A few words on Continental Airlines vs. United Airlines domestically

Now that I have several Continental Airlines flights in both first class & coach under my belt, I’ve developed a list of service-related items I’d like to see in the combined carrier. These are in no particular order and are only comparing Continental and United Airlines on domestic flights.

  • Boarding Process: United. Continental’s procedure offers boarding to first class and active duty service members first, followed by all passengers entitled to elite access. I think they board then by row number after that, but I have always been in the first or second group. United further divides the elite tiers and allows Global Services and 1Ks to board ahead of Premier Executives who board ahead of Premiers, etc. While I don’t see many flights in coach, I’m down with United’s process in sectioning the elites to ensure someone who flies 89,000 miles annually boards ahead of someone who flies just 26,000.
  • Pre-departure beverages in First Class: Continental. While boarding is still in process, the flight attendants on Continental swim up and down the aisle taking full drink orders for first class passengers. You have your beverage of choice generally longer while sitting at the gate on Continental vs. the usual water or orange juice offering on United. Sometimes I’ve been turned down on United when asking for a coke, etc. The horror!
  • Table Linens in First Class: United. Really no comparison here as Continental doesn’t put a linen down on the tray before your meal. Is it absolutely necessary? Probably not, but it offers a touch more class and might keep the tray from sliding in turbulence.
  • Meals in First Class: Continental. I believe Continental operates their own catering company, but whoever does it is winning this category in my opinion. Maybe I’m just absolutely tired of United’s meals (except the newer chicken & pasta salad snack!), but both the lunches and dinners I’ve had on Continental have tasted better, and seem plated with more care by the flight attendants. Why does Continental win lunch flights especially? Two words… Angus cheeseburger.
  • Prioritizing meal choices in First Class: United. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but Continental doesn’t seem to prioritize meals by status, but rather from front to back of the first class cabin. Not earth shattering, but I appreciate always getting my first choice as a 1K on United.
  • First Class seats: United. Admittedly United did just recently refresh the seating on the domestic fleet to all leather, but they just seem to be firmer and more comfortable. While the headrest sits uncomfortably low against your shoulders for takeoff/landing, it pivots and shapes more securely than Continental’s. I dare say the leather is higher quality, too.
  • Nuts in First Class: United. Not other passengers, no, but rather the edible kind like cashews, almonds and the like. United serves them warm (most of the time) in a ceramic ramekin, whereas Continental gives a pre-packaged bag of nuts (like what you used to get in coach).
  • InFlight Entertainment: Continental. While not on 100% of the fleet, Continental’s live DirecTV offering 95+ channels absolutely wins hands down. United’s entertainment isn’t bad, per se, but if you fly with any frequency in the same month you often have nothing new to watch.
  • Glassware/Stemware in First Class: United. How petty of me, I know, but I prefer United’s glassware. The bowls are larger for all types of glasses on United, and the wine glasses (now) provide proper stems. Nothing wrong with Continentals, so this is just a matter of personal preference. I also have a collection of airline glassware, so perhaps I’m a bit snooty in this area.
  • Hot towel service in First Class: Continental. Again rather petty, but Continental’s towels are more like durable wash cloths vs. United’s one-use throw away 5-thread count mini-towelettes that practically disintegrate when using.
  • Meal offering in Coach: Continental. Okay, they’re actually very similar now, but Continental still offers four snack boxes, plus that Angus cheeseburger is offered for sale, so I have to go with the meat. I may be in the minority, but United’s snack boxes are trying too hard to be fancier thereby increasing the price points and likely net proceeds.
  • Economy class seats: Continental. Continental’s seats in coach feel more comfortable to my rump and seem to have more padding overall. Also, the headrest is more substantial and actually contorts & shapes better than their first class model.
  • Boeing 737s/Airbus A320s: Okay, there can’t be a comparison here as United no longer has 737s and Continental never had A320s, but I’m an Airbus guy. They seem quieter and roomier from the inside, and from the outside I prefer the overall appearance of the A320. The 737 sits too low to the ground and the engine cowling shape is abnormal for my strange & dorky aesthetic taste.

So, what do you think… what would you like to see in the combined carrier?



  1. Nice analysis: I agree with each point you made (with exception of table linens) and indeed, CO only goes front to back taking orders.

    One thing I like about CO and miss on non-p.s. UA flights is the linens on the trays. Some airlines, like Alaska, can pull off the cheap paper linings nicely, but I think UA’s cheap blue print ruins the presentation of the meal. As much as I like the white linen on the tray table, I’d rather have it on the tray a-la CO.

    And I love CO’s angus cheeseburger!

    • @Matthew: I did forget to give Continental credit for the linen on the tray, and I see your point. Yeah, the paper liner on the tray is pretty ghetto.

  2. Very nice comparison.

    Agree with comments re the Angus Cheeseburger, it is quite awesome. But CO just needs to stock the plane correctly to have enough for passengers past row 10.

    As for 737s/A320s, I’m for the 737s. The Airbuses creep me out as the flap movements create a whole lot of noise. Perhaps just a matter of getting used to it…

  3. Having flown in first class on both Continental and United in the last month, I have to say I liked Continental’s seats much more. Maybe it was because it was a longer flight (IAH-HNL) than when I flew United (HNL-SFO redeye), but with Continental the seat had a foot rest, which made a huge difference. Plus there was a lot more room to recline. I did get table linens in both cases.

    I always find the boarding process for United flights a lot more chaotic than Continental, and I don’t really know why. I primarily fly between Hawaii and the mainland, so my flights are typically on big planes with lots of people. There seems to be a lot more barking of notices over the intercom on United flights, which seems to up the agitation level. And there is always a huge scrum of economy fliers crowding around the boarding area that you have to push through for elite boarding.

    One thing I do like about United is that the boarding attendants are not afraid to be suitcase nazis. You should see what people try to bring aboard on flights from Hawaii! When I’m stuck in economy I hate seeing those folks with overstuffed suitcases start trying to mess with the luggage of the elites that have already boarding and taken the prime overhead spots (I usually just carry on a small bag and check luggage).

    Continental’s priority baggage handling is superior to United in two ways. First, it is not unusual to see a substantial amount of non-priority luggage come out before the priority is finished. On my last United flight my priority-tagged luggage came out near the tail end of the non-priority tagged stuff, taking some 20 minutes or more, which has never happened on Continental so far. Second, Continental gives priority baggage handling to its Silver Elite members, which United does not (Premier level).

  4. @Lawrence: The Airbus flaps do indeed have a louder sound to them inside the cabin, and you’re right… I guess it is a matter of preference. Sorry to hear you missed out on a cheeseburger!

    @ilima: I absolutely agree the priority bag tagging at United hardly seems to work a lot of the time. I thought, though, that Premiers still got the tag, but it sounds like you have first hand experience to the contrary. Good to know. And yes… the announcements can get rather irritating after a while… I do my best to tune them out.

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