DL/UA head-to-head: CLT-MSP-SAN 6 Jan and SAN-IAD-CLT 18 Jan

Heading back to San Diego for the final weeks of engagement with this customer, the flight options were limited. I wanted a late Sunday morning departure, but the best I could do was 8:15 connecting through MSP. It’s the latest option until a 4:30 PM departure that arrives close to 10:00 PM and that’s just no good. So here we are.

I still haven’t hit my Gold challenge officially – Delta only started counting when they finished processing the request, not when I actually made the request. In between, there were two full CLT-ATL-SAN round trips, so I’m hoping that this trip manages to finish that off or get them to pull back the start date.

06:30 arrival at the airport, the shuttle bus from long term parking dropped me at the ticketing area at 06:45. A long line for Delta economy ticket agents, but I only waited a minute before getting an open kiosk in front of the Sky Priority lanes. The agent quickly tagged my two bags (it’s a two-week trip) and put yellow priority tags on them. I backed over to the B security checkpoint and there were about 35 economy passengers waiting but zero in the Preferred / Elite line. A quick “opt out” pat down and I was on my way. As usual, it was almost completely useless.

I stopped in the B concourse US lounge with my United Club card for a bagel (no toaster?), oatmeal and coffee. Lounge was busy but fully stocked. No bar tender on duty, as usual for US in the morning.

Gate A8 is one of the former Northwest gates, as this flight was headed to MSP. I’ve been headed to ATL almost every time I’ve been on Delta lately, so I don’t know if this is intentionally still splitting the two former carriers or what. UA still splits – A2 and A4 go to Chicago and Washington (and two AC to YYZ) where A10 and A11 seem to go to Houston and Newark.

The flight was called a bit late (7:55 for 8:15 departure) for preboards (no takers), F and then “Zone 1”. It should have been “Sky Priority” but I didn’t correct the gate agent. On board, I perched in 4A on this ERJ-170 even though my seat was 4B to avoid getting smacked by rollaboards and handbags. Row 4 is the first in Y and where the middle aisle realigns. I was 3 of 4 for 2 upgrades, so I didn’t get it today. On the plus side, my seatmate didn’t show up. Economy Comfort seat with great legroom. We pushed back, were first for departure and were wheels up at 8:24.

F had a hot breakfast, Y had a single pass with a full can and choice of pretzels, peanuts or Biscoffs. The FA’s did not deploy the curtain to separate the two classes. I signed on to gogo using a borrowed account and surfed. Excellent, but not worth $10.

At MSP, it was a long walk from the arriving gate F5 to departing gate G20. No trains and few slidewalks, it took me 20 minutes at a medium pace. Coffee and a muffin from a one-off coffee shop while I waited and watched the kettles head to MCO and MIA.

Another flight where I failed to upgrade (9 of 16 for 8) that was similarly uneventful. We arrived in SAN 25 minutes early.

Before I knew it, two weeks in SAN was coming to an end. We had a change of plans and my flight to AVP was cancelled. By Thursday afternoon, all of the Delta flights for Friday night out of SAN were sold out or extremely expensive. So over to United.com I went, where I found an exit row to IAD available.

Friday evening, I arrived at Terminal 1 at 8:00. SAN still has the backscatter machines and I did my usual opt-out. I mentioned to the TSO that she shouldn’t even be *near* the machines and she said that she’s pregnant. Yep, that makes sense.

United has a club in Terminal 1 for the United fliers to Washington and Chicago, but the former Continental flights are still in Terminal 2 where there is no club. One airline, eh?

It took me a bit to find the lounge as it’s behind you as you step off the escalator. But there it was, with all the usual United amenities – Milanos, snack mix and self-serve coffee plus the usual wrapped cheese. Free beer available at the small bar were Bud Light, Heineken and the local Karl Strauss Brewery’s Amber. I had the Amber and sat for an hour with my laptop on their free wifi.

Over at the gate at 9:40 for the 10:20 departure, I could tell it was going to be slow. 35 teenagers on a school trip to Washington for the inauguration. All with rollaboards and backpacks and all in Zone 4 or 5. I boarded with Zone 2 (I was 8 of 22 for 2 seats). Seat 21A on this A320 is the second of the two exit rows. Excellent legroom in an Economy Plus seat with the tray table in the armrest. 35 minutes of watching the junior kettles and their bags come on and then be removed later, we pushed back 20 minutes late. Light out and a dark beverage/BOB service, the movie Pitch Perfect was on the overhead IFE. No gogo and no inseat power, I worked on my laptop until the battery died and then I had the only overhead light on the whole aircraft with my book for the rest of the flight.

We ended up 20 minutes early into IAD, which was very quiet and very dark at 6AM. I found the D concourse club for a bagel and some juice before heading to the gate.

At the gate is where the trip started to go a little sideways. The gate agent made an announcement that we were delayed because the aircraft was too cold to board and we would have to wait until it warmed up. Fifteen minutes later, the same again. At 8:27, the overhead board reported our 8:17 departure was pushed to 8:29. Finally at 8:50, we boarded the aircraft. I had been upgraded (yay!) to seat 1A on this Embraer 170, so I got to experience the cold Washington weather even though the flight attendant drew the curtain over the door.

The captain made an announcement that we were delayed a few more minutes because the host on the APU starter had cracked due to the cold and we were waiting for a replacement. In the meanwhile, the FA did a pre-departure drink service. Finally, the jetbridge retracted, the door closed and we pushed back at 9:10 for a short taxi to the penalty box. We were informed that due to the late departure, we had missed our landing slot at Charlotte and would be here for 15 minutes to wait. Fifteen minutes later, the second engine started, we taxied to the runway and were off. Another drink service in F, trash pick up and then descent into Charlotte.

Gate A4, so a short walk to the baggage claim which amazingly started only 5 minutes later. That very rarely happens! One of my bags was the second to appear. The second bag was much further back. Both had “Priority” tags on them. Out to the shuttle bus area and even better, a bus to long term 2 was already waiting. That also very rarely happens!

Both carriers provide similar service in the back of the cabin with Economy Comfort or Economy Plus seating. Drinks and a snack. Delta’s wireless internet might be a selling point for those who are willing to pay for it but it’s not enough to cause me to make the switch. The gate agents in SAN should have done a better job with the rollaboards – I’ve heard Delta gate agents make multiple announcements to courtesy check bags but I did not heard that from United.

Summary: Comfortable and safe travel, no real complaints. I’d like to see better passenger handling by United in San Diego. Both carriers did a fine job. A- for Delta and B+ for United.

With as many flights as Delta has from CLT to ATL, MSP, DTW, MEM, JFK and even SLC, they should consider a small Sky Club here.

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Delta versus United: A new Delta frequent flyer’s perspective by Bruce

I have flown fourteen segments on Delta in the last four weeks since I requested that they match my United Gold elite status to Delta’s Gold Medallion. In that time, I have experienced Delta in economy as a non-elite flyer (the status match request took three weeks to be processed) and in the first class cabin (50% upgrades so far). I have also seen how they handle irregular operations.

First of all, economy is about the same on Delta as on every other carrier: zone 4 or 5 boarding, no room in the overhead bins by the time you’re on the plane, small seat pitch, and your checked bags are not the first onto the carousel. That said, Delta’s aircraft (at least the Boeing 757/767, Airbus 319 and MD-88’s) are clean and functional. Longer flights have a beverage service with a choice of peanuts, Biscoff cookies or pretzels. On seven of my eight forty-minute flights between Charlotte and Atlanta, we did not have a beverage service “due to the short duration” and on the eighth, the flight attendants passed out mini bottles of Dasani.

Once my status match was processed, I was upgraded on two of my four segments. On the others, I have received Sky Priority boarding, which is ahead of Zone 1, and when I checked bags, they were yellow Priority tagged and were in the first few to arrive on the carousel.

On one of my trips, there was a ground traffic problem that caused our push-back to be delayed by 45 minutes. During that time, the Captain made announcements every 10 minutes with the status and he apologized for the delay. Arriving late in Atlanta, I missed my connection, which was the last flight to San Diego. Delta gave me a hotel voucher (the agent allowed me select the hotel), $22 in food vouchers, and a small amenity kit of personal care items. I understand that non-elite travelers receive a bit less.

For the replacement flight, Delta booked me in first class (I might have been upgraded, not sure). First class is top notch. On the long Atlanta to San Diego segment, we were served a full breakfast –cheese omelet with sausages and potatoes, a bowl of fruit, a toasted bagel and decent coffee. On a Charlotte-Detroit flight segment in first class, I was offered a pre-departure beverage (I chose a gin & tonic, which came with a squeezed lime), another one in flight (I was offered a third) and the snack basket.

Almost all of my flights had in-flight entertainment. In economy, the movies and TV shows are not free – usually a dollar for a half-hour show or $4 for a full length movie. When I got bored with my book, I watched the free satellite stations  – CNN, ESPN, TNT – and the broadcast networks.

Where is Delta better than United?

Delta’s flights have WiFi, which for many is a big deal but has not been for me. My work does not require that level of connectivity and I can’t justify $15 to surf for entertainment (though Delta’s website is free and they have also had free access to eBay). There are satellite stations on the in-flight TVs. Delta Sky Clubs have better snacks and drinks than United. I am truly sick of the three choices of wrapped cheese and the Walker’s shortbread cookies. (US Airways is an alliance partner of United and their snacks are awful!)

Where is United better than Delta?

I have had a few bumps with Delta’s app for Android where it gets confused with viewing my itineraries. United’s app has more features: you can actually book a flight on it and do basic searches for award bookings. Delta’s app has also gotten stuck a couple of times on loading itineraries and never completing the request. Both have flight status searches, airport maps, and searches for clubs. Searching for flights by schedule and by price is easier on United.com. Delta has hidden the price when I searched by schedule. Channel 9 allows you to listen to in-flight communications with ground control. Delta does not offer this.

So for now, I’m a happy Delta flyer. I would much rather connect in Houston or even Chicago rather than Atlanta. I find Atlanta a difficult airport to change concourses. I found that I needed at least 45 minutes, especially if you’re not in the front of the aircraft. However, Atlanta’s One Flew South restaurant is excellent if you have the time.

Dear United: What gives? (Part 2)

Editor’s Note:  This is a follow-up letter to this post dated August 27, 2012.  The United customer still has not received a response, so he has escalated his complaint.

September 27, 2012

I wonder what I need to do to get United Airlines to reply on this issue. I had even copied the President of your company and I’ve not even been given the courtesy of a reply. It’s been more than two months since you unilaterally changed the terms of my ticket purchase, a violation of DOT regulations that I referenced in my reply to your message from a month ago. A reply which you have not acknowledged or responded to.

I am extremely disappointed in United Airlines. Here we are, MONTHS after your famously bunged technology merger with the acquired Continental Airlines, and it feels like Customer Care is similarly lost like many people’s baggage. It’s been three YEARS since the famous United Breaks Guitars, after which I heard that United was changing its customer service policy. Well, it seems like nothing has changed. You are ignoring me, like you seem to ignore so many other customers.

It is very, very sad to see the result of what was once two great airlines turn into this. Where do we go from here?

Dear United: What gives?

Below is feedback sent to United a little over two weeks ago about a trip that took place on August 10, 2012.  The customer has not yet received a response, so he gave me permission to share his issues via my blog and social media.

In 300 segments of travel in the last couple of years, I have never seen a worse performance by an airline as I did last night, starting with the operations team that decided to board Charlotte NC (CLT) and Charlottesville VA (CHO) at the same gate – A1E and A1F.

But perhaps that would have been acceptable if the gate agents had a clue what they were doing. Starting by calling the boarding for Charlottesville, they had scanned the boarding passes for four or five passengers before they realized that they were BOARDING THE WRONG FLIGHT! They had to send someone down the hallway to bring these passengers back. And then they started calling Charlotte.

While I don’t want to add a racial component here, the fact that neither of these two GAs were primary English speakers certainly didn’t help.

All of this on top of several other late flights being screamed and shouted at the same podium and the one next to it.

What the h*** is going on at United Airlines these days?

Below is a list of issues the customer encountered:

– Cancelled flights (they cancelled two of the afternoon’s three ATL-ORD due to weather)
– Unhappy passengers (the one flight that did go still left 20+ standbys behind)
– An “almost-a-mechanical” on the runway. Quote: “We’re being rerouted and need to update the computer, but it shouldn’t be more than a few minutes,” then the cockpit didn’t give us any further info for 25 minutes. By that point, I had signalled the FA to call and ask what’s up. The Captain said that they had a mechanical issue that took them a little while to resolve but “it’s all good now and we’ll be on our way in a few minutes.”
– And I-don’t-know-what was going on with the baggage carousel at Charlotte. They couldn’t open the door to the belt or something and so it took a half hour for me to get my bag, which was thankfully the first one on the belt.
– There were eight passengers from an earlier flight that didn’t get their bags. This was at 12:15 AM while I was watching them fiddle with the carousel.

So United, what is going on?  And why has this customer waited 17 days and counting for a response?

14 July 2012 YBG-YUL [AC] YUL-EWR [UA] EWR-CLT [US] by Bruce

Returning from three weeks onsite in lovely Bagotville, Quebec. A nice little town, I was pleasantly surprised. Lots of French speaking, but almost the entire time I was able to get by with English or I could fall back to pointing. Lots of restaurants (smoked meat is basically pastrami) and good beer. I was sad to learn that I missed this weekend’s wine festival and next weekend’s beer festival.

Bagotville (YBG) is a very small airport, with one departure gate area. I checked two bags which did not get a Priority tag on them. I didn’t really want to be one of “those” people at this point, so I let it slide. I waited in the main area about ten minutes before the flight was called.

Their version of the TSA only opens up when the arriving flight is on final approach. Just as well, as there is not even a Coke machine in the waiting area. Magnetometer and baggage xray only, we get to keep our shoes on. I did not alert and was not selected for a wanding.

Three flights a day from Bagotville to Montréal are served by Air Canada’s Jazz Express on a DH-1. Eight rows of two-by-two and a ninth row that is five across. It’s a one-hour flight, but the flight attendant managed to dispense half-can drink service and a small bag of AC-branded pretzels. There are no decent seats on the aircraft – the exit row has a bit more legroom but it is right behind the propeller so there is more engine noise. I had 6F and fortunately no seatmate. If you can choose, 9A and 9F are the best only because they are the furthest from the engine.

Arriving at YUL, we used the “domestic jetty” area and the aircraft’s own stairs. It’s a long walk to the US departures area. US Customs and Immigration at YUL is staffed by US agents. I had my immigration card ready and was not queried extensively. From there, it’s another good walk to the gate areas.

AC has three Maple Leaf lounges at YUL and somehow I thought that one of them was where I was headed. I was mistaken. There is the Domestic lounge (which I used when I came down to YUL a couple weekends ago), an International lounge and the Transborder lounge. None of these are in the USA departures area where UA, AA, DL and US have their gates.

The flight was called for “All elite 1K, Platinum, Gold, Silver and Zones 1 through 5 may board at this time.” The gate agent here is an airport employee and is not UA. UA upgraded me on this ERJ-170 and I had seat 3F. A pleasant flight attendent served a half can (with a lime!) with a bag of snack mix and offered a refill. An hour flight, we were on the ground in Newark before the battery on my laptop even reached 50%. I spent the two-hour layover in the Club, eating single-wrapped cheese, yogurt raisins and drinking Sam Adams.

Over to the gate, there is no transfer shuttle between the two concourses, you have to leave the secure area. Security took 20 minutes, including 7 crew who showed up at the head of the line. I don’t begrudge them, but 7 in a row is a bit much. I did not set off the magnetometer and there is no advanced screening at this particular area.

Very few power outlets in this area, so I people watched. Especially the US-operated EWR-LAS flight at the next gate. The gate lice here are extreme. Even the one guy who I thought was cutting through the crowd when they called Zone 1 came to a screeching halt in front of everyone. And then he stood there through Zone 2. And Zone 3. And finally moved forward for Zone 4. Twit!

It was the same again for the Charlotte flight, but I was past caring. At least the FA turned away a Zone 5 and a Zone 4 that tried to board with Zone 1, but she had no enforcement of carry-on bag sizes. I had seat 3F on this A320, a bulkhead. This gave me a bird’s eye view of the massive luggage being carried on and lugged down the aisle. Two of them came forward again as they wouldn’t be jammed into an overhead.

After departure, the dude in 3D put his feet up on the wall. It’s no longer carpet, it’s some sort of plastic that must be easy to wash if they ever get around to it. I caught his eye and told him to take his feet down. “This isn’t your house.” Half can beverage service was interrupted by brief turbulence and then discontinued for the remainder of the flight. The FA’s had already done their last patrol and then they pulled out their electronics again. I caught the eye of the guys in 3B and 3C and told them to turn off their electronics. “Why?,” they asked. “Because they said so,” I replied. I was now going to be one of “those” people.

We arrived CLT 25 minutes early (pad your schedule much?) but our gate was ready. B1. The carousel areas were very crowded with a couple of flights in the B areas waiting. EWR’s took 25 minutes to appear on the carousel. Even though I did not have a Priority tag, my two were among the first to appear. Amazingly, there was a Long Term 1 parking shuttle just pulling up as I stepped outside.

Summary: I was expecting my luggage to get screwed up with a three-carrier itinerary across a border, but it somehow made it. Kudos to AC, UA and US on that. The travel itself was good. Nothing to complain about, though I would prefer UA was using a mainline for YUL-EWR. US was just fine. Grade of B all around.

Side note: Flying three carriers in a day gave me a good look at their in-flight magazines. Of course, all the cover stories were on London. Air Canada’s enRoute had the most detail with three reporters filing stories on the city, but United’s Hemispheres was the best read. Their “Three Perfect Days” column has always been useful for me when visiting a new city. Having spent two years in the London area, I thought their recommendations were pretty solid. US’s in flight magazine (no special title) was more of a sales tool with more stories about the Piedmont Triad area than London.

Total Trip Cost: $ 1,285.21
Actual Airfare: $ 1,102.24
Actual Miles Flown: 2191 (3058 EQM’s with 500 mile rounding)
Yield: $ 0.503 per mile (0.360 per EQM)
Taxes & Fees: $ 182.97, 14.24% of ticket price

TYS-DEN-TYS on United Express June 14 and June 18, 2012

Note: Both flights were UA 6075 operated by ExpressJet on the Embraer 145 (E145, EMB-145, ER-145) regional jet aircraft with only one class of service and no Economy Plus or “premium” seating except for exit row 12.

When I checked in online for my June 14 outbound flight, I discovered I had lost my paid, premium seat assignment and had been moved to 19A. I had to re-select exit 12A. The baggage fee was easy to pay online. I wasn’t offered the option to buy extra redeemable miles or Elite Access.

When I arrived at TYS (Knoxville MGhee Tyson Airport), I discovered the two Uniteds (United/former Continental) still had separate ticket counters, one for DEN/IAD/ORD and one for EWR/IAH departures.

Security was very quick and easy, but I was disappointed that TYS had a full-body scanner.

We boarded by groups. There were a few passengers in groups 1-4, but most were 5-6.  I think I boarded last.

In flight, there was only one beverage service. No snacks or food were offered. I spent the flight reading a wine book I had downloaded onto my iPad from amazon.com. A 2-hour 37-minute flight (1162 nautical miles) was too long without any in-flight entertainment, Internet, or snacks/food for sale. However, my flight arrived on time and baggage arrived promptly at baggage claim.

On Saturday, June 16, I checked my return seat assignment for Monday, June 18 and I had been bumped again to 19A. I re-selected 12A, but it did not take on the website or app. A call to United confirmed I really had 12A. When I checked in at exactly 24 hours out, the website and app said I had 19A, but in reality, I did have 12A, and I prepaid my luggage. Again, I wasn’t offered the option to buy extra redeemable miles or Elite Access.

I arrived at DEN (Denver International Airport) on June 18 and took advantage of curbside check-in, where there was absolutely no one waiting. I tipped the skycap $3 and she directed me to security. I also re-activated my Clear card. The Clear line was shorter than the elite line and there was only a metal detector. I will renew my Clear membership when it comes up for renewal in about eight months.

After boarding by group number, the aircraft was sweltering. The auxiliary power was either not available or not working, so there was no air conditioning until we departed at 10:15 a.m.

One hour into the flight, there was still no in-flight service. Thank God I had the Southwest peanuts and pretzels from my TBEX conference swag bag! Finally the flight attendant showed up with a tray of cups with water, Coke, Diet Coke, or ginger ale. Really? On a 2-hour, 35-minute flight after sweating on the tarmac? I helped myself to two drinks. The flight attendant did not offer any additional service.

Again, I spent the flight reading a wine book I had downloaded onto my iPad from amazon.com. And again, this was too long of a flight with no in-flight entertainment, Internet, or snacks for sale.

In summary, I’d rather connect on my usual airline and save myself baggage and premium seat fees, feel confident about my seat assignment selections, have Internet and/or in-flight entertainment options, and receive in-flight service that includes free and/or paid snacks options.

Grade = C (only because we were on time both directions and I had no baggage issues)

For assistance in planning your next trip, please visit my website.

UA/VS: XNA-ORD-LHR 24 June 2011 by Bruce

A sufficient amount of time has passed so that I can calmly relate the trip I booked with my Continental miles for my wife to visit me in the UK. I’ll start off with the opinion that it was a disaster so that you can accept that this is a complete rant and also understand my state of mind.

I booked the trip on continental.com using my own miles and somehow managed to get it to see my OnePass number, even though the booked passenger was my wife. This allowed me to select exit row seats for her before it timed out and caught up. Only $175 and 80,000 miles for the round trip, it was the same itinerary that I had flown a few weeks back and included 12A on the ERJ and Upper Class on the A340. I really wanted her to be comfortable and relaxed for the week-long visit.

Original outbound itinerary for Friday, 24-June:
United (UA) flight 5927 departing XNA at 10:26, arriving ORD at 12:10
Virgin Atlantic (VS) flight 40 departing ORD at 18:00, arriving LHR at 08:00

All was well until 08:00 GMT (02:00 CDT) when I got an automated call from United, informing me that the initial outbound was cancelled and a new flight had been booked. I hit the buttons to be connected to an agent and got a thick and incomprehensible Indian accent. I hung up on him and dialed back in, getting someone I could understand. The 10:26 flight was cancelled (no reason) and I was rebooked on the 06:00 flight. There were alternatives that routed through Houston or Newark, but there was no first class availability on the segments to London. If I wanted my wife to fly in first, she would now have an 11-hour layover in Chicago (instead of the six that was accepted).

By this point, it is approaching 4:00 AM in Arkansas and I’m sure that there are alarm clocks set to wake up for the 10:26 flight that is now cancelled. After an hour of urgent texts and voice mails to both my wife and my daughter, I finally got a bleary answer. My daughter was able to wake up my wife (who had only gotten to sleep two hours before) and she promised that they would make the earlier flight. Fortunately, she was already packed.

My wife was dropped off at the airport at 05:15 (for the 06:00 flight) and was able to get the UA agent to print a boarding pass for the UA flight, but she was unable to do so for the VS flight. She had also lost 12A on the ERJ-145, getting 17C.

My wife is not a travel expert, so when she got to Chicago she first went to the Virgin America (VX) desk for the boarding pass and they were of course unable to help her. She then made it to Terminal 5 and was not able to find a Virgin Atlantic desk. She called me, upset. It turns out that ORD is a seasonal destination for VS and they only share the Korean Air desk. Korean was unable to help her obtain a boarding pass and said that the VX staff would not turn up for another three hours. I tried to check her in online, but the site reported an error and said I needed to speak with an agent.

Here’s where it could have been saved but the disaster only continued. I was able to call a Virgin agent who refused to talk to me about the booking, citing UK data privacy laws. Even though I had booked the ticket and I was the one paying for it, she could only talk to the booked passenger! Argh! I got my wife on a three-way call to authorize me. (I should mention that at this point, her phone is on minimum battery.) With that formality complete, the agent apologized but said that that there was nothing she could do. She was unable to help me print the boarding pass and was also unable to create one herself. Only an airport agent could do so. They had apparently reached the limit on the number of check-ins that could be completed online. And even though my wife was booked in Upper Class (which I repeated several times), she could not help. She said that it wasn’t her fault that my wife was too early in Chicago and that the website could not be overridden to print a boarding pass. My wife was now stuck, landside without a lounge, for three hours. Not a whole lot of power or comfortable seats in Chicago, as you may know.

Three hours pass and the VX staff turned up and printed the boarding pass. They also took pity on my wife and provided her with a pass to the BA “First” lounge. Hooray, maybe things are improved? An hour later, I get an email from my wife. She got into the lounge, found a seat near an electrical outlet, got a soda and some snacks and finally got comfortable. Just as she’s about to bite into what looks like a delicious snack, the Lounge Manager comes over and says “Ma’am, you’re going to have to leave. The lounge is full and we have to give priority to BA passengers.” Embarrassed beyond belief, she leaves with everyone staring and makes her way to the Scandinavian lounge which is by now jam-packed. Eventually finding a bar stool (all the good seats are taken), there are signs posted apologizing for the catering problem but they only have paper plates and plastic cutlery. Seriously, WTF.

After spending some time perched on a stool drinking a cool (not cold) soda and some warm (not cold) snacks, she made her way to the gate and was able to board. From this point forward, everything goes as expected. VS Upper Class takes fantastic care of her, she had a very comfortable, relaxing flight and arrives in London without further issue.

Summary: Flight cancelled and replaced with one four hours early, no boarding pass or gate staff to provide one, getting tossed out of one lounge and getting crap service in the other, and an excellent flight. I’d have to rate this experience as a D-. I won’t say that I’ll never fly VS or use miles on them again, but I’ll certainly never book my wife on that carrier ever again.

LHR-ORD-XNA-ORD-LHR on United and Virgin Atlantic Upper Class 13 May to 16 May 2011 by Bruce

Fri., May 13
UA949 dep LHR 12:20 arr ORD 15:18
UA6063 dep ORD 18:00 arr XNA 19:43

Mon., May 16
UA5927 dep XNA 10:21 arr ORD 12:02
VS40 dep ORD 18:00 arr LHR 08:00 (+1 day)

This trip was outside my usual rotation (my daughter’s Master’s degree graduation ceremony), so I paid for the tickets instead of my employer. Rather than spend $1200+, I opted to use miles. CO’s super-saver was 55,000 miles for the RT in Y but they also offered some partner fares. Since Tuesday was a work day, I chose the VS seat in Upper Class for an additional 25,000 miles, totaling 80,000 miles (plus taxes and fees).

The UA 767-200 LHR-ORD (2-3-2) in Premium Economy did not have power outlets in the seats and the IFE was 8 channels on a rotation. Four-inch screens were mounted in the seat back area. Channel 9 had a loud whine that made it impossible to enjoy. I watched movies on my iPhone instead and plugged it into my laptop to recharge until that too was drained. For dinner, I chose the cheese ravioli.

The departure from ORD to XNA was delayed by a half hour due to a late inbound, but it was communicated well at the gate. The ERJ-145 XNA-ORD was completely full and 12A is still a great seat. Beverage service only. Otherwise, the three of the United flights were boring and without any memorable or noteworthy comment. The Red Carpet Clubs I visited in Chicago were also unremarkable other than being very busy.

For the return, the only itinerary that lined up with the Virgin Atlantic flight gave me a six-hour layover in Chicago. I spent it at the SAS Business Lounge in Terminal 5. ORD terminal changes are outside security, so I rescanned. All four security lines led to full body scanners (the one where you stand between two blue boxes) and I politely said “I’m not going through that!” The TSO was polite, thorough and complete – he briefly brushed up against ‘resistance’. I then spotted that there is no food in T5 and decided not to leave because I would have to be rescanned.

Terminal 5 does have lounges – Star Alliance (and Virgin Atlantic) are in the SAS Business Lounge. Self-serve alcohol and beer (Carlsberg Export, Sam Adams and Miller Lite) with sliced bread, smoked cheese and sliced turkey plus sliced red and green peppers and pickles. I made a couple of sandwiches. Free wifi worked well. Plenty of chairs and power outlets (as well as three Mac desktops), so what was left of my layover passed quickly.

And then the fun begins! Boarding for the 18:00 PM departure started at 16:45. They called Upper Class and I was prepared so I was the first passenger to board. A left turn and down to seat 3K on this A340. Upper Class is an angled seat (with personal IFE) that converts to a 180-degree lie flat bed. Three seats across with two on the left separated from the one on the right by a three-foot wall. Extremely polite (and very attractive) flight attendant offered me a pre-departure champagne that I allowed to be refilled once. On reaching altitude, I asked her to help me convert the seat (including the “mattress” and duvet from the overhead bin). I slept for about four hours (through dinner) and woke at 5AM. It was still too soon for breakfast, so I sat at the bar (yes, there’s a three-seat bar!), drinking sparkling water and chatting with the flight attendant for a bit before heading back to my seat. I chose the “Full English” breakfast (scrambled eggs, sausage, bacon, mushrooms and tomato, served with a toasted croissant) with two cups of excellent coffee.

If I wasn’t planning on going to work immediately after arriving, I might have chosen to partake more of the champagne or tasted the “guest” vodka and mixed drinks. The amenity kit included a shoe bag, eye mask, ear plugs, flight socks, toothbrush and toothpaste. I was also offered a sleep suit (like a track suit) but declined.

Great smooth landing at Heathrow and Economy passengers were held so that the Upper Class passengers were allowed to deplane first. The usual mile-long hike to border security. The non-EU citizens queue was backed up and looked like at least an hour. The EU citizen line moved faster and only took 15 minutes. I had no checked baggage (in fact, I traveled with only my backpack) so I was on to the Heathrow Express train to Paddington moments later.

Summary: United’s flights were comfortable and unremarkable. The seat in Economy Plus was good, but there was no power outlet. Food was good and there were sufficient drink and water services during the long flight, full can on the regional jets. Grade: B. The Virgin Atlantic flight was top notch. Absolutely excellent, but possibly influenced by Upper Class service and a superior flight attendant. I can’t imagine paying three times or more than the regular fare for Upper Class but two times in miles was quite reasonable. Grade: A+ with extra credit.

Notes: Seat Guru’s review of the VS configuration is correct. You want to sit in the middle of the section, away from the bar (chatty passengers and clinking glasses) and away from the lavatories. I’d also recommend the right side seats with one across as there is less foot traffic compared to the left side which has two across.

Total Trip Cost: $ 173.20 and 80,000 miles
Actual Airfare: $ 0.00
Actual Miles Flown: 8949
Yield: $ 0.019 per mile
Taxes & Fees: $ 173.20, 100.00% of ticket price

XNA-DEN-IAD-LHR on United 8-Nov 2010 by Bruce

The purchase process was okay, but it could be improved. I don’t like having to click on each itinerary to see the price. I think US actually does this better. I was looking to maximize EQMs so I spent a few dollars more for a slight zig-zag itinerary, picking up an extra few over my usual XNA-IAH-LHR route. As expected, United.com allows you to enter your OnePass number but I had to call in to get Economy Plus seats without the upcharge. With only a week until departure, seats were poor and I ended up in a middle seat for the DEN-IAD leg.

I arrived at XNA at 8:20 am for the 9:35 am departure. I had to see gate agent so that he could check my passport as the machine wouldn’t print a boarding pass. I wonder how this might have worked if I’d printed the boarding pass at home?

CRJ-200 from XNA to DEN. No seat on this piece of crap is any good, but 1A was particularly bad – a bulkhead with no cutout and the tray table in the armrest. We pushed back at 9:25 am, 10 minutes early. Drink service was cash only for beer and wine.

About 15 minutes into the flight, the plane made an unexpected ‘jig’ to the right which spilled my drink. Captain came on after and said it was a “mountain wave” which seemed particularly odd as we were over eastern Kansas. About as flat as it gets.

At Denver, I popped into the Red Carpet Club East. Nothing special, only cereal and milk at 9:30 am. I think the CO Presidents Clubs have better food options, even if they never change the choices. The club was right next to my IAD flight, so a short walk. Boarding was called on time and started with Zone 1. Since I was 33rd for the upgrade, I figured I was out of luck. Even still, the overhead bins were full from 1 to 12 so mine went over 13. When boarding was complete for a full aircraft, all bins were full and at least 10 passengers had to gate check. Our IFE on this 757 was overhead TV screens, showing an episode of The Office and then a strange movie, Flipped. I watched it anyway and then did the Channel 9 thing, which always interests me.

We arrived at IAD on time but taxi’ed for ten minutes. There was just enough time for me to hike from C to D, pop into the RCC to try my wi-fi (unsuccessfully!) and then arrive at the gate where 1K was being called. Then Zone 1 and I was on board.

A decent sized plane this time, a 777. I landed 20J, the aisle of the first bulkhead with excellent legroom. I could see into Business class which had cocoon seating, some of which was reversed. I’m not sure if I would like sitting backwards.

We pushed back on time and I tuned myself into the flip-out IFE. Only 6 movies available on the “free” options, which was disappointing. I still found two movies I hadn’t seen before – Salt and Inception – before an hour and a half of Channel 9. It was really interesting to hear the different carriers and their obvious accents. AF sounding very French and LH sounding German of course, but compared to those, I could really hear the Texas in the CO Captain and the Southern drawl from DL.

There was no food on the CRJ, just pretzels. The domestic flight was BOB – the Apple and Cheese plate was okay. On the International flight, I had chosen the kosher meal as I’ve heard those are usually fresher than the regular meals. It was Chicken and pasta, and compared to the small chicken breast my neighbor had, a good choice. Salad and a big chocolate brownie. For breakfast, the kosher meal was a well frozen bagel with cream cheese that had separated and a cup of OJ that was a single block of ice. A complimentary serving of wine was offered, which I accepted. Redwood Creek’s 2009 Cabernet. Decent, considering the plastic cup.

We landed on time in cold and wet London, where I almost get through Immigration! The Border Agent noticed that I’ve been coming over here for a year on my 6-month visa, but I fortunately had the letter from the Passport Agency with my appointment for my UK passport, as I am now a dual citizen. Whew!

Summary: B+. UA does a decent job and I don’t see a whole lot of difference between the domestic or the International flights compared to CO. The food was decent on the plane, though the President’s Club in Houston had better food choices than the Red Carpet Club East in Denver. The IFE is better on the CO International flights. I’d fly them again, I suppose.

Note: My UA tickets were “S” class, and I was pleased to see an unexpected 25% bonus EQMs in my OnePass account.

Total Trip Cost: $ 957.20
Actual Airfare: $ 781.20
Actual Miles Flown: 5745
Yield: $ 0.136 per mile (Decent, considering they were only 7 days out)
Taxes & Fees: $ 176.00, 18.39% of ticket price