Carrier: United Airlines
Route: San Francisco to Los Angeles
Terminal: Arriving at the domestic United terminal at San Francisco I proceeded to the Star Alliance Gold Priority check in desk to take advantage of the Turkish Gold that I was able to status match to a few months earlier. Despite being booked on a Qantas Itinerary, the Qantas website decided that, instead of using their partner, American Airlines, it would be cheaper to have my first leg connecting to the long flight home on United. If you’ve read any of my blog articles before you’ll know that mixing up airlines or taking the long way around anywhere isn’t something I mind doing, so for me it was just another airline to add to the list of those reviewed. However if you don’t have status with Star Alliance or United, that different airline connecting could leave you without a lounge or any priority treatment before you take that first flight.
Having said that, despite having Star Gold, the system (or the check in agent) didn’t seem to compute having two different frequent flyer numbers, or two different status levels and thus kindly assigned me to boarding Group 7 (that’s out of 7 if you aren’t familiar with the United Boarding process). As a result, despite having my Star Gold card with me, the TSA marshals didn’t allow me to use the priority security lane either, thus I didn’t really get any red carpet treatment anyway.
Interestingly, despite being a domestic hop down the western USA coast my flight departed from the International Terminal, so after check in I took the short walk across to the next terminal for my departure. San Francisco International Terminal’s concourse looks relatively modern and is quite nice as far as US terminals go. Its spacious with all the boarding gates hidden a level below the main concourse so you don’t get that overcrowded feeling from the usual scenes of people spilling out of the boarding areas and onto the walkways when each flight approaches departure time. Although modern there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of shopping or dining available and the stores that were there seemed rather spaced out.
Although my past experiences with US airlines lounges have been extremely underwhelming, I thought that, as this was an international terminal and United Airlines home base the lounges here should be the cream of the crop. Unfortunately I was about to be severely disappointed. I wasn’t sure of the access levels for the different lounges, of which United operated two at SFO being the United Club and the United Global First Lounge so decided to try them both, where I learnt the latter was reserved only for United Global First passengers so retreated back to the United Club.
The United Club is located just to the right of security near Gate G94 and has a reception on the main concourse level with the remainder of the lounge accessible upstairs. Upon entry there is another reception area which is not staffed before you enter the lounge area which consists of many pairs of seats around little cocktail tables, of which each pair is generally occupied by one person. I’m guessing that the majority of solo travellers are the cause of the eerily lack of any ambient background chatter noise in the lounge, which is a nice relief if you want somewhere quiet but it also makes you feel very conscious of every noise you make while trying to get comfortable in your own solo seat.
I took up a seat near the food/bar area and the only noise that could be heard here was the sound of disgruntled travellers, many of whom spoke with non American accents, of how poorly stocked the refreshments were. To be honest, I have no idea who in their right mind would pay $50 for a one time entry let alone the $400-$500 for an annual membership – there is nothing here worth anywhere near that amount.
All that was available was juice, coffee, tea, water, packets of cheese floating in a bowl of melted ice (e.g. water), crackers, whole fruits and a container of pretzel type snacks. Even the soda machine was out of order! Despite the United website advertising “premium wines” available in this lounge there was sign of them, and no sign of any staff to ask where they might be hiding the stash. I think I had set my expectations a little high and thus was more disappointed than usual with the quality of this lounge. Trying to make the best of a bad situation I tried out the free WiFi, only to find it was slow and barely worth the effort. My advice would be if skip the lounge, find a bar and spend your $50 there – you’ll get much more value for money than in this United Club.
Departure: Having being issued a “Group 7” boarding pass I decided to head to the gate area a little early to try and work out what the boarding process entailed and how it all worked. Agents appeared on scene shortly before boarding was due to commence and began with the usual announcement that the flight was full, and that cabin baggage space would be limited and most likely be full before the last two boarding groups would board. Passengers in groups 6 and 7 were advised to bring their baggage to the counter prior to boarding, where it would be checked free of charge and delivered to your final destination.
I think I say this on each US flight review, but seriously airlines, why do you do this! Your aircraft would turn around much faster if you allowed people to check their bags for free, way back at the start of the airport process instead of lugging that kitchen sink around, delaying security and then having to hold check it at boarding for free anyway. When will you learn!
Ok, rant aside, I was sure as hell not having my small bag checked all the way home – so I approached the desk and enquired as to when a Star Gold should board. He was surprised to see I had been allocated the lowest of the low – group 7, and just said to board at Group 2 instead and show the other agent the card. Thus, checked baggage crisis and boarding scrum averted and I made my way down on-board with the group 2 people.
Seat: 22A. Located in the first row of the standard economy cabin, my window seat was covered in blue cloth fabric and was relatively comfortable, especially as both the other passengers were well under the national average weight and thus we all had a decent amount of elbow room. The seat has a reasonable amount of recline, which although I didn’t use, the lady in the seat in front of me (which is one of the best economy plus seats on the plane as it has the seat in front of it missing) used the full extent of the recline from cruise to approach, making my seat space rather cosy.
My seat neighbour was probably one of the most nervous looking people I’ve ever sat next to before. Throughout the entire flight he was constantly twitching and I don’t think he had any fingernails left by the end of the short flight. I’m not sure if he was just tied and resting his head, or was in fear for his life as he pretty much adopted the brace position for much of the flight. I tried making casual conversation with him to suss out what the deal was, but unfortunately despite many open questions he wasn’t in the mood for chatting so I left him to his nerves / anxiety, which was a shame as after a while I must admit it was rather uncomfortable being so close to someone so obviously anxious.
Aircraft: A319. I like the new United livery on the A319, it looks clean and crisp on the damp San Fran ramp area under the terminal lights. Unfortunately once on board the interior looks a little tired, but not overwhelming so. I think once you start getting used to the new interiors on new aircraft, when you get an older styled interior, it looks very dated very quickly. The cabin is divided into what I’d call 2.5 classes, being First, economy and then economy plus making up the .5, as really it’s the same seat and service as economy, albeit with a decent bit of extra legroom. Using an interesting row numbering sequence, that skips rows 3-6 and 13-19, there are 2 rows of first (rows 1&2), 7 rows of economy plus (rows 7-21) and 12 rows of standard cattle class (rows 22-34). I have a feeling this odd row numbering is trying to standardise what row number the exit row can be found at, but it does make the smaller A319 seem much longer ending in row 34.
IFE: There were overhead monitors that drop down from the overhead bins, however I can’t recall them being used much during the flight, and if they were, there wasn’t anything worthwhile being shown on them. It was a short flight, and I hadn’t pre-planned and got the iPad out before so I spent most of the flight skimming through the inflight magazine and looking out the window into the darkness watching the lights of other planes pass over or under us as we transverse the busy skies towards Los Angeles.
Meal: Complimentary food in North America certainly is a rare product these days and this flight was no exception, with a soft drink/juice option the only freebie going on this service. At least we were offered the option of either just a cup, or the whole can. I opted for the Sprite, and went the whole hog and got the full can – excitement plus yes?
Arrival: The expanse of lights of LA came into sight as we joined the queue of other planes wanting to land and began a series of turns, circles and gradual descents around the city before landing at the infamous Los Angeles International Airport – LAX. The touchdown was smooth and we quickly made for a high speed taxi exit before making a long taxi around the airport to United’s terminal 7. Disembarkation wasn’t too much of a hassle although many people harassed the gate agents for their bags that had been gate checked in SFO, and were rather unpleased to be told that their bags would arrive at the baggage carousel. This is despite it being clearly announced in SFO that all gate checked bags would be available at the baggage carousel at their final destination.
Fortunately our gate was close to the exit of the concourse, and instead of taking the shuttle bus, I decided to walk to the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) for my connecting Qantas flight home. The walk is a decent hike, especially after loosing one of my roller bag wheels in San Francisco the day before but I still think it was faster than waiting for, then taking the bus around all the other terminals. Plus with a 14ish hour flight ahead of me, I could use the exercise.
Crew: With little service in the flight the crew didn’t really have many interactions with passengers to be able to really get a feel for how they worked. The service was efficient and I guess friendly but nothing outstanding to write home about. I always feel that crew make or break a flight, but this flight was so neutral that even the crew seemed to just blend into the background of the flight.
Overall: It’s a short flight, and I was flying in the land of the cheap flying tight belted accountants so I guess I didn’t really expect much, which was right on the mark of what I received. The lounge, baggage and boarding process are quite frankly ridiculous and seriously needs a rework. It still amazes me that high tier frequent flyers on United still have to pay to access those shameful excuses for a lounge. It amazes me more that people actually do pay for it! Had the lounge been worthwhile and the baggage policy and boarding processes been reworked to avoid the on-board baggage chaos, I think the overall flight experience would have been much better than the rather neutral experience that it was. Sorry United, you just didn’t do it for me.