I cheated on Delta with United, and liked it (sort of)

by John Harper

As a Delta frequent flier based in Brooklyn, I rarely end up on United Airlines. Unlike many living in Manhattan, my journey to United’s Newark Liberty hub is an inconceivable undertaking. The airline’s generally mediocre ratings don’t contribute much in the way of motivation, and fairly frequent Gold Medallion upgrades keep me glued to Delta.

But upon tending to a recent family emergency in Texas, I found good value to redeem some Chase points on United for a return flight. The trip was last-minute, so 12,500 miles for a nonstop return was worthwhile, netting a roughly 2.2 cent-per-mile return. I avoided United’s $80 last-minute award booking fee by having a Platinum family member make the reservation on my behalf.

It had been nearly two years since I flew economy on United. My last trip on the carrier was a mediocre first class trip this past Christmas from Houston (IAH) to Portland (PDX). On that journey, I practically had to introduce myself to the staff at the Premier Access check-in counter. There were crumbs and some food matter waiting at my seat. The first class FA broke no fewer than three dishes in the galley. Mess.

I was pleasantly surprised by some aspects of my recent trip, though. United even bested my airline of choice in some respects.

The good

United’s boarding process

While Delta continues to experiment with boarding strategies, United at least seems to have figured out a way to mitigate the mob that tends to form around boarding time.

Rather than create a deceptive and inaccurate dual-separation of boarding groups, United simply lists out group numbers. All passengers receive a number, from 1 through 5, and line up accordingly. There was no “Sky Priority” mob, trying to snake its way around the idle “Group 1” passengers who really board fourth on Delta. Everyone had a number, and everyone had a place to stand. Amen, United.

This is one of several cases where Delta’s ambitious attempts at branding every moment of customer interaction backfire.

Wi-fi that works

United has taken wi-fi access on most domestic flights into its own hands. “United Wi-fi” is actually provided by Thales, but marketed and sold directly by the airline. Internet access was reasonably priced, could be purchased using miles (at a value of one cent), and was surprisingly fast.

United’s in-house wi-fi service was easy to use and a reasonable price, at $11.99 for an entire flight.

Most of Delta’s fleet has legacy GoGo inflight wi-fi. I would like to offer an exacting comparison of connection speed between the two products, but on my outbound Delta flight I couldn’t even get the speed test page to fully load.

Internet speeds onboard our 737 were better than what I’ve found in many business class lounges.

United’s easy-to-use wi-fi was a welcome change of pace, with download speeds averaging around 17 mbps, better than a lot of lounge wi-fi I’ve experienced.

The bad

Customer service

The flight attendants on my flight weren’t remarkably bad. Some were even pleasant. There’s just something unpolished about how United goes about conducting customer service.

The crew leader on my flight droned into the microphone with the conviction of a worn out funeral director. Every announcement sounded like a painful, expressionless reminder of her slowly forthcoming retirement date. No one felt particularly thrilled or welcome on this flight.

Previously: Science Now Proves (United) Customer Service Agents Ruder Than Customers

Another flight attendant, when passing through the aisle, repeatedly pushed my elbow off of the armrest with the palm of her hand. If I were a character in a Laura Ingalls Wilder novel, I’d probably be described as “wiry”. My limbs go a long way, and the Boeing 737 is oh so narrow. Still, I’ve never quite had this assertive and thankless treatment before, on any flight.

I’m not saying that Delta’s flight attendants are perfect, but the company seems to encourage a warm environment onboard, centered around anticipating the needs of the customer. If United makes such an effort, it wasn’t apparent on this flight.

Lackluster IFE

This 737 was equipped with DirecTV. That was all.

Thankfully, the captain on our flight rendered the DirecTV service complimentary as repentance for an hour-long ground delay. It was nice to catch up on the news, but the screens were surprisingly small for newly installed seating, and non-television options were limited to movies playing on a loop.

The inflight entertainment screen on the 737-800 was surprisingly small, despite being newly installed. It featured DirecTV and several movies played on a continuous loop.

Hello, 2009.

A perusal of the Hemispheres magazine led me to discover that United has four different levels of IFE offering, depending on specific aircraft. American, which I also rarely fly, is in a similar predicament.

By contrast, Delta offers standard entertainment on every aircraft through Delta Studio, and seatback entertainment is standardized on all new and long haul aircraft.

The ugly

This was my first time sitting in United’s new economy seats, which look great in photographs and are nicely stitched.

The new motif used on United’s economy seats, shown here on the 787-9, looks handsome. The version installed on my 737-800, however, were far from comfortable. Source: United Airlines

Their appearance proved deceptive, as these were some of the least comfortable economy seats I’ve had the displeasure of sitting on (no, I didn’t feel like I was in anything), since the really uncomfortable flight I had on a United A320 a few years back.

These seats were marginally better than the hard-backed A320 seats. Lumbar support was fairly decent, but the bottom cushion was downright miniscule. I felt like I was sitting on some type of bench. Making matters worse, my posterior sank strangely into the cushion, even further reducing any impression of thigh support.

My thighs hung far off the seat cushion, and my legs caressed the hard plastic shell in front of me.

Leg room was reminiscent of some discount carriers. My knees fit neatly into the plastic cutout where the seatback pocket used to be.

At the time of its merger with United, Continental Airlines had the most comfortable economy seats of any carrier in the United States, in my opinion. It’s a shame to see United waste this legacy.


I was pleasantly surprised by some noticeable improvements to the United customer experience. In terms of boarding efficiency, wi-fi speed and award price/availability, United clearly bested my beloved Delta.

Still, it perplexes me why United and American, which is reducing seat pitch on some domestic aircraft to 29 inches, remain hellbent on installing an inferior good in their economy cabins.

Delta maintains relatively high standards in terms of both leg room and seat ergonomics on every single aircraft (except perhaps the insufferable CRJ fleet). As an economy flier who averages well over 50,000 miles per year, this disparity in comfort makes it uniquely difficult to choose either of the other two legacy carriers for any flight over two hours long.

In summary, this Delta elite won’t be jumping ship to Newark anytime soon.

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ken June 24, 2017 - 11:32 am

Nice review. Good work! Now we can only hope someone within ua with authority actually reads it.
My suggestion would be to tweet a link to @united.
Ps – Im A ua platinum elite living in North Houston, so go figure. Personally i loathe Delta and have done everything to avoid them over last 5 years. But it seems i need to do a 360 review to complement yours- to compare delta to my ua preference!

rjb June 24, 2017 - 3:15 pm

When I fly United (as a last resort only) I particulary enjoy how the gate agents toss a green tag at you for gate checked bags. Delta agents place the tag on your bag and greet you with a smile. Costs nothing, makes a world of difference in customer experience.

Ashley June 24, 2017 - 10:22 pm

Thank you for your honest review of your United flight. My husband and I are dabbling in a bit of cheating ourselves (cheating on American with United) but have yet to take a flight with United. My husband is 6’1″ so I am less than thrilled about the lack of leg room that you described. However, I am excited about the information you presented for the line-up procedure. I have terrible anxiety and having to wade through the masses to get to the gate is always a horrible experience. It sounds like United has adopted a similar line set-up to the Japanese airlines like JAL. Thanks again! And good luck on your future United flights!


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