Newest Review: ... cancelling my return flight and leaving me incredibly confused. This was due to the fact when I booked my flight with Expedia, the flig... more
A New United Airline
Member Name: rosebud2001
Advantages: Economy Plus is comfortable, decent service on international flights
Disadvantages: If switiching to a domestic flight in the US expect service to drop, no pre-boards for families
I flew with United Airlines transatlantic with my husband over 10 years ago. The experience was so bad we made a concerted effort to avoid flying with them again. I particularly remember surly and downright rude cabin crew, a battle to ensure at least one of us could be seated with our autistic daughter on all flights and a complete lack of concern from the cabin crew when my daughter woke up with a night terror on an overnight flight back to the UK.
I generally fly British Airways these days but for flights to New York the easiest way for me to go has been from Glasgow to Newark on Continental Airlines. In March this year however Continental merged with United. The airline became known as United, with planes bearing a livery almost identical to the old Continental one.
I booked a flight to New York for May 2012 six months before the merger occurred and I must admit I was worried about how it would work out, especially in light of reviews on the Skytrax website which were overwhelmingly negative after the merger happened. It became apparent early on that there were some major teething troubles with the merger which led to cancelled flights, lost bookings and the familiar complaint of unconcerned staff rang out loud and clear.
I booked my flight as a package with a hotel on the Expedia website. You can of course book via United's website and you can also check your booking and check-in online via the United website. Much of the confusion at merger time was due to the fact United changed their online reservation system and website to the system Continental had been using, leaving a large number of United staff in need of extensive retraining in reservations and countless United frequent flyers having to get used to a completely new web interface for the airline.
As I have booked and paid directly for prior flights using the Continental website, the new site wasn't an issue for me. Just after the merger in March I got an e-mail from United informing me my booking reference had changed but apart from that everything else remained the same.
At the start of 2012 Continental planes were given an "Economy Plus" cabin to bring them in line with United planes. I decided to use the Continental site to upgrade the seats just before the merger took place. You do have to pay extra for these seats which give you an extra 5" of legroom but not much else. Prices do vary depending on what seats you select but I paid $99 per person per leg for them on the website but you can't actually book direct into the Economy Plus cabin the way you can if you want to book Premium Economy on the likes of British Airways or Virgin Atlantic.
A few days before I was due to leave I received an e-mail from United effectively cancelling my return flight and leaving me incredibly confused. This was due to the fact when I booked my flight with Expedia, the flights were codeshares with BMI. As BMI left Star Alliance on 1st June 2012 which was a couple of days after my departure date, this left me in limbo. It took the best part of a day for me to get this sorted out as BMI didn't want to help me and United claimed it was a travel agent issue. To Expedia's credit they got it resolved to my satisfaction right down to ensuring I kept the seats I had bought and paid extra for in Economy Plus.
You can check in online for your flights with United, which is a step up from when the airline was still Continental. Back then you could only check in at the airport if you were going on an international flight. The website does ask for advance passenger information including each passenger's name, date of birth and passport number, along with an address for where you are staying on your first night in the US.
The bag drop process is fairly straightforward assuming you had completed the advance passenger information and that you have a valid ESTA. You are asked some security questions before dropping off your bags and getting your boarding passes. I was relieved to see that the seats I had reserved were honoured on both flights. You are allowed one bag to check in free so long as it doesn't weigh more than 23 kilos, and you can bring one cabin sized piece of luggage on board with you. These limits increase if you fly in the Business First cabin.
The planes themselves are still Boeing 757-200s and the interior is almost identical to the Continental version. The only change I noticed was in the Economy Plus cabin which takes up the first 8 rows of the economy section in the plane. These seats have a much better seat pitch but in every other way are the same as economy seats with no additional recline. It's also worth noting if you are considering booking this cabin that there is one row which doesn't recline at all - it goes without saying that's the cheapest row to purchase but to be fair to United the website does clearly state which seats don't recline at all when you are looking to choose a seat in Economy Plus.
Service was friendly in the Continental manner I have experienced on this flight in the past. I have to say I was most relieved about this as I can still remember a United stewardess talking to my late husband as if he were a five year old over where to stow a bag on a crowded plane. We were served a lunch about an hour into the flight which was decent enough. You can order special meals but my daughter, who has a pathological aversion to airline food told me not to bother ordering a child meal for her and instead took a Meal Deal from Boots onboard with her. I had beef (from the usual economy choice of "chicken or beef") and it was pleasant enough, if a little overcooked. It wasn't a patch on the food I've got in Premium Economy on BA, but then again they let you have food from Club World in their Premium Economy cabin.
On the return flight I had a pasta dish and my daughter had this too (in the absence of Boots' Meal Deals at Newark Airport) and she surprised herself by enjoying it.
You get a snack before landing on both flights - the hot chicken sandwich you get prior to landing in New York is lovely but the "breakfast" you get on return is less inspiring.
You have to pay for alcoholic drinks onboard and just like Continental, the new United only accept credit cards for payment. I only ever drink soft drinks when I fly as I hate to get dehydrated on board but a couple more runs down the aisle with some water would have been nice. It's got to the stage now that no matter where I am flying I make sure I have a large bottle of mineral water when I board to keep me hydrated throughout.
The planes had a good AVOD entertainment system with seat back screens. The system included several recent films along with several classic movies, TV shows such as "Family Guy" and music offerings. I had a book with me and just read but my daughter enjoyed watching "The Muppets" movie for the umpteenth time and her beloved "Family Guy". The system also included a moving map, which I must admit I always switch on when I fly. It's not the best moving map I have ever seen (that award goes to the 3D one British Airways have on some planes) but it's good for letting you know where you are flying over.
On the return flight we were given pillows and blankets but you don't get an amenity kit so if you need an eye mask or earplugs, pack your own.
The best thing about our flights was Economy Plus. The extra leg room made the seats more comfortable and it was really nice not to have the person sitting in front of me reclining their seat into my stomach as is the norm in the Economy cabin. Five inches doesn't sound like a lot of space but it really does add to your comfort levels when flying and removes the "do I recline or not" dilemma from travellers. We were also seated close to the door which meant we got off the plane pretty quickly. This was particularly good arriving at Newark as it meant we got to the front of the queue for immigration really quickly.
Of course this review is only based on international legs and American carriers change dramatically when you switch to a domestic flight. It's worth bearing in mind that the flight from Glasgow to Newark takes around 8 hours in which time you do get fed and watered by the airline. If you wish to take the United flight from Newark to Honolulu which is a domestic flight it lasts 14 hours and you have to pay for everything except a soft drink and it's worth bearing in mind that these flights regularly run out of food to buy too.
The new United is also gaining something of a bad reputation for cancelling half empty domestic flights and merging them with later ones which probably does make good business sense but isn't so good for a traveller with a connection to make. On the subject of connections although Newark is a United hub they do seem to have cut back on flights from the airport. I've used the Newark route to connect for Las Vegas while it was still being operated by Continental but it's not worth my while now it's run by United as the layover time at Newark has gone up from 3 hours to 8 hours.
I had no problems with delays or cancellations on this trip however and everything went smoothly including the boarding process which was done in blocks which were identified by a number on your boarding pass. It is worth noting that United have phased out pre-boards for families with children which I think is probably a bad move on their part and just adds to the stress families have when flying. You only get a pre-board if you have status either with United or Star Alliance.
You can join the United Mileage Plus frequent flyer program - I have done but to be honest unless you use United very regularly the miles don't really amount to much. The awards are also very US centric so I may be able to get a cheap room in a US hotel with an affiliated chain but that will probably be about it. If you use the airline regularly it's a no brainer to join - especially if you are flying business class - but for the leisure traveller I have derived no benefits whatsoever.
Overall I think I would probably only use United again if I was wanting a direct flight to New York or if I was travelling to a destination served solely by them. I paid £670 each return for our tickets by the time the additional charge for the Economy Plus is added on, which I didn't think was too bad when you factor in the extra comfort and the convenience of flying direct from Glasgow. The Economy Plus isn't a patch on British Airways' product however so don't be expecting leg rests or foot rests or a wider seat. It's also worth mentioning that since the merger the fares seem to have increased quite a bit on this route so shop around.
I do think the thing that lets United down the most is the thing that generally lets down most US carriers and that is their domestic product which can be akin to Ryanair on some carriers so my advice would be if you plan on using United try to get a direct international flight to your destination - or as near to your destination as possible.
Summary: An improvement on the old United post merger with Continental