Flying the Friendly But Broken Skies to Washington (Trip Report)

Trip Reports, United

To say I don’t fly United often is an understatement. The last time I set foot on a United-operated airplane was more than two years ago when I flew back from Kona to LA. Before that, it was more than four years ago. Even if you include regionals, it’s still been more than a year and a half since I did a short hop to Phoenix. Needless to say, I was excited to have the chance to get on United again for a trio of flights and see how things were going.

I had to be in Fairfax, Virginia for something with friends followed by a couple meetings in Washington. I would then go on to Chicago for United’s media day and then fly home. Today, I’m just talking about the flight to DC which I paid for.

Dulles was way more convenient for where I was going, so it came down to flying United or Alaska. United was a bit cheaper at $243.30 (or, actually, the equivalent number of Ultimate Rewards points), plus it was on an internationally-configured 757, so I figured I’d enjoy my seatback screen.

I checked in on the app and found a window seat closer to the front had come available, so I snagged it. The next morning, I grabbed a Lyft about 2 hours before departure to take me up to LAX. Traffic was surprisingly light in the terminal area, so I had plenty of time to kill.

Security was mostly empty, and on the other side, I wandered down to my gate at the end of the concourse. The lighting in Terminal 7 is exceedingly bright for some reason, most noticeably during morning hours.

By the time I got to my gate, it was still a little more than an hour before departure, but people were lined up for boarding in groups 1 and 2. I couldn’t understand why.

Boarding worked pretty well with the fancy people boarding in groups 1 and 2, and then United calling up the additional groups after to file into the group 2 line. There were a bunch of those fancy people on this flight — I think I saw 57 people on the upgrade list. I was in group 3 with the non-fancy folks, so I got in line when called.

October 18, 2019
United 1080 Lv Los Angeles (LAX) 735a Arr Washington/Dulles (IAD) 330p
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 75B, Runway 25R, Depart 13m Early
Washington/Dulles (IAD): Gate C23, Runway 1C, Arrive 29m Early
N34137, Boeing 757-224, United Globe colors, ~99% Full
Seat 25F, Coach
Flight Time 4h19m

This airplane looked like it could use a refresh. The lights are that old dull yellowish-white color that has started to disappear thanks to mood-lighting. The seats looked clean, but they were an older vintage.

Bin space had already become scarce, but I was able to find a place to squeeze my bag in.

I took my seat and found that it was desperately in need of some love. My right armrest was completely loose and wobbly.

The seatback screen worked, however, so I pulled out my headphones and flipped on a movie. I decided to watch “Stuber” since that seemed like a perfect airplane comedy. I had to hold my headphones in place to get sound in both ears. I should note, Stuber can only be seen in seatback screens. It’s too new to be released on the streaming system just yet. Score one for in-seat video.

We pushed back surprisingly early and had a quick taxi to the runway. As we started moving, they started playing the safety video. It abruptly stopped, the screens went black, and then code appeared. A couple minutes later the flight attendants told us that they had to reboot the system, and they would do the safety demonstration manually.

I can see why they had to do that. It took a really long time for the system to reboot. We were in the air and turning around back toward Washington before it came back to life. When it did, it didn’t remember anything so I had to manually find where I was in the movie. That took a few minutes on this older system, but then I was back on track.

The seatbelt sign came off and the flight attendants came through with drinks and snacks. I snagged a Stroopwafel and had some hot tea which was pretty awful. The flight attendants, however, were friendly and attentive throughout the flight.

As we got toward the Rockies, the bumps picked up and the pilots told the flight attendants to sit down due to turbulence. It never got too bad, and a few minutes later, they were up and about again over the Plains.

It was about this time that I realized my seat had an auto-recline “feature.” It ever-so-slowly kept reclining backwards. I sat up, pushed the button and it snapped back up to attention. But now that I was aware, I would have to do that every few minutes to stay upright. My apologies to the woman behind me.

When my movie ended, I decided to flip on my computer. The power outlet didn’t work at all, but fortunately I had enough juice to go for awhile. I turned on another movie, “Yesterday,” on the screen, and then began to work. As if on cue, the person in front of me slammed his seat back into a full recline, nearly crushing my computer in the process. Thanks, buddy.

I know United’s wifi isn’t fast, so I decided to only pay $11.99 for one hour of service just in case it wasn’t feeling spry. It wasn’t.

Connectivity was good enough for me to do email and tweet… usually, but that was pretty much it. I suppose that’s better than what I expected, but then again, that’s a pretty lousy expectation.

The flight attendants came through multiple times during the flight with a water service and then a second beverage service. I stuck with water for the rest of the flight.

About 45 minutes out of Washington, my movie was done, my internet had expired, and I decided to flip on some audio. The streaming-to-your-own-device service has no music at all, so I went through the seatback screen. United has several channels you can pick — none of which was Channel 9 — but there is no listing of the music you can expect nor can you skip through the playlists. I just sat there and stared out the window on a clear day.

It got bouncy below 5,000 feet as the remains of the recent storm cleared out. We landed toward the north very early and taxied to our gate, C23.

The C/D gates at Dulles are still… Dulles. You can slap a coat of paint on the place, but that thing is still a “temporary” midfield concourse.

Instead of walking to the train, I went into D and took the mobile lounge. It’s way better spotting above ground. At the terminal, I wandered out to the curb where I had to take a rental car bus for the very long drive to the hinterlands where they keep the cars. More than an hour after landing, I was finally on my way.

Overall, the experience was good… if you exclude the airplane itself. The app worked great, boarding was fine, communication was adequate, flight was on-time, and the flight attendants did a great job. But that 757 has seen better days. United has begun retrofitting the 757s with new coach seats and screens, so at least the airline knows that it needs help.


When I was at media day later that week, someone who worked on the flight attendant device was showing it to me as part of the technology showcase. I told her about my flight in to Dulles and said I thought it was odd I never saw my flight attendants use that to report the broken items I had told them about. She said they may have just done it in the galley, but she wanted to confirm it had been reported. She was also surprised nobody had offered me compensation. Apparently United is doling it out for anyone who deals with broken items.

She asked for my card, and the next day I had a call from someone asking for full details and offering me a $150 credit. That sounded more than generous to me, and I wondered if it was just because I had been flagged as media. But a friend of mine who is a flight attendant for the airline put that fear to rest, saying “I’d have offered you more considering what was broken.”

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35 comments on “Flying the Friendly But Broken Skies to Washington (Trip Report)

  1. Not that you could do much at the time you noticed it, but the seat slowly reclining was probably a (regulatory) safety issue, and if you said something at the time or upon landing it probably would have been fixed by the next flight or the seat marked as broken and gone out empty. Having working armrests and entertainment are nice, but the FAA doesn’t and United shouldn’t take broken safety features lightly (as in how your seat would have behaved if there were a crash or even a hard landing).

    1. +1. I remember an American West plane that they would not let leave the gate because of this around ’97 or so. They finally offered $500 to get someone to leave a seat and move the person out (it was near the holidays).

    2. Jason – I doubt it was much of a safety issue, though I don’t know the regs to say for sure if it would have counted as one. It was a slow recline, so slow that I didn’t notice it for awhile. But I did report it and they said they’d write it up for me. They just didn’t use the device in front of me. Either way, it didn’t feel like a safety issue but more of just an annoyance.

      1. I was on a United flight from SFO to MCO once where the seat cushion wouldn’t stick to the frame. It looked like they wouldn’t be able to fix it and they talked to the passenger about alternatives (flight was full). Luckily for her a mechanic came with a new cushion and she got to fly.

        More recently my VX/AS seat cushion seemed to slide around as I was sitting down. Since I was coming off a 20 international trip, I kept my mouth shut… and survived.

        If a seat doesn’t stop reclining, shouldn’t they have to keep the seat(s) behind it empty? Or is the seats upright mandate for the benefit of the person in the seat?

        1. I think the seat cushion is less of a problem, but all seat safety tests and certifications are based on seats staying upright (hence the ‘restore your seat to its upright position’ announcements).

          It’s not that your seat being very slightly reclined is the issue, but if there is a problem with the recline mechanism, it may behave unpredictably or break completely in a crash which is a big problem, mostly to the person occupying the seat but also to others nearby.

          1. They weren’t going to let the lady across the aisle from me fly in a seat where the cushion was duct-taped down (she was perfectly okay with that, considering the alternative of getting kicked off).

      2. A seat that won’t stay upright must be repaired or locked upright and deferred to MEL. It is a safety concern as a reclined seat can impede the pax in the row behind the seat. I’ve addressed recline issues hundreds if not a thousand times as a line technician in BOS the last 30 years.

        1. Jantmass – Thanks for that, but what is the protocol if it’s not discovered until halfway through a flight? I assume this wasn’t a known issue, and I didn’t even realize it until mid-flight since it was a slow recline. So how is that handled?

  2. Thanks for your great work.
    I just flew from Heathrow to San Diego on British Airways. My friend and I were bitten by bed bugs.
    We have pictures and a horrible response from BA.
    Let me know if you are interested and I will write it up. There are so many articles online about this issue with them I was shocked.


  3. This just highlights that UA will have to spend billions of dollars to update and repair their cabins and terminals. For some fleets, you reach a point where you can’t get a decent ROI on cabin upgrades so just accelerate retirement of the fleet – such as AA has done with several fleet types including the 767.

    TMobile/Gogo is by far the best deal in in-flight Wifi and yet UA has four Wifi providers for its fleet; I just can’t wrap my head around that. One hour of Wifi on their A320/Thales equipped aircraft is a whole lot less than what you paid. That is the lack of consistency that UA has across its network; nice employees help but decades of decisions can’t be overturned quickly.

    1. Not to be nit picky, but I think JetBlue/Viasat in flight WiFi is a much nicer experience in flight than the T-Mobile/Gogo combo.

      1. I think United has Viasat on some of their aircraft but it’s throttled so that the experience is consistent with their slower providers.

  4. If it makes you feel better, my mother got a $150 credit from United because her seatback wasn’t working. Flight attendants reported it through the device while in-flight and she got a confirmation email before landing.

  5. your meaningless rant and personal opinion means jack shit seeing that NONE your favorite pandering of AA Southwest and Delta results in them being #1 in New York, the richest and largest air travel market of the US.

    1. Henry,
      I don’t know who you are addressing but your facts are not correct.

      Delta, not United, is the largest carrier from NYC – all 3 airports based on LOCAL passengers. UA continues to board more passengers because they connect more passengers, but that is falling. UA currently carries about 85% local passengers on its NYC fights while DL carries 91%. DL simply uses its NYC capacity more efficiently than UA.

      As of the end of 2019, Delta has 1.6% more seats than United and has long had more flights. Delta is adding more capacity to NYC than any other airline because they are upgrading regional jets to mainline and upgrading current mainline to other mainline flights. A year ago, UA had about 2% more seats than DL so in the space of a year, the table has turned.

      UA still is the largest carrier in NYC based on LOCAL revenue – passengers to/from NYC – because UA carries more international passengers that pay higher fares – but that advantage is also getting smaller.

      There is a reason why Kirby wants to get back into JFK or, as suggested into the LGA transcon market. Delta is now the largest carrier by revenue from NYC to LAX – the largest market in the US.

      I’m not sure why you chose to insert your comment in this discussion but it is really just about knowing current data and not clinging to the past.

      Too many people like to peddle the idea that Delta is still a backwater airline that just connects passengers in second-tier airports and yet actual facts and data shows that Delta is the #1 or #2 airline in more of the top 10 airports in the US than AA or UA. Delta’s growth in Seattle and Boston and its #2 status at LAX are all at top 10 airports and also put them higher ranked than UA.

      Delta also is now the world’s largest airline by revenue, profits, and market cap. DL and UA are increasingly battling for dominance in the top markets around the world; considering that UA and CO were far more international than any of the other two megamergers, the fact that anyone is coming close to challenging UAL even in international markets has to cause some head scratching in Chicago. AA and DL have had far more domestic revenue than United and that continues -esp as DL takes delivery of all new, larger aircraft than what AA and UA are adding to their fleets.

      Again, I have no idea who you are targeting but your facts are not correct and UA execs know the reality – which is why they want to expand in NYC. DL right now just happens to be growing faster not just in NYC but in al of the top 10 markets than either AA or UA.

  6. The old coach seats are better..they have padding — the ‘new’ seats are just plain uncomfortable /miserable with NO padding …

    1. That’s probably because most passengers (in the US anyway) come with their own personal padding. Actually, it’s just a trick the airlines use so they can shove the rows closer together and still claim a more reasonable seat pitch.

    2. Have to agree – SFO-LHR in the ‘new’ Economy Plus seats on a 772 was not nice the other week; and even the Premium Plus on the 763’s are arse-breakers.

      1. I flew on a Delta 747 then a Delta 772L in a connecting itinerary to SIN. The padding on the 772L was minimal, it was quite painful. Long live the extra padding!

  7. I rarely pay for WiFi but the times I have, it usually is useless and I’m only trying to look at basic web pages (no streaming of any kind) that are largely text only.

    If the speed is not useable, how easy is it to get a refund? I get the feeling a lot of people pay for something that can’t deliver basic functionality and the airline/provider are counting on people not complaining about it.

    1. Rich – I generally find they’re pretty proactive in refunding if things aren’t working. But if you’re expecting streaming speeds, that’s not realistic on anyone but JetBlue consistently.

  8. We just took United (and United Express) SBN-ORD-LAX for a quick long weekend trip in Basic Economy with just our backpacks and Cranky your review feels very similar to our experience.

    The long-haul leg on the way out was one of the domestic 757-300s that has been retrofitted with slimline seats and was awful with extremely tight legroom and a window panel drastically reducing the space me and my midfat partner had. I wanted to listen to stream music and was also surprised that only movies were streamable. We both felt sore after trying to contort ourselves in these seats. I remember how comfortable the last 757 I flew on United was preretrofit. They also ran out of ginger ale by the time they got to us in the fourth to last row.

    On the way back was one of the 737-900s that still has now free Direct TVs, seats were comfortable but tech was an issue. The Direct TV was broken, so you could just stream 6 films that were playing on loop plus an old school moving map.

    A man ahead of us rang the flight attendants to ask why he couldn’t transfer his wifi between his devices, the flight attendant didnt know, but came back to offer him some miles for the inconvenience. He refused them saying he was a retired flight attendant using free pass travel (and drank about 5 bottles of vodka that he paid for).

    Most amusing part of the trip was the credit card announcement (but no other service) and walk through our first 23 minute United Express flight from SBN to ORD. I was happy to have no further credit card spheals.

  9. In the pic with the pilot on the bus, the tail of an Alitalia plane can be spotted, your favorite airline!

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