United Airlines is one of the largest commercial airlines in the world and you can see their planes all around the world. You can see the advertisements for their flights, reward program and credit cards all over the place, yet you can also read about their struggles since their merger with Continental Airlines. With all of that, should you make them your favorite airline?
United Airlines – who are they? United Airlines (airline code UA) is one of the largest commercial airlines in the world, headquartered in Chicago, USA. United serves 342 destinations in 60 countries, from hubs in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Francisco, Washington DC, Guam and Tokyo, giving it exceptional reach. United is operating a fleet of 742 planes with an average fleet age of 14.4 years, making it one of the older fleets in the skies. You’ll find a mix of narrow- and widebody Airbus and Boeing planes on domestic and international routes, in a wide variety of configurations. United is part of Star Alliance, the largest airline alliance in the world.
SkyTrax rates United as a 3 (out of 5) star airline, on par with Delta and American but behind many large European, Asian or Middle Eastern carriers. AirlineRatings gives it a perfect 7 (out of7) rating for safety.
Why should I care? If you live in one of the nine United hubs in the USA, chances are you are part of United’s “captive audience”. They have a large share of flights in these hubs, making them a default choice for many frequent (business) travelers in those cities.
United has extensive coverage around the world. It’s participation in Star Alliance gives passengers access to the largest network of airlines and destinations. The United frequent flier program MileagePlus is also one of the largest in the world with countless partners in the air, among hotels, rental cars, shopping, dining, credit card companies and on an on. There are plenty of options to earn and redeem MileagePlus miles, but much digital ink has been spent on the decline of the program with severe devaluation of the points currency. You can find a detailed review of the program here
What else do I need to know? If the extensive route network and large frequent flier program isn’t enough to get you onboard (or the lowest price), then the hard product or service are probably not going to do it either. United offers five classes of service. It still has Polaris First Class on several older planes on international routes, but it has not been competitive for years and will be phased out. I have spent more time in United’s Business Class than any other premium cabin and I have slept well in it. But it has earned the nick name “sardine class” for the tight 2-4-2 layout (the same as width as Premium Economy on other airlines) and is being replaced by the more competitive Polaris Business Class in a 1-2-1 layout! On domestic routes, it offers First Class, which is roughly the same as the new Premium Economy class introduced for international routes. In addition you’ll find Economy Plus and Economy cabins. A separate fare type is the dreaded Basic Economy – Economy stripped of any meaningful extras.
Regardless of your cabin, the service won’t wow you – it can’t compete with 5-star airlines like Singapore Airlines or ANA. I do think it has slightly improved since the disastrous years after the merger with Continental, but boarding with low expectations is the best way to avoid disappointment.
Where United shines (relatively) is in their online and app presence: The mobile apps and website have broad functionality and work reasonably well. It’s pretty easy to book your flight (with miles or cash), manage it and check-in online, watch your upgrade or flight status and board with your mobile app. Staying online is your best bet – because call center services are very mixed. If you are fortunate enough to call their Global Services line for highest-revenue customers, your hold will be short and service can be stellar. If you end up with an entry level call-center employee in the far-flung network of service centers around the world, you might be pulling your hair out – or just hang up & call again to spin the feel-of-fortune anew for a better agent.