United has a bad reputation but I hoped that on a recent return economy class flight between Hong Kong and Newark I would see some positive attributes. Actually the flight reminded me of how dreadful United can be in long haul economy.
Buying a return ticket the day before travel cost around 15,000 dollars, close to two thousand U.S. dollars. Given that price, I was shocked at how poor the service offering turned out to be.
I arrived at the checkin counters at Aisle G around seven a.m. but they were still being used by Emirates. United checkin opened around three hours before boarding. Due to late booking I was in a middle seat and the gate agent was not interested in changing it although there was a better middle seat available in an exit row and I have top tier status on Star Alliance. United’s poor attitude towards passengers is evident on the ground as well as in the skies.
At the airport
We have previously reviewed United’s lounge in Hong Kong here. Compared to their many dismal lounges in the United States, it is surprisingly decent. As it was Good Friday, staff had made effort to lay out and decorate a table of Easter comestibles, which was a nice touch.
The boarding gate was 43. I boarded fairly late so avoided the endless group boarding calls and slow shuffling lines of passengers with large carry on baggage common to American airlines.
This was operated by a Boeing 777 (registration N79011).
Economy seating was 3-3-3 and seats had a blanket and rather uncomfortable pillow on them upon boarding. The overall décor was dated and bland but not necessarily ugly. The seat did not recline much but there did feel like there was a decent amount of legroom, which helped my seat quality.
The seatback entertainment system had a limited choice, almost all American. I was surprised to find that there was no music. My screen froze in the final hour of the flight but I couldn’t be bothered complaining at that point. I’d already had hours of people hovering about because screens in the two rows in front of me froze and the entertainment there did not work despite multiple restarts. There was not much worth watching anyway, so my screen freezing did not bother me much.
There was a plug underneath the seat but no USB socket. The entertainment screen did have a credit card reader, though, pretty much showing where the airline’s priorities lie.
Economy class was totally full. We left on time, flew out over Taiwan and around Japan and the Alaskan coastline then down over British Columbia and towards Newark, where we had a textbook landing twenty minutes ahead of schedule.
The predictive flight map did not reflect our actual route, which is why for example it showed us crossing North Korea.
This was a smooth flight and it felt like the flight crew knew their onions.
The cabin crew was professional in demeanour and friendly, but I feel somewhat sorry for them as they have so little to work with.
They distributed earbuds before takeoff, then did a drink and snack service with “Asian style snacks” made by an Ohio company which were not very Asian at all. They then did a meal service without clearing away the drinks cups. They also distributed small bottles of water. About eight and a half hours in they did a snack service with drinks, and an hour and a half before landing a breakfast service. Outside of meal times, I never saw them in the cabin.
Announcements were in English and then in Mandarin but not Cantonese. The crew seemed to be mostly American but included Asian Americans who spoke Cantonese and Mandarin.
Food and Drink
Unlike American and Delta on their HK to U.S. routes, United does not provide a printed menu. This may be another way for them to shave their costs, or perhaps it is because they are embarrassed at what they serve.
The main meal choice was beef noodles or pasta, but the pasta ran out by my row (41) so I had beef noodles. The starter was some sort of salad, hard and not enjoyable, while the main dish was small and low quality. For the main meal on a sixteen hour flight, the size, quality and presentation of this meal were all well below what I regard as acceptable. Drinks are not great either: the only beer options, for example, are Heineken or Miller Light, and spirits are not free.
The mid-meal snack was a ham and cheese sandwich and miniature chocolate bar wrapped in a scrunched up cellophane bag. Breakfast was noodles or quiche – I had the quiche and it was just okay.
Overall, the food and drinks are rubbish. United isn’t just below Asian carriers here, it is way below American and Delta as well.
It is not a coincidence that customer service horror stories keep appearing about United: based on the inflight clues, they hold their paying passengers in contempt. This was an expensive ticket for an outdated entertainment system, lacklustre service and rubbish food. I would pay a significant premium to avoid their appalling service across the Pacific in future. As this plane was full, United may not care, sadly. They don’t seem to.
We last reviewed United long haul in 2012 and concluded, “don’t give new UA a shot unless you enjoy uncomfortable seats, basic service, and hunger while you fly.” Sadly, that stands.