How can US airlines compete in today’s global market?


For most business travelers from overseas, flying domestically in the United States is becoming a nightmare. Strict security and long delays for most travelers, and substandard or no services even on long-haul flights make US airlines like United, American Airlines, Delta, US Air, and others the laughing stock of the world.

On almost all international carriers, passengers get a tasteful warm meal – in economy class. Recently I flew on a one-hour flight on Sri Lankan from Colombo to the Maldives in economy, and a spicy tasteful hot meal was served.

I flew on a 30-minute flight from Doha to Dubai, and I hardly had time to finish my hot snack. I sat back in a comfortable economy seat on a brand-new aircraft and enjoyed a pillow and blankets. No way to listen to thousands of songs or watch even the beginning of hundreds of movies and TV features on demand on this flight, and I loved my own bottle of cold water for the short flight.

On a domestic flight on Garuda from Bali to Jakarta I enjoyed a delicious hot meal, plenty to drink, a blanket and pillows, and a good entertainment system.

Back home in US, flying on domestic carriers even on 5-, 8- or even 11-hour domestic flights from Hawaii to the US mainland or back is a nightmare these days. Forget pillows, cold meals are for sale, and every 3 hours a flight attendant will go through the aisle and offer a small cup of warm water.

Recently on my way back from Los Angeles to Honolulu, I had the pleasure, or should I say experience in order to be polite, to fly on the brand-new UA 737-800 on United Airlines in First Class.

Flying this route for many years there is not much you expect from first class these days.

Forget about sleeper seats or even comfortable reclining seats with space to stretch out. Imagine an economy plus seat on SAS with the service of a charter flight – this is first class domestic in the US today. And as for economy itself, seats have a 31-inch pitch, 17.3-inch width, and a mere 3 percent recline.

It took almost 6 hours to fly from LAX to Honolulu and I sat in seat 1A.

For many years, when I flew, I always looked forward to a large salad plate before my meal. This has been gone for several years now. The warm meal in First Class is now lasagna or chicken – no Hawaiian Mahi Mahi or delicious meals created by Hawaiian master chefs – those times are ancient history. The only thing left is the Ice Cream Sundae for dessert, but there is no cheese, no caviar, no appetizer with roasted nuts before your meal, and no snack at the end of the flight – all these first-class niceties are gone.

The seats in First Class on the brand news B737-800 are small, and there are no leg rests. And I always brace myself for a headache, as there are no more pillows available in any class on United domestic flights.

First class seats are 38 inches in pitch (approximate legroom), 21 inches in width, with a 7.5 percent recline… yes, percent, not inches. This compares to a 35-inch pitch and 17.3-inch width, plus a 5 percent recline in economy plus.

The blanket is not the one United used to have in first and business class – now it’s a thin polyester blue piece of material.

I do have to say I enjoyed the crew having to go into demo position, because the plane had no entertainment system at all. I mean, there was no audio, no video, no TV, and no movies. This was the first time in 25 years I flew this route without a movie.

The flight attendants were very friendly and accommodating, but passengers had to constantly ask for water. It would have been great to have your own bottle.

The last straw was the bathroom. I flew last month on the new A380 from Thai International on a flight about the same distance (Bangkok to Tokyo) and there was a couch and dressing room in the bathroom. In the United B737-800, I had to enter the bathroom sideways to get in, and then I had the hardest time trying to turn around. Fortunately, I managed to close the door – but I will skip the Ice Cream Sundae next time.

The United flight attendants were well aware of all these shortcomings, and one even fondly remembered the good old days of PAN AM flights. I remember that a decade ago, Continental Airlines had a bar for first class passengers.

At that time, passengers like myself were happy to pay premium rates to sit up front – these days 92% of all seats in first are occupied by those receiving an upgrade due to status or those flying on a complimentary mileage ticket.

A year ago I had a first class ticket on United Airlines from Honolulu to Frankfurt (value $14200.00 one way) After an all night 9 hour flight I had a 5 hour lay over for my United Airlines non stop flight to Frankfurt.

I went to the First Class Lounge. The lounge was empty and had 3 showers available. I asked for a key and to my surprise I was denied the same. Forget my 1K status and a First Class ticket valued almost $15.000,00 – only passengers arriving in Chicago on international flights and connecting to international flights were allowed to take a shower.

In other words if arriving on a 1 hour flight from Toronto the shower is available.

I tried to complain to the manager. He told me I should have asked him nicely instead of demanding and he would have made an exception. Unfortunately no exception for me.

Overall as a 1K flyer with United Airlines I had been treated well and professional. Flight attendants bring decades of experience to most flight and agree with the situation.

I understand competition is tough, but cutting service to this level will not encourage those that can pay more to do so. It will be a battle of cheap, cheap, cheap – because what is the alternative?