United Airlines

I was looking for a low-cost trip from O’Hare (ORD) to Los Angeles (LAX), which proved challenging until a one-way flight I was watching on Google Flights dropped in price. The fact that it didn’t leave until after 10:30 p.m. was a deterrent, but it wasn’t enough.

Booking and Check-In

In February, I booked the June travel, paying $113.20 with my United MileagePlus Explorer Card and earned 2x MileagePlus points. (I could have used my Chase Sapphire Reserve to get 3x Ultimate Rewards points or my American Express Platinum Card to earn 5x Membership Rewards points, but I was hoping to spend $25,000 on the United card to meet the Premier Qualifying Dollars criterion.)

I received an email two months before the trip informing me that the aircraft and itinerary had changed, from a 737-800 to a 737-900, departing at 11:05pm instead of 10:40pm. It didn’t bother me. Indeed, with 20 first-class seats rather than 16, I had a better chance of receiving an upgrade, due to my United Premier Silver Status. I did receive an email 24 hours before the trip informing me that I had been upgraded. I used the United app to check in and confirmed my new seat: 5F.

Boarding and Lounge

My flight was supposed to depart from Concourse C, but the United Club was being refurbished there. To United’s credit, there were plenty of warning signals before you embarked on the long trek.

Instead, I went to the United Club in Concourse B, where I used one of my United Club tickets from my United MileagePlus Explorer Card to get access. I stayed for a few hours in the freshly remodeled lounge, devouring Swedish meatballs and the most weird concoctions I could endure from the Coke Freestyle machine.

The lounge closed at 10 p.m., before at least one aircraft took off. That was unfortunate, but the long subterranean trip brought me to the gate just as I was about to board.

The gate shared seating at the end of the concourse with a few others, but with no other flights departing close, there were plenty of seats available. O’Hare has free Wi-Fi for 30 minutes, and there were shared charging stations located around the airport.

At 10:15 p.m., people began queuing up in one of five boarding groups. Group 1 boarding commenced at 10:21 p.m. Neither the gate agent nor the flight attendant recognized or greeted me at the airplane door.

Seat and Cabin

Turning the bend into the aisle revealed a major disappointment: these seats were in the standard 2-2 arrangement, which came as no surprise, but they were old and decrepit, with no sort of video.

The seats were spacious, but there were no IFE displays, footrests, or amenities in the seat pockets (save for a copy of Rhapsody magazine). There was no cushion, only a thin, plastic-wrapped blanket.

Upon closer inspection, I saw severe wear on the armrest as well as trash left behind by prior travelers.

Aside from a drinking straw, a boarding permit from the day before was crammed inside the little tray on the center console. The top of the console was filthy.

The only adjustment options for the seat were the recline (which was limited in the back row) and the headrest. Nonetheless, the seat was enormous, with enough depth and width for me to cross my legs effortlessly. The under-seat storage was more spacious than normal, however it was divided into three portions for our two seats.

The tray table folded into the armrest and was simple to lift and adjust. It was convenient to have a tray table large enough to hold a laptop and with enough surface area left over to handle a mouse.

I hope you don’t need to use the front restroom to wash your hands.


The front lavatory was small, cluttered, and not totally functioning – the sink was broken. When a flight attendant noticed me standing in line for the restroom, she never mentioned that I wouldn’t be able to wash my hands (there was a bottle of hand sanitizer instead). Perhaps to assist with the stink, a packet of dried coffee grinds rested on the counter. In any case, I would not order coffee just in case.

Wi-Fi was offered for purchase and had download speeds of 18.7 Mbps and upload rates of 0.06 Mbps, albeit the upload speed was substantially quicker. I purchased a two-hour pass and was disappointed to see that my connection was terminated without notice or the chance to purchase extra time.

Once we reached cruising altitude, we could easily get free streaming entertainment. The variety of films and television series seemed a little antiquated, but everything worked fine. The disadvantage of the quiet engines and air conditioning was that I could hear everything the gentlemen in the economy front row were saying. Though there was a partition between us, it was not completely fastened to the cabin wall.

Tito’s and soda presented in a disposable cup.

Food and Drink

As economy passengers boarded, a flight attendant took my drink order fifteen minutes after I sat down. My vodka drink arrived in a plastic cup ten minutes later. I requested that the attendant remove the straw and boarding card that had been left behind, and she did it without apology.

My drink cup was retrieved five minutes later as we taxied away from the gate at 11:01pm. The captain stated our position in the takeoff queue 10 minutes later, and the wheels were up 12 minutes later, as promised. At midnight, an attendant offered and immediately delivered another drink.

An attendant arrived 10 minutes later with a tray of snacks: chips, bananas, cookies – a carb lover’s dream. My tea was refilled after another 25 minutes.

No more nibbles, no more beverages – my cup wasn’t even cleared until we were two and a half hours away from arrival.

The wheels came off at 1:22 a.m. Pacific Time, and we arrived at the gate at 1:35 a.m. A crew member informed us that due to the way the aircraft had been loaded, we would need to wait for a tail stand, which would delay us another six minutes and require me to exit the plane five minutes after the scheduled arrival time.

Someone shut off the cabin lights, and despite admonitions from one flight attendant to another, they did not come back on until we were about to deplane.

There’s more to life than just having enough legroom.

The Bottom Line

I am not a United supporter. I approached this flight with an open mind and real excitement for a better experience. Instead, I received a flight that was worse than previous domestic economy flights I’d been on JetBlue, Virgin America, and, well, United.

It’s one thing to have a cabin that’s not on par with comparable domestic first-class offerings. It’s another thing entirely to fail to do so. It’s much worse not to give service and food that make your ostensibly premium guests feel important.

I was relieved to have significantly earlier boarding, a free drink, and a larger seat, but I would have been furious if I had paid for this cabin instead of receiving it for free. Although this was a first-class seat, it was far from a first-class experience.

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