United Airlines is the largest airline in the world, based in the USA. It operates a colossal number of flights in the Americas, Europe and Asia. Its fleet consists of over 700 aircraft, almost all of them Boeings. It has over 10 hubs around the world (the largest of which are, of course, in the USA). Before their merger in 2011, United Airlines was a direct competitor to Continental Airlines. Both companies were founded by the same person, Walter Thomas Varney. In 2011-2012 United Airlines merged with Continental Airlines, and thus the latter’s logo and brand name can only be found on various minutiae (such as the plastic bags for eating utensils and earphones on board). This merger made United Airlines the largest airline in the world. I was curious what I would find on a flight between two cities located about as far as it is possible to get from United's home in the USA.
I had two flights booked: Hong Kong, China, to Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, plus the return. This route can be a part of the long transcontinental flight EWR-NRT-HKG-SGN, aboard a Boeing 777. However, my flight was conducted on a Boeing 737-800, registered for some reason in Guam.
Boeing 737-824. Number: N13227. © Tokyo Spotter / www.airliners.net
At the airport, I checked in in zone G, where United Airlines have their permanent check-in stands for business and economy class tickets. Russian citizens like me don’t need a visa to visit Vietnam if they’re planning to stay for less than 15 days, so I didn't have to concern myself with that. United Airlines has different baggage policies, depending on your point of departure and destination. On my flight, I was allowed one standard suitcase of up to 50 lbs (23 kg) for free, while a second bag cost $70. Alternatively, you might have to pay a $25 fee for your first bag and a $35 fee for a second one. Be sure to pay attention to such details when purchasing your ticket.
The Hong Kong airport is a nifty place (I will be covering it later in my review of my Emirates flight), I was able to find my gate without difficulty, although the airport is huge. The monorail and moving walkways speed up travel through the airport. An interesting feature of United Airlines is that you are grouped together with other people depending on where your seat is on the plane, and you are called to board by group number (I was in group 6). When I got to the gate, boarding had already begun and I was just in time to hear “Groups 5 and 6, please!” This system reminds me a bit of the way SAS seats its passengers starting from the back of the plane, to avoid congesting the aisles. However, to actually have your assigned group number written on your boarding pass is something new to me.
The flight was at night, and the plane was hard to see, hence no photo. The Boeing itself was clearly originally made for the Japanese market, as all the signs and one of the flight magazines were in Japanese. The Duty Free catalog was quite impressive. It was far the thicker than any of the magazines and the assortment of goods was simply astounding. However, I’m doubtful that all of the items found in the catalog were actually available for purchase on the flight. Economy class seats can be seen in the photo below; they're regular plane seats. I wasn’t able to take a photo of the business class, but you've seen the 737 business class plenty of times.
Takeoff was prolonged, perhaps due to cloud cover, but went smoothly. The crew, as well as 99% of the passengers, were Asian, as is to be expected. Flight attendants included a steward and two stewardesses, a little older, but still going about their job with great professionalism. Overall, all Boeing 737s are alike, no matter what series number is added after the dash.
We were given an evening meal, made up of macaroni with sauce, several slices of fruit (pineapple, cantaloupe and watermelon), and crackers. The selection of drinks was again targeted at the Japanese market. I picked Japanese tea, an unusual flavor for me. There was a blanket and earphones available for each seat. The earphones could be used for the onboard entertainment system, but I was too tired to try it out. The armrest has a control panel, probably used to plug in your earphones and flip through the channels. This likely means that everything available is in English.
The restrooms are so cramped it’s surprising to think people can actually wash up in there. However, the flight is only a little over 2 hours long, so you wouldn’t be using them all that much anyway. The descent and landing was, like the takeoff, quick and smooth. There’s nothing noteworthy to say about the crew, though they of course have my thanks for a safe flight. The captain only used the PA at the beginning and the end of the flight. We got off the plane pretty soon after arrival, via ramp. The airport building was deceptively cool due to air-conditioning. Meanwhile, outside it was so hot and humid that, after landing, the plane, the baggage and really everything else was wet with condensation. By the passport control there was a big ad for VISA – “use the ATM while you have the chance!” Only I wouldn’t advise it, especially if you’ve got cash on you, since you can later exchange it in town at a much better rate.
Departure from Ho Chi Minh City is scheduled very early, at 5:30 AM. I got a lift from a friend to the domestic terminal, from where I made my way to the international terminal. I had to walk quite a distance, about 20 minutes, including after I was already inside the terminal. The arrivals area was deserted and all the shops were closed. However, by the time I got to the waiting area there were already people waiting to check in to the United Airlines flight. Check in took unusually long, with three people waiting in line for 15 minutes. Perhaps the employees at the stand were new and inexperienced. An amusing thing was the Chinese habit of trying to check in 10 people at a time. Either way, I finally got my hands on my boarding pass.
What followed was the most eventful part of the trip. First they checked my passport and boarding pass and scanned my baggage. Then they sent me to customs control to get my passport stamped (I’ll take this moment to say again that Russian citizens don’t need a visa if they’re going to Vietnam for less than 2 weeks). Afterwards they again scanned my carry-on and then me, for good measure. Finally, I was free to go to the waiting area, or so I thought. Instead I got stopped in front of the escalator leading to the boarding gate and my baggage was checked again (perhaps they thought I bought a gun at one of the Duty Free shops?) I went down on the escalator and managed to take a hasty photo of part of the plane.
My adventure didn’t end there, however. When they announced that boarding could begin, everyone had to form a line and wait. We didn’t get assigned into any sort of groups to make things go faster. After getting my boarding pass checked I had to go and wait in line again to get on the plane, where they checked the remaining half of my boarding pass! Wow! If you weren’t keeping track of the number of checks I had to go through to get on this plane, the answer is 7. Does this have to do with United Airlines policies? I suspect so, since I had to go through far less formalities in Hong Kong, which is far larger place than Ho Chi Minh airport. I bet this has something to do with increased security after 9/11.
This was the same plane which I’d taken to Ho Chi Minh. This time I got a window seat right by the wing. The flight attendants were almost all Americans, by the looks of it. In response to my innocent request for the plane’s ID number I was pelted with questions: “why did I need to know?” etc. They acted like I'd tried to rush the cockpit. One of the cabin crew (I'd be hard-pressed to call her a flight attendant) promised to look up the plane’s number after takeoff, but, of course, didn’t.
The flight paraphernalia was the same: three magazines (an English version, a Japanese version, and the Duty Free catalog), safety instructions, a blanket in a plastic bag, and earphones (though this time they were distributed on request, instead of being placed in the seat pocket). They then went through the safety procedures on the TV screens while the pilots checked their systems and the attendants made sure all the seats were up and belts buckled. The sun rose early, so by the time we took off it was already quite light out. Taxiing onto the runway was a quick affair, but taking off and climbing, on the other hand, took a while. The seatbelt lights were on a good 20-30 minutes into the flight. After they went off, we were given breakfast. I picked chicken noodles and a fruit cup.
The flight was short and soon we were descending. Cloud cover was thick over Hong Kong, but landing took notably less time than taking off. Then we taxied up to the terminal, they extended a ramp, and the flight was over. Before I left I finally got to take a good picture of the Boeing from a better angle. The final verdict on United Airlines? I hope you can make up your own mind after reading this review.
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