Last weekend I took my first United mainline flights in several years. At least 3 years…maybe 4 or even 5….the memory is fuzzy. I think the last one was a reroute from AA Eagle to UA from Raleigh to Washington. I’ve had an interesting relationship with United over the years. After working for their primary competitor for so many years, I found flying them to be interesting. I like to compare and contrast airline operations, and the differences (and similarities) between United and my ex-employer were always curious to me. There really weren’t that many, but it was just different enough to be novel at the time. It didn’t hurt that they had a good number of flights to where I needed to go at the time either.

I’ve held both Premier and Premier Executive status in the then Mileage Plus program. I’ve flirted with United on and off since 2004. It was always interesting, but never quite real. For whatever reason, I’d find myself flying someone else after a flirtation with United. I liked their mileage program just fine, but something about the airline itself always bugged me. And being the kind of guy who finds that the airline matters more than its mileage program, I always wandered away. The final parting came when I was spending more time flying US Airways, but crediting to Mileage Plus. Probably not a bad plan, but I was flying enough that upgrades began to matter – even on 2 hour flights. I made the final switch to Dividend Miles and spent most of my MileagePlus miles in late 2012 on a Lufthansa First Class trip. With that as background, I thought I’d share some details of recent flights given the drubbing (at times deserved I think) that United has taken from some circles.

The Trip

I needed to get home from LAX, and studied my options – money, miles or walking. I went with miles as I had some MileagePlus miles leftover that were burning a hole in my pocket – just enough for a domestic first class award. I found a one-way itinerary from LAX to Atlanta via SFO and booked it. I thought the 737 transcon experience might make for an interesting experience as United has been flying nonstop from SFO to ATL for a several months now. When the time arrived, I checked in via United’s fairly functional iPhone app the day before, and enjoyed my evening. As I was getting ready the next morning I got a little push notification from United letting me know that my flight from LAX to SFO was delayed. I couldn’t help but think I was about to get Jeff’d. I selected my routing with purpose. First, it assured me mainline jets all the way, something of which I found to be challenging with UA. Second, I wanted to check out the transcon service on the 737-800. I elected to get out to the airport and try and standby for an earlier flight even though it did not look promising on ExpertFlyer.

I checked in with an agent, and she placed me on the standby list. The flight was booked solid, and I wasn’t very hopeful. However, I stuck it out at the gate, and what do you know? I cleared – 32D in an A319 was not the same as 2A on the A320 I was originally scheduled or, but I would make my connection with ease. This flight left right on time, arrived SFO early, and I wandered around the terminal a bit. It’s been years since I’ve flown United but portions of their terminal are clearly improved. I burned a day pass for the United Club, camped out and got some work done. In no time it seemed, I was walking down to board my flight home to the ATL. We were a tiny bit late boarding, but things went smoothly, and we pushed right on time. I was looking forward to the flight, partially thanks to an email I received from United the day before:

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The Seat

I surmised that it is such an event to actually get wi-fi on a United flight that they need to send you an email to let you know you’ll have it. 🙂 Funny thing is, both of my United flights that day were wi-fi ready. I boarded, and took my assigned seat 3E, on the aisle. The seats were a tiny bit old school, but comfortable, and I enjoyed catching up on a little news via DirecTV while we boarded. Legroom was plentiful. Perhaps they felt extra roomy because I was waaaay back in coach on my first flight of the day. Let’s compare…here’s 32D:

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And 3E.

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To tell you the truth, I found the coach seat very comfortable until the person in front of me reclined into my lap. But I’ll take 3E, thank you very much. Soon enough, we were airborne and winging our way towards Atlanta. I did try out United’s satellite wi-fi. I found it to be sufficiently speedy for my needs (4mbps download speed when I tried), and I liked the pricing plan very much. Basically, you buy as much as you want in 1 hour blocks for $2 per hour. I don’t know if that is a test phase price or not.

The Meal

Dinner was served during our flight. Our choices were chicken cacciatore and some kind of spinach filled thing that didn’t sound all that great. I went with the chicken with red wine for my beverage. Service began with hot towels, beverages, and my eternal favorite, a ramekin of warm mixed nuts.

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While the pre-dinner services were going on, I began to explore the entertainment offerings. DirecTV offered a LOT of channels, and I found myself surfing a bit. My eyes settled on VH-1. Yes, I said that. Why? The movie Purple Rain was playing. The rest of the flight was made as I enjoyed the music of Prince at FL370. But alas, dinner did eventually arrive so here ya’ go.

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If you’re counting, that’s approximately 1/3 of a chicken breast under some sauce with veggies and something resembling pasta. It doesn’t look like much, but it actually tasted OK. The salad was fresh, if skimpy (1 olive, 1 chunk of tomato, lettuce). A bread basket was offered as well. Dessert was a cranberry and white chocolate cookie. The meal was good enough, but I’m not sure it would have passed muster with Delta, much less American, and I’m not talking about the A321T First Class meal I had the day before. The first class F/A, on the other hand, was ever present, frequently offering refills of beverages and routinely checking on passengers. She absolutely made the flight. Well, other than Purple Rain on the TV, she absolutely made the flight.

The Bottom Line

I viewed the idea of flying United again with some trepidation based on a bit of media attention they’ve been receiving. Even though my original flight was delayed, I stood by for an earlier trip, and everything worked out fine. The agents and crew I interacted with were all uniformly polite, smiling, and helpful. Two flights doesn’t mark a trend, and living where I live, it’s not likely that I’ll go out of my way to fly United. That said, I won’t actively avoid it either. I enjoyed my flights.

-MJ, August 19, 2014 (OMG, I took my first airplane ride 34 years ago today!)