Great Expectations,
Mileage Realities
BY ADAM PLATT -- Australia has been a vast wasteland for business class awards these last few years and none of my four trips Down Under have been with Delta Air Lines, where I'm a Platinum Medallion million miler.

Even with carriers flooding the market with new flights last autumn, Delta wasn't dealing. But United Airlines, which added more seats than anyone, was dangling business class awards for only 100,000 miles each way. My adult son and I made our holiday plan: Five days in Melbourne and Brisbane on United, a Boeing 777-300 out and Boeing 787 back.

There were dilemmas, though. United's only connection from my hometown of Minneapolis/St. Paul involved a two-ish hour layover at its San Francisco hub for the late-evening departure to Melbourne. With only five days in Australia, risking a missed connection was out of the question. We decided to position to SFO on an 11am Delta flight.

One other thing pushed us to Delta domestic: MileagePlus rarely offers a first class domestic seat on international business awards. Economy Plus was a $125 buy-up and a window seat in coach was priced at $45 for the 1,586-mile MSP-SFO flight. Doesn't a premium seat or a free pick of economy seats seem a no-brainer for a business class award?

That 11am Delta flight meant we'd have a lot of time to experience all the changes at SFO. I'd been in United's SFO Polaris lounge before and the meal in the dining room then was nothing to write home about. This visit was even less impressive. The lounge was slammed at 5pm. It was hard to find a seat with any privacy to work. Seated dining required a lengthy wait. The club's cold buffet was an elaborate salad bar, but the hot food was unappetizing: congealed gray globs of chicken pot pie and some chafing dishes of overcooked vegetables and rice.

The club staff were efficient but brusque, disinterested in engaging with customers. There was no sense of helpfulness. Is that too much to expect of United's most premium lounge serving its most prestigious international flights?

A gate change brought an aircraft change to a smaller, older Boeing 777-200 and an hour's delay, too. We didn't depart until just before midnight Pacific time.

With a scheduled flying time of around 15 hours, I wasn't going to skip dinner here, too. Things got off to a decent start with warm mixed nuts and a hot towel that had been rather unsuccessfully saturated with water. My drink order was taken and delivered. I'd chosen (days in advance) a shrimp entrée with rice. It was bland and plated without any eye to palate appeal. A shrimp appetizer made my choice of main seem redundant.

The meal was served all at once on a tray, a pandemic holdover that United will only reverse starting May 1. I passed on the ridiculously basic one-scoop ice cream sundae for a "special" carrot cake. It was the size of a golf ball and equivalently dry. I was never offered a beverage refill.

The flight was worked by what I'll euphemistically call a "veteran" SFO-based crew. They got to it with the alacrity and interest of folks counting down the days to pension vesting. As in the club, there were no smiles, no warmth, nothing beyond the minimum. The aging Boeing was minimally worse for wear--and loud. My large touchscreen required babying, but everything else was in working order. There was barely room in the seat for all the stuff United gives you for this long flight: two pillows, two blankets, pajamas, slippers, amenity kit, bottle of water, noise-canceling headphones (of terrible quality).

Then the lights went down and basically nothing happened for 10 hours as we plodded across the Pacific. A basket of packaged snacks was proffered in the galley, but the promised midflight grilled cheese and soup was never served. A very generous breakfast (compared to the stingy dinner) was offered 90 minutes prior to landing. Again, no beverage refill. (I was so dehydrated that first day in Melbourne I couldn't even recognize it until I got to a Starbucks and downed three venti iced teas in succession.)

The trip home portended something a bit different. The Boeing 787 was noticeably quieter than its older sibling. I appreciated the lower cabin pressure as well. The flight was a long, daylight segment with a crack-of-dawn landing.

Yet the in-flight service was surprisingly similar: a rushed tray of skimpy portions with about three ounces of salmon for a meal that constituted lunch and dinner for an 11am departure. A slightly more engaged but hardly attentive veteran crew, who again largely disappeared between meal services. But because the "overnight" portion of this flight was still daytime in Australia, people were not sleepy and were hungry six hours after lunch. The snack basket emptied. Finally, one nearby passenger asked for the hot sandwich (cheese and vegemite toastie) and it took nearly an hour to arrive. It should have been offered to every business class passenger, but these crews didn't want to work.

Breakfast again was comparatively massive and we landed on-time before dawn at SFO. Immigration was a mess, but we made it to the Polaris lounge in just over an hour. The club wasn't as busy as five days earlier, but still jumping. I checked the breakfast buffet: congealed scrambled eggs, some sort of oatmeal, a gray meat. Two hours before our Delta flight home we moved to the Sky Club.

I've been told Delta's SFO lounge is one of the better ones in its system. All I can say is its food had more visual appeal than the United offerings and the staff managed to crack a smile and thank me for flying Delta.

The dispiriting United experience honestly surprised me because I once was a loyal customer and MileagePlus elite for a decade and a half. I remembered United as a carrier that aimed higher and delivered an impressive premium experience. I thought about how I would have felt if I had spent $15,000 on this roundtrip.

I subsequently learned another JoeSentMe member, Steve Cosgrove, had taken a similar Polaris trip Down Under in the same period of time. New York-based Cosgrove is a United 1K and he upgraded from a paid ticket using the perks of his status.

Outbound SFO to Australia, Cosgrove said actor Stanley Tucci was on his flight. The flight attendants were buzzing. On the return, Cosgrove noted that it was the pilot's retirement flight with a handpicked crew savoring the moment. He says he probably got lucky on this particular roundtrip.

The SFO Polaris lounge has a reputation as crowded with an officious vibe, Cosgrove explained. He recalls being denied a table in the dining room while people camped out there with laptops for hours. His judgment: United over the Pacific is "hit or miss" and the veteran crews on the Australia runs don't always deliver a high-quality experience. But he said my reports seemed atypically bad.

On the other hand, I wanted to lie flat and sleep flat. I did. And at a price a fraction of Delta's exorbitant award rates. A price so comparatively cheap that I went to Australia for five days. So maybe I expected too much from United for my 100,000 miles.

Delta's SFO buffet may be better, but Delta's award prices were and are insane. If you want to claim miles to fly Delta to Sydney next week, for example, you'll pay 495,000 miles one-way. That's nearly five times what United charged me. So maybe I'm looking a gift horse in the mouth while praising an airline that doesn't really want to reward my loyalty.

Adam Platt is a JoeSentMe member and executive editor of Twin Cities Business, a regional business magazine based in St. Paul.