MIAMI – United Airlines launched another route to South America from its hub at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport with its first flight on December 7 to the Chilean capital of Santiago. The daily flight, flown with two-class Boeing 767-300ER, operates overnight in both directions with a ground time of approximately 13 hours in Santiago; it is unclear if United will continue flying a 767 on the route, or if it will eventually be serviced by the 787 as more airframes are delivered.
United kindly invited Airways along for the inaugural flight in their BusinessFirst cabin. Before the flight, Chilean dancers performed at the gate, and Chilean flags adorned the bulkheads of the aircraft.
Houston United Clubs
Because we were traveling internationally in BusinessFirst, we were granted access to the United Club. Houston has locations in every terminal, and there was a location very close to the departure gate in Terminal C North, which was where we stopped first.
This location was reasonably large, but not huge, and it was very full. The food selections were minimal, although there was a full bar. Having stocked up on the signature lemon cookies, we decided to search for greener pastures and the flagship United Club in Terminal E. By the time we reached it, it was nearly time to turn around and proceed to the gate, but we took a quick spin around the three-level club to see what all the fuss was about.
To our disappointment, the only significant difference was in size. The facilities were not any nicer, nor were the food options any more plentiful than in the smaller lounge, although there were better views of more interesting aircraft from the large windows. Suffice to say that of the three U.S. legacy carriers’ lounges, the United Clubs are in last place, although they are among the most plentiful. We were disappointed to find the large clubs in one of United’s major hubs to be so outdated and spare.
The first flight was generally uneventful, albeit very full. On boarding, we were greeted by the delightful cabin crew, about whom we cannot say enough good things. The flight pushed back nearly half an hour late, but we were airborne after a short taxi. Within 10-15 minutes, the flight attendants were up and preparing the meal service.
The appetizer of seared ahi tuna was quite enjoyable, as was the beef roast main course. The beef was cooked roughy medium and was very tender. The mashed potatoes and green beans were also tasty.
As it was already quite late, we only made it through the entrée course before giving the lie-flat seat a try. At 6′ 6″, the fully reclined position was a little bit of a squeeze, but the seat was just wide enough to allow sufficient contortion. As we had a neighbor who opted to forego meal service entirely, access to the aisle also required the dreaded ‘straddle of shame.’ This is one of the major drawbacks to United’s 2-1-2 seating configuration. Delta’s 1-2-1 option for the same aircraft type would have been much more appropriate.
Before and during dinner, we had a chance to try out the inflight entertainment system. The screen is one of the largest we have seen (although we have not been able to find an exact measurement, it was no less than 17″ diagonally), and it was touch sensitive. The programming available was extensive, though the interface was a little dated and laborious. There were also issues moving between video programming and the interactive moving map. Although an option to resume the video was available, it simply returned the viewer to the beginning anyway, which was a significant nuisance.
As we got close to Santiago, we were awakened to the breakfast service, which consisted of omelette and cereal options. We opted for the latter, though foregoing the Chex cereal for the pastries and yogurt, which were lovely. In fact, this was one of the best flights we had experienced from a culinary perspective. As breakfast was cleared away and the cabin prepared for arrival, we were treated to a magnificent view of the Andes on the approach path.
The flight arrived in Santiago a few minutes early, even with the detour to the far side of the airfield for the customary water cannon salute before parking at Gate 10. On arrival, a welcoming committee several dozen strong was waiting, although they seemed a little too busy taking pictures with their cell phones to be bothered to move the jet bridge into position.
The biggest challenge on arrival was the customs and immigration process, which took more than an hour for the first passengers to disembark, and a bit longer for those behind. Not all of the booths were occupied by immigration officers, so it is our hope that staffing levels are changed to accommodate the change to the flight schedule.
For outbound passengers, there are still a few kinks to be worked out. United brought in staff from several stations across the United States and Latin America to train local staff. But the computer systems were not up and running at full capacity, and a number of technical problems plagued the team, both at check-in and at the gate. But luckily for elite fliers and BusinessFirst passengers, despite the lack of a United Club or any other Star Alliance lounge, United contracted with Delta to provide access to its SkyClub, which was virtually empty an hour before United flight boarded, as Delta’s single daily flight departed earlier.
To our surprise and delight, we boarded the return flight to find the same crew that had accompanied us to Santiago the day before, and they had clearly enjoyed their day off. They seemed a little more relaxed this time around, perhaps because the first-flight spotlight had passed. The menu for the flight was similar to the one on the outbound flight, but had been tweaked slightly.
This time we were able to stay awake for the cheese course, which was disappointing, as the cheese options were all relatively hard and did not provide much variety. Dessert, true to United form, consisted of a made-to-order ice cream sundae. It goes without saying that this was delightful—after all, who can say no to ice cream? Since we had a middle seat on the return, it was very easy to move about both aisles with relative ease.
Much like on the ground, the return flight had some technical issues in the air. The two things that stood out were both related to the IFE system. For the couple of hours of the flight, the reading lights in both cabins, which are controlled from the IFE system, were completely inoperable.
The purser eventually managed to reboot that portion of the system without impacting programming in progress, though an announcement was made to warn that a full reboot might be necessary. The other, more personal issue was that our screen was damaged and had a large vertical red line running across the screen the whole flight. This is just one piece of evidence that suggested the aircraft was getting very dated, despite periodic facelifts.
I am not completely happy with the aircraft choice for this route, or with the United BusinessFirst cabin options. Although the single middle seats are nice, it’s a tricky proposition to be seated in the middle alone. It feels incredibly exposed, although the misalignment of rows helps with this a bit (but not with communication with traveling companions across the aisle). But solo travelers, who are certainly the majority in this cabin, it’s still the way to go, despite being exposed (and often bumped) on both sides.
A 1-2-1 configuration for the 767 has become fairly standard for a lie-flat business class cabin, and even many 777s, whose cabins are significantly wider, employ this same seating configuration. The 2-1-2 version is completely out of left field, and generally unpopular with business travelers. Unfortunately for United, this may be the lesser of two evils.
The three-class 767-300ER is configured in a 2-2-2 arrangement, the 767-400ER is in the same 2-1-2 arrangement, the 777-200 varies between 2-2-2 and an incredible (and right out) 2-4-2, and the 787-8/9 are both 2-2-2. In essence, no matter what equipment United selects for this route from its current fleet, solo travelers will have very slim pickings aside from the possibility of GlobalFirst on certain fleet types. If British Airways can provide direct aisle access to business class passengers with neighbors on a 747, then there’s really no reason why we continue to see configurations like United’s.
Although the outbound flight was completely full, our return flight had a full compliment of upgraded passengers in BusinessFirst, but the economy cabin was almost completely empty. This is not encouraging for the fledgling route, which has certainly not suffered from a lack of exposure, as United has used several billboards in Houston and banners throughout Bush Intercontinental. The load factor will have to improve greatly in order to justify the use of a 767; otherwise it may need to be downgraded to a 757, or United may upgauge another route, such as Houston-Lima, and offer an onward connection in much the same way that Continental served Santiago from Newark via Lima until 2000.
This is one of the last missing routes to South America for United to fill in out of its Houston hub, as the airline already serves most other major southbound routes from there. The impetus for creating the route is likely twofold: the energy industries in Houston (as well as the rest of Texas) and Chile are closely tied, and the route will serve that community very well.
But it’s also important to note that United is faced with the impending end of its long-standing frequent flier relationship (a remnant of Continental) with Copa Airlines, which has operated connecting services to Santiago for United passengers up to this point. Without Copa, United will be forced to service the route itself.
The Star Alliance has also lost a bit of its South American presence following the departure of TAM as part of its merger to create the LATAM Group, and United’s increased presence in the region, and particularly in one of the LATAM hubs, may help to bolster the Star Alliance’s position in advance of the expected naming of a new South American partner for the alliance.