May 9, 2022
I swore, in print, that I was done with United Airlines. And yet here I am again, booking on UA. As Joe Brancatelli has repeatedly said, this is why it never pays to swear off an airline. Too many factors. In this case, one primary (money) and two secondary reasons (just me flying, and I don’t expect much from any Premium Economy cabin).
Last week I endured a five-hour double hernia surgery that I knew was going to knock me on my, er, keister. Though outpatient and performed expertly using high-tech robotic devices and minimally invasive techniques, chronic post-op pain, slow recovery, and lack of mobility were predictable. Thus I’d been planning my work and travel limitations around it for months, leaving a long restorative runway time to avoid things like lifting my carry-on bag into overhead compartments. I don’t even have domestic flights booked for the spring and early summer.
Before surgery, I feverishly worked to tie down two big trips (Europe and South Africa) to lock in airfares I could live with, and I managed to accomplish both. Business Class spaciousness seemed warranted to ensure against bodily discomfort after being cut. However, the recent big airfare run-ups tied to spiraling oil prices nixed that possibility, leaving me instead to sift through Premium Economy fares that hadn’t quite caught up to the astronomical surges in sharp end seats.
At least, that’s what I hoped. After days of checking airline site after airline site (the best fares are almost always hiding at individual airline websites rather than showing on aggregator seller URLs), and by varying both city-pairs and travel dates this way and that, I finally found some acceptable (to me) pricing. One (to Europe) I discovered on my own on an Air France codeshare with Delta, and the other (to South Africa) my amazing travel agent uncovered lurking at United.
Admittedly, I at first biased my searches away from American/British Airways and distant from United Airlines. BA in Business (Club World) persists in offering nasty old seats in a cramped layout. Despicably, then British charges huge sums even for seat assignments up front, and certainly in Premium Economy. It’s a far cry from the glory days of the Concorde, and I just can’t fly British Airways in any class these days.
Having endured three truly awful experiences on United in their supposedly vaunted Polaris Class to and from South Africa in the last twelve months had me cursing UA, too. That left me looking at Delta and its partners. For a trip in August and September, I paid $1600 per person for my wife and me to fly RDU to Ljubljana, Slovenia on Air France (Delta domestic US) in Premium Economy for 12 days. Surprisingly to me, it was cheaper to fly direct to Ljubljana (LJU) than to, say, Frankfurt and then take the train.
I suspect the codeshare fares to LJU in the Delta system were slow to update because I could not get the tickets to issue online and, after three tries, had to call a Delta agent to do it for me. Even she had trouble; the process took fifty minutes. My precautionary screenshots of the fare basis and itinerary details from delta.com cinched the deal.
Looking for business or premium economy (PE) seats to Johannesburg next February and March was far harder. After checking most carriers serving JNB, including Kenya Airways, Qatar, Emirates, Turkish, and Ethiopian, I was about to give up. Fares up front were $5500 and way higher; PE on carriers that offered the service was nosing above $3000.
Then Steve Crandall, owner of Discount Travel in Jacksonville, dangled $1700 at me for Premium Economy in Feb-Mar 2023 to Johannesburg, with a return from Cape Town so I can spend three days and nights in Cape Town after nine nights in the Kruger National Park. But that price was available only on UA. Gulping hard, I booked United because it was half what Delta was charging for RDU/JNB alone.
Yes, United. Because the savings tops my hatred of the airline and because it’s just me flying. I don’t have to worry about UA screwing my friends or family when it’s just me, and that was a big factor in my decision.
Business Class on United was $4312, a factor of 2.5× the PE fare—too much for me to justify, even if far less than the $7500 Delta wanted or similar figures on other airlines.
For reasons I can’t explain, UA fares have recently been far lower than any other airline to South Africa, not just lower than Delta’s. $1694 (UA PE) versus $3440 (DL PE) was a no-brainer. Especially since United’s $1694 fare is for an open jaw: RDU to JNB, with the return from CPT. Delta’s fare is more than double and only to JNB and back.
United can’t disappoint me as much in PE, either, because literally all they offer is the seat, and Delta in PE doesn’t do much, if any, better. It’s just the seat, not the service. Thus, my expectations are extremely low compared to Business Class on either carrier. Or, for that matter, on any carrier.
So, yes, I lied to myself about United. I’d rather go than stay home, and for such a comparatively low fare, I will fly United again. Well, at least I will this time.