Why fly United?

The other day, a friend was asking about our upcoming trip to the UK. She had flown BOS-LHR and SFO-BOS, and was puzzled why the flight time for SFO-LHR was so much less than the sum of those two flights. She was introduced to the concept of “great circle” routes, and the fact that the the great circle from SFO is 5,367 miles, and takes you up over northern Canada, while SFO-BOS-LHR is more than 600 miles longer, at 5,969 miles.
Imagine our chagrin last Monday, when UA 930 from SFO to LHR flew almost straight to BOS, and then took a southerly track to LHR, making landfall at the SW tip of Ireland. Total distance flown was 6,050 miles, and we were still 20 minutes early. (And would have been even earlier except for the now-routine hold at Ockham before descending to LHR.) The reason: tail winds of up to 170 MPH, giving us some of the highest ground speeds I’ve ever experienced.
But enough of the good stuff. I want to consider United. Specifically, why the hell would anyone want to fly United?
First, the good points.

  • Economy Plus. Legroom is (almost) everything.
  • Star Alliance is still the best of the alliances to accumulate frequent flier miles.
  • Channel 9. Crack cocaine for the ATC junky.

But do these plusses really make up for all of the minuses?

  • Price. Internationally, UA is rarely the cheapest option. On SFO-HKG, everyone undercuts them.
  • IFE. The 777 we flew on had tiny seat-back screens that were invisible when the seat in front was reclined, but since there were only a handle of uninteresting video channels this was no great loss. Video on demand? Hah! And some of the long-haul fleet still have 80s-vintage overhead TV monitors.
  • Food service. On our flight they advertised dinner and breakfast. With a 7pm departure, we figured (correctly) that the meal service wouldn’t begin before 8:15, so we ate before boarding and skipped dinner. “Breakfast” was a small, dried-up ham-and-cheese roll wrapped in aluminium foil and a sickly-sweet yoghurt. No tray. Juice and coffee, but no time for refills.
  • Beverages? If you want alcohol, that will be $6. Only in America…
  • Seats? Well, United hasn’t adopted the “shell seating” torture device that CX is now using, but in other respects the seats are pretty bad. They feel, well, worn out.
  • Attentive flight attendants? Not on this flight. Unprofessional, sloppy, clumsy, inattentive… and hardly any offers of drinking water, even though the humidity was set really low.
  • The Red Carpet Club? OK, the SFO International RCC isn’t bad, as RCCs go, but it still doesn’t measure up to the HKG RCC or any of Air Canada’s Maple Leaf lounges.

It’s interesting to note that on the Transpacific routes the United service is quite a bit better. They now have hot breakfast, free booze, decent lounges, and cabin crew who actually pay attention. IFE? Well, that requires investment. But why does the Transatlantic customer get shafted? Complaints (or lack thereof) from code-share partners, perhaps? Who knows….
So why do I continue to abuse myself? Is it really all about Channel 9?