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Posts tagged united airlines

In January I took a trip to Europe to meet up with some friends and tour the Airbus factory in Hamburg, Germany. Also on the agenda was a trip to Miniatur Wunderland, a model/RC world that has multiple regions, including an airport. Right around the time I was planning this trip was when United announced that their Newark-Hamburg flight would be changing to a seasonal schedule. The flight would disappear from the winter rotations two days before my departure.

My backup plan was to fly Portland-Chicago-Munich-Hamburg. For the return, we would be riding with a friend to Berlin and I would take Berlin-Newark-Chicago-Portland as my routing home. I put Chicago in on the return because it got me home a few hours earlier, though it turned out to almost be a really bad decision (more on that later).

United recently started rolling out their Polaris “soft product”, or their onboard service, and even more recently have had their plane with the new seats flying some domestic routes. I had the opportunity to try both the Global First version of the Polaris soft product as well as the business version.

The day before I was set to leave, Portland experienced a record snowfall, making the city come to a hault. Worried that there would be no way for me to get to the airport, I called United and asked if they could put me on the same flights a day later. After a brief hold I was confirmed in business class a day later. I would miss the Airbus tour with my friends, but at least I would get there. One little quirk was the fact I was rebooked not in R-class, the fare bucket reserved for GPU upgrades, but D, a full fare business class bucket, which allowed me to apply another upgrade certificate for United’s Global First product.

I woke up on the morning of my flight to find that the train I typically take to PDX was only running part of the route due to a derailment of another train. I rushed to get ready and get on the streetcar to the closest stop that would connect me to the airport. After a bit of waiting of sub-20 degree weather a train showed up, taking me to the transfer station for the airport. Lots of people looked confused as they were using two trains to go back and forth between the airport but because of that they were using a platform that isn’t well marked and rarely sees action.

Arriving at the airport about two hours after I left home, I had about an hour until my flight boarded so I printed out my boarding passes, because United’s printers at PDX still print on cardstock rather than heat paper, making this aviation geek very happy. I went through TSA PreCheck in a few minutes and was buying a cup of coffee just moments later. I walked up to my gate right as boarding was starting. No de-icing was needed but we did have a delay getting out of PDX for some reason. My original plan was to visit the new Polaris lounge in Chicago but that plan was quickly dashed with what turned out to be a tight connection.

Finally up in the air, I settled in for the four hour flight to Chicago O’Hare. The flight attendants were friendly and lunch service was started shortly after we reached our cruising altitude. I chose the beef option and I’ll let the picture do the talking. It was barely edible. I ended up having a few bites and avoiding the rest, figuring I would eat when I got into Chicago.

Saddest inflight lunch to date.

After the meal service I got a little bit of work done and read before we landed in Chicago. As we taxied to the gate I checked my connection and noted it was on time still, giving me 15 minutes to get to the gate. I made it off the plane, through O’Hare’s neon tunnel, and up to my next gate in about 10 minutes and realized there was no plane parked at our gate, even with a huge line of people already queued for boarding. Turns out we were going to take an hour delay in Chicago but United never posted it until 10 minutes after our scheduled departure. Guess I did have time for a visit to the Polaris lounge. Instead I chatted in the gate area with a friend who happened to be traveling on the same flight but was continuing on to Budapest.

We finally boarded and I made my way to seat 1K, a window seat in front of the pilot rest seat, where I found this.

Yep, a storage compartment was non-functioning. And that wasn’t the only “inoperative” sticker on the seat, another bin did not work in the storage area closest to the window. Disappointing but not a deal breaker.

The new Polaris inflight amenities were stacked on the seat and my first conundrum was figuring out where to put it all. I settled on the foot rest.

After settling into my seat a flight attendant presented the flight’s menu and an amenity kit and asked what I would like to drink.

I asked for a glass of champagne and it was presented a short time later with a chocolate on the side, which is a nice touch. The setup for the plastic champagne cup does seem like it could be easy to knock over with the slightest bump, so United may want to take a look at making it a little more stable on the base.

Since we were delayed quite a bit, I decided I would eat a regular dinner, figuring the entire service would take around two hours. The flight attendant came around to take orders and I decided to have the beef option, a braised short rib with grits and fava beans in a bordelaise sauce. It sounded interesting and slightly different than what United has previously offered in business class. I know, from what I’ve read, the Asian Fusion Chicken Soup is pretty good, but my goal was to see how previous entrees had been spruced up.

After takeoff the single flight attendant serving the first class cabin (five seats occupied with passengers, one by a pilot) came around to offer beverages and he seemed a little disappointed that I only wanted another glass of champagne and sparkling water. The addition of San Pellegrino to the Polaris menu is definitely a welcome change. A short time later the linens were set and a starter of black pepper tuna was offered. It was rather flavorless and the side of quinoa was a confusing addition.

Next up was the carrot ginger soup, which I passed on. I was not really in the mood for soup and was hoping by skipping it the service would speed up a little bit. It did not.

The salad course was next and it was full of fresh greens and carrots. A nice change from previous salads I had tried on United which tended to be less than fresh and in some cases, still frozen.

My main course was delivered shortly after my salad plate had been picked up and another round of wine and drinks was on offer. The short rib was cooked pretty well and the grits had decent flavor to them but the dish overall seemed bland. The fava beans were flavorless and the sauce on top of everything just did not seem to hold up to the altitude.

By this point we were almost three hours into the flight and realized that business class had been completely served while first class still had the cheese and dessert courses to go. I opted for the cheese course because after reading reports, I wanted to see just how much of a downgrade it was and wow, it was disappointing. On pre-merger United planes there was not enough space for the cheese serving dishes so the cheese service had always been lackluster. Served on a single plate with a single serving of crackers and maybe a piece of fruit, I frequently skipped it. On pre-merger Continental the cheese service was actually pretty good. There was usually a nice selection of cheeses, decent fruit options, and an ample serving of crackers. The Polaris service is definitely in the vain of the pre-merger United way of presenting the cheese course. Three types of cheese, none with enough flavor to really warrant a second bite, a sad pile of grapes, and a single package of crackers were put on the tray table. After a few bites I decided I was done.

I skipped dessert, hoping to at least get a few hours of sleep. I asked for one of the new gel pillows and hit the button to put the seat down into a lie-flat position. I really like the new, bigger pillow in tandem with the gel pillow. And the new duvet is a definite welcome addition. I ended up sleeping through breakfast and woke up feeling pretty good. Ironically, there was a blizzard hitting Munich as we approached and ended up holding for another 45 minutes before finally touching down.

My connection in Munich was tight but because the snow had closed the airport temporarily I walked through immigration and straight onto my connection to Hamburg. No time for a shower, but at least I wasn’t stuck.

Overall I think the soft product that United is offering onboard now is an improvement to what they used to have. The new diningware and glassware was a needed change, so I am glad they opted to go with something a little more modern and simple. Besides there being just a ton of stuff on the seat when you arrive, the bedding is a fantastic change. I value sleep the most on long flights so improving the pillows and blankets makes sleeping a little easier. On the ultra longhaul flights United is even offering pajamas now, so I’ll write an update when I get a chance to try those. Lastly is the food. I think it was a mixed bag. The service took way too long and I don’t know if that was because the flight attendants were new at it or if it is intended to take that long. It also seemed odd that the entire first class cabin was served by a single flight attendant. He seemed to do everything, between prepping the food and serving it, he seemed like he was simply trying to keep up. From now on I will opt to eat in the Polaris lounge or in the airport terminal rather than sitting through a 3+ hour meal service when I could be sleeping. Food quality was decent and I think the meal I was served out of Berlin on my flight home (which I will cover in part two) was better. Reading other reports, some people receive great meals while a lot of folks have similar experiences to mine, mediocre food with rather bland flavors. Rotation of menus is something United has promised though and that’s definitely a welcome change.

There is also the new seat, which is available on the 777-300ER that United will soon be flying between San Francisco and Hong Kong and Newark and Tel Aviv. That seat is all-aisle access and will definitely be a nice change for people traveling alone and has the potential to offer a more restful flight since no one will be climbing over you in the middle of the night.

Stay tuned for part two where I’ll talk about my business class experience on Berlin-Newark-Chicago-Portland.

Everyone knew the day when United would announce their plans for a no-frills economy class fare was coming. The big carriers are looking for ways to grab a little bit of revenue away from the ultra low-cost carriers like Spirit, Frontier, and Allegiant. To do that, the airlines are removing benefits from certain fare classes. Delta has their version, with the same name even. American has discussed the same thing, and their fares are slated to roll out sometime in 2017. Scott Kirby, who used to work for American, now works for United and now, probably by coincidence, the day we knew was coming has arrived. United’s Basic Economy has been formally announced.

United Basic Economy

At first, I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about these new fares. There were quite a number of articles that had been written and a lot of anger and gnashing of teeth was taking place. But then I started seeing a lot of conjecture that these new fares would mean higher fares for those who don’t buy Basic Economy. That these new fares would be all that’s available and now you’ll have to pay to bring a carry-on on the plane.

The Facts

You can read the full details of United’s Basic Economy on their site, but here are the important facts:

  • No Pre-reserved seats – Seats on these fares will be assigned at check-in
  • Group 5 Boarding – These fares will be assigned Group 5 for boarding, the last group in the boarding process. United Premiers, Star Golds, and MileagePlus cardholders are excluded from this policy.
  • No voluntary ticket changes – 24 hour/Same Day Change policy excluded
  • No Premier Qualifying Miles, Segments or Dollars earned, lifetime miles or contribution to the four-segment minimum – Redeemable miles will still be earned
  • No EconomyPlus or Premium Cabin upgrades
  • No combinability with regular economy fares or partner carriers (includes interline travel)
  • Carry-on bags are limited to a single personal item (purse, backpack, etc.) – United Premiers, Star Golds, and MileagePlus cardholders are excluded from this policy and can bring two carry-on bags.

Thoughts

Besides the one bag policy on these fares, which distinguishes United’s Basic Economy from Delta’s implementation, the one thing that really sticks out to me on the list above is the lack of combinability with partner carriers and lack of interlining. This means if you are searching for a fare that requires a partner connection, say San Francisco-Bangkok, which would require a connection on someone like ANA in Tokyo, you would never see these Basic Economy fares in your results.

The “personal item only” piece seems to be the most inflammatory part of these fares, second only to the screams that families wouldn’t be able to be seated next to each other (more on that later). The truth is, customers in Group 5 usually do not have anywhere for their carry-on suitcase anyway and have to end up checking them, possibly holding up boarding.

As far as the families getting seats together, Delta even spells this out in their Basic Economy details:

With Basic Economy, you will not receive a seat assignment until after check-in or at the gate. Passengers traveling together, including families, may not be seated together.

If you want your family to be seated together, you simply buy the more expensive fare to ensure that you can preselect seats. So, I do think this point is being blown out of proportion. Which brings us to the conjecture/prediction piece of this.

Delta and United at PDX
The reality of Delta’s basic economy fares is that they are not as prolific as people think. I have only come across them twice in my searches and their savings was rather small when compared to the regular fares, something like $75 on each search. The other piece of this is the assumption that United will raise the regular fares and make money on those from people who do not want to part with their luggage or seat assignments. Based on Delta’s fares, I don’t think that will happen at all. Regular fares will stay where they are and these discount fares will be used to pull a little revenue away from the low cost carriers. United already has these basic fares in their systems and they show up about as regularly as Delta’s, the difference now is that United won’t be offering benefits with these fares. Seems like a “fare” compromise.

I think a lot of the fear around these fares is the belief that all of the economy seats will be sold as these new Basic Economy fares. That is simply untrue. United cannot sell a full 737 of these fares and survive, even if every passenger wasn’t an elite member and had to pay to check a bag. What they will do is offer a few seats on specific routes where they want to grab some business away from the competition at these Basic Economy levels.

Summary

We will not know exactly how this implementation of no-frills economy will go until 2017 when United rolls them out. But the odds of this being the doomsday that some people are predicting does not line up with the reality we have been seeing with Delta’s implementation of the exact same thing. Sure, Delta’s basic economy allows carry-on bags, but they still do not offer these fares on every flight or even that many seats on the flights where they do sell it. There is also the likelihood that these fares will be excluded from corporate booking engines, just like Delta’s no-frills fares.

Take a deep breath. It is likely you will encounter these fares on at least a few of your searches but do not fear, it is improbable that United will jack up the regular fares. So if you want to bring a bag onboard, you will likely be able to do so with very little markup.

The Economist has an interesting short piece and infographic on international airlines and the price you pay versus the service you receive. They used customer satisfaction data from Skytrax and lined that up against flight-volume data from FlightStats.com.

At the bottom of the satisfaction list? United and American Airlines.

Another interesting tidbit was the “worst airports to sleep in” category. Port Harcourt International Airport in Nigeria topped that list… And that isn’t a good thing.

Last week, United announced that they would be moving their p.s. (Premium Service) operation from John F. Kennedy International Airport to Newark Liberty International Airport. At first, I scratched my head, then I watched the flood of posts about how this is a terrible move, then I read rebuttals that it is a genius move. As with most things, the reality is somewhere in the middle.

Snowy morning at Newark.
United will cease operations at JFK in October of 2015 and move the p.s. flights to Newark. This means there will be no more service at all for United at JFK. This was done via a slot swap with Delta, basically trading landing rights at each airline’s hub. United has said that this will help boost connecting traffic via Newark from the west coast, especially the European destinations served only out of Newark and United’s only flights to India. The move will also give business class customers a flat-bed seat from the west coast to those same destinations.

With the addition of p.s. service at Newark Liberty, United customers flying on transcontinental flights to and from Newark in the BusinessFirst cabin will, for the first time, enjoy flat-bed comfort for their entire journey when connecting to and from flights across United’s extensive trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific networks.

As Seth points out, there are some huge operational benefits as well, including having 757-200s with more BusinessFirst seats at their disposal. It also frees up some Airbus and Boeing planes to operate other routes rather than doubling up on New York service as United was doing previously.

These aircraft are also occasionally serving Hawaii and other domestic destinations as the older 752s are being retired out of the fleet. By putting all of them into the same pool of potential aircraft it is possible to shift capacity much more easily.

The rest of Seth’s analysis is worth a read too, as usual, he’s level headed and reasonable when it comes to reporting aviation news.

At first, I had very mixed feelings about the move. Terminal 7 at JFK where United operates is a prime example of how bad an airport experience can get. Terrible security lines, no real amenities in the terminal, and at times, a lot of overcrowding all made me despise the experience. But, JFK is convenient for a lot of Brooklyn, Queens, and the rest of Long Island. I took a few red-eyes from the west coast to be at our offices around the Brooklyn area and it was a really quick transfer. I find the transfer from Newark to Manhattan to be about as long as the one from JFK to Manhattan and sometimes Newark is faster, depending on traffic and which way your cab driver decides to go. Also, Newark has come a long way in terms of amenities. It’s clean and for the most part well lit and while I am not a huge fan of the OTG changes, the food options are still much better than what is available at Terminal 7 at JFK. The one big downside of moving things to Newark is the United Clubs. I do not use them a lot, but every time I do they are packed. As in, can’t find a seat packed. It is usually around the time of the west coast and European departures but I have also seen it that crowded early in the morning. If United does something to help alleviate the crowding issues, there is not much left to say about this not being a good move.

Just think about it. You live in San Francisco but have a meeting in Hartford, Connecticut. With this move by United you can now fly in BusinessFirst overnight and catch the early morning flight to Hartford at Newark, rather than having to drive from JFK up that way. Or, if you are catching a European connection, you can now get the BusinessFirst experience rather than a domestic first class seat, all the way from your origin to your destination. Still don’t want to trek to Newark? There are always the flights out LaGuardia.

If you missed the news, United is lowering the value of their mileage currency on February 1, 2014. The main area of impact is international premium cabin rewards, with those flights on United metal going up in price slightly, but flights on partners going up significantly.

Be sure and book your rewards soon if you want the lower prices. After February 1, 2014, any change to an award that requires the ticket to be reissued has the potential to be repriced at the new reward levels. I do have a prediction: the implementation/roll-out of this new price reward chart is not going to go off without a hitch.

If you want more information on the devaluation and what different flights will cost, Seth has a great breakdown here.

On Sunday I had the privilege of being a part of United’s first revenue service of their newly delivered Boeing 787. The flight was scheduled between the Houston and Chicago hubs. Work conflicts prevented me from buying a ticket in advance for the flight but I was granted access to the plane before the first flight and to the tarmac for the plane’s first revenue taxi and take-off.

The time that the media had on the plane was fairly short. We were granted 10-15 minutes to walk the aircraft, get pictures, and talk to the crew. With people with video cameras, still cameras, etc. walking around aircraft becomes a challenge, but everyone tried to make it work as best as they could.

United 787 Forward BusinessFirst Cabin

United has opted to go with a galley at the main entrance to the aircraft. Some flyers have complained that the airline did not choose something like a bar or open space in this area but I do not see the point of that when the added benefit of a mid-cabin galley is faster service for passengers while in-flight. After making a right turn when boarding you enter the 2nd of the two BusinessFirst cabins. The aisles feel a bit taller due to the way the overhead bins are laid out and it creates the illusion that the cabin is bigger than it is. The BusinessFirst seats are the same ones that Continental installed on the Boeing 757-200s and the Boeing 777-200s before the merger and in the 787 they are laid out in a 2-2-2 configuration.

Walking into the Economy Plus and Economy cabin the seating configuration changes to 3-3-3 with Economy Plus having extra seat pitch (legroom). The bulkhead seats (row 16) seem to be the best if you’re wanting a little extra legroom with the added benefit of no one reclining into you. One thing I noticed is that all seats in coach have a power port, which matches United’s description of the cabin, but not its seat map.

The in-flight entertainment is of the new Panasonic variety and features a slightly updated interface and a new in-flight map. There is also a USB port available for you to use to charge your USB devices.

United 787 Economy Seat

You will also notice something missing in the above photo… A window shade. The 787 is outfitted with electrochromic windows or “smart glass”. As you use the button below the window, an electric charge is applied to the glass, changing its opacity, eventually becoming a still see-through, but darkened window shade. Since the flight I have read a few posts that say the windows do not get dark enough and sun still significantly comes through the shading. You can see what the smart glass looks like on Dan Frommer’s report from the JAL 787.

United 787 Economy Cabin

Some people are probably interested in the exit row on the 787 and whether or not it is worth sitting in. I took a photo of the exit row and as expected, it has a ton of legroom. The window seat does have the emergency slide slightly in front of it but it does not protrude too far into the space of that passenger. The one downside is the proximity to the lavatory. I assume this area will be used as a congregation space for people waiting to use the restroom. Not great when wanting to get some sleep.

United 787 Emergency Exit

Before leaving the aircraft I paid a visit to the rear galley, the cockpit, and the pilot rest area (I hope to post all of these images soon). The cockpit is impressive, especially when you notice that it lacks a lot of the analog displays (altimeter, attitude, airspeed, etc.) that we have grown accustomed to seeing. The heads-up displays were not pulled down but the idea of a commercial pilot being able to keep his focus forward while monitoring instruments, much like a fighter pilot, is comforting. With the 787 the pilot environment has become more about situation awareness and less about removing focus to check instruments.

United 787 Cockpit

After touring the aircraft, Jeff Smisek gave a brief speech about not only being the world’s largest airline but striving to be the world’s best and how he sees the 787 helping to bring that to fruition. He and the flight crew that would be operating the first revenue flight then cut a ceremonial ribbon and the flight began boarding.

United's Jeff Smisek Talking about the 787

At this point, a few of us were given tarmac access to photograph the 787 as it pushed back from the gate, taxied, and took-off. My heart always beats a little faster when I am on the tarmac. There is a lot going on around you and a whole lot of big jets being prepared for their journey. All of that plus the smell of aviation fuel equals an excited me.

The 787 was loaded up, the doors were closed, and the plane was pushed back from the gate right on schedule. I noticed something intriguing and delightful as the engines were started; The sound. Instead of the slightly higher pitch whine that is common with jet engines, the 787 had more of a low pitched hum, making it much quieter than I expected. I knew that Boeing had made strides in making the engine exhaust quieter, but I didn’t expect it to be that significant. I am guessing this is noticeable inside the aircraft as well. The 787 then performed a short taxi to runway 9 at IAH, took off, and made a graceful left turn to head to north to Chicago. Again, the sound during the engine run-up and take-off was much quieter than what I was expecting.

The United 787 Ready to Taxi

All in all it was a very fun experience and I look forward to having my first ride aboard the 787 sometime in the near future. United is currently running the aircraft between Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. As the other 787s are delivered, I would expect to see service to Newark as well. If you have flown the 787 I would love to hear what you thought of the flight, if you noticed any impact from the humidified and 6k foot pressurized cabin, or any other thoughts about your trip.

My flights on United yesterday had the new meal options on them and I took a couple of photos of them.

The first, the lunch, was served on a 9:30am flight out of IAH. It is a bit odd to eat lunch that early, but the reasoning behind serving lunch then is that the passengers coming off of east coast connections would receive breakfast twice on westbound flights. The meal consisted of a beef burrito, fruit, and asparagus soup. The burrito was just ok, but the soup was actually quite good.

New United First Class Lunch Service

Beef burrito, asparagus soup, and fruit

On the return flight a snack was served. The snack served before the merger was a literal “cold plate” of meats and cheeses. It was not very filling and was full of sodium. The new cold plate is a piece of grilled chicken, a cold pasta salad, and fruit. The pasta salad was extremely tasty for airplane food and the entire snack was very filling. Surprisingly, the chicken was moist and juicy and if the United caterers keep up such quality in the future I’ll be very impressed.

New United First Class "Cold" Plate

Grilled chicken, cold pasta salad, and fruit

While lunch was a little disappointing with the beef burrito, I think the new United is trying to improve the food options. My one suggestion to them would be to bring back the side salad on the lunch flights. If the options are a burrito and side salad or a large salad with shrimp and a side of fruit, I think flyers will be much more satisfied.