United Looks to Improve the International Travel Experience . . . in Coach

Continental, United

One of the things that bothers me the most about United is its widely varying international travel experience in coach depending upon the airplane. The ultimate insult is coach on the 747, and new CEO Jeff Smisek knows it. He is apparently committing to fixing the product and bringing it up to this century’s standards.

The best international experience you can have in coach on United is if you get on one of the handful of 777s that have been reconfigured. These airplanes have brand new seats with full audio/video on demand for each person. It’s probably not much different than what you would expect on most airlines today. The old 777s and the 767s are a step down. The older seats do have personal screens but the movies are just looping and not on-demand. That’s not great and certainly not up to current standards, but it’s not awful either.

Then there’s the 747.

United 747 Economy

It’s probably not fair to use this picture from my 747 flight a couple weeks ago because even that old interior is outdated compared to what United has done on all its other 747s. (This particular airplane just made its last flight for United back to the desert.) But things aren’t that much better. United still only has overhead screens on this airplane, which it uses on some of the longest routes in its network. Want to fly for 14 hours to Sydney from LA? This is what you’ll get. It’s barebones, and it’s really the kind of product you would expect on a third world airline and nobody else these days. So how is it still flying?

United likes to put the 747 on its longest routes that have a lot of low fare demand. If you’re flying in a premium cabin, you’ll get a nice new flat bed, but it’s the back of the bus where United packs people in for cheap. The result is that coach passengers are rarely pleased with the product and it makes the airline a choice of last resort for people flying somewhere United uses a 747, if they know better.

Fortunately, Smisek knows this is true and he’s going to fix it. He told Australian Business Traveller that United would upgrade its 747s one way or another.

The back of the product on the 747 that United flies to Australia is not an acceptable level of product. And I know that, I recognise that. But United on its own didn’t have the money to invest in that product. Now (with the United-Continental merger) it does, and we will.

Oh man, that’s good to hear. Maybe we’ll finally get a consistently good hard product in the back of the bus on United’s international flights. That would be excellent, though I guess I should wait until I actually see it before giving too much praise. At least they’re talking the talk finally. It’s good to see that someone understands the importance of consistency over there. (And not consistently bad.)

Get Cranky in Your Inbox!

The airline industry moves fast. Sign up and get every Cranky post in your inbox for free.

54 comments on “United Looks to Improve the International Travel Experience . . . in Coach

  1. Not to be cranky, but when I saw the title of the post I thought you had some inside scoop on more details than what has been discussed for weeks on FT.

  2. Unfortunately, this is pretty typical of the United brand since the late 1990’s. Variations in the 737 family (Shuttle vs non) A320 (Ted v non) 757(PS v non) 767/777 (high density v 3 class, upgraded or old) and a checkerboard of 747 configs have been the ‘norm’ for a long time. The only type that I can think of that hasn’t been tinkered with is the A319. The New Regime has its work cut out to try and figure out just what type of product it wants to offer and standardize this hodge-podge into one consistent product.

    1. Even SQ has product variations, ie SIN-SYD has two different business products on the route, Qantas has some variations and there are no doubt more. I agree to a certain extent but p.s. and Ted were / are marketed as separate products. Long haul Y class is a Muah-mash though, and will take quite a while to get consistent throughout.

  3. I’m unable to find the link to the article or PR that first mentioned this (and I recall that it came <24hrs after DL announced similar upgrades for its 747 coach cabins) but if my memory is correct, UA's timetable for the 747 upgrades extended out to at least 2015 -2016. So, I think we can file this one under "lip service"..

    1. There was no PR. There were minor upgrades announced awhile ago but that was different. This looked like it was in a conversation down in Australia.

  4. At least they’re talking the talk finally. It’s good to see that someone understands the importance of consistency over there. (And not consistently bad.)

    Finally? Wow. We’re slowly, I hope coming out of this recession from the past 4 years! Prior to that, the airlines were themselves coming out of bankruptcies and the affects of 9-11-01. It’s been a horrible decade for airlines. For the most part, airlines are making a profit off the backs of employees sacrifices, downsizing and outsourcing. Improved technology takes big bucks. I’m all for a better product to give to the passengers, but I hope Mr Smisek also invests in his employee groups who took huge cuts to make this airline fly through the past decade. And, the merger will cost millions as well.
    According to the web, they have 24 747’s operating. That’s almost SIX THOUSAND video on demand that will be needed for these old aircraft. Not cheap.

  5. Voice from the peanut gallery: Give me the cheapest fare on a safe plane. I am able to go for 14 hours without canned entertainment projected on a screen. The interior of the 747 pictured looks like a fine place to spend that period of time to get halfway around the world.

    1. Take the 14 hour flight and see how you feel after landing in Sydney. I now pay extra to fly through Asia than have to use United.

  6. I wonder if Delta has been hitting them hard with their brand new 777 LR’s. Between Qantas (brand new A380’s), V Australia (brand new 773’s), and Delta… I’m sure I could find a decent fare on a great, modern aircraft, without even looking at United.

  7. It is a shame that CO has taken on the giant but desperately poor UA. I’m afraid all of the upgrading and paint needed to make their merger complete will bankrupt the entire carrier before they have time to come up to industry standards. I do wish them luck as CO was part of my history when I was a flight attendant for their predecessor, Trans Texas Airways!

    1. I hope that the culture that Gordon Bethune put in place will continue. Excluding the hard assets, the best thing to come to the new United from Continental will be the culture of the product. Continental has been consistent (albeit boring) whereas United is all over the place. It’ll take a bit of time, but 2015-2016 seems a bit too long. They should pull that 747 out, upgrade it, then rotate the rest of the fleet out for upgrades.

      1. 2015-2016 does seem too long; they might as well wait a few more years to just retire the 747s. Then again, who knows when they will actually get the 787 and A350.
        Also (mostly @Crissy) watch out since some international carriers (Thai comes to mind) have aircraft that are no better than these 747s.

  8. I recently flew coach SFO/FRA on a 777 and FRA/SFO on a 747. UA’s problems go beyond the aircraft as the flight experience plus aircraft is what leaves an indelible mark on the customer. As a million+ mile flyer on UA I expect poor or mediocre entertainment–and UA doesn’t let me down. But the service in coach has reached new lows. I was hoping the drink cart would offer passengers an opportunity to enjoy a refreshment before the mystery dinner was served, but no. The flight attendant took my drink request and another attendant put a meal on my tray. They were never seen again until they picked up the dinner. Then they came by for duty free sales and were not seen for 8 hours or so until the meal service prior to landing. UA seems to think we long-time and loyal flyers will stick with them. Maybe for short flights but for international flights I plan to switch to an international carrier.

  9. A/V in UA 747 Coach doesn’t seem very different from Lufthansa’s 747.. awful! Maybe Star Alliance carriers can get a volume discount on better coach A/V in 747s..

    1. Have to agree. Despite all the hype of Star bring the best alliance, the product has been middling at best, with the exception of Asiana (probably best airline I’ve flown). South African, Thai, Turkish, Lufthansa – nothing but overhead screens on their tired old Airbuses, and rude service to boot. Granted, these were mostly on routes to/from India, which usually get the worst equipment and crews, it seems, but still, very poor experiences.

  10. The best thing about UA is that you can usually buy your way out of the misery of economy by purchasing an Economy Plus seat. At least you get a bit more legroom for your trip. I hope the Continental culture wears off on UA, because I find their employees are often on the arrogant side after years of poor treatment by subpar management.

  11. I’m booked on 931 next Friday, which is currently showing the new configuration 777. I’ve long since not given a toss about AV, preferring to work or sleep if I can. However, I have actively avoided the UA 747’s, having made a round trip (LHR-SYD) in one of them several years ago (probably my first UA experience). The only exception to this being an award flight in F which was, thankfully, more than bearable.

    Still not getting this love for CO though……..

  12. AAaaamen to that, Bobber. We just returned from LA to SE Asia and back. Torture would be kinder. Of course, this is coming off our sparkling experiences with Vietnam Airlines and China Airlines so the differences were stark. UA may be poor but their “bedside manners” stink. All this is aside from having our knees in our chests and our be-hinds flattened from the hard seats. We intend to go elsewhere the next international flight we take. UA is going to get poorer if it doesn’t upgrade to expect human passengers.

  13. I remember the first time I flew on one of those “new” 777 jets, oddly, from LAX to IAH back in 1998 and I thought having a personal screen and even having the films loop was heaven! It wasn’t until a trip to London on Virgin in 2002 (when unfortunately the screens didn’t even work) that I got to “experience” personal screens.

  14. After many trips to the US on UA (averaging 3/year the last few years, and either Prem Exec or 1K), I tired of UA’s single projector “entertainment system”. Because I now teach in SFO at Macworld each January, I wrote to Apple’s Steve Jobs about the poor UA service and asked if he could help. After that, Apple introduced the iPad with enough battery power and memory to last the entire 14 hour trip. Thanks, Steve ;-)

    Seriously, we stay with UA because it still has the best FF program for our needs, as well as onward connections to the US east coast, cf. QF/AA, as well as Delta/V Australia.

    Its prices are consistently better than its competitors in coach (we get EcoPlus as part of our FF status) and we always order special meals. 14 hour flights need lots of pax planning; I expect safety and timeliness from an airline when travelling coach, not comfort. That is my responsibility for the money I paid. In Biz class, that’s another story. BTW, even travelling UA PS Flyer biz class service, I rarely now use their personal videos, still preferring my iPad and GoGo inflight internet connection.

  15. ………………..”it’s really the kind of product you would expect on a third world airline and nobody else these days”

    ………….when will people get around to realizing that the US mainline carriers ARE third world airlines? Most airline bloggers/writers are US-centric, and somehow can’t shed the notion that the mainline/major airline travel experience in the US is, bar none, the worst in the world.

    1. I really have to disagree with this – airlines in the US vary, and aren’t the best, but they are by far not the worst. Recently I have flown transatlantic on DL (generally good), LH (usually alright) and UA (not so good). Really depends on the specific airline, and overall I would say that they are about average with most of the world. Domestic you don’t have much of a choice, but again, they usually aren’t too bad.
      If nothing else, they are safe, which cannot be said for all the real ‘third world’ airlines in Africa, south Asia or the middle east.

      1. Fred, go around the world to the other three major mainline carrier markets. Nobody can make the argument that the US has better service/products than Asia: Cathay, Singapore, ANA, Korean, Asiana, Air New Zealand, Qantas, Dragonair, Thai, China Airlines, etc. etc. etc. all have US airlines beaten in just about every category possible. Then look to the Middle East….goes without saying for Emirates, Qatar and Ethiad. And how about Europe? British is great, and particularly eats United and American’s lunch in the premium classes. Ditto with Virgin, Swiss, Lufthansa and SAS. Iberia sucks, and I haven’t flown Alitalia, KLM and Air France in ages.

        US mainline airlines are the butt of jokes in every corner of the world except in the US, where people are stuck without other acceptable mainline options. Equipment that is as old as dinosaurs (with the exception of Continental), highly inconsistent products across all aircraft, very late inception of AVOD and entertainment options, no food, surly gate agents, inconsistent (and often angry) flight attendants and terrible premium classes (filled to the brim with op-ups and cheapo mileage upgrades) are staples of the US mainline airline market. Long live Soutwest, Jetblue and Virgin America…

  16. AA isn’t far behind with there long-haul 767s. 11 hours from EZE-JFK on one (I was in business) and noticed coach (this trip was the only one I’ve ever been in business for) had no personal screens just the old fashioned overhead projected stuff. I had this heavy giant thing that looked like a laptop with some movies on it that they insisted on collected an hour before arrival I guess because they were scared of business class passengers steeling it?
    UA-CO has will have a major consistency problem especially when they start integrating their fleets. In June flew roundtrip on Continental’s 737 from DEN-EWR with pay to view DirectTVs with something like 95 channels (by far the most I’ve seen for LiveTV) .
    Flying UA LGA-DEN tomorrow on a A320, not expecting anything although looks like it has overhead video. Thats better than the Ex-NWA Airbus A319 or A320 in that department which I flew on the DEN-JFK route to come east, but I did get to try and used GoGo from because of the Google Chrome Promotion. Flew a Delta 737 on this same route exactly a year ago and it had the In-Seat Video and GoGo.
    The new Delta has the same problem still with consistency! Although much more of their fleet has at least something compared to lots of United’s with nothing.

  17. I’ve flown the LA to Sydney route with United quite a few times, and for memory it’s usually a 747. The thing is, a great deal of the time the flight is almost empty, perhaps under one quarter utilised. I’m not sure why they operate that equipment, unless my flights have been coincidental…

    1. As a flight attendant working those flights I have to say I have never worked an LAX/SFO-SYD that was almost empty. These flights are almost always at or near capacity. I think most of us fa’s are sympathetic to the lack of amenitys on the flights but like I said on an earlier post, I think the quality of the onboard product is cyclical and United is unfortunatly at the end of this cycle but will soon have new or refreshed products on the line. I wish we had fountains of money to offer all the new bells and whistles but with ticket prices lower now than what they were when I started flying 20+ years ago, US carriers just can’t keep up with all the newest gadgets. Just my opinion. If you were on one of my flights I would see to it that it was one of your best ever.

      1. folks like this can ultimately mean 100x more to the customer experience and one’s opinion of an airline than any AV gizmo ever will. godspeed Joe, keep fighting the good fight!

  18. @Daniel Rose: Your “quarter empty flights” must have been taken some years ago. In the past six flights I’ve taken on the same route either way (UA840/839) it has been packed in all classes. Very few empty seats. These flights were taken end of 2009 and 2010. Have another scheduled in two weeks, but I predict it will also be packed, even though it’s the end of Aussie school holidays.

  19. Forget fancy video screens and all that jazz – I can bring an iphone, or fill in your gadget here, to help pass the time. What UA and all the other legacies really need to fix is the pitch in the back of the bus. I mean, come on, when I fly JetBlue I get 34 inches, and even on Southwest you get at least 32. To me, anything less than 32 inches on flights longer than 4 hours is just plain inhumane. So, when I do fly long-haul international, if you’re 31 or less, I’m booking away from you, regardless of what fancy schmancy electronics you have (which by the way sometimes take away leg room by putting a box under the seat).

  20. Ironic you post this now… I just flew to and from Sydney on United (LAX-SYD and then SYD-SFO) on their “glorious” 747. En route there, their overhead movies were all chick flicks, and en route back, all overly masculine ones. Terrible either way. Let alone the food. I was lucky, at least, to be in the 2x4x2 section, and our flight over was underbooked so some people had whole rows to themselves… but still… YUCK! At least I’ll be on a 767 (or 777, I forget) to Dubai next month.

    1. … and the experience was so bad I couldn’t even finish my comment!

      I just flew SFO-SYD on one of those 747s, and it was one of the worst experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve flown that route many times on UA, and it somehow gets worse each time. I was in Economy Plus, so at least the seat pitch is merely very uncomfortable, but not inhumane as it is at the back of the bus. The condition of the plane is terrible: stained upholstery and carpeting, multiple visible tears in both.

      The service was terrible (so obviously I wasn’t on Joe B’s flight), and it must be said that the food service was disgusting. Not that I’m looking for awesome food in Economy Plus, but I’m hoping for something that could be imagined to be approaching edible. The attendants didn’t bother to check the lavatories, which resulted in the trash overflowing less than halfway through the flight and never being addressed.

      I only flew UA this time because I was burning miles. When I checked fares, Qantas was less expensive; between new planes and the usual Qantas level of service, it would have to be a significantly better experience. I’ve been switching my domestic flights away from UA, and now that SFO-SYD isn’t the wasteland that it used to be, it’s time to give other airlines a shot for international too.

  21. Old metal that US flagship carriers are using is definitely a problem. Innovation for them usually means how to reduce cost and rip passengers. I flew recently SWISS, they even have a an iPod connector to watch and listen over the seat in coach.

    The ‘f*** off’ attitude of many UA flight attendants however has nothing to do with the equipment.

    If there wouldn’t be a US government to protect those international flights, they would have it even harder to compete

  22. United from US to Australia is the most miserable experience you can find flying. I only went because I could go for free with miles. I just did this roundtrip route in November 2011 and I can report NO improvements have been made since this article was written when the CEO claimed improvements were on the way. The seats are significantly smaller than United domestic flights. I almost wasted $175 or so to upgrade to economy plus and I’m glad I didn’t. I saw no improvement in space and would have been stuck next to a screaming baby with that seat. The absence of personal entertainment units were unacceptable. Take an iPad. I couldn’t believe they played these violent movies with explosions part of the way. I was trying to sleep a few rows back from the large center section tv on the back of the bathrooms and I kept waking up to the large, bright flames – crazy they would show this. Worst thing was the rude flight attendants that BULLDOZED passengers down the aisle. I was stepped on TWICE with no apology by flight attendants running up and down the aisle for no reason. There is absolutely nowhere to stand if you need to get something out of your bag. So if you want to quickly lean out in the aisle to retrieve something , watch out! Don’t use miles to go with United. It’s not worth it! Pay to fly Virgin or Air New Zealand.



  25. June 2013 SFO to SYD and still no improvements to these flying crap traps. I booked through Air NZ and didn’t realize that the deal of a flight
    (I thought I’d scored) was actually a United airplane (after inquiring it is the crap 747’s still doing this leg)
    United is sliding it’s cheap ticket offerings among it’s Star Partners websites so it shows as the partners flights and the only indication that it’s a United flight is the flight number on the itinerary. Cheeky buggers! Screw you United. Never again.

  26. My daughter just flew to LA from Melbourne via Sydney. Still the old 747 with flight staff who are not friendly. Why would you bother flying with this con and get lousy service as well for 14 hours?
    Never again will we choose UA. Smisek was full of Exec bull chat in 2011. You can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all the people all the time!

  27. October 2013 – SOS!!! – I loved old Continental, flying UA is like going to old bad smelling motel, no wonder crew is miserable – any of you would like to work in one? They people just like us, it mast feel pretty bad flying something that looks and smell like worse airplane in poor Africa.

    1. As a former f/a, who quit in the 80’s when the industry rapidly went south, i have only flown on Continental when possible. This is both for friendly service, and city pairs that work best. When United took over, I found myself regularly lodging complaints because I have never in my life witnessed such horrible behavior on behalf of flight crews. Additionally, I find the “chicken bus”seats in the back of coach to result in cruel and unusual punishment.I complained so frequently, once along with several PAX because we actually watched a crew member assault a PAX in the aisle, that I was offered compensation in the form of free air miles, a recently published United book, and candy. I said ‘ thanks, but I would prefer you have United’s problems fixed instead”.

  28. This news is from 2011 and I am currently boarding a Sydney – San Francisco outdated b747, I did not expect this for a 13h flight as of November 2013.

    Seriously, it is just as the picture, so united just did talk and no action? This may just make me stop fly with united whatsoever,…

    Third world, we’ll indeed

  29. So a few years down the line – Smisek still hasn’t corrected what is the worst economy product over the Pacific – the United 747 economy experience.

    Quite simply, this is ghetto flying. You are spot on when you describe this experience as typical of a third world airline. What is new to the story is Smisek being a filthy liar – nothing has been done to fix this problem. They also steep up the fares on 777 and 787 compared to the 747 so you’re forced into the crap experience where corporate policies come into play.

    Let’s not give them too much credit for their “Business First” – frankly, that is not comparable to other Star Alliance carriers such as Asiana, ANA and obviously not as good as Singapore.

    Smisek lied – he gave lip service, then didn’t get the job done – just like the botched merger with Continental.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Cranky Flier