I’ve given United Airlines a lot of heat over the years. They have an abysmal track record flying into and out of our tiny regional airport here on the rural north coast of California. I’ve had *so* many delays and cancellations over the years, and very little sympathy from them. Their poor treatment of passengers with how they handled refunds at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was so bad that I swore off spending money again with them.

True to my word, I haven’t bought a single revenue United ticket this year. Yet the irony that about 80% of my post-COVID flying has been with United Airlines is not lost on me. I’ve booked several awards on United Airlines, typically with partner miles.

What’s funny is that United has been the best it has ever been for me over the past months. Here are five things I’ve liked about United this year:

Not A Single Delay. Not. One.

Historically, nearly half of my travel with United Airlines between ACV and SFO was not without delay or cancellation. There was one work trip where I had a 3-hour delay on the outbound (different route) and a 3-hour delay on the inbound (yes, this route). This was the final straw that moved me over to flying Delta whenever I could, even if it meant driving for hours. I’d rather be in command of my time.

I have yet to experience a delay with United in 2020. I’ve now flown 18 segments with them, and not a single flight has arrived more than 5 minutes after scheduled arrival. It’s pretty incredible. This is entirely unlike my United experience prior to the pandemic.

My guess is that it really has to do with operations at SFO. When traffic is heavy and weather is bad, SFO is a disaster. The “trickle down” delays have bitten me many times. Lighter traffic takes all the pressure off.

an airplane wing in the air

Robust Communication by Text and App

Okay, I’ll go out and say it: United has always impressed me with their mobile app. It’s better than American Airlines’ app, although that one has been markedly improved. I feel like United’s was great when I first started using airline apps, and it hasn’t gotten worse. Delta has a pretty robust app as well, so I’m not sure I can call it the best. But it does make all the details and functionality you need extremely accessible.

Maybe it’s just a case of using it more than the other airline apps. About the only thing I hate doing on the United app is searching for award flights. But then I don’t like doing that from any mobile device or app.

If you opt-in to SMS notifications with United, you’ll get both texts and app pings at key times, such as when boarding has started. Arrival texts also help. United is excellent about texting as soon as the aircraft has its wheels on the ground, telling you your arrival gate and the gate of your connecting flight. If I was a novice traveler, these would be even more appreciated.

During COVID-19, there have also been texts ahead of time offering to rebook you due to how full an aircraft is.

Award Refund, No Questions Asked? No Way.

One of my worst experiences with United was when they refused to refund an award itinerary affected by cancellations and changes. Just a couple weeks later, with federal bailout money secured, they had no issues. I still don’t think how they treated customers was right, however.

Now I’ve managed to refund a couple award tickets, one with Delta and the other with United, no questions asked. Based on the travel dates, they didn’t appear to fall under the policy. The United one had a very minor change, and the agent was willing to refund it without any trouble less than 30 days before departure. I can’t imagine a similar request going anywhere with the previous United. Or maybe I just got lucky.

I will say that Delta has always been excellent in this regard. I once got full value for cash tickets canceled on the day of departure after I explained our situation. That agent understood customer service.

airplanes parked on a runway

So Much Award Space!

Award availability with United has generally been good over the years, with a handful of notable routes and cabins as exceptions. They’ve always been stingy with business cabin space on their transcontinental premium service flights and to Hawaii. While you don’t see awards available every day, I’m seeing more space on some of these flights than I every have.

You can nearly always find space on the United premium service routes on most Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays, even months ahead of time. I never remember this being the case. When I found award space to fly United 757-200 transcontinental business class, I had to book less than two weeks out.

I’ve also seen months where there are saver economy awards originating at my home airport of ACV available every single day in the month view to multiple destinations. With less people flying and less ability to carefully manage loads on their routes, it makes sense that United has a lot more award seats for sale.

More Pleasant Staff?

Even with the COVID-19 measures, I actually feel that airline staff have been better on the whole over the past few months. Maybe they are less stressed out with fewer flights. Maybe they are excited to work after not working for a while. Maybe they are hopeful to keep their jobs with layoffs potentially looming. Whatever it is, I’ve found staff to be better.

Passengers? Mixed. At least deplaning is no longer a mad rush. That I can appreciate.

Final Thoughts

Airlines have been hit hard during the pandemic, and most are still trying to find their footing financially. The hope for a quick rebound is pretty much gone. It’s certainly a buyer’s market at this time, as airlines are hurting for customers and cash. It makes sense that U.S. airlines have offered award refunds, no questions asked.

It will be interesting to see if the pandemic affects the culture of airlines in the long-term. With major carriers dropping change fees, we might see some real benefit for passengers before this is all over. I hope the lessened fees, award flexibility, and better on-time performance stick. Now I see how much of the latter likely has to do with their SFO hub, though.

Have you flown United this year? What was your experience like?