Flew United Economy and It Was Disappointing Compared to Singapore, ANA Airlines
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Flew United Economy and It Was Disappointing Compared to Singapore, ANA Airlines

Jun 05, 2023

For the first time ever, United Airlines disappointed me.

Last week, I set off on my annual trip to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland — a month-long event in which the city is transformed into a theater paradise with shows covering everything from stand-up comedy to improv musicals.

I usually book United or Delta when I fly across the Atlantic, and the former was the cheaper option this year amidst spiking international airfare. In fact, I actually decided to fly via London and take a train to and from Edinburgh to save about $1,000.

Having flown United several times in the past two years — including both domestic and international — I know what to expect and have typically had a good experience.

However, this trip was different. It wasn't necessarily that the flight was bad, the economy cabin was just noticeably worse than other airlines I've flown on this year — specifically, Singapore Airlines and Japan's All Nippon Airways.

Here's what my recent experience flying on United in economy was like and why I'll have lower expectations next time.

Newark is United's third-largest hub behind Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport and Chicago O'Hare International Airport, but it is a key player in the airline's robust transatlantic network — which United boasts as being the biggest in the US.

I don't typically travel with a checked bag simply because I prefer not to gamble with the many times unreliable baggage handling systems — especially after last year's hectic summer. So, the basic economy fare is perfectly fine with me.

If I did need to check luggage, however, the first bag would have cost $75, according to United.

United has kept its Boeing 767s around post-pandemic, having invested millions into retrofits that include adding Polaris business class and Premium Plus to the widebodies.

The two I flew on (N651UA and N675UA) are 31 years and 23 years old, respectively, according to Planespotters.

"I'll give kudos to our maintenance team for keeping these aircraft in great shape," United CCO Andrew Nocella said in a 2021 quarter two earnings call, noting the planes could fly for another 30 or more years.

"We do have optionality to fly these aircraft longer than I think people automatically assume."

Last year, I got a seat at random and didn't enjoy the stress of possibly ending up in the middle seat, albeit I did get lucky with a window. But I still splurged for a guaranteed window this time around.

In total, I paid $64 for both legs, bringing the cost of my flight to London to about $875 roundtrip. Flights nonstop to Edinburgh were over $2,000 when I booked in February.

The headrest can make or break the inflight experience for me.

In fact, a mediocre headrest was actually one of the few faults I found in Singapore's premium economy cabin — and why I actually prefer the carrier's coach product instead.

According to SeatGuru, each seat has 31 inches of pitch and 17.3 inches of width, which is the expected standard in coach.

I felt I had plenty of space for my hips and legs, but taller passengers may want to upgrade to extra-legroom seats like Economy Plus or Premium Plus.

It was about an hour after takeoff that I realized the seat was pretty much as standard as it could get, nothing that made it stand out or give it a special pizzazz.

I experienced Singapore's Airbus A380 coach class in January from Frankfurt to Singapore and then tried out ANA's Boeing 787 economy product in March on a flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles.

In April, I suffered for seven hours on Spanish low-cost carrier LEVEL between New York-JFK and Barcelona thanks to cramped seats and overpriced food. However, budget newcomer Norse actually surprised me with its roomy cabin and inflight entertainment.

I have had both my best and my worst flight experiences this year, and it gave me a new perspective when flying on major global carriers.

United, which also happens to be partnered with both ANA and Singapore in the Star Alliance, is basically right smack in the middle in terms of the inflight experience.

And, I didn't notice the shortcomings until now.

United's 767 pitch equaled that of Norse's 787, but the former's had better width and an overall more aesthetically pleasing cabin.

LEVEL's A330, on the other hand, only offered 30 inches of the pitch and I was stuck in the middle seat of the center section of the aircraft — it was actually pretty miserable, to say the least.

Footrests are not very common in economy on airlines and are typically reserved as a premium economy perk, so I was surprised to see one onboard ANA.

But I can't fault United for not having them since Singapore didn't either, though both offer one in their premium economy cabins.

Economy Plus is United's extra-legroom option and can cost a pretty penny to reserve.

So, getting good legroom as the default with Singapore and ANA made me forget how cramped US economy cabins can be without the upgrade.

In fact, 31 inches of pitch is the standard on most of American and Delta's widebody jets, according to SeatGuru.

Granted, 31 inches is not bad, but if other carriers offer more, then that's an easy reason to spend money elsewhere.

While I particularly liked ANA's silky blanket, Singapore's linens were the best I've ever had in economy thanks to the thick, warm blanket and the hotel-grade pillow. I even got an eye mask.

United's pillow, however, felt rough. And, the U-shaped design wasn't as comfortable as I think the carrier hoped. I also didn't get a blanket on the return flight — only on the red eye to London.

I didn't sleep well on United, either, and that was after taking melatonin. I blame the recline mostly, as well as the less-than-cozy linens.

This wasn't my experience on Singapore and ANA, though. Both seats had better comfort — something I only really noticed after flying United — with Singapore's product helping me sleep for eight of the 12 hours between Frankfurt and the island nation.

I found myself grasping my drink during turbulence on United — a problem made easier with a designated cupholder.

I didn't realize how much a well-designed tray table can impact convenience when flying. ANA and Singapore gave me extra slots for cups, and I'm sure the mirror on Singapore can come in handy after a 12-hour flight.

During my United flight, I struggled to find enough space for my laptop, chargers, water bottle, and provided food and drinks as the seats lacked any sort of added storage space.

I ended up using the slit between the seat and the fuselage to free up space by my feet. Granted, the dual seats did not have a divider between them, making the under-seat area a little more spacious, which helped.

Singapore and ANA are renowned for their friendly flight attendants, yummy meals, and squeaky-clean cabins, but I found the opposite on United.

But, to be fair to United, the carrier does have really great inflight entertainment. However, I found the USB port didn't work on the return leg.

To be clear, I don't really care how flight attendants treat me because their jobs can be very difficult — but there was a significant tone difference that made me feel less welcome on United compared to my journeys on ANA and Singapore.

For example, when I asked to clarify the meal options I was met with a less-than-nice reaction and a response that indicated my question was simply annoying. Not a huge deal, but something that stuck out.

I skipped the meal service on the outbound in favor of trying to get a few hours of sleep — albeit unsuccessfully — but I had both lunch and dinner on the return journey.

The chicken dish came with bread, mozzarella, tomatoes, rice, vegetables, and chocolate. While half of the meal was good — particularly the chicken — I couldn't stomach the rice, and the vegetables had a strange texture. The mozzarella was also surprisingly bland.

Meanwhile, the pastry reminded me of my experience on Air Canada, which offered me a breakfast pastry that had a texture and look resembling baby food.

Last year, the meal served was also chicken and veggies, complemented with ice cream, a roll, and a side salad. I remember the ingredients being more diverse and flavorful.

It's also possible that United's catering is simply better when originating in the US rather than in London since my less-than-stellar meal was experienced on my recent return flight — the tastier meals I had last year were on the outbound.

The colors and smells of the food on ANA were appetizing, and I loved the sushi and edamame options despite my initial hesitations.

Meanwhile, Singapore offered potatoes, beef, noodles, and ice cream. Overall, the Asian airlines are simply in another league in terms of catering — especially considering Singapore's specialized catering center near Changi International Airport.

Ever since I flew on Singapore and ANA, I have a new standard for cleanliness on aircraft and the lavatory is a sticking point.

The bathrooms on ANA actually had a bidet toilet — one of the only airlines in the world to have it — while Singapore's had a sleek look with wood-like finishings.

Not to mention, the Asian lavatories had nice perks like a step to open the bin, meaning I didn't have to stick my clean hand into the trash can to make the paper towel fit.

I didn't trust the cleanliness after my first trip to the lavatory four hours into the flight, so I ended up waiting to go again until I cleared passport control at Newark.

However, United's lavatory did have a full-body mirror, which was the only thing I appreciated. And, I noticed this isn't just a United problem as the lavatories on LEVEL and Norse were not regularly cleaned either.

ANA and Singapore are in another league when it comes to product. The seats are spacious and the food is delicious and the flight attendants are trained with a very specific expectation of customer service.

However, it's possible I'd opt for Singapore or ANA on flights from the West Coast to Asia rather than taking United across the Pacific — assuming the price is right.

According to Google Flights, a roundtrip flight from San Francisco to Tokyo in November on United is $1,500.

ANA is $300 more and, for me, the product would easily be worth the extra few hundred dollars thanks to the little touches that make all the difference.

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