United has been my airline of choice for more than a decade. With a large number of domestic destinations and a huge number of international destinations (including their many Star Alliance partners), they can take me just about anywhere I want to go.
For frequent travelers, the Mileage Plus program offers numerous ways to earn miles toward free trips, as well as the opportunity to achieve "elite" status that increases the perks significantly - the most tangible of which is seating in the "Economy Plus" section with its extra legroom.
This said, air travel today is essentially a commodity with most major carriers struggling to keep their heads above water financially. So, don't expect (or demand) alot of frills, especially if you purchase a cheap ticket.
AIRLINE INDUSTRY ECONOMICS
Major carriers like United incur a cost of roughly 12 - 13 cents per mile flown per seat. Let's say you've booked a coast-to-coast roundtrip flight. That's approximately 5,000 miles total. If the planes you fly on are completely full, it costs United about $600 - $650 per passenger roundtrip (more per passenger if less-than-full). So, if you managed to buy that ticket for, say, $450, United is losing money on you! Even with a discount carrier like Southwest, it's tough for them to make a profit on a coast-to-coast fare of less than $500.
Keep this in mind as you pass through First Class and Business Class to get to your seat in Economy. Those First and Business Class customers are paying much more than you - basically subsidizing your low fare. So, please, don't envy the "extras" they receive in flight and on the ground.
This is not the 1970s when only the relatively well off could afford to fly. And airlines were making big profits.
United offers little in the way of "free" food to Economy passengers except on very long duration flights. They do sell "snack packs" for a nominal charge. Non-alcoholic beverages are still free.
Suggestion: bring food with you on to the plane, or, eat a meal before departing. Better yet, do both. Remember, United's job is to get you where you want to go, not wine and dine you in flight.
The same is true of entertainment in flight. While movies and audio are often a pleasant extra, the selections and audio/video quality are not always very good. Bring reading material on board. If you have a CD player or iPod, bring it along. You'll probably enjoy your own music more, anyway.
If you fly frequently, invest in a pair of noise canceling headphones. They are so much better than United headphones, and will permit you to arrive at your destination much more relaxed.
Arrive at the airport early to check-in. With the increased security measures now in place, it takes longer to check in and get to the gate. Besides, by checking in early, you'll have time to grab a bite to eat before boarding the plane.
IF THERE IS A PROBLEM
Flight delays are part and parcel of the modern commercial airline experience. It is important to distinguish between those problems that are beyond United's control, and those problems that are within United's control.
Uncooperative weather and Air Traffic Control (ATC) problems are considered "Acts of God" for which United, rightfully, will accept no responsibility. And, remember, even if the weather seems fine where you plan to board, your (delayed) plane may be coming from somewhere else where the weather may not be as nice. Do not expect to be compensated by United for "Acts of God" that create delays.
If the delay is due to a mechanical problem, a crew problem, or a servicing problem (baggage loading delay, for example), then United will accept responsibility, and depending on the extent of the delay, may compensate you in various ways for your inconvenience.
Regardless of the reason for the delay, when you seek assistance, do not show any kind of "attitude." Be courteous and smile at the customer service people. Remember: they did not cause your delay, but, depending on your temperament, they can help you solve your problem. Or, do nothing at all to solve your problem. These folks are not well-paid, work long hours, and encounter dozens of customers with problems every day. Put yourself in their place. I'm guessing a polite person with a smile on their face is a rare and welcome sight to most Customer Service Reps.
Never try to intimidate or threaten any airline personnel. There is absolutely no upside. And, the downside is substantial. The airline may refuse to board you. You could also be arrested. Don't be Steve Martin in "Planes, Trains & Automobiles!"
If, after all attempts to rectify your problem, you are still not satisfied, write a letter to United Customer Relations. Make the letter brief, factual, and, again, polite and courteous. Be prepared to provide additional documentation such as copies of ticket stubs, receipts and the like. Be sure to explain precisely how United failed to live up to your expectations, and be sure to suggest an appropriate form of compensation for your problem. Asking for two round trip tickets as compensation for an hour flight delay, for example, is not appropriate compensation.
Letters that are poorly written, contain obscenities, or lack sufficient detail (dates, flight numbers, etc.) are not likely to receive a warm welcome by United. Just as with your face-to-face discussions with Customer Service Reps, remember that United can either help you (by offering some form of compensation) or ignore you. Place yourself in the position of the person reading your letter.
MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Over the past 10 years, I've flown nearly 500,000 miles on United and its Star Alliance partners. I've encountered just about every kind of problem imaginable from the garden variety flight delay to the missed connection to delayed baggage to canceled flights.
Over time, I've come to take a more calm approach to these problems. Flying is cheap these days. Airline deregulation has made it possible for more people to fly more often than ever before. The skies are getting crowded. So, I accept the fact that delays can and will happen. Delays don't make me smile, and I seek what I believe to be appropriate compensation from United when the delay is their responsibility. In practically every case, I have received a reasonable resolution of my problem. That fact, alone, is why I continue to fly on United.
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