As it turned out, my flight from Newark to Los Angeles on Friday went out almost full, but the oversold first class cabin problem resolved itself and I did not have to fight for a seat. Nevertheless, in many ways I wished I had missed the flight. I want to approach this carefully and take great care not to sound like a whiner. But this was not a good flight and it epitomizes the attitudes and practices that will perpetually hinder Jeff Smisek’s dreams of making United “world’s leading airline.”
Let’s talk about boarding. After zipping through Pre-Check (finally, a security experience that I do not dread) I headed directly into the United Club and stayed until about 15 minutes into the boarding process. Being a 757-300, UA begins boarding 45 minutes in advance. By the time I reached the gate, 30 minutes before scheduled departure, there were only two other passengers waiting to board and the gate agent was making a final boarding announcement.
She curtly told the person in front of me that he would have to check his bag. Maybe the gent has a bossy wife at home because he just nodded his head in agreement, but I minded–no passenger should be barked at. I was next and only had a small duffel bag. “That gonna fit under your seat?,” she growled, but when she scanned my boarding pass her tone suddenly changed. “Oh sir, I didn’t realize you were in first class…there is plenty of room for you.”
First class passengers should be treated with care and friendliness, but ALL passengers should enjoy the same courtesy. There was no excuse to be grumpy…the sky was clear and the plane was boarded and ready to go 30 minutes early.
Onboard, two ex-Continental FAs were too busy gabbing to greet passengers. They were also too busy gabbing to offer pre-departure beverages to the 24-seat first class cabin.
Departure time came and passed. The APU was broken and the captain was “waiting on paperwork.” He apologized for the delay, promising we would make up all the time. Don’t make promises you can’t keep…
The tired old 757-300 was depressing and at this point you have to realize I am not just looking to pile on complaints–my last three flights on United (all United legacy crews as it turned out…) were wonderful. And I know there are many, many wonderful ex-Continental FAs as well from all stations.
But this crew could not be placed in the wonderful category, nor could this aging aluminium canister be described as anything other than beyond its prime. The leather seats were scuffed and tattered and both the center console and tray table were dirty. The overhead monitor did not work so the FAs had to perform a manual safety demonstration. The purser could not even read the script without stumbling several times and pausing to giggle (seated in row two, I witnessed it).
Prior to takeoff–our delay grew to an hour–one of the FAs did walk around the first class cabin with water but no other choice. The purser began taking meal orders. She had seven words for each passenger: “Do you know what you want to eat?” A purser on a leading airline would address each passenger by name. That’s important to me…it shows attention to detail and a desire to personalize service.
We took off and a hurried lunch service began. The poor FA–she looked so tired yet bored as she lay tablecloths down at each table before serving lukewarm mixed nuts and a choice of beverage. She never cracked a smile.
The appetizer–if you can call it that–was a small piece of cured beef and a skewer with a mozzarella ball, sun-dried tomato slice, and olive. A crunchy iceberg lettuce salad with a tub of ranch dressing and packet of crouton filled out the tray. Bread was offered too, but it was not hot.
The main course was familiar–in fact the menu was identical to a flight last month on the same route–and I must say that I do enjoy the pork on United, though this particular cut had much more gristle on it than last time. Good broccolini and asparagus with it as well.
And dessert was great–I do love ice cream sundaes even if the FAs forgot to put nuts on it .
One more observation on the meal service. The flight left at 9:20a in the morning (well, at least it was scheduled to). I was expecting breakfast (who wants a heavy slab of pork at 10:00a?) and I think this would be a good route for United to have brunch on. Other airlines manage so I am sure the Friendly Skies can as well.
The purser decided she wanted a different movie than the advertised feature in Hemispheres, so she rummaged through her box of tapes and found a movie I enjoyed watching from San Francisco to New York a few weeks ago, “The Words”. I watched part of it again, but the FA should have followed protocol when you have over 200 passengers expecting to see the listed movie. She did not even announce the substitution.
Once that was over, she brought down the box of cassette tapes and plopped it in the lap of the passenger in 1A, telling her to choose the next film. She chose the “The Bourne Legacy.” Too bad the tape was scratchy, thereby distorting the pictures. But no one else seemed to mind…
Here’s where I got annoyed. There was an Italian family traveling to Palm Springs for a family getaway. These were mafioso type people if there ever were such people–the guy in front of me was part of the clan (decked out with gold) and showing the FA (in that lovely NY-Italian accent) his 11,000 square foot summer home that he was having built.
The godfather–let’s call him Vinny–was two rows back and was a commanding presence at 6’5″ and 300 lbs. Well, all I noticed was that he was drinking…a lot. I fell asleep and dozed for what must have been about 30 minutes when I was awoken by Vinny talking to the family–and a couple of the FAs–in row one. He had a booming voice and held a glass of red wine in one hand and a miniature bottle of vodka in the other. They were joking that he had already had eight servings of each beverage and appeared unfazed.
He was a “Frankie” fan and delivered a 20-minute soliloquy on everything Sinatra–including some lurid details I won’t repeat here. He then went on to talk about all the celebrities who had homes in Palm Springs, again going into graphic details about the proclivities of our favorite Hollywood stars of yesteryear.
I cannot underscore how loud he was. He was charming no doubt, and had wooed the FAs into beaming adoration, but I was not the only first class passenger who did not appreciate his rest being disturbed by big Vinny. The man would just not stop. Just when I thought he could not name another celebrity, he trotted out another one–yes, they had a house in Palm Springs too. And you’ll never guess what they liked doing…
Finally, Vinnie was finished and retired to his seat with a fresh glass of red wine. The rest of the first class cabin breathed a collective sigh of relief. I stared down–my ice cream sundae bowl and linens had still not been collected.
We were now only a couple hours away. The FAs did not appear for the next 1.5 hours and never bothered with the snack basket (unless I missed it during that 30 minute cat nap right after lunch).
Suddenly, the purser made an odd announcement–“ring your call button if you are going to Reno.” There were about a dozen passengers going to Reno, but certainly many others who had tight connections after the one hour delay. No further word was said until landing, when the purser announced that everyone should remain seated for the Reno passengers (turns out the Reno flight was delayed an hour too).
Meanwhile, the Captain sheepishly checked in, stating that we had actually not made up any time and would be arriving in Los Angeles late. He said we would be beginning our initial descent in a few minutes.
Though 40 minutes from Los Angeles, the FAs sprang into action, announcing that in-flight service was over and hurriedly collecting all remaining glasses and cups. Then sitting for the next 35 minutes…
We finally rolled into LA. Now tell me, was this a first class flight? Only on United. And yet I felt right at home…