My recent travel unexpectedly turned into a little United Airlines versus American Airlines test. I didn’t book the flights, and my wife wound up booking a different airline for each leg of the trip. We flew to Newark from Phoenix Sky Harbor on United Airlines, and returned on American Airlines. Here's how it all shook out.
United Airlines – Sky Harbor to Newark
One of the reasons I like flying United Airlines from Sky Harbor is because it's at Terminal 2, the smallest of Sky Harbor's terminals. Plus, there's a long-term parking lot a short walk from the terminal. That's pretty huge. For some reason, we were selected for pre-check to move us through the line faster.
We flew on a pretty shiny Airbus A320 that didn't look anywhere near its 18 years of age. It still smelled good, and had those nice new slimline seats that move the seat pocket high to free up extra legroom.
This was an early, long flight. No time for breakfast, so we had to make do with what was on-board. United Airlines has gotten a lot of recent praise for its stroopwafel, and it definitely deserves that praise. It's one of the tastiest free airline snacks I've ever had. They also had two impressive for-sale breakfast items that Sarah and I tried (and shared with Anneka): a chilaquiles mexican skillet and a ricotta-and-berry French toast. We were both surprised by the quality. I'd skip standing in line before a flight and opt for these any day.
After breakfast, I tried to get a little sleep. The slimline seat was nice in every way but the headrest. I raised it up to my height, but it never gave me any support for the head. I just kept tilting back into a very uncomfortable position – I also tried stuffing my jacket in the space between my neck and the seat, but not even that worked. This likely wouldn't be a problem on a later flight because I'd have my nose shoved into my Kindle (I'm reading a spectacular book called Angelmaker from Nick Harkaway). As it was, I got enough sleep to get by, and it felt pretty fast for a more than four-hour flight.
This was my first flight to Newark, and the terminal was more modern than I expected. Baggage claim was pretty quick, so I had no complaints about how things turned out on the ground.
I'd definitely consider this flight a win for United Airlines.
Round Two – United Airlines Versus American Airlines
On the way back to Arizona, we left from Newark's Terminal A. That terminal and its TSA setup are a study in inefficiency, bureaucracy and rank stupidity. The TSA agents there are in such of a state of stupefied terror that they insisted that we send a stuffed owl attached to Anneka's stroller through that X-ray for examination – how effective can those millimeter-wave porno-scanners be if they can't handle a stuffed owl? American Airlines is in no way responsible for this, but I would pay extra for an airline that doesn't fly out of Newark Terminal A.
Sarah and I were scheduled to fly an American Airlines Boeing 737-800. I heard more than a few passengers ask "How old is this plane, anyway?" While boarding. It's probably the bulky old-style seats that prompted the question – and this 737 did not have the very slick, sleek Dreamliner-inspired Boeing Sky interior (which beats the pants off any other interior, even the recently released Airbus Airspace cabin). More than a few people had trouble getting their carry-on luggage into the bins, mostly because some lip of metal seemed to be hanging lower than it should. It's honestly not that old of a plane, about 15 years old according to my info (though a lot has changed in the last 15 years, as far as the passenger experience).
The seat wasn't too terrible, but I knew I wouldn't get any sleep on this 5-hour-plus flight, mostly because the headrest doesn't extend. Sarah was also sitting across the aisle, which would make it a bit tough to handle Anneka – she's a long baby, so it's a challenge to keep her from invading other people's space. That's OK if you're seated next to the other parent, but a bit harsh for anyone else.
American Airlines is also handing out free snacks, but its mix of grainy things definitely comes in a good distance behind the United Airlines stroopwafel. On the other hand, American Airlines offers some nice paid menu items. The fruit and cheese platter was more than satisfying.
Overall, a not-unpleasant yet not-impressive flight.
Summing It Up: United Airlines Versus American Airlines
As far as terminals, United is the winner here. Food? A slight edge to United.
As for aircraft, I have to deduct points from both. United Airlines has plenty of domestic aircraft equipped with AVOD, and I'd call that a must for a transcontinental flight. Then there's the seat headrest problem with both. United eases ahead with a much nicer if not much newer aircraft.
Overall, United wins in this particular United Airlines versus American Airlines contest.
Want to read about another recent experience on United Airlines? Here’s how they stranded me in Chicago after a flight from Germany, and what they did to make the situation better.
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