The State of Denver International (Trip Report)

When Denver International Airport asked me if I wanted to participate on a panel at the State of DIA annual luncheon, I thought it would be a lot of fun. Turns out, I was right, and I had the added bonus of meeting some readers, including frequent commenter Jason H. I’ll have the video posted when Denver puts it up for those who are interested, but for now, here’s the trip report.

I figured leaving home two hours before my flight would work, and it did but not by much. There was plenty of United Mobile Boarding Passtraffic, the parking shuttle was slow, and by the time I rolled up to Terminal 6 at LAX, it had been an hour and a half since I left. I can’t wait for Frontier to start that Denver flight from Long Beach.

A friend nominated me as Premier Associate on United (1K members can do that) so I thought I’d try it out. I went to the premium line and broke out my super cool mobile boarding pass. I walked right in and the security line was short.

Once through, I headed to the gate. An announcement was made that we would be boarding in 5 minutes. Then 5 minutes later, another announcement was made that they were still servicing the airplane so it would be another 10 minutes. That seemed strange since the plane had been at the gate for two hours. Sure enough, the same guy came on not a minute later and announced that it was time to board. Ok.


March 17, 2010
United #814 Lv Los Angeles (LAX) 1102a Arr Denver (DEN) 217p
LAX: Gate 75B, Runway 25R, Dept 2m Early
DEN: Gate B43, Runway 35L, Arr 18m Early
Aircraft: N549UA, Boeing 757-222, New White/Blue Colors, ~85% Full
Seat: 14A
Flight Time: 1h50m

I had forgotten that United had segmented boarding so much. First the super fancy cool fliers board, then the moderately cool fliers board. Then Economy Plus boards and so on. As a lowly Premier Associate, I boarded with the Economy Plus crowd. It was very cool just holding my phone up to the scanner for boarding. Look ma, no paper.

Boarding was creeping along very slowly, but when I finally reached the door I saw a flight attendant wearing green accessories for St Patrick’s Day. I figured she was in a good mood, but I was wrong. I Cabin United 757looked at her and said “good morning” but she responded with a sarcastic “Here at United we board forward – aft, see how well that works?”

Um ok, I just kept walking. I took my seat and soon heard a stern announcement that every seat on this flight was full so you had to put your bags up in the bin or under your seat quickly. Too bad it wasn’t actually full. The monitor outside showed only a handful of people on the standby list and about 40 open seats. Sounds like she was just using her standard speech to combat the rising bag problems that have been plaguing airlines that charge for checked luggage.

We pushed back a couple minutes early and then rocketed out over the Pacific. There’s nothing like taking off in a 757. Once we were over the San Gabriel mountains, about 10 minutes into the flight, the flight attendants began their service.

They slowly made their way back and when they got to my row, they asked the guy on the aisle if he wanted a drink. He said no and then they just moved on. When I flagged the flight attendant down, she Winglet Over Rockiessaid she thought he had asked me if I wanted something. Weird. At that time, Channel 9 (where you can listen to cockpit communication) wasn’t on so I asked her if she would ask the captain. She said she would.

I never heard back from her and Channel 9 never came on so I have no clue if she even asked. Soon we were on our way in to Denver. It was incredibly smooth on approach, which in Denver terminology means there was *only* light turbulence. It was a quick taxi in and I was off quickly.

After a successful day on the panel at the State of DIA luncheon, I was ready to get out of town. It’s not that I didn’t like Denver but there was a storm coming. The partly cloudy skies and mid-60 degree temps were giving way to a lot of snow and a high of 30.

I walked into the airport and, with my mobile boarding pass in handMobile Boarding Pass Reader, headed straight to security. A TSA agent was standing there directing people to use a further line that had fewer people in it.

I went there and expected to have to flash my boarding pass at the elite line showing my premier associate status but the lineminder couldn’t have been less interested. He didn’t even look and just waved me on.

The next stop was the ID check. You’re probably wondering how the mobile boarding pass works there. Well, you just show them your ID and they have the same scanners that United has at the gate (at right). Once they see it’s valid and the name matches, they let you through. Seems much more secure than a regular paper boarding pass to me.

I made it through security in 5 minutes and hopped on the train. I saw there was a slightly delayed earlier flight so I tried to make it but the door was closed when I got there. My flight was going out of gate B47 Our Faded Paint Planeand I was happy to find B45 empty with plenty of open seats facing the ramp.

I parked myself there and went through emails to pass the time. Soon, our plane pulled up, and man did it need a paint job. It was in the older colors but it was so faded that it made me cringe. The nosecone was painted in the old gray scheme as well but it was much brighter, giving a contrast that was far from flattering.


March 18, 2010
United #753 Lv Denver (DEN) 431p Arr Los Angeles (LAX) 559p
DEN: Gate B47, Runway 34L, Dept 2m Late
LAX: Gate 70A, Runway 24R, Arr On Time
Aircraft: N422UA, Airbus A320-232, Malevolent Skies Gray Colors, 100% Full
Seat: 7F
Flight Time: 2h7m

They boarded us up quickly and the flight attendants seemed to be in a better mood this time. I was bummed to see the old cloth interior on this A320. I’ve been hearing really good things about the new interior and I wanted to test it out. At least the plane was clean, though my seat kept reclining on its Flying Home Over the Rockiesown and you had to basically punch the channel and volume controls to get them to work.

We took off to the north and before we even hit the Rockies, the seat belt sign was off. We went under, through, and eventually above some scenic high clouds with great views all around. I tried to sleep but I couldn’t. I got a glass of water and watched a rerun of The Office that I’d seen before.

When we first boarded, Channel 9 had been on and I was hearing communication between air traffic control and the airplanes, but it was shut off before we left. I asked the flight attendant if she would mind asking the captain if he would turn it on, and she quickly replied that he wouldn’t be doing that. Man, 0 for 2. That’s my favorite thing about United too. So, I just sat back and stared out the window, drifting in and out of an uncomfortable half-sleep.

The descent in to LAX was very hazy so it was hard to see much, but we put down and taxied across the airport back to our terminal. I headed to the parking lot so I could go fight my way home through rush hour traffic.

[More photos via Flickr]
[Video of Flying over the Rockies (~30 secs)]
[Video of Landing in Denver (~4 mins)]


33 Responses to The State of Denver International (Trip Report)

  1. TwoEightRight says:

    “Malevolent Skies Gray Colors” — love it. Channel 9 is a fickle thing… it seems like a growing number of UA pilots are opting to leave it off (or turn it off as it were).

  2. Andy Vignone says:

    Your comments about United ring so true – their employees seem unhappy, cranky, and even resentful of passengers.
    A recent flight out of ORD was a nightmare in so many (preventable) ways that I resolved to avoid them like the plague, even though I have Premier status. Good luck, Continental!

  3. SEAN says:

    What about the baggage clame at Denver. Did they ever get the kinks out of the automated system that was installed? I saw a story on, I believe it was 60 Minutes on that.

    • CF says:

      Nope, they scrapped the baggage system entirely. In fact, at the luncheon, the centerpieces were wheels from the baggage system because that’s the best use they have for them now!

  4. Thanks, Cranky, for that report. It sounds like your UNITED flying experience is similar to what I experience a few dozen times per year. Flying UNITED is simply unpleasant.

    As much as they’ve been relatively abusive of me and other passengers, I have to give UNITED some credit where credit is due. There’s been a marked improvement in their level of surliness over the course of the past two years, so I’m hopeful that one day they’ll be get back to their Friendly Skies.

    By the way, did you learn anything significant about the future of DIA? It’s one of my favorite airports anywhere.

    • Tim says:

      Yes, tell us about your CONFERENCE! This trip report is okay, but we want to hear what you SAID!

    • CF says:

      As soon as the Denver folks send me the link, you can watch the whole thing yourselves. They’re actually looking at how to expand now, and the original plan to keep building more parallel concourses is being questioned. They’re now considering building one concourse along each side of the main terminal building because it would be less expensive and potentially more convenient. The combination of those two sound good to me.

      The other big developments are that they’re building a Westin hotel in the terminal so you don’t have to go for miles to find a place to stay, and they’re working on the light rail connector to downtown.

      • Dan Webb says:

        Those two developments are very welcome, though I’d be more excited about the light rail connection. There are some decent hotels right near the airport (next to F9’s HQ).

  5. Kathi says:

    This is almost my story as well.. Altho I do love United.. I also like Continental too… I just wish they would let us lowley Premier peeps board even After Premier exec. and before Number One boarding.. oh well..Its always a fight to get baggage room overhead.. My last trip I spent in the bulkhead by the exit and I had to listen to an attendent complain about Uniteds proceedure and treatment of their own all the way to my destination… she was a bubbly and happy person and very good to us but she was very unhappy with United..
    Denver is tough to fly out and into because of weather even most of the year their weather is so changible…
    Oh well enough venting! I think I will go pack for my next trip :)

    • Jason H says:

      I can’t bring myself to agree with you on DEN’s flight conditions Kathi. Today we have low ceilings and blowing snow, but the delays on departure look to be focused on those cities you would expect (Hayden, Aspen, Cheyenne) and on the equipment you would expect (Beech 1900’s, CRJ 100/200, ERJ 135/145). Overall delays are acceptable when you take into account that everything flying out of DEN today has to go through the deicing pit.

      I’d love to see ORD handle DEN’s current weather conditions with only moderate delays! And as for summer, we get wonderful weather here most of the time. Sure an occasional tornado touches down out near DEN, but that just makes things more interesting for pilots and passengers alike. :)

      • James says:

        Agree about delays. I flew out Friday afternoon to LGA. I missed the 4:24 757 flight because the storm picked up at 3 when I left work, and was slow with many accidents on 225 and pena.

        I kept checking flight status (friend was driving) and was suprised to see it with an on time departure- in heavy
        blowing snow.

        I got on the 5:50 flight which also pushed back on time. We had a half hour delay due to runway configs for weather- but yeah not bad ops at all. I really expected cancellations. – and had channel 9 too and a half full flight probably due to others missing it like I did my original one.

      • MeanMeosh says:

        I have to concur – I’ve always been impressed with DIA’s ops in bad weather. I’ve never had a meaningful snow delay in DEN, either departing or arriving, and this despite some pretty brutal conditions (last time I flew in, we had 1/2 mile visibility and low CIGS in snow and fog, and we were still at the gate just 5 minutes late). Departing, the only significant delay I had during snow wasn’t the airport’s fault, but due to bad weather and a ground stop at DFW that caused us to be held on the ramp for awhile. Contrast this to a place like ORD – where you’d figure they should be able to handle a good snow – where a couple of inches wreaks havoc on half the country.

    • David M says:

      I haven’t flown since December, so things might have changed in the past couple of months. But assuming they haven’t, Premier is basically Zone 1. Economy Plus doesn’t actually get any boarding priority: If you’re a Premier in Economy Minus, you’re still Zone 1, but if you’re a non-elite in Economy Plus, you get Zone 2/3/4, based on your seat type (window = 2, middle = 3, aisle = 4).

      • CF says:

        The way they made it sound was that the order was like this:

        1) medical pre-boards
        2) 1K and Global Services
        3) Premier Exec or Star Alliance Gold

        Then they went into the boarding groups. Group 1 was Economy Plus and Premier (it sounded like all Economy Plus was in this). Then it just went on from there.

  6. Jon says:

    I wonder if the take your kid to work day at JFK had anything to do with Channel 9 being off? From a pilot’s perspective: why take the chance that Nervous Nelly in 36D would feel “unsafe” because of something you said on the radio?

    • I think that’s exactly what they’re trying to avoid dealing with, but the concern existed long before the Kiddie ATC incident. I’ve read flyertalk accounts of pilots who just got tired of the questions from passengers about why they did X, etc. I’m sure more than few pilots have had experiences where they turned off Channel 9 mid-flight in an attempt to avoid questions about scary-sounding interchanges, and found themselves with passengers freaked out as to why they’d gone radio silent.

  7. I know that LAX makes you taxi to the “wrong” side of the airport often, but they put you on 24R for takeoff? (The primary landing runway on the north side.) Hopefully inbound traffic was nil at the time.

    • CF says:

      Oops. That was a typo. We departed 25R, but we did arrive on 24R and take the scenic tour of the airport to get to our gate.

  8. Ken says:

    Thank you for referring to the ramp as “ramp”. I realize I am just a nit picky aviation nerd, but I hate it when the media refers to the ramp as a ‘tarmac’. I mean, are there ramp agents, or tarmac agents? Tarmac maybe isn’t technically wrong, but still.

    • CF says:

      Actually, I think tarmac is technically wrong. Tarmac is a material and I don’t think it’s used much anymore in the airport. I actually have used tarmac in the past because that is technically what the fed rules are calling it. I cringe every time I use it, however.

  9. The next stop was the ID check. You’re probably wondering how the mobile boarding pass works there. Well, you just show them your ID and they have the same scanners that United has at the gate (at right). Once they see it’s valid and the name matches, they let you through. Seems much more secure than a regular paper boarding pass to me.

    Much more secure. Sadly they could do this with paper boarding passes, but they haven’t.

    This has been a known security hole, and it makes it easy enough to get past security with any name as long as it matches your ID, even if its a fake ID.

  10. I haven’t flown United in more than a decade, but I’m nor surprised to see that their corporate culture of having planes full of grumpy, unfriendly flight attendants continues.

  11. I’ve always wondered why if UA offers channel 9 why don’t they have it on all the time. I know the captain decides if it’s turned on or not, but when it’s not I always wonder what they are trying to ‘hide’ that they don’t want passengers to hear.

    Cabin crew are like hospital nurses, ask them for something and you will either never get it or you’ll get it hours later after the third time you ask. Since there are more of ‘us’ to ask them for things, it’s easy for them to forget.

    So Brett did you like being a fancy cool flier with your mobil boarding pass? :-)

    So what fee does you cell provider charge you for the incoming mobil boarding pass? Would you use it all the time no matter the price or print one out to save $$$?

  12. JayB says:

    Channel 9 is off much, much, much more than it is on! When one of the guys and gals has it on, I feel like running up and hugging them when I get off. [No, I promise not to!]

    I often wonder if the pilots think they can shut off LiveATC, too? Control the internet! Perhaps forbid me from looking out the window lest I might question their piloting skills.

    There must be someone out there willing to start a website listing the names of every UA pilot that won’t turn on Channel 9, perhaps with sworn comments that they will never fly on a flight with that pilot, or threaten to walk off the flight if the pilot in advance doesn’t agree to turn it on. I will more than gladly feed the names of those piloting my flights that won’t turn it on. Maybe a second site, a positve one, for those brave UA pilots that do.

    I know, I know, I’ve heard the comments about how they think, maybe even known how some passenger’s comments threatened their livelihood. Well, aren’t they “big boys and girls” and know how to respond? Like they never had to deal with an irate passenger who thought the landing was a bit much!

    Sorry, I know the topic wasn’t all about Channel 9, but some things…well!

    • CF says:

      I think it’s not a fear of the passengers but rather a fear of management. Relations between management and union have been pretty awful for quite a long time, so they probably think that if they do something wrong, management will find a way to use it against them.

  13. Brad says:

    As a younger Premier Exec (I’m 23 years old), I actually prefer United to other carries. They give you the best seating for elites. They just started free upgrades to First. And if you don’t get the upgrade,at least you Econ Plus and get some extra legroom.

    Service is hit or miss and you do not have entertainment like Delta. However, you can get a cheap netbook with 9 hours battery life to entertain. I would rather entertain myself and have more legroom, than have a TV and standard legroom.

  14. YO says:

    United gave up years ago on trying to have a pleasant experience. Now its just crappy torture with pissed off FA’s.

    No fun, but at least its not TED.

  15. jordan says:

    I fly out off Denver alot, and Im about to commit a ton of money to UA for future travels! I like the airline; yes they are hit and miss, but so is Virgin Atlantic and many other European and US carriers! Ill say this! If a flight attendant spoke to me that way, i would give her the dirtiest look and say “thank you stewardess” They hate that more than anything! hahah!

    I find the UA check in staff in the LAX Premium Terminal (ughh its so dingy, and yet they have the nerve to call it that!) so friendly, security is rude as always..and the LAX gate staff are the worst!! Then again, they are rude at ORD, MIA, PHL and every other airport!! inc Denver!

    CF, with your Assoc Premier card, you can use any Fast Track/Premium line at any airport that has it…even if you’re not flying UA! ;)

    Denver today: 1 foot of snow, after 70 degrees yesterday! This is why I love LA!

  16. Rob says:

    Sounds like a decent trip but you just reminded me of a typical UA experience and how much I love not flying UA anymore. At least UA elites have access to Star Alliance bennies on CO now.

    Your report also reminds me of a study I just read in which levels of service and employee motivation were compared in dining establishments where tips were the norm versus those that add service charges as a flat percentage of the bill.

    What percentage would you tip your most recent UA flight attendants, reservations, ticket counter, and gate staff?

    • CF says:

      This is an interesting question. I’ve long wondered what impact tips would have on customer service, but it hasn’t exactly helped a ton with food. You’re effectively expected to give a tip at a restaurant, so if it gets to that point onboard, it won’t help the problem.

      Besides, flight attendants like to remind everyone that they are there as safety professionals. I think they might take it as an affront. Any flight attendants out there want to comment?

  17. Scott says:

    I used to fly United a lot and I always found their service to be hit or miss. I can say I always had more good than bad among flight attendants. With Customer Service agents, I noticed a wide divide among large/small stations. I usually got service that was a shade below openly hostile in hub cities (they seem particularly hateful in Chicago) and sparkling at smaller stations (ANC, SEA, FLL, PDX).

    As far as liking management, United’s employees haven’t really liked anyone since Patterson.

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