefully next time I'll be earning miles, too, for all the time spent flying across the ocean! I thought this United flight was both as comfortable as can be expected in economy class, and friendly, which are the things that matter most when you are stuck in a steel tube with strangers across six time zones. The bathrooms were a bit dirty by the end of the flight, but not any more so than on other carriers. And the food offerings were better than average for an economy class flight.

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