United Economy Report
Aircraft Type: B767-400
Class: Economy (Coach)
Route: HNL – SFO
Date: 26th September 2012
Best for: ‘Blandalised’ travelers, looking for a cheap seat, and nothing else.
Most likely to sit next to: (on this route) An aging surfer dreaming of times gone by, or an armada of Japanese tourists.
Business or pleasure: Not much for the business traveler, apart from in seat power in rows 1-15 (includes some economy seats) but with cramped space, and no wifi, this is a flight to sleep or continue to play with your headphone jack to stop the constant crackling from the aging entertainment system.
Routes: Pretty much anywhere in the world but be prepared to connect through a dreary grey American airport.
Frequent Flyer Programme: MileagePlus, perhaps one of the most complicated Frequent Flyer programmes out there, but with good seat availability
Best Bits: Fairly decent on time performance and safety. Apart from that, getting off the plane
Worst Bits: Ageing fleet, ageing crew, in fact, an all around ageing experience.
This is the first time I have been able to fly United since its merger with Continental, and this trip report is based on my return flight. United, on the outbound leg of my flight, were accommodating and the flight was uneventful, fairly similar to this trip so need to report on both.
On the Ground
I had an automatic check in email 24 hours before my flight, and whilst unable to print the ticket out (no printer), was able to change my seat to a seat in the forward economy cabin. When arriving for the flight at the main Honolulu terminal 1hour 20mins before my flight, I headed to to the check in desks to print out my boarding pass. There was a clearly sign posted ‘Cabin Baggage Only’ Check in desk free. As I approached to the desk, a United ground staff member asked where I was travelling and when I mentioned San Francisco, he pointed to a general queue as long as my journey ahead of me. Even after pointing out I only had a cabin bag, had already checked in, and just needed to print a boarding pass, he was adamant I had to join a queue of roughly 100 people.
United has a fundamental flaw in its ground crew operations. There just aren’t enough staff. People were confused on how to check in… waiting for ground crew to welcome them to the check in desk, whereas what United wanted you to do was to head to any of the check in desks, use the automated screen at the desk and then, only when checking your bags in, would the check in staff come up to you to process your bag. This wasn’t explained to anyone, and led to many check in desks not being used. It took 40 minutes to check in for a domestic flight, by far the longest I have experienced so far.
Slightly disgruntled, and worried about boarding, I tried to get to the gate as soon as possible. Honolulu security and agriculture screening was slow, but steady. I headed straight to the gate, to be one of the last to board the aircraft. United mention on their website there is a 45 minute cut off for dropping off bags, so I fear for anyone that was after me in the queue, as they may not have made the flight.
On boarding, I was directed to the mini forward economy cabin of the 767-400 aircraft. Ahead of us was a 25 seat first class cabin, with a stereotypical US cabin first class seat. Behind this, where I was sat, was 5 rows of a 2x3x2 seating configuration. This mini cabin on the left hand side (seats 10-14 A and B) has slightly more legroom than the rest of the economy seats in economy, and isn’t classed as a ‘economy plus’ seat. So aim for these seats on flights on this particular aircraft type.
The mini cabin though is a much more intimate affair and a nice place to be sat, as you get served first, have more space for placing your luggage in the overhead bins and also can disembark quickly. The seats, although noticeably narrower than the 757 seats, did recline a little more and offered in-seat TV monitors that showed 9 channels of very glitchy looping video entertainment which was switched on when we reached cruising altitude. The leg room, however wasn’t great in the rest of the mini cabin, my knees only a couple of inches from the seat in front. This is apparently what they call 32″ seat pitch. The Hemispheres magazine is good, with punchy editorial and a good tone of voice, but with only 4 main features, was completed before we even took off.
The flight was on time pushing back, and in all aspects, was a standard blip on the radar of the plethora of flights that United operates every day. That is perhaps the problem I have with United. Such a large airline leaves little space for individuality, whether in the service, the product or the acknowledgment as a passenger. First class upgrade lists (based on frequent flier status) seem to be getting longer and longer and on this flight alone, there were 16 people on standby for an upgrade to first class, even though the cabin was already full. The upgrades, which were often seen as a reason to be loyal to an airline in the US is now losing its benefits.
Food was served within the climb, and I overheard the crew in the galley mention that the healthier breakfast option was already sold out only half way through this mini cabin. Only 7 yogurts were loaded on the flight, for an economy passenger manifest of over 238. The food offering on United economy isn’t great. A few pre made snack boxes with a mix of token inedible bags of rubbish aren’t really good enough. The drinks service is, however, good. There were plenty of drinks offered throughout the flight by cabin crew donning their ‘Aloha’ Hawaiian print aprons who individually approached each of us in the cabin without wheeling down the ancient metal carts that would rather run over your feet than make it’s way down the aisle.
United haven’t really benefited from their merger with Continental, nor have they really suffered from it. United are a bland non-offensive airline. They don’t really treat you with any sense of care or attention, and the smallest “You OK hun?” from a passing cabin attendant actually takes you aback. United, like most continental American carriers suffer from an identity crisis, not really sure how to portrait themselves, trying to appeal to the masses rather than being individual. Only really airlines such as Virgin America, Southwest or Hawaiian Airlines offer any sense of individuality in the States. The larger behemoth carriers all merging into one giant cattle class amalgamation. United, develop a sense of individuality and you have a recipe for success. Being treated as just a speck in your millions of passengers just won’t give you the edge you need to really succeed in the international market.
*please accept my apologies for the images – taken on iPhone rather than actual camera*