Late last year I decided to take advantage of a status match opportunity with United Airlines, matching my Executive Platinum status with American to United’s Premier Platinum tier. In fact, I used to be a Premier 1K for several years before switching to American, so this was like coming home. I left because the service and quality had fallen so much, along with my impression of the value offered by MileagePlus. I’m pleased to see that things have improved.
I’m in New York after having just flown in first class from Seattle with my new Platinum status attached to the reservation. My upgrade cleared at the last minute (it may have cleared sooner if not for five Global Services customers), and I had a better chance to determine if switching back was the right choice. Even flying into Newark, which is probably my least favorite airport, I can say it was a trip I’d like to take again.
Just looking at the basics:
- The booking process and all the check-in technology worked well and was informative.
- Pre-departure beverage service was offered, and flight attendants were cheerful.
- The gate agent came onboard to give me my new boarding pass (not necessary, but nice).
- We actually pushed back and arrived early.
But what about the in-flight experience? As a frequent flyer I look forward to my upgrades, so was this up to my new expectations?
Yes. There were three meal options for breakfast, including a separate fruit and yogurt course. Everything was plated (my preference) rather than served on hot dishes from the oven. We even had separate plates for breakfast pastry and a cookie at the end of the flight.
The food was basically the same — I still saw the weird potato triangle on my plate, which tastes fine but has the most awful texture. What mattered was that there was more of it and the presentation was vastly improved. For example, there was salsa and some roasted peppers an onions. I have this obsession with salsa because it seems to be the one easy fix to make bad food taste good on airplanes. American Airlines used to have salsa, and now everything is starch and cheese. I’m glad to see United picked up the baton.
Of course, the coffee sucked, but I hear United is switching to Illy at some point.
I also tried out the in-flight WiFi. I am accustomed to using GoGo on American Airlines and Alaska Airlines. In both cases it can be extremely slow and sometimes requires me to reconnect. I also have to remember to buy a 1-hour pass on the ground where it’s cheaper. United operates its own WiFi, and from this single experience seems to be much better.
Pricing is offered at two hourly rates depending on what kind of access you want. Even for full Internet browsing ability at $3.99 per hour, it was already cheaper than GoGo, and I didn’t have to pre-pay for a whole flight. The best part is that you can pause and re-start your access as needed. That means I can log in at the start of beverage service, pause it during dinner, start it up again, and so on.
If my only real need is email or to check the occasional web page, I could theoretically stretch one hour across the entire flight.
The speed was pretty good, too. I do better with the free connection in my hotel room right now, but if I’m surfing cat videos at the speed of sound, I’m not going to complain.
The quality of my travel experience has definitely improved from what I recall of United three years ago (and I have another data point from a short flight in economy class between Las Vegas and San Francisco).
I said the other reason for my departure was a decline in the value offered by MileagePlus. United hasn’t really done anything to improve there. Instead, my feeling is that American has made many of the same changes that Delta and United made and is therefore no longer competitive.
MileagePlus may now be the best program of the three since it also offers more generous award routing rules, including stopovers, which is my greatest priority for a loyalty program. You could disagree. But really, the point of this post is that a good program won’t be enough to make me fly with them if the passenger experience stinks. I’m glad to see I won’t have to worry too much.