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Why United Is No Longer Competitive: My SFO to HKG Comparison

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I noticed with great disdain United’s latest cutback — the removal of complimentary alcohol on its international transpacific routes in the economy section.  Since I usually travel with kids, I’m not taking advantage of much booze in the sky (as much as I might sometimes need it!), so this really is a minor change for me.  What surprised me most of all in the announcement of this move was United’s claim that “We are confident that our overall product remains competitive in this market.”  This is a bold statement and one that many observers doubted to be true, especially when United competes with so many Asian airlines known for great food and service on these routes.

As my family is planning a trip to Hong Kong in a few months, I recently had a chance to determine for myself whether United is competitive in the US to Asia market for economy travel.  This is a great trip for a comparison, as I’m based in SFO and three airlines fly the SFO to HKG non-stop route: United, Singapore, and Cathay Pacific.  Prices in the regular economy sections are pretty comparable at 4 months out.

I spent a little time on SeatGuru comparing the three flights, and I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that United simply isn’t competitive on this route, no matter what they claim.  Here are the stats that led me to this conclusion.

United Singapore Cathay Pacific
RT Fare $1189 $1036 $1289 or $1357
Aircraft Flown 747-400 777-300 747-400
Seat Pitch 31 32 32
Seat Width 17 19 17.5
Entertainment Overhead screens only Seatback individual screens Seatback individual screens
Alcohol For purchase only Complimentary Complimentary
Power No In-seat 110V and USB outlets In-seat 110V outlets

The bottom line is that United has the smallest seats and the weakest on-board experience with no free booze and 1980s era entertainment options (overhead screens – really?).  And United isn’t even the cheapest choice at the moment.  The best overall product looks to be Singapore, and it is also the cheapest flight on my dates of travel.

Although I haven’t booked my flights yet, it seems likely I’ll be going with a carrier other than United.  The only thing tipping the balance in favor of United at the moment is its flight times, which work a bit better for my schedule (and the sleep schedule of my 5 year old travel companion).  But I might be willing to sacrifice my ideal timing for a better on-board experience.  After all, these flights are 13-14 hours each and every inch of seat space really can count for that long.

Bottom line?  I’m happier than ever that I have left my United status behind and am now free to book other airlines when they offer a better product.  The flying public needs to realize that all airlines are no longer created equal.  I, for one, will be holding United’s feet to the fire when they increasingly offer inferior choices.

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Hong Kong With Kids: A Quick & Easy Guide | Trips with Tykes

Thursday 4th of September 2014

[…] have the same level of service and amenities (for SFO based flyers, check out my comparison of the three non-stop flights from SFO to HKG and why I chose Cathay for this trip.)  Many other Asia-based airlines, like Singapore Airlines, […]

Tuesday 21st of January 2014

I agree. You can be a platinum flier and still have to pay for a drink!.


Friday 17th of January 2014

Can't wait to hear about your trip!