A few weeks ago I wrote about my EWR-BOS flight with United – my first domestic flight with the airline in years. I was a little surprised by how subpar the product was, though I realize that such a short flight on an old 737-700 is not the best way to judge the airline — for what it’s worth, Delta operates their northeast shuttle with Embraer E170s or E175s, while American flies modern E190s or A319s. I was looking forward to my next United flight to see if things were better on a different route, and that came just a few weeks later thanks to a work trip to New Orleans.
I flew down on Thursday morning for a conference, returning Sunday evening. Normally I avoid flying out of Newark (EWR) if I’m leaving from home in Brooklyn, but of the available flights to New Orleans, United had the best timing. I reserved a Dial 7 car for 7 a.m. to make my 9:35 flight. For the most part I like taking Dial 7 when I can use a car service. They've been fairly consistent and are easy to book over the phone or through their app. I was a little concerned about traffic when the driver took us through Manhattan instead of Staten Island, but it was early enough that we had a smooth ride. Thanks to tolls and fares the trip was a small fortune, reminding me that it’s worth taking public transportation from the city to EWR whenever possible.
At Newark's Terminal C, the TSA PreCheck lane is a bit tricky to find, as the signage is unclear and you have to walk upstairs to a different level. There were a surprising number of people in the line who were unfamiliar with the security process (no, you don't have to take your shoes off if you're PreCheck), it was pretty quick.
Like last time, I found Terminal C to be a bit lacking. At this point I was hungry and uncaffeinated so I stopped at the Vanguard Kitchen restaurant, where I spent nearly $20 on some yogurt and coffee while incredibly distracting advertisements flashed at me on the iPads which were bolted to the table. There is no free WiFi, but if you have a Boingo subscription — I have a subscription included through my Starwood Preferred Guest Amex — you can still get online.
As I made my way to the gate and got in line to board, the gate agent made an announcement asking for three volunteers to fly out the next morning — both this flight, and the only other direct flight later in the day were oversold. In exchange, they were offering a $500 travel voucher. Eventually they offered to have people fly to Dallas DFW that morning and connect on an American Airlines flight to New Orleans later that afternoon. I was tempted, but it would be cutting it too close to the start of my conference. They continued to make the announcement on the plane, looking for one more person to bump, and eventually a man volunteered and de-planed.
The flight was on an Airbus A320, and it was a marked improvement over the aging 737-7 we flew to Boston. The seats were nice and pristine in a pleasant gray pleather, and my headrest was nice and soft. The cabin was bright thanks to some nicely-toned interior lighting, and there was plenty of room in the overheads.
Over the course of the flight I found myself much more comfortable than last time. Instead of the terrible seat-back screens with only DirectTV available for a fee, this plane had a BYO device system. You connect your phone, tablet, or laptop to the plane's wifi and stream movies and shows for free. You can also access the airshow, which is live-refreshing. The lack of screens avoided the incredibly annoying advertisement issue that I noticed on the last flight — ads weren't broadcast over the PA system either.
One thing that's odd was that you could watch some movies and shows from your device's web browser, but other ones required you to open the United app to watch them (on mobile devices). I wonder why this is. Some kind of licensing issue maybe? While I have the app on my phone I don't usually keep it on my iPad. Fortunately I downloaded it the night before just in case. I ended up watching London Has Fallen, which was a pretty mindless and terrible action movie. In other words, perfect for half-watching during a quick flight.
The entire flight was comfortable enough and uneventful. I was in the window seat in row 28. The only notable thing during the flight was that when the seat belt sign turned off, what felt like a third of the plane got up to use the two lavatories at the back. Thankfully the line went quickly. Soon enough, we landed and I was in a cab to the Le Méridien New Orleans hotel. The hotel was a great property for my need during this trip — stay tuned for a later post about my time in New Orleans.
Sunday afternoon I headed to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) for my flight home. I arrived for my 5:30 p.m. flight at around 3:45, and was surprised to see how crowded the security area was. Even the PreCheck line was slow. About 15 minutes later, I was through and wandering around Terminal D. The terminal is fairly small but comfortable enough, with plenty of places to sit (although to be fair, it wasn't too busy). I grabbed a chair at the Jester's Bar, ordered a Bloody Mary, and used the airport's free WiFi until boarding.
The flight home was on a 737-800. I was stuck with a middle seat, which was strange because I thought I had selected an aisle. I'm also sure that I hadn't picked one of the "Preferred" seats only available for elites to select — maybe there was an equipment swap and I hadn't noticed. That's what I get for not double-checking before check-in. As I joined boarding group 4, the gate agent asked for one volunteer to be bumped, again offering a $500 voucher. Tempted as I was, it had been a tiring trip and I was looking forward to being home!
Like on my outbound flight, this plane had a fresh-feeling interior, this time with blue seat covers. The 3-3 seating arrangement was comfortable enough for the short flight, even stuck in the middle. While this plane was equipped with DirectTV and seat-back screens, it still had streaming entertainment and airshow available to your personal device. One annoyance was that the controls for DirectTV were on the top of the arm rest. I kept accidentally turning the screen on with my elbow.
The flight was relatively easy, with two notable things. First, even though the flight was scheduled to depart New Orleans at 5:30 p.m. and arrive at 9:30, there was no meal or substantial food available, even for purchase — just snacks like chips and candy. I had (wrongly) assumed that there would be sandwiches available due to the timing of the flight, so I was pretty hungry by the time we landed. The second thing was that my neighbor in the window seat became ill, and there was no refuse bag in his seat-pocket. Fortunately there was one in mine, and I was able to get it to him in time.
Soon enough, I was on the ground and getting into my Dial 7 car home. This time we took the Goethals and Verrazano bridges through Staten Island to get back to Brooklyn. It only took a few minutes for the car to circle around and pick me up, and it was a pretty quick drive. The price was even more expensive than it was coming to the airport, though. From now on, I'm going to avoid flying out of EWR unless I'm leaving from Manhattan, from which mass transit is quick and easy.
After my second domestic round-trip with United Airlines, I have a much more favorable impression. Overall I still prefer Delta, and expect that the New York City-Boston route would be much better with them or American. I also still find United's terminal at EWR uncomfortable, and the airport can be expensive or a pain to get to from the outer boroughs, so I'll likely defer to JFK whenever possible. If the best flight option is on United, though, I'll definitely go for that.