I was surprised and delighted to see that contrary to stated status match levels, I was granted a status challenge from American Airlines Executive Platinum status to 1K. After reading comments from our readers, I decided to take the plunge and booked my first of a few flights with United. But flying with United is like sleeping with the enemy, so was it a dream or a nightmare?
I had received my upgrade days in advance for an expensive one-way in coach from Houston to Pittsburgh. I was surprised to have both received the upgrade (many commenters suggested that my chances were slim from a hub) and that it was done at the earliest point in the 1K upgrade window.
As I already had my upgrade and my boarding pass digitally, there was no need to check in at the desk. I flew from Houston’s (IAH) B terminal and was impressed with the size of the premium checkin area. With American, I have used the premium checkin counters and they really aren’t anything special even in airports like LAX and JFK with the exclusion of Flagship private VIP checkins. United’s were something unique, at least at George Bush Intercontinental.
While this is not United’s fault, Houston’s security process needs some work. To the right side of the entrance of the terminal, wrapping around corners and stacked no less than 100 passengers deep, was the Pre-Check lane. Nope. I didn’t have time for that “time saver”. Side note: Didn’t the TSA say they would stop giving away Pre-Check for free? Let’s execute on that mission TSA.
There was a priority lane as well, perhaps half as long but once I add time for taking out my laptop and my belt, I would be roughly at the same place.
To the left was an absolutely barren security check line with perhaps ten people in front of me. There was a single person checking IDs and the line quickly stacked behind me. I finally made my way through and was headed to my gate but fear I would have gotten through at the same pace at Pre-Check given the slow nature of this alternate check point. Either way, it was slow and unlike what I have come to expect at airline hubs generally.
The TSA issues at IAH are not the concern of United. However, they kind of are. As a United flyer I will be using this terminal frequently as Houston is a common destination for me. In the A Terminal where my former love departs, American Airlines, there is a CLEAR lane and I take full advantage of my membership and jump the queue. Without CLEAR I am stuck either in a jam-packed TSA Pre-check line, or in a crowded priority line. Switching to United means that I switch to this terminal, so Houston security delays are in fact United’s problem. They have an effect on my overall experience with the carrier and I compare it to others I have flown into the same airport but different terminal.
I didn’t burn a lounge pass that I received from Hyatt because my schedule was fairly tight, I arrived at the gate just ten minutes prior to boarding. I later learned that I wouldn’t have been able to use it anyway as the lounge for B gates was under construction.
Coming from American, the boarding experience is different. United is doing their best to enforce the boarding lane approach with groups 1, 2, 3, 4 in separate lanes. American has been doing their best to emulate United on this process and has not been succeeding.
I rather liked that the Group 3 folks moved right into the Group 3 lane, same with Group 2, Group 1 however was confusing. My limited experience with United led me to believe that just Global Services, 1K and First Class would be in this line (along with active-Duty military). But I was on a regional jet and the line was surprisingly long. This aircraft had just 12 first class seats and it would be hard for me to imagine any Global Service passengers would have not cleared (given that I did as a matched 1K). Further, I would have thought most 1Ks would have cleared too since the space was fairly open a few days out, enough to clear me with zero prior spend.
Yet there I stood with 20 or so passengers in line for boarding. It didn’t cause me any issues, but it was strange to see those in Group 1 settling in to seats in the back of the plane and made me question whether I really do understand their process. Had I not cleared and ended up at the end of Group 1 boarding on such a small aircraft, it’s possible I might not have a place to put my bag on the plane. The one thing that Delta has said that makes a lot of sense in this situation is:
“When everyone is an elite flyer, no one is.”
What’s The Deal With Wifi?
Once we cleared 10,000 feet my laptop was open immediately. I had some urgent business to handle and was ready to burn one of my Gogo passes. When I connected and prepared to use a pass I was met with an odd screen, specific to United. On this particular flight I was not given an option to use Gogo, though that’s who was supplying the internet on the flight.
One advantage that American holds over United with inflight wifi is the ability to burn those passes or access using my Gogo plan (if I choose to re-start my multi-airline membership). That doesn’t appear to be a possibility unilaterally with United and that’s a big disadvantage for me.
I also get an hour of free wifi courtesy of my T-Mobile cell phone plan. I have T-Mobile because of their excellent international offering and deal with them in the states because it’s so convenient when I go abroad. On American and Southwest (I can’t speak to other carriers) my free hour of T-Mobile is great. For short flights on connections I use my free hour and burn a pass for the longer flight from my connection onward.
But that’s only an option on premium transcontinental routes despite Gogo is being the internet provider for all flights.
While I fly to get where I’m going and not to surf the internet – it’s not a deal breaker for me – but it seems like kind of a petty way to treat your customers. The other carriers (with the exception of Southwest because they have a different provider) make Gogo passes and memberships available to their customers. On other United flights I would be able to use my Gogo passes but on this flight, I was unsuccessful. This deteriorates a big benefit to a couple of credit cards that give them out to me as part of my membership.
I was and continue to be impressed by United’s meal options on domestic and international service, though Matthew reported they are reducing hot meal options on many flights. American has long been mailing in their performance in either market and on more than one occasion I would actually prefer to have the free premium snack option as an Executive Platinum in coach, rather than the snack basket they pass around the cabin in first on shorter flights. I have flown three hours from Omaha to Charlotte on an E-175 with a bag of popcorn as the total and complete effort from American in first class. Suffice it to say, I was easy to impress when I came to United.
One difference that is always hard to adjust to is the general palate change from airline to airline. It reminds me of dating (it’s been more than ten years since I have dated) and getting used to someone else’s cooking, their perfume or cologne, it feels completely bizarre. Considering I have been with American Airlines longer than I have been with my wife, the difference in flavor profiles and choices from my old airline to United it was an odd experience. Yes I am aware of how absurd that sounds when read, it feels even more absurd to type.
Pre-departure beverage? Absolutely and well done United. I am sure this will be hit or miss as it is with American but so far, you’re batting a thousand. Warm nuts followed once airborne as was another beverage in a glass (not a plastic cup).
I was offered a pasta or an entrée Salmon salad and chose the latter.
To my surprise, the salad was very good. This is the one and only time that I have been on a United flight where a flavored salad dressing was offered, though I will get to that in future posts. What I found remarkable about this meal was both how simple and deluxe it was at the same time.
The salmon extruded a white substance that is common with some poached salmon but does make it a little off-putting at first. Even though it was normal, I kind of ate around it. It felt like the salmon could have been done better.
Despite the salmon the rest of the plate felt really fresh. Like I said earlier, the difference in carriers, in flavors and sides felt like eating someone else’s mother’s cooking. The cookie was good, but it wasn’t as good as the warm baked cookies onboard with American. It was all just really different, but the quality was good and I generally liked it, even if it didn’t taste like home.
The flight booked in at just a shade under three hours (2:55) gate-to-gate. The aircraft used was an Embraer 175 with a 2-2 seating configuration in coach and 1-2 in first class. I was lucky to have been assigned 1A and found the space to be generous. The aircraft seemed relatively new, wifi worked great, and the galley was sufficient for the FA to be able to prepare a full cabin a variety of hot and cold meals.
While my other experiences with United’s equipment would vary from this one, I rather enjoyed the aircraft and though the plane was small and the distance fairly long, I found it was suitable for the mission.
The airport ground experience leaves something to be desired. There was no club in sight (though I didn’t have time to use it), TSA Pre-check was overrun, CLEAR wasn’t set up at this terminal in Houston, and just as commenters from this post suggested – the ranks are flooded with top-tier elites.
I might have gotten lucky to have received an upgrade to first almost 100 hours out from a hub with no previous purchases with United. Time will tell, but so far it has been interesting to see if the grass was really greener on the other side. In some aspects it is (catering), and other aspects (boarding process) it’s not.
For now I will keep with United through my mileage/status run and then re-evaluate.
Are you an elite with another airline and thinking about making the switch? What caused you to run to another carrier, and how did you like it on the other side?