A Day With United Management: Getting There and Back (Trip Report)

Last month, United invited me out to Chicago so I could visit with a few different departments and learn more about what they were working on. I’ll have the meat of those discussions next week but first, how about a little trip report on my flights out and back?

Departing Chicago

[Disclaimer: United provided my transportation and hotel without charge.]

The Quick and Dirty: The international Business Class seats are really nice while the new A320 slimline seats don’t work well if you plan on using a laptop. (And the wifi has some glitches.)

United offered to fly me in First Class, and I was interested since I hadn’t been up front on the airline in a long time. But I was more interested in flying in coach on one of the newly-reconfigured A320s with slimline seats. Problem is, that was hard to find.

On the way out, no flight that day was on an Airbus. They were all 737s except for a couple of 757s. That seemed odd since none of those airplanes even have hope of wifi onboard at this point. You’d think it would be important on a business route that competes directly with American (and Virgin America), but as I later found out, that’s not something the network team really takes into serious consideration. I decided to fly on one of the 757s in First Class.

On the return, there was one A319 and one A320. I tried to see which had a better shot of getting me the new seats and they put me on the A320 in Economy Plus. I asked to be moved back to regular coach.

LAX United Chairs

Once at LAX, I sailed through security and headed straight to the gate. I had to laugh at the way the chairs were arranged. They were in rows facing the podium, as if we were in a classroom where the gate agent was the teacher. I didn’t have to sit long as we boarded pretty early.

December 4, 2013
United 1081 Lv Los Angeles 850a Arr Chicago/O’Hare 257p
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 77, Runway 25R, Depart 22m Late
Chicago/O’Hare (ORD): Gate C20, Runway 9L, Arrive 6m Early
N48127, Boeing 757-224, United Globe colors, ~99% Full
Seat 4A, First Class
Flight Time 3h1m

I didn’t get my confirmation from the United PR team until the last minute, so I somehow overlooked the fact that my flight out was on an international 757 with the ex-Continental flat beds. Nice! I was expecting crappy overhead inflight entertainment so I had stocked up on work. But now I had a big personal screen to keep me entertained.

United Business Inflight Entertainment

I’ve sat in this seat only at a display when it first launched, so I was excited to try it out on a real flight. It’s a very comfortable seat without question. The little “tower of power” behind your head is great. I plugged in my phone and charged it using the USB. There was also a power outlet and a headset plug.

The seats angle slightly toward the window, which is subtle but nice. We had boarded very early so I took my seat and prepared for 45 minutes of work before we took off. The flight attendants came around asking for breakfast orders (cereal or eggs and I took the latter), but departure drinks weren’t offered until about 20 minutes after I got on board. I passed.

United Business Seat

Departure time came and went without a peep from anyone. Finally, one of the pilots came on and said they had been stuck in traffic. We took a 20+ minute delay because of that.

Once we pushed back, we headed to the runway and were on our way. I decided to commemorate the occasion of my first legal departure video here.

We circled around and pointed toward Chicago. A few minutes in, the flight attendants came by with food. The egg cylinder, sausage circle, and potato triangle didn’t look very appetizing but they were halfway decent. (I ate half before moving on to the fruit and yogurt instead.) I flipped on the worst funny movie I could find (Grown Ups 2) because I knew it would help me pass the time. I’ll admit, I enjoyed it.

United Business Breakfast

Then I broke out my computer and did work the best I could without wifi. The last 20 minutes were spent in solid cloud, and we didn’t break out until 30 seconds or so before landing. It was one dreary day in Chicago, bringing back memories of my time living there. Oh heck, here’s that video too.

It was my first time landing on the new southernmost northernmost runway at O’Hare and it took a full 20 minutes to taxi to the gate. We had a heck of a tailwind because even with the delay on the way out and long taxi, we still got to the gate early. I hopped on the L and headed into town.

On the way back, I had a little time in the morning because the sole A320 didn’t leave until midday. Things were looking good for an ontime departure until United decided to swap airplanes on us. The new airplane was expected to arrive just after noon but our delay was only to 1231p. I was skeptical.

I took the L to the airport and nobody was in the Pre Check line. I was through quickly and went to the gate to wait it out and do some work. Sure enough the airplane arrived after noon and by our 1231p departure, they hadn’t even finished boarding elite members.

December 6, 2013
United 865 Lv Chicago/O’Hare 1158a Arr Los Angeles 236p
Chicago/O’Hare (ORD): Gate C26, Runway 32L, Depart 53m Late
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 70B, Runway 25L, Arrive 48m Late
N452UA, Airbus A320-232, United Globe colors, ~99% Full
Seat 22A, Coach
Flight Time 4h14m

United A320 Seat Side View

The new interior looks nice, though United told me that they’re already changing out the seat coverings from the gray to something blue instead. My first impression was that it looked tight. Once I sat down, I quickly realized the issue. Legroom on these new seats is perfectly fine. But the seatback pocket has been moved up and the tray table sits on it. It sticks out and makes things feel tight because of how close it is (relatively) to your face.

United Slimline A320 Seats

We took off to the west with blue skies ahead in the distance. Once we hit 10,000 feet, I flipped on wifi for just shy of $9. It was good for awhile; not like being at home, of course, but it was consistent and completely usable for a couple hours.

After working for a few minutes, I already started to hurt. There is a sense of little personal space above the waist in this seat. This wouldn’t be as big of a deal if you just stared at an overhead monitor, but with no inflight entertainment, wifi is important. If you’re sitting in Economy Minus and have a laptop, good luck. The tray table seems narrower and you can’t fit even a relatively compact ultrabook on there with a drink. Plus, the seatback pocket jutting out means it’s hard to open up your laptop. The guy next to me had it worse since the person in front of him reclined. He had to angle his computer up so it was usable.

Because the laptop is so close to you, you end up, as Heather Poole said, like a T-Rex. Think of little tiny arms that bend out at the elbow. I kept poking the guy next to me, so I had to lean in to the window to keep us from hitting each other.

United A320 Tight Personal Space

Then, there’s the seat. It seems like it should be comfortable enough, but it didn’t feel like it was deep enough. This may be real or it may just be because of the way you end up positioning your body when using a laptop. Since you can’t adequately open your laptop fully, you end up slinking down into the seat pushing your body forward. It puts more pressure on your hamstrings and it’s uncomfortable. That reminded me of Southwest’s new seats.

And of course, the pilots announced that we had a big headwind so it was going to be a long flight. Delightful.

The flight attendants were great on this flight and did several passes seeing if people needed water. Great work by the cabin crew.

Then, about an hour and a half before landing, wifi came to a screeching halt. Ok, not quite to a halt, but this popped up:

United Wifi Fail

It cut back in and out sporadically for the rest of the flight but it was never fast. At best, I was lucky to get an email sent within a minute. I ran several speed tests, and this was a middling one.

United Wifi Speedtest

Soon, we were on the ground and we taxied in not quite an hour late, just in time for me to hit Friday rush hour. Thinking back, I don’t know how bad the seat would have been if I had a tablet or phone instead of a laptop, but there just isn’t enough space to use a laptop in those seats. If you’re bringing a laptop, you’ll want to pay extra for Economy Plus.

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