I always avoid United Express when I can for many reasons. First, I find that mainline crews are usually more professional and warmer than the rookies making $7/hr on Express. Second, although UA’s larger regional aircraft now feature Economy Plus and first class, the galleys onboard are not equipped to offer hot meals or glassware/cutlery to first class passengers. Third, there is no in-flight entertainment on regional aircraft. Lastly, these aircraft tend to park at inconvenient gates, requiring a long trek at Chicago and Dulles (for example) to make connections on mainline flights.
But yesterday I had a refreshingly good experience on a United Express flight from Houston to Denver operated by Shuttle America. The aircraft, an E-170, is almost big enough to be a mainline aircraft and features six comfortable first class seats in a 1-2 configuration. I had seat 2A and found the recline and padding very comfortable (allowing me to sleep for most of the two hour flight that departed at 6am). I was traveling with a garment bag and the E-170 also features a closet onboard where I was able to conveniently keep my suit wrinkle-free during the journey rather than folded up in an overhead bin. UA’s ex-TED A320s don’t even have closets anymore.
Second, the service was extremely professional. I was welcomed aboard and promptly offered the pre-departure beverage of my choice once seated. After taking off, the purser offered each passenger in first class a hot towel. Next, he took drink orders and offered a snack box for breakfast. I wasn’t in the mood for junk food at 6am, but was pleased to see the "classic" snack box offered on a two hour flight. Though I slept for most of the flight, each time I was jarred awake it seemed as if one of the FAs was walking through the cabin and insuring that cups were filled. Prior to landing a second hot towel was offered.
United Express has come a long way the last few years and though I would still choose mainline if I had the choice, my IAH-DEN flight on Shuttle America was great. If UA began offering cold meals on their longer regional jet flights (like AA and Delta do) I might even choose the E170 over an A319 or A320.