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IAD – LHR Business

This trip was interesting for the drama encountered at IAD before take-off, but it might be of interest to others so is recounted here. I changed my ticket two days earlier from an overnight flight to the one day flight back to LHR.

I had never flown back from the US during the day, and wanted to see if the day flight was easier on jet lag (it is). Anyway, I was able to change my ticket, but only after paying an additional £400, as I had a fully flexible, but corporate ticket.

On the following day, I tried to check in 24 hours before departure. I was not able to choose a seat. At that point I wondered if there was a problem, but phoned United and they confirmed that I was on the flight, no problems.

At check-in at Dulles, the same thing happened. Check-in is extremely impersonal; you complete all formalities yourself and the attendant simply tags your luggage and off you go. I am rather surprised that this is how they also treat their premium passengers (either business or star gold, it makes no difference).

I had to wait about 10 minutes as I could not be issued a boarding pass and staff did not really know how to react, and in the end simply directed me to the gate for a seat assignment with a blank boarding pass. Again, I was assured I was on the flight.

Beginning to be a bit concerned, I made my way through security (slow, but not as bad as I expected) and to the gate. At this point, my fears became reality. I was told that there were no seats available and that I would not be flying, as there were no more seats for stand-bys. I corrected the agent, pointing out that I had a flexible business class ticket, one that I had just changed two days ago at an additional cost of £400 (on top of the £3000+ for the original ticket).

By now two agents were staring at their screens trying to figure out what happened. I was told that I would have to wait until boarding, and that perhaps there would be a seat in economy for me. I was also told that all 3 evening flights were fully booked as well, just in case I wasn’t concerned enough as it was. I asked if I could go to the lounge, as I had not eaten and if I was going to be back in economy, I might want to have something.

Once in the lounge, I explained my problem to the staff there (once I could get in: at this point I had no boarding pass, but at least I had my star alliance gold card). I expressed my surprise at being sold a seat two days earlier that clearly did not exist. Staff here were much more pro-active, and liaised with the gate.

I was told that indeed the flight was oversold completely with every seat taken by a fare paying passenger. Not good news. I was also told that I may be able to get a seat in economy, and be given the difference in fare back, plus $1000 in vouchers. I mulled this over as I waited until departure, thinking that the voucher would only come in handy if I chose United in the future, which was doubtful given the events.

About 30 minutes before departure, I was called back to the gate and told that I was going on the flight, although I did not hear where. At that point, another woman was called forward and told that she was being downgraded. She was offered the same package and was clearly not happy. I was not offered this myself, which I thought a bit odd, given the fact that the woman was travelling as part of a pair, and her companion kept her original seat.

I was given my boarding pass, seat 1B, and I asked what had happened. I was told that because her ticket was a lower class business fare, she was the first to be downgraded. I can now see that this costs the airline less, as the differential in fare is less. However, it took nothing into account that she was travelling with someone, and I was alone. Worse, I then had to sit next to the companion the entire flight. Not the most comfortable situation.

So in the end, I was in my business class seat, as planned, but only after a stressful hour. What no one seems able to explain is why a seat was sold only 2 days before the flight, which was already full. I know airlines oversell seats all the time, but one would have thought that the computer at this point would have said “no.” I should point out that the 757 only has 15 business class seats, and no first class. Therefore, the margin for error is small.

The rest of the flight passed uneventfully. I just kept myself to myself after apologising to the woman sitting next to me, even though I had done nothing wrong myself. The flight was similar to the flight I took out: excellent and plentiful food offerings (delicious turbot), a good level of service with friendly crew, and excellent IFE (although not as good as the 777 on the number of film offerings, but still plenty). The seat had a bit more room than the 777, but was in a similar aisle/window configuration (in a 2-2 formation rather than 2-4-2 on the 777). I did not try the sleeping position, but it does go fully flat.

Some find the 757 a bit clausterphobic for a transatlantic flight, but I actually like the small cabin. It was very quiet, except for the crew who carried on in the galley right in front of me. But this was only really ever annoying when the cockpit door is open and the galley is barricaded with trolleys, as is the rule on US airlines.

I would definitely take the day flight again. Although you lose your day, it is much less disruptive in my opinion than the overnight flight. Again, in terms of food, service and IFE, I would rank United’s product ahead of BA, and would probably choose it over BA (in particular as BA does not offer the day return flight from IAD). I would just be careful if you check in and there is no seat available!