See my comments in the Singapore Airlines column about the relative merits of United and Singapore pilots and their 777s and 747s.

One odd thing on all US airlines is this. Why do we get metal forks and plastic knives? Clearly another "fool the public" initiative coming from the US. It's well known that airline knives are the bluntest tools around - metal forks can cause lots more damage, and the replacement plastic knives have left a permanent scar on my left thumb.

The other bizarre result of the September 11th 2001 tragedy in the US is the incomprehensible policy that United seem to have with regard to the flight crew accessing toilets, or getting meal trays. Certainly on 747s, one cabin crew member waits until the two upstairs toilets are clear, latches both doors wide open, and then stands guard while the flight crew either do their business, or have meal trays passed to them. I can't see what purpose this has - one slim trim person isn't going to stop a burly cockpit rusher, if that is what the idea is.

There are more bizarre "policies" on United flights. All the curtains separating the cabins have gone. So if Economy is being fed, Business is woken up with blazing lights and the racket. And you can stand in the First Class cabin of a 747 and see all the way to the back of the plane. Not to mention the kids who think that the airline aisle is a sprint track, and use it as such, day and night.

Now to details...

Economy - International

747s are cramped with the arrival of economy plus. 777s are not much better. 767s with the old configuration are sort of okay, with around 33 inches. I think the 747s and 777s are about 32 inch pitch, so not as bad as Qantas. Maybe the crampedness is due to the average size of the customers being somewhat larger than the average Asian based traveller?

777s are in a rather unpleasant 2-5-2 configuration in economy, whereas 747s are in the standard 3-4-3. Economy plus just gives you more legroom (legroom as it was in the old days at 34inches), the seats are otherwise identical.

Broadcast movie only, plus inflight music, movies are pretty poor at times. Audio outlets often don't work, headphones usually don't work. Last time I was in economy on a 747, it had no seat back video. The 777s do have seat back video though, so are slightly more pleasant to pass the time in.

In flight catering is usually bland and uninteresting, service is a random hotch potch which most Asians and Europeans do a lot better. The more mature cabin crew than on United Domestic may be more experienced, but they seem to think they can get away with being rude too. At least the seats recline a decent amount so some sleep is possible on those long haul flights. Just don't try sitting upright when the person in front tries to recline, unless you want a broken nose.

Summary: International is not bad, just not good enough to be good.

Business - International

The only acceptable way to travel on United on long distances. Business Class is poor compared with most other Business Classes I've been on, but at least it is a heap sight better than Economy or Economy Plus (which has 5 inches extra legroom and a very obscure booking process - I've never yet managed to get into Economy Plus, even being a 1K mad miler). United are starting to upgrade their business class to have flat beds, adopting a backwards/forwards layout for consecutive rows of seats.

Inflight entertainment offers a choice of 4 movies played every two hours. How archaic when Singapore offers video on demand to economy passengers. And the United movies are usually rubbish, certainly not blockbusters. Even music/radio offers a poor choice. At least noise cancelling headphones are sometimes provided to make up for other shortcomings, although the ear pieces barely cover the ear, unlike Singapore's which are completely enclosing and are real noise cancelling devices.

Seats are all manual recline and adjust, although they do have a wonderful massager built in which really helps on those long Pacific crossings. Reading lights sometimes work, head phone sockets sometimes work, even the laptop power socket sometimes works. Why do United find maintenance so difficult?

Top deck is best place on 747-400s - the side storage bins and the extra peace and quiet make the long trips a "pleasure". 747s have 2-4-2 downstairs. 2-2 upstairs on a 747 is close to heaven, the best seats being 13H and 14A. No one is behind you, so your seat back isn't grabbed at 3am when you are trying to sleep. Only downside with upstairs are the seats in row 18 - they are attached to the lift which goes from upstairs to downstairs and the cabin crew seem to enjoy playing with the lift all night. Row 11 at the front is none too pleasant either, as it is next to the toilets and bulkhead, and the stowage space is tiny.

Business on the 777s isn't quite so pleasant, as the planes are in three class configuration, with 1-3 being First, and 8-15 being Business. 8 and 9 are in front of the kitchen (so 9D-F have banging and clanking behind the ears all night). Or staff chattering in the exit door bay. Also, 777s have a flimsy wall between the front of economy (where all the babies sit) and the rear of business, so if you have a business seat, stay well away from row 15 (unless you love to hear babies crying all night). 777s are 2-3-2 in business, more spacious than 747s.

Speaking of staff, they don't seem to mind nattering away half the night as the remaining passengers attempt to get some sleep. And United's policy of removing all the class separating curtains as a "security" measure means that noise travels. Babies howling in economy are heard at the front of the business cabin, the cabin crew midnight party keeps all the passengers awake, etc.

Food is less bland than in economy, but the menu is utterly predictable and quite boring. But well presented, and well served by the cabin crew. At least the Business cabin crew sometimes have a sense of humour, although most seem to be well into their 60s. A reasonably enjoyable experience, but nothing like Singapore Airlines Business.

Summary: The only way to travel on United international

United First - International

This is where you go if you want to pay more money for the same food, slightly better seating than in business, but sit above the nose wheel in a 747 with all the accompanying rumbles and thumps during taxi, take off, and landing. Hardly a haven. My first trip in United First was reasonably unpleasant (not helped by being 30 hours late), with a noisy cabin, extremely uncomfortable pretend-flat bed seats, and meals/menu that were straight out of the business cabin. Since then, I've got used to it, and don't mind it. Singapore's New business class is a much better product.

Yes plenty of space in the first class suites, no neighbours to climb over when toilet stops are required. But with the same video programme as in business, apart from the tape player for the "video on demand", same tiny screens, take a laptop and some DVDs.

Out of plane services are the same as business - different lounge maybe, but nothing different from Red Carpet Club, just fewer people. And with the 30 hour delayed flight, first, biz, and economy got the same hotel deal - the absolute minimum possible.

Summary:Not worth paying for it. 747 upstairs in biz is far better value, as long as you don't mind the not so comfortable seat... But if you are happy burning airmiles for an upgrade (as I do), good value.

Economy - Domestic

Airbus 320s and 737s are extremely cramped. Legroom is better than Qantas but then most of the US travellers are much larger than their international counterparts, so economy passengers usually end up getting squashed. Plus, as with all American airlines, you can take half your house contents into the cabin, so there is never any space for carry-on. At least it is not as bad as on any Indian airline, but getting close.

Inflight music only, service is rubbish, snacks are rubbish, they simply should not bother.

Summary: Best thing they could do is ground it.

Red Carpet Club

The Red Carpet club is open to all United Premier Exec and Star Alliance Gold members, regardless of class of travel on International trips. Which is fair enough, I suppose. Same as other airlines.

But for domestic trips which do not include an international segment, travellers have to be a member. So yes, if you use United First or Business to cross the US, you do not get into the Red Carpet club. You have to slum it in the terminal building along with the rest of the travellers. Weird? Yes.

Last updated by Philip Smith on .