United Airlines Makes It So Easy For Me To Dislike It

a large airplane parked at an airport

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Let’s face it, despite what some fanboys seem to think, airlines are not our friends. Some people look upon airlines in the same way as others look upon their chosen sports team(s) and will defend them to the hilt when their beloved carrier is challenged in any way.

Take a look at the comments littered throughout Flyertalk and at the comments at the bottom of blog posts daring to criticise the airlines and you’re bound to come across examples of what I mean.

This is both impressive and sad at the same time.

It’s impressive that corporations, whose sole aim is to extract as much money out the public as possible, have managed to con people into believing that they actually care about them and that they see them as more than just self-loading cargo. Newsflash: They don’t.

It’s sad that people are so easily conned and, when it comes to a few specific airlines, it genuinely staggers me when I see the level of denial that these fanboys display.

With all that in mind allow me to put on my tin hat and discuss why I dislike United Airlines.

Back before I discovered the joys of the miles and points world my main carrier across the Atlantic was United – I liked to “fly the friendly skies” – but I haven’t set foot on a United aircraft in years.

It’s not that I’ve made a deliberate choice not to fly United it’s just that the airline hasn’t offered me what I need in over a decade – there have always been better and cheaper options available out of the places I’ve lived.

a plane flying in the airImage Eric Sallard

I like to keep a close eye on what the various major airlines offer (both in terms of a loyalty program and onboard products) and I can’t help but notice that there isn’t very much about United that would entice me back….and there’s quite a bit to dislike.

While the Dr David Dao incident got a lot of publicity last year I can’t honestly say that it made the slightest bit of difference to how I feel about United – if the airline had a good loyalty program, offered good fares or had a great international Business Class product I’d still happily throw some of my travel budget United’s way…..but I don’t see any of that.

The Case Against United

Basic Economy Fares

As I showed in a recent comparison post United’s Basic Economy fares offer the most restrictive rules out of all the major US carriers:

  • You can’t earn credit towards elite status with United’s Basic Economy fares (you can with Delta and American)
  • You’re forced to check-in at an airport desk if you’re not checking a bag (which is ridiculous)
  • The Basic Economy fares charged can sometimes be astronomical (over $1,000 for a 300 mile roundtrip)

It actually used to be worse as it’s only very recently that United has started to allow passengers to pay to select seats when booking Basic Economy fares. It’s almost as if the United hierarchy thought: “lets take as many benefits as we can out of the Basic Economy fares and only put some back when people notice just how awful our offering is”.

Premium Cabins

The aircraft the airline flys are amongst the oldest out of the 10 major US carriers and, from what I’ve been told, they look it.

Amazingly, United looked to be on the right path when it ordered a series of brand new aircraft (its Dreamliners) but then it went and fitted them with high-density Business Class seating that wouldn’t look too out of place in the late 1990’s.

a diagram of a plane seatUnited Airlines 787-9 Business Class Seat Map – Seatguru.com

While American Airlines has been offering seats like this for years…..

a row of seats in an airplaneAmerican Airlines 777-200 Business Class Cabin

…and while Delta has become one of the first airlines to offers a suite-style product in Business Class…..

an airplane with seats and seatsDelta One Suites

….this is what you’ll find on most of United’s newer aircraft:

a row of seats in an airplaneUnited 787 Business Class

Before anyone jumps to defend United by citing the airline’s Polaris Business Class seats, that brings me on to my next point….

The New Polaris Business Class Debacle

United unveiled its new Polaris Business Class cabin at the beginning of July 2016 but, as we get closer to the two year anniversary of that announcement, only a handful of aircraft have been fitted with the new seats.

a seat with a rolled up blanket on itUnited Polaris Business Class

The overwhelming majority of United’s Business Class cabins still offer the densely packed, old-fashioned seating….and there’s absolutely no sign of the airline speeding up the rollout of the newer product.

At the time of writing I can only find one transatlantic route offering the new Polaris Business Class seats and that’s one of the two daily flights between San Francisco and Frankfurt.

On top of the nice new seat we were also promised a slew of amazing “Polaris Lounges” which have mostly yet to materialize.

In the beginning we were told that Chicago would get the first lounge (which it duly did), that Newark, London and San Francisco would follow in “early 2018” and that Hong Kong, Houston, Los Angeles, Tokyo Narita and Washington D.C. would all get new Polaris lounges “later in 2018”.

Now, in the latest update, things are very different:

a screenshot of a website

  • San Francisco, Newark and Houston have been pushed back to “summer 2018”
  • Los Angeles is now slated to open in “fall 2018″…although as construction has yet to start on this lounge that could easily be pushed back further.
  • Washington D.C., London, Hong Kong and Tokyo are now just listed as “future locations” with no estimated time frame.

Based on what AUBT has been hearing it’s more than likely that the “future locations” will now not appear on United’s list of lounges until sometime in 2020.

If there was ever a perfect example of over promising and under delivering then United’s Polaris Business Class rollout must certainly be in contention.

The Polaris Business Class Con

I’ve written about this before (when Polaris isn’t Polaris) but it’s certainly worth mentioning again.

In a nutshell this is the issue:

United announced its all-new Polaris Business Class seats to great fanfare in 2016 and then it promptly renamed ALL of its Business Class cabins “Polaris”….whether the cabin offers the new seats or not.

Take the United Airlines 787-9 Dreamliner as an example.

Not one of these aircraft have been fitted with the new 21st century Polaris Business Class seat but, where you go to select a seat when booking on one of these aircraft, just look at what United.com shows you:

a map of an airplane seatThe only parts of the Polaris product that are actually offered on these aircraft are the food service, the bedding and the amenity kits but the most important thing that most people will associate with the term “Polaris Business Class” (the seat) is the one thing that’s missing.

As I’ve said before, an occasional flyer seeing the words “Polaris Business Class” written on a seat map of a cabin he/she is looking to book is likely to believe that the aircraft offers the full Polaris package…but that passenger is in for a big disappointment.

The United MileagePlus Myth

It appears to be a commonly held belief that while Delta decimates the value of SkyMiles on a quarterly basis and while American Airlines stubbornly refuses to make premium cabin saver awards available, award availability via United is quite good.

Erm…no it isn’t.

There may be select routes on which you can find premium cain awards through United but, overall, finding international premium cabin awards when you plans aren’t super-flexible is actually quite hard.

a blue and yellow text

For almost a year now I’ve had ExpertFlyer alerts out for Business Class awards on 6 different routes to/from Europe (for a friend of mine) and not one single award seat has been made available – that’s not exactly impressive.

Yes, you could argue that United’s premium cabin award availability is still better than that offered by American….but that’s no different to arguing that botulism is better than cholera – you really don’t want to be facing either.

On top of this United often charges more for its international premium cabin awards than American does and, when it comes to booking awards on partner airlines, United makes American’s award chart look generous (mostly).

Bottom Line

Delta may not have the newest aircraft around but its performance is very good and the crews onboard the flights I’ve flown have been head and shoulders above what I remember from United and what I’ve seen on my frequent travels on American.

American may have crews that like to complain about everything and anything (with exceptions – I’m not saying they’re all the same), Doug Parker may well have destroyed the AAdvantage Program and premium cabin saver award availability may well be as rare as a comfortable Economy Class seat….but the airline offers the best Business Class seats across the Atlantic and, as a member of oneworld, it still offers a valuable top-tier status.

As far as United goes….

The airline’s priority appears to be to screw every last penny out of passengers, some of its marketing is deceptive (at best) and its attitude to its new premium products appears to be “we’ll get to them eventually….but we can’t really tell you when that will be”.

If your closest airport happens to be a United hub (O’Hare, Houston, San Francisco etc…) it’s probably quite hard to avoid flying with United but, if that’s not your situation (and absent any major fare sale), I’m really not sure why anyone would choose to fly this airline over a competitor.


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