photo by Grant Wickes
Most air travelers are creatures of habit, flying the same small set of airlines over and over.
This phenomenon can be a necessity, especially for people who live near small airports served by only one or two carriers. It can be a trap, set by airlines that control “fortress hubs” like Atlanta and Cincinnati (Delta), Dallas-Fort Worth (American) and Chicago’s O’Hare (split between American and United). It can be a conscious decision, if one that is often manipulated by a desire to rack up points in a single airline’s loyalty program.
But often it’s just a rut. We fly the same airline all the time, and as a result, we don’t know how the other half lives. I have my own personal airline favorites, concentrating my domestic travel on JetBlue on the East Coast, Southwest in the West, and Virgin America on long coast-to-coast flights when I want access to Wi-Fi. You will note that none of the big legacy carriers are on my list.
So it was an unusual itinerary that put me on United flights from Salt Lake City to Newark, N.J., last weekend, connecting via Denver. I had a chance to see what I have been missing.
First, I have been missing fees for checking a bag. Southwest allows two free checked bags per flight. JetBlue allows one. On United and its big-airline peers, unless you carry the airline’s branded credit card, have a certain level of frequent-flyer status, pay for a first-class ticket, or otherwise indirectly pay for the privilege of not trying to cram all your worldly goods into an overhead bin, you are going to pay at least $25 to check a bag. More if the bag is too big. Such fees have been around for years.
When you check in, the United kiosk will tell you if your flight is overbooked. I ran into overbooked flights in both directions on this trip, with Delta on the outbound and United on the return. The airlines offered to compensate volunteers with travel vouchers. JetBlue never overbooks, on the theory that once a seat has been sold there is no need to sell it again. Southwest very rarely overbooks. On an overbooked flight, if enough volunteers do not step forward, someone who has a ticket is going to be left unhappily behind.
There are no assigned seats on Southwest, so there are no premium-priced seats. JetBlue charges extra for “Even More Space” seats and will let you buy your way onto the speedier security line for $10 on many flights. United took the premium-pricing to a different level. The check-in kiosk displayed every open seat on my flights, each with its own price to upgrade. An aisle seat in the exit row cost $40 on the 90-minute flight to Denver. I wanted to catch up on some badly needed sleep in relative comfort, so I took it. Other seats that had no obvious benefit over my previously-booked accommodations carried smaller premiums. I did not see any seats I could take for free, so I guess it costs money just to change your mind.
My upgraded seat did not come with earlier boarding. I was in Group 5 getting onto my flight. They ought to call it Group L, for last. I was in Group 5 on the longer Denver-Newark flight, too. Only about a dozen passengers were relegated to that group. I told the gate attendant that we were the kids nobody wanted to sit with at lunch. His laugh told me I was right.
JetBlue and Southwest give away free snacks on virtually all their flights. (I can’t speak from experience about really short hops, because I always drive rather than take such flights.) JetBlue also sells meals. In coach on United, there was no free food at all on the three-and-a-half hour flight to Newark. The hardworking flight attendants were in the aisle with the food and beverage carts, selling packaged meals and snacks, for the first two hours after we leveled off. This made it difficult for passengers to move around the cabin if, for example, they wanted to reach the coach-class lavatories at the rear of the Boeing 737. Coach passengers were thus sent traipsing to the first-class lav, which probably did not thrill the passengers up front who expect not to wait on line to use the facilities.
JetBlue never uses carts, and thus does not block the aisles on its aircraft. Flight attendants carry drinks on trays, and are good at squeezing past customers in the aisles.
There was no Internet or television on the short hop to Denver. The aircraft on the longer flight had television with a much wider choice of DirecTV channels than is available on JetBlue. (Southwest has no televisions.) But JetBlue’s television channels are free, except for movies on its domestic flights. Since I did not want to pay $8 (it would have been $6 on a shorter flight), my United screen was dark - not even a flight progress monitor was offered gratis.
United’s cloth chair in coach was thinly cushioned. That’s not a big problem for me, since I carry a fair amount of built-in padding. But I did miss the comfortable leather chairs that are standard on my three favorite domestic lines.
Still, I arrived safely, on time, together with my belongings. That’s what we expect in commercial air travel and that is, most of the time, what we get. The United staff was friendly and as accommodating as the airline’s rules allowed.
I suppose United won the biggest contest of all: It had the schedule that allowed me to get from Utah to New Jersey at the time I wanted to travel. My favorite airlines did not, so United got my business. Whatever the shortcomings in their product, the big airlines always have the advantages that come with being big.
In the end, I was glad to have a chance to try the competition for a change. It let me see what I have been missing. Now I know: I have not been missing much.