United Does a Quick Hop Well (Trip Report)

Trip Reports, United

You’ve already seen my posts on how the flight attendant training went in Houston, but I didn’t talk about how I actually got there. As you know from my last trip report, I was in Austin giving a speech. They had me busy on Wednesday and Friday, but I had nothing but time on Thursday. That, coincidentally, was the day United wanted to bring me to Houston. Since it’s only a short 30 minute flight away, this was an easy (but long) day trip to slot in. And the flights turned out to be surprisingly good.

Morning Sun Over Texas on United

United flies a mix of airplanes on this route, and I was hoping to try the new Embraer 175s. But with my timing, it turned out that I’d be flying on an Airbus both ways. I guess I shouldn’t complain about a mainline airplane on a 30 minute flight.

Lining Up to Board United in Austin

I got to the airport for my flight out at 545a and found crazy long regular security lines in the airport. It took me a bit to find the Pre Check line, but once I did, I was through quickly. I’m not sure why, but people lined up very early to board. Soon the gate agent announced it was a full flight and they wanted to check 10 to 15 bags. That got even more people standing in line. With only a laptop on me, I didn’t care and waited in a seat.

July 16, 2015
United 463 Lv Austin 654a Arr Houston/Intercontinental 756a
Austin (AUS): Gate 22, Runway 17L, Depart 2m Late
Houston/Intercontinental (IAH): Gate E2, Runway 26L, Arrive 7m Late
N454UA, Airbus A320-232, Continental Globe colors, ~90% Full
Seat 37A, Coach
Flight Time 33m

I haven’t flown United in a long time (been a year and a half), but the last time I flew a United Airbus it has just been outfitted with the slimline seats (which had gray seat covers then), and I didn’t like it. On this trip, United had originally put me in Economy Plus when booking me, but I moved myself back to a window in the next to last row so I could try the seat again. I had been told that these seats got a lot more comfortable when they were well-used, and they didn’t see as bad this time. Then again, a metal bench probably wouldn’t seem bad on a 30 minute flight.

United Slimline Airbus Seats

While the seat cushion itself didn’t bother me, the design of the high seatback pocket really makes me feel like I’m in a smaller space. It’s hard to describe it, but it has an impact.


Everyone was onboard and ready to go, but we pushed back a couple minutes late. Then we taxied out to the runway and parked. At that early hour, there was already flow control going on despite the great weather, and we had to sit for 13 minutes until it was our time to go.

We took off and headed toward Houston while I just read Hemispheres. I was really surprised that the crew came through and tried to do a full beverage service. With a flight time of 35 minutes, that seemed crazy. And sure enough, we were already below 10,000 feet on descent by the time they got to us. I didn’t need a drink, but the woman next to me ordered a ginger ale. They gave her the whole can and then came through and took it back from her just a couple minutes later. I’ll give them an A for effort on that one.

Misty Day on United A320

Once on the ground, it took awhile to taxi all the way around to our gate, and we ended up being a few minutes late. It was hot and humid in Houston (as always, I assume), and while sitting at the gate, I could see those air conditioning units working overtime (see the mist above). I hopped off and someone was there waiting to whisk me off to the training center, just a couple minutes away by car.

At the end of the day, we headed back to the terminal. Unfortunately with our timing, it was just late enough that I couldn’t make the 535p flight. So I had some time to kill until the 720p departure. I was surprised at how small the ticketing area for United seems to be in Houston. Then again, I guess much of the traffic is connecting anyway. I was even more surprised that at 5p on a Thursday, the Pre Check line was closed. Instead they had one of those goofy workarounds where you show your boarding pass and they let you keep your shoes on. You still have to remove your laptop though. And showing the electronic boarding pass to the agent before throwing it into the x-ray machine was a little chaotic.

Houston Closed Pre Check Line

I made it through and worked my way to the gate where I plugged in and caught up on email. Boarding was strange on this one in that they announced groups 1 and 2 but then nothing else. People just started piling on, so I did as well.

July 16, 2015
United 335 Lv Houston/Intercontinental 720p Arr Austin 816p
Houston/Intercontinental (IAH): Gate C23, Runway 15R, Depart 2m Early
Austin (AUS): Gate 18, Runway 17R, Arrive 4m Early
N818UA, Airbus A319-131, Continental Globe colors, ~99% Full
Seat 21F, Coach
Flight Time 28m

On this airplane, I kept my Economy Plus seat, which was the exit row on the window. Legroom here was great, though the little half-armrest thing is always awkward.

This flight appeared to be the employee shuttle with a bunch of pilots and flight attendants onboard, including one in the middle next to me. As I sat down, I realized that I didn’t have anything to keep me entertained. I had read Hemispheres and didn’t have anything else to read. And that’s when I found it.

United, like many airlines, has streaming movies and TV shows stored on a server onboard. And United, like others, provides much of it for free. But what I didn’t realize is that on United, you can start streaming when you’re sitting at the gate. I think it turns on once the door closes. So as soon as that happened, I flipped on an episode of Veep on my phone (I’ve never seen that show outside of an airplane). It was fast and it was a great picture. I was almost done with it by the time we finished taxiing around the airport and got in the air. Having that service on the ground was awesome.


This time, the crew didn’t do a full beverage service and instead just walked through with a tray of water. That’s what I would have expected on a flight this short.

It was another quick up and down kind of flight. We landed, and I hopped off to head back to my hotel. United did a good job on both of these flights.

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42 comments on “United Does a Quick Hop Well (Trip Report)

    1. I don’t think Brett has a copy editor. As is the case with most blogs (especially blogs where one person writes 98% of the articles) the writer edits his own content.

  1. I agree with the positioning of those seatback pockets setting off feelings of lack of space and near claustrophobia. I think much of it is that those pockets are right around head height when one is sitting, and with the angle of the seat back in front of you (roughly: / ) they are aimed almost at your chest level when you are sitting.

    I’m no scientist, but I would guess that from an evolutionary/instinctual safety thing, we have very deep wiring that reflexively tells us that anything pointed at our heads or chests is very bad, and elicits a fight or flight response in the right situations. Also, the pockets limit the ability to lean forward some, if you need to do that, and they reduce the (perceived or real) head room and space in front of your head.

  2. The relatively tiny check-in areas in hubs without enormous local markets is surprising to me too. Having recently moved to Philly, I’m struck by how small the US Airways check-in areas and particularly the security checkpoints are for such a busy terminal airside. Notable in comparison to ORD, which has enormous check-in areas and security checkpoints for both AA and UA. Says something about the relative roles of the hubs.

    1. i have a different theory on shrinking check in counters. i think they are getting smaller for two primary reasons.

      first, we are doing most if not all of the check in work ourselves, including paying for luggage, making seat assignments, upgrading, printing boarding passes, etc. on our phones, apps and computers.

      second, for those who aren’t quite as tech savvy, the kiosks in the check-in lines allow people to do all of those things faster than they could by simply talking with an agent and also provide quicker options for upgrades, wait lists, standby, etc.

      i haven’t been to a counter to do anything but drop a bag in eons and that’s not really the “check in counter” per se as most carriers have a “bag dropoff only” section at their hub airports. in fact, i can’t imagine why even pseudo-frequent travelers would need to get in a check in line unless it was to rebook or deal with a delay, cancellation or some other snafu.

  3. I feel that gradually the seats are becoming smaller, aisles are getting narrower, and over head bins are shrinking. Passenger comfort is going by the wayside. Charges for everything “extra”. Then airlines bombard you with emails touting specials for destinations and bonus mileage points (which don’t buy much). Where is this trend leading to?

    1. I disagree. Overhead bins are actually improving with the new narrow-body bins on Boeing’s planes mimicking the wide-body model. UA is replacing the bins on the narrow-body Airbus fleet to make them accommodate more bags, as well. Your comment about seats and aisles getting narrower is counterintuitive…the planes aren’t shrinking so both seats and aisle getting narrower can’t be true…at least on narrow-bodies. I will agree that pitch has been shrinking on the narrow-bodies (to squeeze in extra rows), and width on the wide-bodies is also shrinking (to squeeze in an extra seat). But overall, I think the airlines are doing a better job at trying to make things more enjoyable with wifi, entertainment, and enhanced seating options (for a cost).

      1. Sdt111 is correct. The seats are getting smaller as are the aisles. This is being done to fit more seats in and the aisles must also get smaller. Airlines have also started shifting more seats to the back of planes to allow choice and premium seats up front for more money, with the back of plane becoming even more sardine-like. The planes don’t actually shrink, just our comfort levels.

        1. Um, no. Not for narrowbodies, at least: 737s and 757s have always had six across in coach, as did 727s before them, and all three have the same fuselage diameter. Making those seats and aisles narrower doesn’t get any more seats in, so airlines aren’t doing it. Ditto for Airbus narrowbodies (though they always have been slightly wider allowing wider seats). And ditto for 767s, 747s, and all Airbus widebodies: they all have the same seat and aisle width they’ve always had in coach. DC-9-derived aircraft all continue to have the same fuselage diameter and 5-across seating they always have, so they too have the same seat and aisle width they always have.

          The seatbacks have definitely gotten thinner and the space between seats smaller to accommodate *rows* which definitely makes the seats less comfortable, but that has nothing to do with the aisles or the size of the seats themselves.

          The only planes for which this is correct are the 787 and the 777: many airlines are ordering their new 787s and 777s and retrofitting existing 777s to get an extra seat across (9 compared to the designed 8 in the 787 and 10 compared to the designed 9 in the 777). Airlines are indeed doing this by making seats and aisles narrower, which does make the width considerably less comfortable.

          It is certainly true that coach has gotten gradually less comfortable over the years due to increased load factors, decreased service, and decreased pitch, but seat size and aisle width has nothing to do with it.

          1. Re Alex Hill’s comment: The original 747 (-100) had a 9-seat-across (3-4-2), rather than the current 10-seat-across (3-4-3) configuration. I remember when, sometime before 1978, my airline switched to the 10-seat configuration, because it made a huge difference in passenger comfort. As for seats not changing width: although the number of seats across the breadth of mosy a/c may not have changed, the usable space for pax bottoms and shoulders has changed as airlines have tinkered with seat (armrest, console, etc) and outboard-a/c- wall designs.

  4. I take MSY-IAH-SAT return twice a year and never get any beverage service on the IAH-SAT leg in Economy -, not even water. Perhaps there is more competition with Southwest on the HOU/IAH-AUS leg?

    1. That is odd… I am out of SAT and fly UA, so I do a fair business with SAT-IAH-wherever-IAH-SAT, and it seems to me that they do offer at least the water on every flight where there isn’t weather. Occasionally it is full service, but usually just water(and usually when it is full it is perfunctory at best as it goes on obviously).

      It seems to be that CO used to do a higher frequency of full service on that leg, but that doesn’t exactly fit with an Airbus being where Cranky got full service…

  5. For your return flight, did you check in at Terminal E? That’s what the picture above looks like. Most folks for domestic flights check in at Terminal C (or Terminal B for regional flights), both of which have much larger check-in areas.

    1. Dave – Aha, that must have been it. I even asked our United escort if this was the only check in area. She had never been to Houston before. I asked the line-minder and she said it was, but then again, she wasn’t very friendly. But that makes a lot of sense.

      1. Yeah, I definitely agree with Dave. Don’t know why the line-minder told you that. Here is a link to an announcement from CO when they opened the Terminal C check in area a few years back… as of 2011 it says they have 115 check-in positions with 56 self-service kiosks. There is also a picture that doesn’t do it justice (only really shows the bay of stations in the middle of the room, not the perimeter), but suffice it to say that it is a pretty big operation.


        1. Thanks for the extra info UAviator. I agree, though really that line-minder was kind of angry in general. We asked her about Pre Check being closed, and she said “Yeah, but what do you care, you’re employees anyway, right?’ Of course, we weren’t, but our PR contact was there with us. We had no badges or any identifying markings on us, so it was just an odd interaction all around.

  6. I fly out of AUS a bit for work, and it always seems like the early morning is the busiest time there. I’ve had lines stretching all the way through the terminal. They do seem to move pretty quickly. I’m not sure why it’s always like that in the morning at AUS.

  7. The picture looks like Terminal E which is usually used by aircraft’s that have returned from an international airport and widebodies. The United check-in areas in Terminal B and E are small. The check-in area in Terminal C is huge.

  8. It sounded dumb to try and do a bev service in coach for that short of flight. I don’t think passengers would expect anything and would be annoyed (I would) for a hurried service. I was thinking unless the F/A’s work short flights every time they work, they would not have it down to do a quick tray of juice and water like in Hawaii, and then you end it with a tray of water on the return which is how it should have been on the outbound.

  9. It looks like I’m on a new United EMB-175 next week so I’ll let you know how it is…

    Back in the ’80s when I was a “suitcase kid” flying between Detroit and Cleveland to visit my divorced parents I always found it interesting how different airlines that flew that sector over the years handled the beverage service…Republic was hit or miss but usually a full service when they did a service, Northwest always had a full beverage service, Eastern usually did something (tag-on fight from their MCI-DTW service so was always a light load) and then Continental usually didn’t do anything. Amazed I remember trivial matters like this…

  10. Regarding the streaming IFE on your device, did you know about in advance or stumble upon it? I think it’s great and it has worked well for me, but I wonder how many people know about it or end up missing out since they don’t know it’s an option.

      1. Thanks Brett. It’s been a few months since my last United flight. The pamphlets weren’t yet in the seat pockets and I thought a lot of people would miss out.

  11. I used to do the ATL-BHM jump pretty regularly. It was booked at just under an hour, but DL usually did a full beverage service on the leg.

    One trip I’ll never forget was on a DL 727 though. We were delayed on departure from BHM due to weather. Finally, we get the all clear and take off. Pilot comes on and says “Sorry about the delay. I’ve got plans in Atlanta and I’ll bet you do too. I’m going to leave the seat belt signs on, ask the flight attendants to cancel their service and remain seated while I put the throttles to the metal and get us in on time.”

    Flight time that day was 18 minutes.

  12. *This time, the crew didn’t do a full beverage service and instead just walked through with a tray of water. That’s what I would have expected on a flight this short.*




    1. I also miss the days of British Midland. Every flight offered hot meal service with a pre-meal beverage. I worked in the industry at the time and used to joke with my colleagues from BD that they would probably do 6 meal services on their pending transatlantic flights. :)

  13. Lived in Houston back in the 80’s and your right about the heat and humidity. Had a couple of days a year where you could open a window and be comfortable. Would be a very difficult city to live in without A/C. You were lucky too in that you didn’t have to drive into the city. That time of the day your talking a minimum 1.5 hour drive to go about 20 miles.

  14. I took a quick hop from AMS-LGW earlier this year on British Airways, about an hour and 15 minute flight or so.

    I was absolutely astounded that in the 30-40 minutes of usable time they did full drink service, and food service (with my choice of “crisps or a biscuit”.)

    Not only that, but over the channel was some of the worst (consistent) turbulence I’ve ever encountered, the type that would have our U.S. FAs order in their seats for the duration.

    I declined the drink.

    1. My favorite inflight service was on GF (back when it was owned by 4 governments, not 1) in economy from AUH to BAH. In a 45 minute flight, most of which was taken up avoiding the Qatari mainland, the cabin crew managed a complete breakfast service with a separate fruit course and offers of champagne or Carlsberg.

  15. I hate the high seatback pockets because I can’t put anything in them, no kindle, no bottle of water nothing!

  16. Cannot believe all the comments over what one is served! So many think a beverage service is the most Important thing in the job of a flight crew!! Shows how self is most important. SAD a passenger’s SAFETY is the main reason a flight attendant is even on board, otherwise a Company could cut labor cost and not have flight attendants! Buy yourself a bottle of water before boarding! Just hope you are not on a flight that has an emergency!!! Flight Attendants are on board per the FAA to SAVE one’s A–. Passengers on a BUS do not need Flight Attendants. WHY? Not a safety concern as is at 35,000 feet! Get a life!

    1. I have to disagree. Originally the stewardesses were nurses for medical reasons but since the 1970’s their main job is to wait on passengers and look cute for the male business travelers (especially on Asian airlines such as Singapore’s national airline). If their main aim was safety they would have big, burly men doing the job so the disabled could be carried to safety (yes, wheelchair users do fly) in case of a crash or fire and subdue unruly passengers. Most stewardesses can barely pick up a dinner plate, certainly not a 300 plus pound disabled passenger or subdue someone of that size if he is unruly.

      1. I think that the truth is somewhere in between. The safety aspect of their job is important, and I’m glad that they’re trained for routine (keep the aisles clear!) and non-routine (evacuate!) safety duties.

        But it’s certainly true that they spend 90% of their time on passenger service, rather than safety. For this reason, I have no patience with using “Our first priority is safety!” as an excuse for bad service. The two are seldom truly in conflict.

        1. For far too many crew members, the “I’m here primarily for your safety” line has become a crutch and an excuse for laziness and poor service. Many crew members aren’t even capable of delivering a bare minimum anymore – that jumpseat is just too comfortable. On a recent AA from LAX to BOS, the lead FA spent 2.5 hours of the flight perched on her jumpseat watching movies on one of the Samsung Galaxy tablets meant for F passengers. If you wanted anything, such as a drink refill, you had to get up and go to her, because she had headphones on and couldn’t hear call buttons.

          Not exactly the “Going for Great” experience the airline is always crowing about. You see similar bad apples on United. The ones who go above and beyond are fantastic, but increasingly rare.

      2. Not sure on which airlines you are flying but today you are more likely to get big burly 200-300 women flight attendants ignoring you…especially on US and UA. The day of the “cute” flight attendant is just that “in the day”…for U.S: carriers.

    2. Most people have more than one task or primarily duty in their job requirement, myself included.

      Just because the safety aspect is of paramount importance, (most utilized during takeoff and landing) doesn’t mean the other portion of the job, (service duty during cruise) can’t be examined or discussed, or that it makes the safety portion and the FA’s physical and mental skills any less appreciated.

  17. When you report on these, often very mundane things, and try to remember a little history…how did things get so screwed up, if you think like I do, things have?

    The boarding process today. How we’ve come to our carry-on vs. checked bag situation. How we think we and are bags now travel securely.

    Have we come up with the ideal ways to do things, so much better than what we used to have? Is boarding today better than it was 20, 30 years ago? Is the way we handle all our bags, checked and carry-on better than it used to be? Is our system for security actually efficient and making us safe? Really?

    If someone told you 20-30 years ago how things would evolve into, would you have said, wow, that would be great, terrific? I can’t believe you would have said that.

    Doesn’t it seem to you we are spinning our wheels in so many ways. Is this rocket science? If we had a Cranky Flier blog years ago, I trust we may have gotten a travel experience much better than we have today.

    1. I think the questions you chose all have answers that clearly, things were better 20-30 years ago. But the affordability of air travel and thus the ability of a large segment of the middle class to get out and see the world is also much, much better than it was 20-30 years ago (in an era of much higher inflation-adjusted fuel prices). Keeping costs down to meet that demand is one of the major drivers of the decline in standards of air travel. We get what we pay for in some sense. Though there are certainly drawbacks and certainly things the airlines could do better, on the whole, I’ll take the trade we have.

  18. Interesting that you mention a flight that short. I have done ORD-MKE, which the pilot said was the shortest flight in AA’s (or was that UA’s?) network… Guessing he was only referring to flights on mainline metal, not regionals, but the flight was 30 or 40 min door to door, and GCMap quotes it at 63 miles, so ignoring traffic and love letters or steel bracelets from IL/WI’s finest, one could have driven the route faster.

  19. Flight attendants have ALWAYS been professionals, and there primarily for your safety, but my, how things have changed! I used to fly Southwest a lot back in the days when they were (seemingly) trying to attract big-spending MCPs to their flights, and their FAs all had huge hair and hot pants. Thank the Aviation Gods those days are long past! At least now FAs are allowed to be professionals and aren’t forced to be window dressing on the side. I take that back — they’re still there for safety AND show, it’s just that the visual part is more tasteful these days.

    By the way, the best combination of professionalism combined with cheerfulness and friendliness I’ve experienced in recent years has been on United Express flights operated by Shuttle America. As some others have noted, their E-170/75s seem a lot less cramped and stressful than most mainline flights these days.

  20. JayB: Back in the old says–70s, early 80s–we had suitcases and you couldn’t get those in the bins because they weren’t bins but open shelves. The invention of rollerboard changed everything. We also boarded from the rear of the aircraft. In 40 years of flying we haven’t sped up boarding much because we bring more stuff aboard and have a non-logical system of boarding. Oh, but the planes weren’t so full… hmmm

    AMS-BRU in an F28 back in the 90s on CityHopper, full beverage service and lunch in 30 min of flying!

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