11 Observations From 3 United Flights Last Week: My Unplanned Love Affair With United Airlines

I had to be in DC last week, and making my meeting either meant flying in the night before – or taking a 7:15 a.m. United flight – so I opted for United to Dulles. I will normally do anything I can to avoid Dulles, but not spend an extra night away from home.

Sadly, the federal government limits flights over 1,250 miles from close-in National and Austin misses that cut off by about 60 miles. We have only one legally permissible Austin – Washington National non-stop, on Southwest. The 7:15 a.m. United flight on Tuesday was under $300 in first though.

I planned to fly American back from National airport, connecting through Charlotte, to end this work trip. Paid first was $100 more than coach for DC – Charlotte and Charlotte – Austin.

However I woke up to a mechanical delay on my inbound aircraft which was going to cause me to misconnect in Charlotte. The delay actually wound up creeping throughout the day up to 5 hours.

I didn’t wait – as soon as my connection was in jeopardy, I started working on alternatives. American didn’t have space available to get me back to Austin before 11 p.m. and I’d planned the trip to be home for dinner. So I asked to get rebooked onto United, where I found space open on DC – Chicago – Austin, with the first segment in coach and the second segment in first.

So while I’m not a regular United flyer, I had three segments last week and a fresh perspective. Several things occurred to me about the experience:

  1. United’s boarding process is great for the airline, not for passengers. The airline doesn’t yet have larger overhead bins on many aircraft, so getting overhead space is more difficult than on American. You have to board earlier. And people line up earlier, so you need to do so too to get space. That’s great for the airline (board quickly and go) but wastes passenger time.

    People began queueing half an hour before all my flights. Even if you’re in first class, you may need to be standing in line early to get space above your head. If you’re in coach, and you don’t have pre-boarding (such as Global Services) to skip the queue, then you may need to line up early for space. So you wind up wasting your time standing around the gate earlier, versus sitting down and working or reading or spending time in the club. By contrast, I love the American Airlines boarding process.

  2. United Clubs are highly variable. The United Clubs in Austin and Washington DCA are poorly provisioned. Food in Chicago at the new C10 club is not quite to Delta standards, and I wouldn’t say it’s especially tasty, but far more substantive and extensive than what American offers.

    United Club breakfast of yogurt, bread, meat and cheese in Austin Club

    Slightly more robust breakfast at Washington National

    United Club O’Hare C10 Buffet

    United Club O’Hare C10 Food

    United Club O’Hare C10 Food

    United Club O’Hare C10 Food

    United Club O’Hare C10 Food

    United Club O’Hare C10 Food

  3. I hate self-service club entry gates like immigration e-gates. The United C10 Club in Chicago just felt cold and impersonal at the entrance – a true mass experience (which is the sense once you enter, too, since it was completely packed at Noon on Friday). The passenger entering in front of me was struggling to figure it out, opening the gate to the left of him instead of the one he stood in front of.

    United Club Entry Gates

  4. The Washington National club is a classic – the airport’s old formal dining space circa 1941 – but looks sad and needs a refresh.

    United Club at Washington National

  5. Service in first class was surprisingly friendly, though admittedly not based a lot of data points. On both flights predeparture beverages were served (though limited options from a tray). Live CNBC in the background. The woman beside me on my outbound slept the first two-thirds of the flight, just woke up, and flight attendant came over to offer meal choice. Crew were exceptionally friendly on my flight home.

  6. The wifi works now! I’d kept United off my list for years because the wifi was simply non-functional on almost every flight. That meant several hours with United were several hours where I was less productive. But wifi worked great on all of my flights. I still hear complaints, I don’t think they’re done, but I’m taking them off of my personal ‘do not fly’ list for this reason.

  7. I forget how bad the coach seat is. It hurts my back more than flying American.

  8. United NEXT first class screens are huge. My flight to Austin was on a new interior aircraft. At the gate they announced it would have “the larger overhead bins.” It sure has large screens for domestic first class!

    United NEXT First Class Screen

  9. ConnectionSaver is Amazing. We waited 10 minutes at the gate for connecting passengers in Chicago, even though we expected to need de-icing. That made sense because United still projected an on-time arrival into Austin, so we wouldn’t delay the next flight the aircraft would operate. It sure made a difference to the passengers that made the flight.

  10. They need to change their inflight food, but it’s still not bad. United’s inflight burger was terrible when i tried it, but both their breakfast and lunch on this trip were pretty good – things they’ve been serving forever but still tasty.

    Airlines need to vary meals by region and direction; rotate those meals quarterly; and change them annually.

    Breakfast crepes

    United Airlines Thai Meatballs

  11. I still love the tunnel connecting the B and C concourses at O’Hare overall the physical spaces United occupies at O’Hare (except for E where I landed) are so much nicer than the American Airlines concourses. They’re spread out, though! But they do a great job connecting B and C with that tunnel.

    Chicago O’Hare B-C Tunnel

    Here’s the original backstory.

    Most folks [love “The Tunnel”] although some repeat customers do often say it can become irritating after a while. Of course the intention was to add beauty and distraction to the otherwise boring and utilitarian nature of such a loooong underground passageway. In this I think it succeeds, but not as much as it might have. Why? Because I happen to know a bit about how this little project was originally intended and designed.

    You’ll notice those lighted panels on both sides of the tunnel? Those are “Band-Aids” of a sort. They cover-up what was never completed. You see, at the time of it’s design, United was in talks with Disney about becoming the new Corporate Alliance “Official Airline of Disneyland and Walt Disney World.” United put Jahn in touch with Disney’s Imagineering division and they jointly planned on creating some nice 3 dimensional “vignettes” of scenes of various cities that United flew to, in all these “windows” on the sides. Similar to what some might remember from the old “Delta’s Dream Flight” attraction in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

    Part of this collaboration was the creation and design of the neon rainbow transition sculpture running the length of the corridor, by noted neon sculpture/artist Michael Hayden of California, who had worked on a similar rainbow piece for Disney…a popular curving rainbow tunnel…at the “Image Works” section of the Imagination Pavilion at Disney World’s Epcot, that was sponsored by Kodak (colors=Kodak=natch).

    Well, the Disney marketing partnership just didn’t work out, and money got a little tight with cost overruns on other parts of the project, so snip, snip…cheap little plastic color backlit panels now cover what might have been. But Hayden’s wonderful rainbow neon artwork remained (titled “The Sky’s The Limit” if anyone cares), and an “otherworldly” original composition of Rhapsody In Blue was created by composer William Kraft, and synchronized by computer with the color changes of the neon, for the final effect, which both artists share credit for.

    …Today it accomplishes most of what it set out to do: Provide some minor distraction for that long, long 2 minute transition between terminals. If you’re thinking about it, like it or not…it’s doing it’s job!

    The system was deliberately designed to be easily reprogrammed for different music and lighting effects. I guess if they get back into the black someday, they should consider dusting-off the control panel, commissioning some new music, and changing the lighting/synchronization on occasion…so it’s not quite so “stagnant” an experience for repeat visitors.

United doesn’t have as robust an operation in my home city of Austin as Southwest, American or even Delta. And my most frequent destination for work is Washington, DC and I don’t love schlepping to Dulles. Their network rarely makes sense for me. But I had three great flights, much better than expected, enough to bump them up for future consideration compared to where they’ve been in my personal calculus.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Due to getting sick (food poisoning?) in Munich we cut short our trip and used LifeMiles for a return from MUC-ORD and then a paid ticket from ORD-PHX a week ago. We were in both the United Lounge and the Polaris lounge at ORD. They were both very crowded. Eventually the crowd died down as we had 3+ hrs before the next flight.

    I do agree most airlines are better than AA in terms of service. AA has some great FAs/GAs but many others shouldn’t be working.

    Going over we flew Austrian out of ORD (to VIE) after getting to ORD via AA. I like Austrian Air Business class. Although both Polaris and Austria need to have better room when you recline, especially for your feet. I’m not a huge guy (5’10”. 190 lbs) and it was almost impossible to get comfortable on both flights.

    And I’ll stick with my position on traveling, it is ok at best and that is when everything goes well. And there isn’t much worse than being sick (especially for 8+ hrs) in a foreign country in a hotel and knowing you are at least 2 flights and ~18-24 hrs of traveling from being home.

  2. Please don’t give UNITED a pass on its food

    I too have noticed the flight attendants are friendlier than 10 years ago and pmUA – seem to have weeded out some of the more aggrieved ones

  3. Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t read like that great of a trip. Sounds like classic United other than the friendly flight attendants. Nothing that would make me change my travels to include them.

  4. I used to travel on American. Then I switched to Alaska. Palm Spring International Airport is very limited on flights.I then discovered Untited. On my United flights, i connect in SFO to Hawaii, Las Vegas, Washington DC and on a non stop flight to Manila, Philippines. Traveling first on United is in a POD with configuration of 1-2-1. I love window seats. Odd seats are close to the window for great inflight views. Even seat somehow have separation (small console).

  5. Why on earth would you take a connecting flight via the mess at Charlotte
    when you can take a very nice non-stop from Dulles to Austin?. Total time is much faster including downtown to the airport.

  6. The UA Club at DCA is in the historical section of the airport. The room is the actual dining room from the original building and decorated an art deco style. UA Has done a great job, keeping the spirit of the original airport at this unique club. Saying that it needs a refresh is surprising considering this travelers supposed connection with airline history.

  7. @ Gary — CNBC “in the background” is great if that’s what you want to watch. The old TVs atuck in the ON position showing CNBC are a nightmare. Everytime I see one of these things, I cringe.

  8. I was a hard-core Continental flyer. I was always excited about getting to the airport for a Continental flight. We always had fresh-baked cookies on CO. The transition to United was not particularly comfortable for me. Didn’t help that the CO crew told us that UA crew were monsters. Reading the constant negatives about United certainly didn’t help. I flew out of San Jose on CO, connecting a thousand times in Houston. But UA did non-stops out of SFO. Gradually I realized that I could fly anywhere on United and I learned to hate connections. They’d give me sparkling wine, what a luxury. And any negatives disappeared with Polaris … once Polaris was actually up and running of course. I find the FAs up front to be mostly delightful humans. The food is generally fine, there have been some disasters but not the end of the world. Egg bites anyone? It was always a competition between United and Delta, but Delta’s seemingly total melt-down during the virus killed any DL loyalty I had. Polaris to Paris tomorrow, and I can’t wait … just like old times.

  9. All pretty accurate, but frankly, I prefer the direct UA to Dulles. I buy F most of the time. One thing is that in the event of IRROPs, UA has alternatives. With SW, your options are very limited.

  10. A lesson I learned almost a year ago: UA treats IAD & DCA (and even RIC or BWI if you ask) as co-terminals regarding rebooking. AA does not (or the AA gate agents I dealt with did not know what they were doing).

  11. I’ve been both UA 1K and AA ExPlat for many years. My overall experience as 1K is far better than ExPlat. And I’ve flown enough on both carriers, as evidenced by status, to have a more than adequate sampling. Unfortunately, being based in Dallas, more of my flying has been on AA. Schedule changes on UA resulted in too many sub-60 minute connections, particularly at IAH, which is a no-go for me. For the most part I’m a free agent nowadays and buy paid F since upgrades never clear. Headed to MSP soon and will take DL in F due to schedule. Spend is on Venture X and I got rid of airline cards. Loyalty is pretty much worthless.

  12. I recently switched my allegiance from AA to UA . AA has refused to address its product and has shown no interest in improving its woefully uncompetitive million miler program. I am strictly a front cabin purchaser. I went all in with UA personal and business credit cards .

    My experience with UA has been excellent thus far . Yes , the club and onboard food can use a refresh and upgrade . However , UA has publicly acknowledged that they need to improve their catering. The crews on my recent Polaris round trip to Asia were so good that I took the time to contact corporate to compliment both crews . The Polaris seat is comfortable, the bedding is quite nice , and the onboard entertainment is substantial. I am predominantly an international traveler . My few UA domestic flights have been just as pleasing .

    As for the switch , I am reminded of a poster in a dentist office that said “Ignore your teeth and they will go away” – substitute customers in place of teeth and that’s how I feel about AA these days .

  13. I too know something about the Original tunnel under Terminal one at Ord, and here it is. Originally there was specially composed music to accompany the overhead neon lights. It played for a year or two until replaced by Gershwin. I wonder where it went? I was in Uniteds executive office at the time.

  14. the “old delta attraction at disney world” was originally sponsored by Eastern from 1972 through 1987 and named “If you had wings”

    delta sponsored from 1989 through 1995

    it was conceived of and built by The Wings of Man

  15. A bit late, Gary….but better late than never! United is running a great operation these days. Frontline employees are proud of their product and it shows in morale and service. The new and newly refreshed clubs are great. I would challenge anyone to find a better domestic club than the new Denver clubs. And the new grab and go clubs are genius.

    I flew to HKG yesterday on United in Polaris and it was delightful. The food was even good.

  16. With the metro being extended to Dulles airport, getting to downtown Washington DC is easier now. I recently flew United Austin to IAD then rode the metro to National Mall area to see the cherry blossoms (which are beautiful). Granted, the metro ride is long – almost an hour but the time savings of flying nonstop offset the long metro ride.

  17. Really surprised to learn I’m supposed to enjoy that horrible tunnel between B and C at ORD.

  18. I have experienced the worst airline food on United, but (surprisingly) also the best airline food. But (call me crazy) I LOVE their in-flight domestic burgers! Maybe it is because I work at a hospital and those burgers remind me of the food I eat every day… Real comfort food.

  19. @ Gary — “Only” $75k deposit for GS. You don’t have to use it all in one year if you keep adding something each year. You would be pleased, and if you happen to be a UA MM, so will your GS spouse!

  20. Interesting tidbits, but would be helpful if you shared how many years you last flew them.

    UA boarding isn’t that different from AA, or DL. Having entry level status or something that gets you to middle group is sufficient to get overhead space. If you’re in UA group 4/5 or AA 6/7/8 it’s a gamble. Splitting things from 6 to 9 groups doesn’t meaningfully help.

    And Wi-Fi has been working for a few years now.

  21. @oleg it has not been years, I even link to a discussion of last year (when I flew them several times, and of course the year before)

    I disagree that Wifi has been working for several years – maybe you just aren’t comparing it to other airlines where United’s has been poor in comparison. It was barely functional on all my flights in 2022 and 2023.

  22. @jsn55. Continental was very good . . . Western Airlines was great and National Airlines (Fly Me) was my first choice.

  23. Despite the unfortunate circumstance of having its headquarters in the ruins of dangerous, once proud Chicago, United has the best route system and a modern fleet, especially considering its size.
    The airline offers big hubs on both coasts and across the country. The international destinations are many and the widebodies offer unbeatable Polaris Class.
    The airline would be even better off as Continental, but it’s a fine trunk carrier overall.

  24. The Metro to Dulles will (outside of rush hour) take longer than a taxi ride to downtown DC due to the huge number of Northern Virginia stops on the Silver Line. Maybe someday they will offer “express service”, but that would mean lots of new track to build.

  25. @Gary, I am a bit late to the party but thank you for posting this because it had some timely reminders for me. I think it’s important to note relative to my comments that the vast majority of my flying these days in international, not domestic.
    I am ExecPlat on AA (ex CK) with a substantial bank of miles which I plan to use up in the next 1-2 years. I like the OW benefits that go with that status, but…. Being human, familiarity breeds contempt and I have been seriously considering changing my Alliance allegience. I was really looking at Star Alliance since they fly more places that I want to go than OW, and IMO, they have stronger base of airlines. That is unlikely to happen now. Gary, I was aware of the Southworst style boarding that UA has taken up, but it was in the back of my mind. I know myself and I know I won’t tolerate cattle car boarding very well. As I would likely be on a UA flight to connect with a Star Alliance carrier here, that won’t go well with me. Add to the fact that one of my preferred Star Alliance carriers, Lufthansa, recently cancelled my wife and I in OPO and NEVER rebooked us doesn’t help either. Air France saved the day there but at cost since it involved a short-term one-way.
    Add to that UA’s staus match or challenge is apparently arcane and favors frequency not spending or miles means I’ll have to try a different route.
    Thanks to Gary’s post and the fact that I also have a residence in the UK I recently status matched to Flying Blue. Delta can go pound sand even though they’ll probably be the internal carrier for an AF or KLM flight. I will NEVER fly business in a DL A330-200 again. Stone age seats that are worn out (won’t recline with you sitting in them) and which have zero storage. Internally, DL is OK. But I have a lingering dislike of DL since Ed Bastion took them over. However, if they get me where I need to go without drama I will tolerate them.
    Man, I’m on a roll today 🙂
    Like others I’m just not sure status means much any more as if you are on a business or first ticket internationally since you get lounge access and preferred check-in, although… I do wonder if I had had status on LH we might have been treated better.
    What’s a bear to do……………?

  26. @Gary AA rebooked you on a UA flight after the delay? I haven’t seen that happen across alliances in a while.

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