Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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No Dream: A Widebody United Domestic Flight
May 14, 2015 --Shoehorned into Boeing 737-800s on three legs of a United Airlines roundtrip between San Francisco and Guatemala City, the fourth and final flight was a dream. More specifically, one of United's Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners.
Flying a widebody Dreamliner from United's Houston/Intercontinental hub to my home in San Francisco was a fluke. Although the airline claims that it will soon redirect some international widebodies onto domestic routes, United in the USA is home to a seemingly endless series of narrowbody and regional-jet aircraft. I only lucked out with a Dreamliner flight on a domestic run because the aircraft originated in Sao Paulo and was almost surely headed overseas again after dropping off us San Francisco slummers.
My Guatemala trip was also a front-row seat on how United treats its domestic passengers and how it pampers foreign-bound flyers--not just premium, front-of-the-plane customers, but economy-class travelers, too.
For openers, SFO-Guatemala City was a Continental route before the merger. The crews working including the check-in and gate agents at Bush Intercontinental Airport were all one-time Continental employees. They were not and are not happy.
While they tried to put on a brave face, the 12--count 'em, 12--flight attendants and ground agents I spoke to were not sanguine about the 2010 combination of United and Continental. I'd ask, "How's the merger working out for you?" To the person, their response was "not good." Or a variation thereof.
It's not hard to understand why. Five years to the month after the United-Continental merger was announced, flight attendants still don't have a unified labor contract with the parent, United Continental Holdings. Pre-merger Continental cabin and ground crews fret they will get short shrift because their United counterparts, as a group, have more seniority. Continental flight attendants are also steamed that pre-merger United flight attendants are getting attractive buyout packages that aren't being offered to former Continental employees.
The anger runs deep. "Bring back Gordon," two check-in agents chanted quietly in unison at IAH on a recent Sunday. They were referring to Gordon Bethune, the widely admired Continental boss who turned around the airline in the late 1990s after the bankruptcies and chaos of the disastrous Frank Lorenzo era.
What's more, half of the employees I spoke to feel that Jeff Smisek, the former Continental boss who is chief executive of the merged United, sold out his alums. Indeed, Smisek, a lawyer with few people skills, received a 39 percent boost in total compensation last year while many rank-and-filers continue to work without post-merger contracts.
Labor issues aside, I booked the SFO-GUA flight on United's site for $616 roundtrip in economy. I upgraded to the roomier Premium Economy section for the two legs that were night flights. Hence, SFO-IAH, a 1 a.m. departure, cost an extra $87. The Guatemala City to Houston leg, also departing at 1 a.m., cost an extra $54
Upgrading was well worth the additional $141 for two reasons. Obviously, the additional inches of legroom let me stretch out. Second, the middle seat in Premium Economy was empty on the two night flights, an unexpected bonus of space.
Unless you're booking United's premium cabins, bring your own food--on both the 737s and the Dreamliner. The 1,635-mile SFO-IAH leg is not deemed long enough to sell sandwiches or meals. Only carbohydrate- and sugar-heavy snack packs are sold in-flight. United charges a hefty $7.99 for miniature liquors today, the same as Delta Air Lines, but a buck more than American Airlines. (Coincidentally, the duty-free store at Guatemala City Airport was having a closeout sale on minis. I picked up three 12-bottle packages of Seagram's gin for a total of US$6. That's less than 17 cents a pop!)
Victuals notwithstanding, United's 787 Dreamliners trump its narrowbody jets in other ways, all of which basically benefit international passengers over domestic flyers.
For instance, the basic coach seat on United's Dreamliners has 32 inches of legroom compared to 30 or 31 inches on the carrier's narrowbody jets. That extra inch or two makes a huge difference on the comfort index. But seat width isn't better on the Dreamliner. Why? The 787 was originally designed for 8-across seating in a 2x4x2 configuration. But United pioneered the Dreamliner's brave new, nasty world of coach crunch, so its 787s are 9-across in a 3x3x3 configuration. Overhead bins are massive and deep, however, so at least your carry-on bags will be able to stretch out.
But here's a little known factoid. The seat pitch in Economy Plus on United's Dreamliners is 35 inches, just three inches more than in coach. The seat width of 17.3 inches is the same in both coach and Economy Plus. The seat recline in Economy Plus is 6 inches, an inch better than in coach.
Another advantage of the Dreamliner: seatback monitors with free live television, films and other video channels in coach. On its domestic narrowbody runs, United charges $5.99 to $7.99, depending on flight distance, for basic live TV.
United operates two versions of the Dreamliner. The 787-8 is smaller than the 787-9. The dash-9 version is outfitted with 88 Economy Plus seats and 116 chairs. United's 787-8s have 70 Economy Plus seats and 113 coach chairs. There are 48 BusinessFirst lie-flat beds on the 787-9s and 36 in the dash-8 Dreamliners.
But it pays to do your math. With the upgrade to Economy Plus on two of the four legs of my SFO to Guatemala City trip, I paid a total $757 roundtrip. For an extra $300 or so, however, I could have traveled up front in first or business class on United's 737s and would have scored one of the lie-flat beds on the Dreamliner home to San Francisco.
I must have been dreaming to miss that play ...
(Research assistance was provided by Veronika Torgashova.)
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