Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Trip Report: United Airlines, International (Caribbean - Dec 2016)

Trip Report: United Airlines, International (Caribbean)
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I have not flown a mainline US carrier international in over 10 years.  The reason is that their on-board products do not compare as highly as their international competitors.  For most international carriers, personal TV screens, USB ports, free luggage, and basic meals in economy are standard on most international flights.  This has not been the case for US carriers so I had avoided them.  Recently, US carriers had been upgrading their products so I recently decided to give United a try on an international destination – from New Orleans to Punta Cana via Houston.  Navigating United’s website and mobile app were very easy.  I was able to book the flights, manage the booking, select seats, pay for bags and seats, and check-in seamlessly. 

The first flight was from New Orleans to Houston.  United operates many flights a day on this route and uses a variety of aircraft – Airbus, Boeing, or Embraer.  Our flight was scheduled to depart at 7:25am and arrive into Houston at 8:46am, even though the flight time is 45 minutes.  This flight was operated by a Boeing 737-800.  United does not charge for seat allocation, so you can choose your own seat in Main Economy; United does charge for Economy Plus seating which includes extra legroom.  The layout of the 737-800 is 3-3 and usually the seat pitch is decent, but this was an older plane so the seat pitch was tight.  The seat is basic with no USB ports nor PTV’s.  In the seat-back pocket is the airline magazine, the safety card, and a brochure on how to access the wifi and the free entertainment.  On planes with no PTV, United offers free, limited entertainment through the United app; you can purchase additional options, including movies, at a cost.  Once we reached cruising altitude, the attendants came by to offer drinks and pretzels.  By the time the attendants had concluded their drink service, it was time to collect the trash as we were descending into Houston.  It was an average flight given the short distance.

We initially had 1-hour in Houston until our next flight departed to Punta Cana.  Unfortunately, due to ground traffic congestion at Houston we sat in the plane for most of that time so that by the time we landed, it was already time to board our next flight.  Luckily, our next gate was right next door but this did mean that we had limited time to purchase any food or beverage in Houston.

Boarding was extremely chaotic and disorganized on this flight.  When I had checked-in online, I had selected seats for myself and my family.  When we arrive into Houston, our seats had been reassigned so I had to go to the gate agent to get our seats back (they said it was because of an equipment change).  Because of the delay, we were not able to board until Group 5 which is the last group. When they started to board this group, they made everyone gate-check their carryon bag stating there was no longer any room on board the aircraft; no-one had a choice as the gate-check was ‘mandatory’.  When we went on board and went to our seat, there were actually plenty of empty spaces in the overhead compartments so there was no need to gate check any bags.

The plane that flew from Houston to Punta Cana was the exact same plane that we just flew from New Orleans to Houston – an older Boeing 737-800.  The seat pitch was really tight, the plane looked really old, and the only difference was each seat had PTV in them.  As boarding was chaotic, and the flight attendants just told people to ‘sit anywhere’ we departed late.  The on-board service was terrible as the flight attendants only did the basic duties.  The flight time was 4hr30 minutes and on this flight, there was food for purchase and drinks were served twice; once at the beginning and then once in the
middle of the flight.  Each time, only a small glass was provided (not even a can, even when asked).  The PTVs had live TV and movies available, but this needed to be paid for at a cost of $5.99 per screen (which was outrageous).  About 1 hour prior to landing, the flight attendant came by to distribute immigration forms, but it took so long that by the time she finished handing out the cards it was time to land and she said “you have to stow your tray tables; I know everyone is still completing their forms but you can do that later”.  The entire flight was poor service, poor management, and a bad international flight on United.  We finally landed in Punta Cana and we deplaned via stairs.  As soon as most of the passengers had deplaned from the front of the plane, the rear door was opened for passengers to deplane via the rear (again, an example of poor management).

Given this, I was not looking forward to my return flight on United.  We were better prepared as this time we had downloaded movies and other shows to pass around the time.  Given the seat discomfort and tight pitch, and the length of the flight, we had chosen to pay for Economy Plus seats with extra legroom.  The flight from Punta Cana to Houston was 4hr45min and was operated by a 737-800, but this time it was a ‘Next-Gen’ plane which meant it was newer.  On the newer plane, the seat pitch and seat comfort in Main Economy was better.  Each seat had a PTV, which needed to be paid to access, and there were no USB ports.  Service on-board was similar, with free drinks and pretzels and buy on-board food, but the crew on this leg was a lot friendlier and nicer.  It was definitely a better experience on the return.

We had 2 hours to transit in Houston until our next flight to New Orleans, but most of this time was spent in clearing security at the airport.  The flight from Houston to New Orleans was operated by an Airbus A320/321 which had a decent seat pitch and decent seat comfort.  The seat was slimline and had not PTVs, instead the back of the seat had a pocket with the airline magazine, sick bag, and wifi information.  You could access the limited, free entertainment through the United app.  Service on-board for the short 50-minute flight was drinks and pretzels.  Overall, it was a decent short flight.

It was my first time experiencing United internationally, and given everything I experienced I am hesitant to try them on a long-haul flight.  The lack of amenities they provide to passengers, the difference in service depending on airplane and crew, and overall lack of comfort does not make me want to choose United.  If I compare United to their international competitors, they provide better service, more amenities, and newer planes at the same or reduced costs – so I do not see the incentive in flying with United.   

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