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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 based in the United States and a key member of the Star Alliance network. It is one of the predominant carriers between North America and East Asia, and it also offers numerous flights from the US to Australia, Canada, the Caribbean, Central America, Europe, Mexico, the Middle East, South America, and Southeast Asia.

Besides its general mainline operations, United offers an ultra-luxurious P.S. Premium Service product on all non-stop flights between New York (JFK) and either Los Angeles or San Francisco. United's now defunct low cost Ted operation has been formally discontinued as of June 2008; however, the former Ted aircraft (all-economy class) will continue to operate in their current configuration well into 2009.

In June 2008, United Airlines announced a partnership with Continental Airlines. Once implemented, frequent flier miles can be accrued and spent on either airline interchangeably. However, it may take up to a year for the agreement to go into effect.

Key airports

  • Chicago O'Hare (ORD) is UA's official headquarters and a major hub for flights across the network. In addition to providing a comprehensive selection of flights to destinations throughout Canada, the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean, United Airlines offers several daily non-stop flights to Asia (Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo-Narita) and Europe (Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London-Heathrow, Munich, and Paris-CDG). Sao Paulo, Brazil is served daily as well. Star Alliance partners offer United customers several additional options through codeshare operations. All mainline United flights depart from Terminal 1, where passengers can enjoy the spectacular lightshow in the famous underground tunnel that links Concourses B and C. Although some United Express flights operate from Terminal 1, most United Express passengers can expect to pass through a much more drab Terminal 2. NOTE: Although most United Express flights actually utilize Terminal 2, all ticketing and baggage facilities are located in Terminal 1. All incoming international flights (except those from coming from pre-cleared Canadian and Caribbean cities) will arrive in Terminal 5, requiring connecting passengers to transfer back to Terminals 1 or 2 for their onward flights.
  • Denver (DEN) is UA's second largest hub. Though it is a busy waypoint for passengers traveling across the United States, virtually all flights are regional in nature. United does serve several cities in Canada, Hawaii, and Mexico from Denver; however non-stop service to London-Heathrow will end on October 25th due to high fuel costs. This will once again leave United's major Denver hub without any non-stop intercontinental service. United operates exclusively from Concourse B, by far the largest and longest concourse at the airport. United Express passengers can enjoy the brand new regional wing of the concourse, having just opened to cater specifically to the rapidly growing regional jet and turboprop operations.
  • Los Angeles (LAX) is the smallest of United's five major hubs. Even so, Los Angeles is still a very common stopover for travelers flying to and from Hawaii and Australia. United offers non-stop service to London-Heathrow, Sydney and Tokyo-Narita. Melbourne is served via Sydney. Unfortunately, services to Frankfurt, Guatemala City, and Hong Kong will all be discontinued due to rising fuel costs. United Airlines operates the majority of its flights from Terminal 7. Some mainline flights and all international arrivals utilize Terminal 6, while United Express flights arrive and depart from Terminal 8.
  • San Francisco (SFO) is UA's major West Coast hub. Non-stop service is offered to Beijing, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, London-Heathrow, Osaka, Seoul, Shanghai, Sydney and Tokyo-Narita. Unfortunately, services to Nagoya and Taipei will soon be discontinued due to high fuel prices, while the launch of service to Guangzhou has been postponed. United operates domestic flights from Terminal 3's Boarding Area F, while international flights depart from the International Terminal's Boarding Area G.
  • Washington Dulles (IAD) is UA's key hub on the East Coast. There are a plethora of feeder flights to the eastern states and Midwest and several transcontinental flights offered; however, this hub is most notable for handling many of United's transatlantic flights (Amsterdam, Brussels, Frankfurt, London-Heathrow, Munich, Paris-CDG, Rome, and Zurich), as well as a number of flights to South America (Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo) and, most recently, non-stop services to Kuwait, Tokyo, and Beijing. New non-stop services to Dubai and Moscow are set to begin in October.


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. The domestic version of the 777 does not offer personal video in either class of service - projection screens and overhead monitors used.
  • 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. The domestic version of the 767 does not offer personal video in either class of service - projection screens and overhead monitors used.
  • 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. All remaining Ted aircraft are A320s.
  • 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 Air One (Italy), Emirates (Dubai), Island Air (Hawaii), Qatar Airways, TACA Airlines (Central America) and TAM (Brazil). All paid flights on United and United Express earn full mileage, while mileage accrual on partner airlines depends on the fare paid from zero to 100% of flight mileage. In addition, miles can be earned with a variety of travel, retail, and financial partners.

Redeeming miles

Miles can be redeemed for award flights on any of the airlines listed above, subject to availability. For itineraries exclusively involving flights on United or United Express, it is also possible to pay double the mileage to bypass capacity controls.

Miles can also be redeemed for single class of service upgrades on United or United Express, subject to availability and depending on the original fare paid. Mileage upgrades are not available on partner airlines, however; United has suspended its participation in the Star Alliance upgrade program indefinitely.

Mileage Plus miles cannot be transferred into other programs, but can also be redeemed for hotel stays, car rentals, and some newspaper and magazine offerings.

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, United Express, or any other Star Alliance carrier (but not the other airline partners listed above). Elite flyers are given certain priority checkin, boarding, and standby privileges, as well as bonus miles and the ability to accrue certificates for class of service upgrades, among other benefits.

The basic status levels are

  • Premier Associate - a "gifted" status - Star Alliance Silver
  • Premier - 25,000 EQMs or 30 EQSs - Star Alliance Silver
  • Premier Executive - 50,000 EQMs or 60 EQSs - Star Alliance Gold
  • Premier Executive 100K, or simply 1K - 100,000 EQMs or 100 EQSs - Star Alliance Gold

In addition, United has created a somewhat mysterious "four tier" known as United Global Services (GS). GS status is tied to revenue instead of miles flown, and by invitation only. GS members have priority over even 1Ks for upgrades and standby flights, as well as other special perks, but as United does not publish the criteria for invitation or a comprehensive list of benefits, only anecdotal information about the program is available.

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 Club. The RCCs offer light refreshments such as fruit and crackers, complimentary soft drinks, and at some locations, free WiFi. Alcoholic beverages are usually available for a fee, although Star Alliance Gold passengers are entitled to two drink tickets at their gateway airports when departing internationally. The RCCs are open to paying RCC members as well as Star Alliance Gold members; United and US Airways Star Alliance Gold members are only granted access when on a same-day international itinerary on a Star Alliance carrier, however. One-time passes are available for $50.

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. These lounges are not open to elites by virtue of their elite status, and can only be accessed by passengers in those cabins.