About a week and a half ago, I flew United for the first time in a few years. Usually when I go between New York and Boston I take Amtrak, but United had a great fare which my fiancée Reni and I jumped on for our Friday to Tuesday visit. Admittedly it wasn't the best way to experience the airline – the trip was less than an hour each way – but the outbound flight was one of the less pleasant flights I've taken lately.
That Friday evening saw an intense storm system move into the northeast, causing delays into and out of Newark. We took New Jersey Transit (which was operating on schedule, despite the previous day's derailment at Hoboken) to the airport, and, after looking around for the TSA PreCheck line, zipped through security. No matter how many times I use PreCheck, I'll never get tired of speeding through the security line. Terminal C of EWR is pretty boring and uncomfortable, outside of a few higher scale restaurants managed by the OTG company, none of which are great places to work on a laptop. Lacking lounge access, we eventually settled down at the Abruzzo Italian Steakhouse to share a few sides and do some work. Unfortunately most of the restaurant seats all throughout Terminal C have iPads bolted to the table, which you can order from. That's handy, but they also flash constant advertisements at you, which is super distracting. We were almost tempted to pay the absurd $59/each fee to enter the lounge, except that because of overcrowding caused by delays the United Club wasn't accepting day-passes. We would have had to leave security and go to Terminal B to find another lounge, such as the cheaper Priority Pass lounge, so we put up with it.
I was surprised to see that as little as an hour before our flight, we were still listed as on time. I had been pulling up our flight on FlightAware to see where the plane was coming from, and saw that by that point it was around two hours delayed out of Houston IAH. Backtracking the plane, I could see it had picked up delays throughout the day from ORD to EWR, EWR to IAH, and now IAH back to EWR. I realize that the airline doesn't want to post a delay until they know exactly how long it will be, but announcing it sooner would be more customer friendly. It was obvious that the plan wouldn't be making up the full time anywhere, and if we had known earlier we could've stayed at our offices a little longer.
Eventually we boarded, about an hour-and-a-half later than scheduled. I suppose that the plane managed to make up half an hour somewhere. As we boarded, we had to gate-check our roller bags due to the flight being full. The interior of our 737-700 was dated, but at least had individual screens with live DirectTV. I stowed my backpack under the seat in front of me and leaned back to settle in – onto a piece of hard metal (or plastic)! The headrest on my seat was so old that the padding and either completely compressed, or was missing altogether. Fortunately we didn't have any major turbulence or a hard landing, otherwise that could have been unpleasant or even dangerous. After a taxiing and waiting on a bit of a line, we took off.
(It's worth noting that I reached out to United advising them about the faulty headrest so that they could change it, and they offered me a voucher to put towards a future flight.)
Since most of my flights over the past few years have been with Delta, some of the differences in routine stood out pretty sharply. For instance, this flight had so many ads. After the safety video, and after takeoff, there was what felt like a nonstop barrage of advertisements. They were slinging in-flight DirectTV service and co-branded Chase credit cards, advertising United's US Olympic sponsorship, and so on. It felt like being on RyanAir, where the advertising is part of what you put up with in exchange for the cheap fare. I guess on a longer transcontinental flight that wouldn't be so memorable, but this was a sub-hour trip. It felt like ads were playing for most of it!
On a more positive note, the boarding process was much smoother than the sloppy mess it usually is on Delta. This was partly because United has a more efficient system of managing boarding zones and having people line up.
In terms of in-flight entertainment (IFE), again, this was a 55-minute flight so it didn't really matter. I had a book I was happy to sink into (once the advertisements stopped). Having the live TV option is great, and I can understand United charging for it. It just strikes me as surprising that in a time when Delta and American both offer most of their IFE for free, there was no complimentary alternative to the live TV. No movies, music, etc. I wonder if that's the case on all their domestic flights, or just the short hops? Last time I flew United internationally was in 2013, and although my IFE system was broken that time, I remember that there was no charge.
Even more surprising was that you couldn't view the air show without paying. To access it, you had to flip to a "Flight Map" channel, which displayed a message with the DirectTV pricing. Very annoying if you want to see how far away you are from your destination.
After a fun and busy long weekend in Boston with Reni's family, we flew back to New York first thing on Tuesday morning. We had less time in the airport than we did on the outbound flight, since the return flight was so early, but it was definitely nicer than Newark's Terminal C. United recently renovated Boston Logan's Terminal B, and the work paid off in the form of a bright, airy terminal with a ton of places to sit while waiting to board. The weather was much nicer this time, and my headrest was nice and soft. We were delayed about 15 minutes because a tire had to be replaced – the co-pilot found a nail in the tire during his walk-around. Soon enough, we were in the air for an uneventful flight home. After a quick train ride, it was off to work.
I've mostly flown Delta over the past few years, and their domestic product felt more polished overall than United's. That said, it wasn't exactly an apples to apples comparison, since I haven't flown the Delta shuttle to Boston recently. I'm flying United again in a week to New Orleans for a work conference, so maybe it'll be a different experience.