Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Houston to Vegas and back (UA 1st Class)

I know, I know.  The title of the blog is no upgrades.  And for most of my trips (given my dismal Silver Elite status with UA) that's going to be the case.  For some reason on my recent trip to Vegas however I grabbed an upgrade both coming and going.  It was an interesting trip because I got to compare and contrast a couple of things.

1. The older first class product on UA's aging 757 fleet.
2. The newer first class product on UA's 737 fleet.

This is also the first time I've been to Vegas post-merger, the last time I was on first class to Vegas it was under the Continental banner, so I figured that I would get to see how UA's new first class (I've heard they have been making changes) compared on almost a direct basis.

Flight 1:
UA 1640
Depart IAH: 9:10 PM
Arrive: LAS: 10:32 PM
Seat: 6B

I wish that I had more pictures of this flight, but I don't.  I was in a window seat and the under-seat storage space was limited due to odd positioning of the seat supports.  Because of this I had to stow my back-pack in the upper bin.  Not being a good travel-blogger, I also stored my camera in the bag.  There was turbulence throughout the flight, so I didn't get up to retrieve it. Unfortunately, my wife did not score an upgrade on this flight and, despite my repeated insistences that she do so, she refused to take my pass and instead argued (rightly) that me being bigger (and heavier) I would benefit more from the wider seats than would she.

Let me say this:  The interiors of these planes are REALLY starting to show their age.  The padding on the seat had degenerated to a point that even my amply padded rear-end was struggling to find a comfortable position.  That said, my wife was right, even though I'm losing weight (15 lbs since March!) I'm still fat and having the extra seat width is worth the upgrade.

On the downside was the On-board entertainment and the food.  Or should I say, the lack thereof.

The OBE was not seat-back DirecTV as it has been on this flight in the past.  We were saddled with the drop-down screens & 7 channels of audio.  We also didn't have channel 9, which is my favorite piece of on-air flight porn.  If you're not familiar with channel 9 it's very simple. It's a feed into the flight radio. That might not be a big deal to some, but I'm always disappointed when I can't hear the chatter between the flight deck and the tower.  As such, I watched some bad movie starring Katherine Heigl where she was a bounty hunter or something.  For the most part I tried to catch some sleep.

This brings us to the food.  On my United App the First Class food selection was listed as "refreshments". Having not seen this before I was curious. Unfortunately, refreshments consisted of a rather anemic snack basket that was brought around a couple of times...and that's it.  Also, about 1/2 way through the flight they ran out of vodka.  As a dedicated vodka tonic drinker this made me rather sad.

Service was typical UA service as the flight attendants disappeared for long stretches of time. I never was formally greeted (something you should expect in FC IMO) and for the most part, other than the wider seat, the entire experience felt like an older coach flight, with slightly better snacks. (the snack basket did offer peanuts, and tiny Cliff bars, Pop-chips, and tiny Toblerone bars.)

One neat fact: Across the aisle from me sat Gary Kubiak and his wife.  I guess they were headed to Vegas for some R&R before the start of OTA's.  I didn't say much to him, other than hello and what not, because I'm not a big fan of harassing the rich and famous.  He was nice and talkative however during boarding and deplaning, so there's that.

Flight 2:
UA 1402
Depart LAS: 8:20 AM
Arrive IAH: 1:20 PM
Seat: 4A

The second leg of this trip was on what appeared to be either a fairly new, or recently refitted 737-800.  The difference between this plane and the 757 is enormous.  Even though the plane is smaller the flight was much more comfortable.  It also helped that my wife scored and upgrade as well and was seated right next to me in 4B.

Fortunately, for this leg, I did snag a few images of the cabin and airport:

 Center console and headsets
 Old UA livery
View from LAS Terminal D window

As you can see, the condition of the plane was very nice. And I think the view from LAS is one of the great views of any airport.  You can see the Stratosphere and strip in the background, reminding you of money given to the casinos I guess.  It was also nice to see the old UA Express livery still around.

Overall the seats were comfortable, the OBE worked fine (a rarity for me) so I decided to watch Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows since I haven't seen that movie yet.  It was fair.

What wasn't fair was the breakfast service.  Ostensibly they had two options: Eggs and sausage or cereal, yogurt and fruit.  I say ostensibly because, by the time they got to row 3, the egg and sausage option was gone, leaving the last two rows (there were only four rows in FC) with the option of cold cereal.  Needless to say I passed as I'm not a cold cereal fan. The unfortunate thing was that I was hungry, having not eaten breakfast since we woke up at 5:30 to pack, check out, make a ceremonial last pull on a slot machine, and head to the airport.  The thing is, since we were both FC and got to go through that security line at LAS (which gets you through in about 1/8 of the time) I had plenty of time to buy something to eat to take on the plane.  This is my normal M.O. with United now since the food is typically horrendous.  I was hoping to try their FC breakfast offerings to see if they had improved, but it was not to be. I ordered a cranberry juice and waited to arrive back in Houston for some bar-b-que.

I'm not sure what your feeling is on complaining about FC service if you've comped an upgrade.  Some people feel that you should just be quiet since you're getting a bonus in the first place, but some people feel that you should complain because the airline shouldn't care if you were upgraded or if you've paid full price.

I fall in the latter category.  First Class upgrades are earned in my view, by showing loyalty to a brand in respect to your travel dollars.  While I wasn't "angered" by the lack of service and food on the flights, had I paid full price to sit in one of those seats I would be. 

What this does is confirm to me that the threads I've seen on the FlyerTalk and MilePoint forums about UA downgrading their domestic First Class service are true.  I noticed a significant drop-off in service on this same route pre-merger and post-merger, especially in the food and beverage service. To me, this is odd, especially when you consider their two main competitors, AA and Delta, are showing signs that they're bumping up the levels of service in their FC sections.*

I also am increasingly of the opinion that it's wise to try and avoid UA's 757 fleet if at all possible.  Those aircraft are really starting to show their age, while their not yet as bad as US Airways, they're getting broken down to a point that the flight experience is no longer all that enjoyable, even in First Class. 

Overall there are still a thousand reasons for travellers based out of UA hubs to stick with United. The convenience and routing are far superior to those offered by any other airline.  As a semi-frequent traveller with a home airport of IAH, UA is still head and shoulders above the competition in flight availability and flexibility.  And the Star Alliance is a huge, huge plus although it could do to take on a few new partners.

Now that UA has (mostly) gotten their computer issues fixed, they still have one of the top websites in the industry, the competition isn't even close in some respects. (Try to find miles on US Airways, it's like playing where's Waldo.)

All that being said, flying UA can still be enjoyable provided you take a few pre-flight steps:

1. Bring your own food.  I don't care if you do get an upgrade to FC. United food can be inedible at times. You've got a better than average chance of having the best meal on the plane if you purchase something in the terminal pre-flight.

2. Bring your own entertainment.  Usually I fly with my Kindle and my .mp3 player. I didn't on this flight because they're boxed up due to house renovations.  I won't make that mistake again.  I'm also bringing my iPad, with movies pre-downloaded, on long-haul flights. 

3. Temper your expectations. There's still a lot of labor strife at UA and, at times, it shows. Not that the FA's are rude, but some are clearly not happy at their jobs.

4. Try to avoid 757 routes if possible.  This is a hard one, because UA flies a LOT of 757 metal.  If you can however, my experience is that your overall flight experience will be better.

One last point:

I found it telling that, with all of the PR problems UA has had post merger, that Smiling Jeff Smisek decided to dedicate the column inches of his CEO letter at the front of Horizon's to urge fliers to chide the EU on their carbon cap and trade scheme.  To me this was a great chance to offer up a mea culpa to passengers for all of the issues that they have been going through for the past couple of months.  Instead, it's another data point in the argument that Mr. Smisek possesses a customer service tin ear.

*I realize there's no comparing domestic FC with Trans-Atlantic or Trans-Pacific FC. So in a sense the AA vs. UA comparison on the link and this trip isn't valid. The onus for the link was to drive home the point that other airlines seem to be investing in their FC service (some in an attempt to bring it up to International airline standards, or at least, closer to them) while UA appears to be dumbing it down.

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