Monday, November 23, 2009

Going Transcon with United

NEW YORK - The last of 11 flights I took on my round-the-world trip aboard Star Alliance carriers, United Airlines flight 15, carried me to San Francisco from New York. I have flown United many times, but this was my first experience with the airline's p.s. (for premium service) offering, which operates between New York and Los Angeles and New York and San Francisco.

Like much of the airline industry, especially airlines in the United States, United has been burdened financially this decade. It spent more than two years reorganizing in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and has bled several billion dollars in losses due to a powerful combination of yo-yoing fuel costs, security worries and expenses, flu fears and, since 2007, the Great Recession. This has inhibited the airline's ability to invest in new products, with a few exceptions. The p.s. offering, aimed at high-yield business travelers, is one of the exceptions.

As a showcase product, p.s. has received investment and attention from United's Chicago parent company, UAL Corp., and it shows. The cabin crew on my transcontinental flight was experienced and friendly, the seats in business class were comfortable and had plenty of pitch - the space between rows. Even when the passenger in front of me put his seat all the way back, I was not crowded, a rarity in a business class without hard plastic scallop shells to establish perimeters.

Moreover, United was rolling out its new in-flight Web surfing and e-mail program, which first-time users on my flight were allowed to use for free. The system, Gogo Inflight Internet, is available on a number of U.S. carriers. For flights of more than three hours - this flight lasted about six hours - most carriers charge $12.95. So far, United has put Gogo only on its New York-San Francisco-Los Angeles p.s. flights.

It was a good flight. I have used Gogo on other carriers; I didn't use it this time. I did check out United's in-flight entertainment program, which included 64 pop music albums, plus classical, country, jazz and world music, and some 40 movies, as well as TV shows and games. Flight attendants passed out portable media players to use instead of seatback screens or pull-out screens. Lunch was served, and it was presentable. I had a good Argentine Malbec, that country's signature red wine, to go with chicken in morel mushroom sauce. The flight took off 25 minutes late from JFK International Airport, due to the customary congestion in New York area airspace, but our pilots were able to make up for it en route; in fact, we arrived at San Francisco International Airport nearly half an hour early after flying above the clouds in the East and rust-red deserts in the West.

This was United at its best. Candidly, the Red Carpet Club in JFK terminal 7 was considerably more modest and spare than the airport lounges of most other Star Alliance member carriers I have flown with. But once United got airborne, the experience was a good one. It was a gratifying capstone to a colorful, engaging trip around the planet.

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