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

Trip Reports, United

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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43 comments on “A Day With United Management: Getting There and Back (Trip Report)

  1. I was boarded on one of the few A319’s in the fleet with the new slimline seats out of EWR to LAS last weekend (I think there are only 3 total 319s modified so far). The seats are terrible uncomfortable. I am 6’3 215 and it feels like you are going to fall out of the seat. No support for your thighs or legs even with the more legroom and I was in in E+. I would avoid.

    Luckily that plan got a mechanical and we got on older A319 swapped.

  2. I had a similar experience with the coach seats on AA’s new A319s. The legroom, theoretically, is fine but the seat generally feels much more claustrophobic because of the way the tray table and screen are at the top of the seat. My return trip was on a CRJ and the seat pitch seemed luxurious in comparison. I had been excited to experience the A319, but 10 minutes into the flight I was wishing I was back on one of the MD-80s that usually run the route.

    1. Ditto the new seats on Southwest. I didn’t get the claustrophobic feeling, but those seats were horribly uncomfortable on the thighs after about an hour.

  3. The way airlines are shrinking personal space in coach should anyone really expect to do any work anymore? I guess like you said unless you can do what you need to on a smart phone or iPad type device, you might as well forget it.

  4. While streaming IFE would have been a nice enhancement to overhead monitors, the complete removal of existing overhead monitors on the A319/320 in favor of streaming without cabin-wide power to support personal devices is ridiculous. Particularly while wifi remains so spotty and slow. Admittedly, few of us ever craved the actual overhead content, but now it is a sorely missed distraction when you find yourself crammed into less comfortable E- seats with more limited space for laptops. Where will United’s race to the bottom end?

    1. great point. no overhead entertainment and no power to charge devices for the “streaming” content. which wasn’t work on the UA a319.

      United also forgets to mention that with the new seats they added another row.

    2. Didn’t United say a while ago they were keeping Channel 9 and would expand it to the whole fleet? The new configurations have no IFE, so of course no 9. The DirecTV; systems don’t have 9. Not a major issue by any means (especially compared to the loss of personal space), but does United know where they are going with all of this?

      1. Shane – They sure did say they were keeping Channel 9. That made a lot of UA fliers happy, but now it’s on less and less of the fleet. I would hope that they would work on some sort of way to get it on your own device, but I’m not holding my breath. I’d be surprised if they dedicated much resource to something like that.

  5. Hey Cranky! You had asked me about the seat comfort with the new Airbus seats…and I had mentioned I did not find them comfortable. Glad you were able to validate this for yourself. United does indeed continue its race to the bottom.

  6. Did they at least have the courtesy to leave Channel 9 on the new 319/320, or did they strip that out too?

    1. Eric – Channel 9 is gone. There is no IFE so they have no way to plug in. If only they could find a way to stream that to my own device as well…

      1. I flew a 777 and 767 last week. The 767 had Channel 9 audio available on the moving map option. (CDG-IAD)

        The crew said the 767 interior was brand new and reconfigured. So at least it’s there for use when IFE is avail- at pilot’s discretion of course.

  7. I noticed on United’s brand new 767 interior last week that the IFE touch screen was far more sensitive and responsive. Which is a good thing; the previous and some current ones have a slight lag time when navigating the screen, and require a heavier “push”, which can be felt on the seat back if the user is too forceful.

  8. I’ve seen other airlines put the seat back pocket on the top in netting, so it doesn’t just take up as much space.

    I know Boeing studies these things. (They’ll give you a bit of free stuff at the Future of Flight in Everett for 20 minutes of your time as a research guinea pig in a mock cabin..)

  9. I flew a UA 320 with the new seats last month (N415UA). I noticed the hard seat backs/pockets made it annoying whenever the person behind you took out the magazine or put it back. The motion translated directly into your back. The lack of cushions didn’t help either. On a night flight, I also noticed the reading lights didn’t align with the seats. My light shined on the head of the guy in front of me. I did like the hook on the side of the seat, I used it for my earphones. Not sure what else you could use it for.

  10. EEK, that same breakfast. I’ve had it nearly every week for the past two years. If someone can explain that sausage, I’d be very appreciative.

    BTW, it’s even on the flights to HNL/KOA/OGG/LIH. Why can’t they bring back some festive Hawaiian fun on those routes!

  11. Hmmm. Work, work, work, is that all you people know? You already seem to work 26 hours a day, seven says a week, all year, and possibly no vacation at all (the only industrial country in the world with two weeks vacation, if that, and unpaid). So why not, just for once, take the flight time, cooped up as you are, AND BLOODY RELAX AND DO NOTHING? Well, perhaps think a bit, which is sorely needed in your country…)

    1. If I’m all cooped up and unhappy, I’d rather get work done (if I can) then have time to relax while I can spread out and enjoy myself. (Instead of working on the ground, and attempting to relax in a space where I can’t.)

    2. Maxe: Everyone is too busy creating the illusion of productivity to stop and think about what they are doing. If they thought about what they were doing, the product would be better. If the smart guys at United shut off their laptops and “felt” the cabin or or stopped hiding behind their self determined importance and actually experienced the airline’s crappy service, they might figure out why it is such a wretched carrier

  12. New seats are two steps backwards for United.
    No bottom or leg support. Undoubtedly
    an engineer did not re-design the new magazine
    rack and tray table. Flew on a brand new 737
    with absolutely No entertainment function.
    If not for personal computer you would
    have to sit staring at the head in front of you.
    United is now making a profit yet still
    wants to make its passengers more uncomfortable.

  13. Aircraft type/version and seat choice are very important to me. Is there any airline that has more different types of aircraft and versions of aircraft than UA? Takes a lot of research to make a flight choice.

    Need to change planes is no fun. A while back, I wrote to UA, DOT, and OAG to complain about UA marketing/listing one-stop flights in the OAG and on its website where in fact there was a plane-change but the need for it hadn’t been shown in advance, OAG or website. These were not marketed or listed as change-of-gauge flights. [9 of 16 flights from DC area airports to LAS, month of April 2013; 24 of 31 flights to other destinations, 8 days in April 2013; 9 of 22 flights to various destinations, 15 days late June to mid-July 2013. UA had no explanation. Recent data suggests UA isn’t making as many plane changes for these flights and where is does require it, its website shows the data in advance. The OAG–no! If I were DOT, I’d throw the book at them everytime UA requires passengers to make a change but they haven’t been told in advance.

    Haven’t seen DOT move on this at all. Of course, WN is the world leader in one-stop flights and I wonder whether they are making passengers change planes enroute with no advance notice as well.

    Channel 9. I love it, but having it, is a hit or miss proposition. On a former CO craft, forget it. On a former UA craft, more often than not, even though the pilot could, no go! I really don’t understand these pilots but I just put it down as showing their insecurity.

    In fairness, on a recent LAS-EWR A320 flight, the wonderful crew had it on. Maybe it was because one of the crew sounded like he may have been a geography teacher in a former life what with his oft comment “For those of you on the right side, there’s….and for those of you on the left, there’s….” God bless him! We have a beautiful country to look at and appreciate, although I’m sure they may have been a few grumpy passengers thinking “Will he please shut up so I can sleep!”

    1. ANCJason – I wasn’t planning on writing about it. But for those who don’t know, Alaska has retaliated against Delta with a couple flights to Salt Lake from west coast cities. These to me weren’t a big deal. It’s utilization flying but it’s a very public gesture showing that Alaska is not backing down.

  14. Entertaining review to read. Do they have a policy of refunding internet fee if it cuts out/is no good, granted its only $9. Also the meal didn’t look too enticing to consume.

  15. Ya Southwest’s new seats are terrible. I flew from PIT to SLC with it and my back and legs were killing me. And I couldn’t even imagine how bad it would have been if the person in front of me reclined his seat. But luckily he didn’t. As a side note though, thank you Cranky for the recommendation on the cares harness. My 2.5 yr old loved it and I didn’t have to lug around a carseat.

    1. DesertGhost – No complaints from me on the ride. It took about an hour to the loop, but I wasn’t in a hurry. My only complaint is about the new Ventra card system they’re using. You can’t really buy a pass (other than a single ride) very easily anymore unless you get this new debit card thing. I did it and then instantly regretted it. You can’t just hand off a pass to a friend if it has credit on it anymore. So now I have this shiny card that’s not going to do me any good.

      1. Ventra sucks. However, the system will let you use any NFC enabled credit/debit card to as payment, eventually. The worst part is that, unless you are on a pass, the ride from O’Hare is now $5.00. They haven’t levied the airport surcharge at Midway for the time being.

  16. Cranky, I’m a new fan! Regarding wifi, I’m a Delta Diamond flyer, flying on three Delta flights a week. I have to give Delta high marks for it’s fleet-wide Wifi. Gogo is consistent and I rarely have connectivity or speed issues.

    Regarding seats: I’m a big guy, not huge but find that seat comfort is becoming an issue of anxiety for me. Along with the lack of space, seat cushion is almost non-existent and the length of seatbelts are too short…a 220 pound guy shouldn’t have to ask for a belt extension. I haven’t had to yet, but one more piece of Christmas pie and I might.

  17. Why do airlines continue to put uncomfortable seats on airplanes. With all this new million dollar technology, you would think they would care. Bottom line:

    THEY DONT CARE IF YOU ARE COMFORTABLE if you are paying for economy minus!!
    Isn’t that obvious?

  18. I can’t wait to hear more about your meetings with management on what they are “working on.” If their efforts on new endeavors are anything like the “work” they put in to “enhancing” their employees’ service attitudes, I think all hope is lost. I’m a 20 year loyal UA (inherited from CO) flyer. I go out of my way to fly UA (2 hour drive to LAS rather than taking DL out of my home airport, etc.), and it’s been nothing by misery since the merger. They have their hooks in me with my status, lifetime miles, mileage balance, United Club pass, MP Visa, but my trip yesterday finally convinced me to throw in the towel. I’ll be taking my business to a new carrier for 2014…now just need to figure out which one!

    1. Dale – There might be a random one-off widebody scheduled but not on my dates of travel and not in general anymore.

  19. I flew on UA A320 with slim seats from Newark to Miami last year and hated them.
    However after flying on UA B737 from Seattle to Newark couple weeks back I miss A320. At least it had some kind of legroom. B737 had probably 30″ pitch and slim seats (blue ones) felt even more uncomfortable. It was red eye flight which I consider a pure torture since it’s nearly impossible to recline without hitting somebody behind.

  20. Cranky Please please please interview some airline executives about seat comfort. As an earlier posted wrote quit hiding behind your staff and get your a$$ in a seat. it would be even better for you to interview them while you’re in the air. Not a short hop but a transcon. I get instantly pissed off when on AA transcends on a Bus321 they tell you to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight when you already feel like your back is tensing up

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