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United Airlines

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United Airlines

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This article is a travel topic.

United Airlines [1] is a major airline in the United States and a member of the Star Alliance. It is one of the predominant carriers between North America and East Asia and has flights from the US to Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and other regions.

Besides its mainline operation, United also offers Ted, a "low-cost" product similar to JetBlue or Delta's Song, on routes to certain leisure-oriented destinations such as Las Vegas and Florida.

Key airports

  • Chicago O'Hare (ORD) is UA's official headquarters and a major hub for flights across the network.
  • Denver (DEN) is UA's busiest cross-country hub, but handles no international flights for United, except to Canada and Mexico.
  • Washington Dulles (IAD) is UA's key hub on the East Coast. In addition to feeder flights to the eastern states, it also handles many of United's transatlantic flights, as well as a number of flights to Latin America and, most recently, direct service to Beijing.
  • San Francisco (SFO) is UA's key hub on the West Coast and handles many transpacific flights.
  • Los Angeles (LAX) is also a major hub (United occupies three of the ten terminals there), although not as well-served as SFO. United still serves Tokyo, Sydney and Melbourne from LAX but has moved its other transpacific flights to SFO and ORD.
  • Tokyo/Narita (NRT) is a mini-hub for the Asia-Pacific region. United operates out of the South Wing of Terminal 1, which is shared with other Star Alliance carriers.


United offers 3-class service on international flights and 2-class service on most domestic flights, including feeder flights on Canadair and Embraer 170 regional jets. However, prop planes and the smaller Embraer 145 only have economy class.

Also, be aware that Ted flights only have economy class, so if you are booked on a Ted flight as part of a premium class itinerary, you will have to spend the Ted portion in economy.

Uniquely among major US airlines, United sets apart the first few rows of economy class as Economy Plus, which has five extra inches of legroom. Economy Plus seating is given to ticketed economy passengers who:

  1. hold elite status in the Mileage Plus program (see below);
  2. subscribe to "Economy Plus Access" on an annual basis; or
  3. pay an additional fee at check-in, which varies based on the duration of the flight.

Note that you cannot pre-reserve Economy Plus unless you fall into category 1 or 2 above; garden variety passengers can only access it at check-in on a space available basis. Economy Plus is available on most aircraft, including two-class commuter aircraft and Ted aircraft, but not on one-class commuter aircraft (i.e. prop planes and ERJ-145s).

  • 747-400s are used on a few major intercontinental (mainly transpacific) routes. While first and business class on these planes is top-quality (lie-flat beds in first class), the 777's economy class product is much better, as the 747s only have ancient movie projectors in the back. There is business class seating on the main deck and the upper deck: the upper deck seats are generally preferred, as the main deck seats form a ring around the galleys and upper deck access stairs, making this part of the cabin much more hectic than business class upstairs (or on the 777).
  • 777-200s are used on most intercontinental routes, and have lie-flat beds in first class. Economy class has personal video screens at each seat. Another version is used for flights to Hawaii and has only domestic first class and economy seating.
  • 767-300s are used on international routes which do not warrant 777 service. These aircraft have an older first class product without lie-flat seats, and business class is slightly more cramped than on the 747 or 777. Economy class has personal video and is comparable to the 777. Like the 777, there is also a two-class domestic version mainly used for flights to Hawaii.
  • 757s are mainly used on medium-range and transcontinental flights. Most have two classes of service. However, if you are flying from New York JFK to Los Angeles or San Francisco, the 757s used on these routes have three-class premium service similar to what you would get on an international flight, with lie-flat seats (not beds) in first class and a roomy business class. This is to compete with American Airlines' nearly identical service which uses larger but older 767-200s.
  • A320s and A319s are used on other medium-range flights, and may be swapped out for one another despite what your reservation or the timetable says. These are more cramped than the Boeing aircraft, even in first class, so the general preference among frequent flyers is to pick a 757 or 737 where it is available.
  • 737s are smaller mainline jets used for short domestic hops, primarily on the West Coast.

Frequent flyer program

United's frequent flyer program is called Mileage Plus.

Earning miles

Mileage Plus members can earn miles when flying on any Star Alliance carrier, as well as Aeromar (Mexico), Air China, Aloha Airlines (Hawaii), Emirates (Dubai), Qatar Airways, Shanghai Airlines, TACA Airlines (Central America) and Varig (Brazil).

Redeeming miles

Miles can be redeemed for flights on any of the above listed airlines except Varig.

Elite status

Elite status is earned based on the number of elite qualifying miles (EQMs) or elite qualifying segments (EQSs) flown in a calendar year on United or any other Star Alliance carrier (but not the other airline partners listed above).

The basic status levels are:

  • Premier - 25,000 EQMs or 25 EQSs - Star Alliance Silver
  • Premier Executive - 50,000 EQMs or 50 EQSs - Star Alliance Gold
  • 1K - 100,000 EQMs or 100 EQSs - Star Alliance Gold

There is also a "fourth tier," the unique and somewhat mysterious United Global Services (UGS). UGS membership is by the airline's invitation and is independent of the miles that the passenger has flown. This makes it not really an elite tier at all, although UGSs get priority over 1Ks in seat selection and upgrades, as well as a number of other special perks. Most information about UGS is anecdotal; while United mentions the program in some of its literature, it does not publish the criteria for membership or a comprehensive list of benefits. The general consensus seems to be that you earn UGS status by having a high-dollar expense account for United flights.

A Million Miler who has flown 1 million miles on United during their lifetime receives Premier Executive status for life.


United's main lounge network is called the Red Carpet Clubs. The 40 RCCs are open to paying RCC members as well as Star Alliance Gold members. Ten airports also have a First International Lounge open to first class passengers on international itineraries, and six have an Arrivals Suite where international first and business class passengers arriving before noon can take a shower and eat breakfast. The latter lounges are not open to elites by virtue of their elite status, and can only be accessed by buying an expensive ticket or really sweet-talking the front desk staff.