The front page article in today's Chicago Tribune documents a reporter's five day journey around the United Airlines domestic system, and what he learned while doing so.  Because United has become a lot more competitive while in bankruptcy, I've flown them a lot more in the last couple of years and wondered if the reporter's observations would match mine.

The article is disappointing on many fronts.  I expected it to be more in-depth, and more complete in the analysis and less reliant on hearsay and individual stories.  Here are some examples:

First, how can United be judged just by travelling their domestic flights?  The airline has acknowledged that part of their reorganization has been to expand their international network, leaving the US flights increasingly to their outsourced regional partners.  The reporter documents the story of one frequent flier who apparently gives up on United when one leg of his trip is actually booked on a regional jet (horror!).  Now, I'm not a huge fan of the smaller plans, but these Embraer-170s that fly for United Express have Economy Plus and even First Class sections.  They have decent overhead bins and are quiet.  What's the problem?

Second, the reporter describes frequent flyer amenities as if they are gluttonous luxury entitlements, even when acknowledging that those of us who use them actually pay for them:

Of course, it's not that way for everyone.

Travelers in United's first- and business-class on a morning flight from O'Hare to San Francisco were greeted by name by flight attendants. Orange juice or water was pressed into their hands as soon as they sat down. Breakfast was fresh fruit or eggs with hollandaise sauce.

The wide seats have a footrest and a headrest that cradles the noggin and a private screen for viewing in-flight movie flips up from the armrest. On the armrest are fingertip controls for music channels, volume, and the back massager. "This is the only way I fly," one traveler said before leaning back and closing her eyes. "I'm spoiled."

Many who fly in the most expensive sections are the same travelers who use the Red Carpet Clubs, United's exclusive VIP rooms that require membership or charge for entry.
Third, little of his story uniquely profiles the United experience.  There are rude and incompetent gate agents at every airline.  All of the US domestic airlines are nickel-and-diming on amenities.

Here's my experience, were I to have encountered this reporter and asked to tell my story.  Bankruptcy scared United.  They used to have a prevalent  attitude of  "who gives a sh*t" on almost everything.  In the time they've been in Chapter 11, I've flown them all over the globe and found better service, better food (bring back the Frapuccinos, though, please), and even more comfortable planes than 3+ years ago.  Their baggage handling still sucks rocks and is the one area they really need to fix.  I'd like to see them finish hiding behind Chapter 11 soon and have to compete, but I'm confident they are doing many of the right things to make that happen.  I still favor American Airlines for a lot of reasons, but United is no longer in my "to be avoided" category and is instead now a solid #2 choice.

Link: Chicago Tribune: Fliers share stress of a weary airline >

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