I did my trip to the US on United Airlines, who you may well know were trading under protective bankruptcy until February this year. Not surprisingly they seemed pretty keen to get feedback from their customers over the service – giving out a survey to all the passengers on two of the four flights I was on. Unfortunately they were the two outgoing flights, and my experiences on the way back probably were worth talking about too. So in the spirit of giving feedback my impressions with United…
As I detailed last week we had an interesting time booking the flight thanks to confusion between our US and UK offices, which resulted in a number of phone calls to the United UK call centre – which wasn’t overly helpful in it’s advice. The changes actually made checking in a bit more difficult as the computerised check-in machines refused to allow me to check in and directed me to queue up. The suggestion on the United UK Website that there is an express hand baggage only check-in at the rear of island F at terminal 3 proved to be out of date. Going over I was in a regular economy seat, on a comparatively quiet flight. I had a free seat next to me (and Nick Higham, the BBC media correspondent in the next seat), however I also had someone who wanted to sleep directly in front, so with the 31 inch seat pitch, things were a bit cramped. The plane had seat back screens for entertainment, but unlike some airlines they weren’t adjustable – an issue especially with the person in front of me as with her seat fully reclined, the viewing angle on the LCD screen was such that you couldn’t really see that much.
Compared to our main transatlantic carrier, Air Canada (most often we’re heading for Calgary) the food was a definite improvement. Like many carriers both United and Air Canada offer a hot meal towards the start of the flight, and a snack service towards the end. In the case of Air Canada it is a micro-waved pizza, and to be honest whenever it comes out it usually makes me want to heave. By comparison United produce a little packed lunch type snack, with a filled roll, a packet of crisps and a chocolate bar or biscuit, which from my point of view is a lot more appealing.
Aside from the viewing angle issue, the entertainment was pretty good, with a multi-channel tape based system. The downside is that the system loops round when the cabin crew spot the tape has finished – and only when the longest channel has finished – so on the way out with one film about an hour longer than all the others there was a bit of waiting around. Assuming that the cabin crew rewind the tape promptly, there is time for three movies on the transatlantic flights, and in terms of the selection there was a good choice of new movies across the nine video channels. Certainly I saw six movies that I wanted to see, and there were more listed that I didn’t get to. The main improvement I’d make is to go for a digital video on demand system, as aside from the looping issue with the tape system, the tape was starting to show signs of wear with tracking issues with the picture and sound on some channels. Take a look at this overview of the systems available for examples of airlines that do this.
On the way back I flew in an Economy Plus seat. On the planes used for the transatlantic flights about half the economy cabin was devoted to Economy Plus seats, which were identical to the economy seats, but with four inches extra seat pitch. At check-in in Atlanta, the self-service check-in offered me the option of upgrading to Economy Plus, which I turned down. However I had not previously been allocated a seat, so when the machine produced my boarding card it put me in an Economy Plus seat anyway. Since the flight back was absolutely full, and I had been seated in the middle of a row, the extra legroom was welcome, however in general I wouldn’t pay the extra for the small amount of extra space. Certainly, if you look at some of the prices you pay a lot more for the extra few inches, and compare that Thomas Cook Airlines offer 35 inches of seat pitch as standard to all economy passengers on their flights to Eastern Canada you can see there is quite some variation.
On the ground organisation was generally okay. Washington Dulles airport was particularly chaotic in the United area at the end of concourse A, with multiple flights going from the same gate, and passengers being directed to the correct plane across the tarmac, and a general lack of space at the gates on concourse C. However the building work at the airport seems to imply that these issues are being addressed. The only bit of wrong information came at Atlanta where when I checked in my boarding card listed my departure gate as T15, whilst the information boards displayed the departure gate as T14. When I got to the gate area, the plane actually left from T13, and right up until departure ground staff were having problems with people coming to the wrong gates.
In terms of whether I’d fly United again, probably yes, as they are part of the Star Alliance so I can collect frequent flyer miles for our trips to Canada with them. Having said that, it is the attraction of the frequent flyer miles, rather than anything particularly stand-out about the airline that prompts the yes. In terms of changes that would make me want to fly United in preference to another airline, chief among them would be making all the economy seats economy plus. A look at the Seat Guru comparison page shows that with their 31 inch pitch United are towards the bottom of the pile in terms of space – going for 34 or 35 inches across all economy seats would make a big difference and put them towards the top.