Hi! My name is Brian, and I am an avid traveller, aviation enthusiast, and airline reviewer based in New York City. 

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Flight Report: United "Atrocious" 737-800 from Newark to Salt Lake City

December 28, 2017

 

Introduction

Hello from Salt Lake City! I had just arrived on a long flight from Newark (EWR) and I am currently resting at a hotel in preparation of tomorrow's powder day at Alta. I know that traveling during the busy holiday season isn't the best thing in the world, and certainly, there were many experiences today that severely compromised the experience with United. However, not all of these shortcomings are United's fault, but there's certainly a lot of room for improvement as well. 

 

So, let's begin. As you might already know, United only operates one daily flight from Newark to Salt Lake City, as SLC is mainly a Delta hub, meaning United has a fairly small presence there. Thus, because of a crazy low fare that my parents discovered last spring, we booked tickets with United instead of the logical go-to choice for flights to Salt Lake City, Delta. Round trip tickets for this flight were just under $300, despite the busy holiday travel season. Our tickets booked into the "K" and "T" fare classes, which are some of the lowest in United's system. 

 

Before the Flight

Fast forward to the day of the trip. We all woke up at 4:30 AM and drove 1 hour to EWR airport to catch the early 8:20 AM flight. Upon arriving at the lower level of Terminal C, I was shocked by the sheer number of people waiting to check in for their respective flights. As many experienced flight reports will put it, EWR felt more or less like a zoo, even at that early hour. I had to wait 10 minutes just to gain access to a check in kiosk, and once there, I helped my parents print out their boarding passes and check the suitcase containing our ski equipment, using a bag tag that we had to print out and attach ourselves. Once again, I was randomly selected to use the TSA PreCheck line, though my parents unfortunately did not have that benefit. Then again, we've never paid for Global Entry, despite the fact that both of my parents hold the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, so it's impossible to know when we would get TSA PreCheck. Either way, when I made my way to the PreCheck line, it was surprisingly empty, while the regular line snaked around the second floor mezzanine. 

 Exterior of Newark's Terminal C during the early morning hours. 

 United's expansive check-in area. 

 The self-service kiosks, not surprisingly, were very crowded. 

 Another view of the check-in area from the bag drop counters. 

 

I was through security in about five minutes, and proceeded to gate C136, which was quite a long distance from the security checkpoint, at the northernmost end of the terminal. Not surprisingly, no one was there yet, so after putting my stuff down, I went for a walk down the concourse. The highlight, of course, was the amazing sunrise. However, there was also a Boeing 777-300ER promotion sign as well as some balloons near gate C128. I do not really know why it is still there, especially considering the fact that the Boeing 777-300ER debuted at EWR almost a year ago. I also don't know of any new 77W routes that they will be starting out of EWR at this point (though things will change next year, when United takes delivery of four more 777-300ERs). 

Security checkpoint, featuring the new United Polaris-themed mood lighting (The PreCheck line can be seen to the right, while the normal security line is located in the background) 

 Corridor leading to the three concourses of Terminal C. 

 Walking down the northernmost concourse, with lots of restaurants. 

 Another view of Terminal C's northernmost concourse. 

 A promotional 777-300ER sign for United that has now fallen into disuse.

 N76021, a former Continental Boeing 777-200ER built in 2010, is being prepared for a flight to Shanghai. 

A company Boeing 737 and 757-200 (N12114, from Lima, Peru) being attended to at gates C133 and C134. 

 Our departure gate is actually a "blind gate," meaning you cannot see the aircraft. 

United has some pretty interesting flight information screens. This one indicated that our aircraft was N76269. 

A beautiful Newark Sunrise with downtown Manhattan visible in the background. 

 

In-Flight Experience

 

December 24, 2017

United Airlines flight # 602

EWR (Newark-Liberty International) - SLC (Salt Lake City International)

Boeing 737-824/WL (N76269)

Economy, seat 22A

Flight Time 05:15

 

Before I knew it, boarding began one minute ahead of schedule at 7:44 AM, with pre-boarding being announced first. Boarding groups did not seem to be strictly enforced, as I was able to board at the end of Group 2, before Group 3 was called (of which I was in). Upon looking at the departure board, I figured out that our aircraft would be N76269, a Boeing 737-824 featuring DirecTV but not the Sky Interior. It was delivered to Continental in 2001. 

 

Originally, I intended to take a later flight, in exchange for compensation because the flight that I was originally supposed to take was severely overbooked. As you might already know, in April, Dr. David Dao was dragged off of a United Express flight from Chicago to Louisville because he refused to give up his seat to United Express crew members, a process known as "involuntarily denied boarding." As a result, United made many changes to its policy for "bumping" passengers from flights, and one of those was that they increased the amount of compensation that passengers would receive for taking a later flight to $10,000. I hoped to take a flight departing around the same time but with a connection in San Francisco, which would arrive about 3 hours later than planned. The routing was the following:

1. UA 497 (B777-200, N774UA) EWR-SFO 0830 EST - 1144 PST

2. UA 1610 (B737-900ER, N37470) SFO-SLC 1250 PST - 1549 MST
Unfortunately, I apparently lined up too late in front of the gate agent, and by the time the agent got to me, they didn't need any more volunteers. Ironically, the person right in front of me who stepped up to volunteer got on the same flights that I was hoping to get on. 

 

The Boeing 737NG series represents the backbone of United's domestic fleet, and is fairly standard as far as domestic flights go. After boarding, I turned right and passed the First Class cabin, which contained 16 standard black leather recliner chairs arranged in a 2-2 configuration.

 

After passing through a bulkhead wall, I arrived in the main economy section, which consists of solely Economy Plus seats until the exit row. I would be seated in 22A, in the first row of normal economy. This seat was right over the middle of the wing, and unfortunately for those who like to look out the window, the view is somewhat blocked by the wing itself. Despite the fact that the domestic first recliners look extremely antiquated, I was pleased to find out that the generic Continental cloth seats had been removed and replaced with United's signature post-merger seats (based on the B/E Aerospace Pinnacle model), as shown below. Despite what many people have said about these seats, I found them fairly comfortable, even for the 5-hour ride west. 

When I loaded my carry-on and coat into the tiny overhead locker, I immediately regretted not doing my research prior to this flight. As for the domestic 737-800s, United offers only a measly 30 inches of pitch in regular economy, while Economy Plus gets at least 34 inches (the same as regular economy on JetBlue, as well as many Asian carriers). When I sat down in my seat, My knees touched the seat in front of me, even though I was sitting as far back as possible. This is indeed very frustrating, as I am of average height (6'0"), and for many taller people, this could become a severe inconvenience, especially for this 5-hour flight. In addition, the maximum seat width in economy on Boeing 737s is 17 inches, the same you'll get on a 10-abreast 777 or 9-abreast 787. This is due to the fact that the 737's fuselage is especially narrow. On most Airbus A320s, you'll see 18-inch wide seats due to the fact that its fuselage is exactly six inches wider than the 737's. Because of this, I would have been squeezed both from the front and from the side, had it not been for the fact that a little girl was sitting in the middle seat, meaning that I had more room to move my shoulders about. 

United has kept the Thales DirecTV system on the refurbished seats, and moved the seatback literature to just below the TV screen, instead of in the seat pocket below, so customers can theoretically gain more knee room. DirecTV, unfortunately, is not free on United. I paid $5 before the flight to access the in-flight entertainment, which I thought was a reasonable cost for a flight lasting over 5 hours. Unfortunately, aircraft with DirecTV do not offer power outlets, while aircraft with Personal Device Entertainment offer two plugs for every three seats. Luckily, I brought a large power bank to charge my devices. You can purchase one here

After boarding had finished, some people in the group that I was traveling with called the flight attendants and told them to hold the boarding door for a family that just cleared security. Unfortunately, the flight was already a few minutes behind, so the family ended up missing the flight. 

Once we pushed back, we started up the #2 engine, and did a single-engine taxi toward the business end of runway 4L. We started up the #1 engine about halfway there, and waited for a couple of planes to takeoff before we aligned with the runway. After waiting for ATC clearance, the flight crew applied TO/GA power, and we rumbled past a line of over 10 aircraft waiting for departure clearance and lifted off into the overcast skies over the New York area. 

Can you spot the Delta 747-400 (N666US) lurking about the terminals? Unfortunately, Delta retired their 747s from commercial service just a week before my flight. They'll still be flying football charters until January 2, though. 

Downtown Newark and EWR airport can be seen in this photo. 

 

At this point, I activated an ADS-B antenna that I had built prior the flight. Before you go around blaming me for using these devices, keep in mind that they are perfectly legal, and mirror certain systems on the aircraft itself. ADS-B and GPS receivers, when used during flight, do not cause any interference to the aircraft's systems whatsoever. I had also plotted the filed flight plan for our flight into ForeFlight, a mobile EFB (Electronic Flight Bag) used by private pilots, as reference. However, as you will later see, we had a last minute change to our flight plan, and we ultimately ended up flying north of our intended route. 

United's own flight map on the entertainment screens was displaying data that did not seem to agree with what my GPS was displaying. 

 

We first climbed north over the city of Newark, and continued a due north heading until we reached Poughkeepsie, at which point we began setting a course due west. After leveling off at 5,000 and 10,000 feet, we began a slow series of climbs to get to our initial cruising altitude of 32,000 feet. The Boeing 737-800 and -900ER are known to have terrible climb performance, which is why they need to do the so-called "step climbs," when you level off between climbs to gain airspeed instead of climbing continuously. 

Once we broke through the thick cloud cover at 30,000 feet, the seat belt sign turned off, and I began watching one of the eight movies playing on a loop, War of the Planet of the Apes. I had already seen this movie before, and because it was very good, I honestly didn't mind seeing it again, as the other seven options looked fairly boring. The Flight Attendants also began the meal service during this time, with one distributing stroopwafels - United's signature snack, and the other conducting the drink service for the passengers. After requesting two stroopwafels, it took 10 minutes for me to get the drinks I ordered - a sparkling lime water and an orange juice. I feel that the efficiency could be improved if the flight attendants each serve both the drink and the snack, with each doing half the cabin. But to be honest, this is not a big deal. Interestingly, a full drink service was conducted right after this one, even though many people had not finished their drinks. Furthermore, the Flight Attendants came through the cabin with orange juice and water at least two more times during the flight. 

At this point, I attempted to connect to the in-flight Wi-Fi, provided by United itself. Transcontinental flights on Boeing 757-200 aircraft offer reliable Gogo service, while international aircraft offer Panasonic wifi that almost never works. This wifi, however, loaded United's webpages at an acceptable speed (I did not choose to pay for the wifi, but you could pay using either money or miles). 

As you can see, we were facing quite a strong headwind that reached almost 200 mph in some places. 

 

After finishing my snack, I headed to the lavatory in the rear of the aircraft. There are just two for the economy class passengers (which meant that there was always a line for it), while the 16 first passengers and crew share one, located in the front. Upon entering, I felt that these lavatories were super cramped, and my shoulders were touching both walls the moment I entered. However, the sink was of an average size, and prevented water from splashing everywhere. I should note that you can't control the temperature of the water in the sink - in one lavatory it was freezing cold and in the other it was burning hot. 

When I got back to my seat, I started watching MythBusters, my all-time favorite TV show, and continued to do so until the end of the flight.  United's DirectTV features over 100 channels of live TV, as well as several movies playing on a loop. At this point, I placed a GPS device I had against the wall of the aircraft, and was able to get fairly good accuracy, between 10 meters and 30 meters. I placed my EFB on the tray table so I would be able to watch it while watching MythBusters at the same time, while my ADS-B device operated in my backpack, under the seat in front. 

A view of United's 737-800 economy cabin.  

 

Two-and-a-half hours later, after requesting 10 stroopwafels and two cups of water, we began our initial descent into the Salt Lake City area. The view outside was stunning, as we flew right past the Wasatch mountain range heading south. Based on the filed flight plan I plotted, we were scheduled to use the NORDK5.16L arrival, but as it was reverse operations day in SLC due to the change in wind direction, we flew past the airport while maintaining an altitude of 10,000 feet AGL, made a U-turn, and lined up with runway 34R (the same as 16L, but in the opposite direction). Words honestly don't do justice to how beautiful the approach was, so I'll let you see for yourself. 

 

33 minutes before schedule, we made a smooth touchdown, and immediately used full reverse thrust braking due to the thin atmosphere here at 4,200 feet above sea level. After clearing the runway, we taxied to a gate in the B concourse, where we parked right next to a company Airbus A319-131. It took quite a few minutes for the gate agents to link the jet bridge to the aircraft, unfortunately.

After I collected my belongings from the overhead bin, I made my way to the cockpit, where I had a few words with the flight crew. This 737 cockpit, being 16 years old, seemed very dated and in need of an overhaul. But first, let's have a look at United's domestic first class, which features the same black leather recliners that you'll probably find in a cheap furniture store. United has installed a new first class on its Airbus narrowbody aircraft, which is designed by PriestmanGoode. 

Here's a comparison of our originally filed flight plan versus our actual one: 

Original (Planned): KEWR NEWEL J60 DANNR PSB J60 IOW J10 DSM BFF MBW OCS NORDK5.16L KSLC

 Actual Route: KEWR GAYEL Q818 WOZEE NOSIK JUVAG CESNA ABR DDY NORDK5.34R KSLC

After bidding farewell to the crew, I made my way down to baggage claim, a very small facility located adjacent to the security checkpoint. Now here's where the fun part began: At baggage claim 1, four United flights were sharing the same belt. This meant that I had to wait for three flights' worth of baggage to be claimed before our checked bag appeared on the belt. In total, the process took over 45 minutes for the bag to appear. For reference, Delta offers a bag tracking tool, as well as a guarantee that bags will arrive within 25 minutes of deplaning, and you are entitled to 2,500 miles (worth approximately $37.50) This is undoubtedly a very unfortunate situation, as other baggage claims could be used to full capacity as well. However, given that this is the midst of the holiday travel season, I don't want to blame United too much. What I do want to say though, is that one of my friends waited almost 2 hours at the baggage claim until he learned that the three bags he checked in were still stranded in EWR. Turns out, he checked them in too late, and they eventually arrived on a connecting flight over 10 hours later than planned, from what I heard. 

 

Verdict

I'm going to be very honest here. This flight did not meet the expectations that I had for United. Granted, the overcrowding at EWR's Terminal C and "BaggageGate" could have been avoided had I not been traveling with United during the busy holiday season. However, the 30-inch pitch in regular economy is unacceptable, and on par with many budget carriers such as Ryanair and Frontier. I got off the plane with severe knee pain after having them crammed into the seat in front of me for five hours. Furthermore, the fact that DirecTV is STILL not free will certainly angry many United frequent domestic travelers. Despite these shortcomings, I would rate the actual flight itself "acceptable" at best. Why? The cramped room and indifferent attitude provided by the flight attendants forces United to imply that they aren't really caring for their customers. As a longtime Delta flyer, I can assure that I have received better service on Delta's regional jets - not to mention the fact that Delta has invested heavily in improving the passenger experience in economy class, not just in the premium cabin. It is unfortunate that I have to say that I will not recommend flying United on this route again. However, if you find a very cheap ticket (in either the "K" or "T" fare classes) just like I did, it might still be worthwhile to give them a try. 

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