My travel experiences flying American Airlines vs. United Airlines

a red and blue logo with a birdblue letters on a white backgroundI’ve now taken a dozen domestic American Airlines flights since the end of May in both first class and coach and offer my opinions below as compared to my 62 flights on United Airlines this year. I’m a top-tier elite in Mileage Plus with United and only just Saturday rolled over to Platinum in AAdvantage with American, so some comparisons might not be exactly apples-to-apples, but most are regardless of elite status.

  • Online Reservations: Both sites are fairly intuitive and show similar options although laid out differently. American has the smallest “Go†button on each of the pages, which is annoying, and I also dislike that flights aren’t sorted by time of departure. The latter is definitely due to how they are normally viewed in a GDS system where American pushes the most popular flight times to the top so they appear first, but it still irritates me. United’s side-by-side display of outbound and return options is more appealing and you can quickly see pricing changes when selecting different flights. Winner: United.
  • Telephone Agents: Okay, here’s where the difference in status comes into play, but one incredibly welcome thing about American is I’ve never been connected to an offshore center, even as a general member. United’s service is consistently inconsistent in service and accuracy (I’ll have a separate blog post on that soon), and the few times I’ve called American things went smoothly and all agents were friendly and answered calls with much more enthusiasm than many of United’s agents normally do. Winner: American
  • Airport Experience: I’m pretty programmed when I fly United knowing what to expect, but I still make noted observations when I interact with their agents. I’ve had fantastic and not-so-fantastic experiences with United this year at check-in, the Red Carpet Club and at the gate. From nearly ignoring me to efficient & friendly service, United has been inconsistent. I have been blown away by my interactions with American’s agents this year and have been acknowledged by name at least seven times at the gate (maybe twice with United). Also, the American agents have seemed more genuinely interested in whatever my request or issue was. Winner: American.
  • Boarding Process. Ignoring United’s brief change to boarding by rows, both carriers effectively now have nearly identical procedures. Agents at American and United enforce the process & turn away “line jumpers†and actively scan for oversized bags to check. Winner: Tie.
  • Flight Attendants: Again, I’ve had great, good and bad flight attendants on United this year (notice the trend?). With the exception of one indifferent F/A on American, the rest have been absolutely stellar. They’ve been attentive, smiling, engaging when appropriate and seem more pleased with their jobs. I’ve never heard “shop talk†among American’s attendants, but have frequently this year among United’s. Some of the conversations I’ve heard on United are perhaps deserving given the merger, but others were position-specific and unnecessary to be vocalized to nearby passengers. And no, I wasn’t eavesdropping. Winner: American.
  • Seats: In coach I prefer American’s seats for two reasons, seat pitch aside. First the headrests where available are larger & form fit more snugly. Second, the 737-800s feature the slide-forward recline which sort-of negates intrusion when the person in front of you reclines (for which I still maintain is their absolute right). Winner: American. In first class, United has a consistent product having recently overhauled all seats. The leather is comfortable and I like the upper pocket along with the full sized headrest (although it sits uncomfortably against my shoulder blades when in the down position). Winner: United.
  • Inflight Meals: In coach, United offers more options for snacks and light meals, so when flying frequently you’ll have several choices available to avoid constantly repeating the same ones. I’m already kind of tired of American’s carver sandwiches or Caesar salads without having options for unique snack boxes a la United. Winner: United. In first class, both carriers offer decent choices, but I notice a marketed difference in quality with American’s catering being seemingly fresher and tastier. Also, the sundaes on American are a much more substantial dessert (even on mid-cons) than United’s chocolate chip cookie. Also, how cool is it that American offers both Coke and Pepsi products (in both cabins, of course)? Winner: American.
  • Inflight Amenities: The video entertainment on both carriers is nearly identical (I think I’ve seen virtually the entire “The Office†series without having watched it on TV at home), so I’m giving that a wash since I’m excluding legacy Continental Airlines in this comparison. On United. Wi-Fi is available currently only on p.s. flights and one other 757 whereas American offers more aircraft spread across the network with Wi-Fi (and in-seat power!). Winner: American.
  • Mobile Notifications: Once again the inconsistency at United comes into play with technology where EasyUpdates are either immediate & spot-on, or completely absent. So far, my American updates have been timely & accurate without one going missing. I also like their baggage claim notice sent nearly immediately after you land. Winner: American.
  • Aircraft Fleet. Can I just start this by saying that I hate MD-80s?! Maybe because I flew on them twice weekly in 1998 for six months between Chicago and Philadelphia, hated them then and hate now that they’re so bare boned in features. Again keeping Continental out of the picture, I’m very much an Airbus guy vs. the Boeing 737s, so United by far has a more attractive fleet in my opinion. Winner: United.

So there you have it. I’m not a member of the Admirals Club and really wished I had jumped on the discount offer when it appeared during the 30th anniversary of the AAdvantage program promotion to compare it against United’s clubs. Anyone want to share their opinion here? By the numbers, American scored 8 wins to United’s 5 (each got a nod for the tie), and I absolutely agree my flying has been far more enjoyable on American this year than United.

Four things prevent me from outright switching allegiance from United to American based on my experiences. First, I’m so vested in Mileage Plus that I’m nearly to a million miles flown on United and will hit that mark in 2013 (or 2012 if I’m aggressive). Second, American’s international route network on its own metal doesn’t line up with my preferred destinations as much as United’s. Next, the financial outlook for American is rather grim which brings their long-term sustainability into serious question. Finally, United’s Economy Plus seating. That said, thank you American for impressing this hard-core United flyer to seeing that sometimes the grass actually is greener on the other side.


  1. Good comparisons! Being an “American” girl myself I’m very attached to the aadvantage member program but found it rewarding to hear from your point of view as a “United” guy 🙂

    • I mentioned American excels with Wi-Fi, and my god… how I left Economy Plus out of this is beyond me. Thanks Gary… added it above as reason #4 I’m not switching allegiance.

  2. I’m a United guy and, like you, invested in MP and likely to hit 1 million miles a year after you. It’s Economy Plus that took me to UA and makes me stay. Having said that, every time I have a bad experience (and that’s increasingly often), I check out AA.

    Where I differ from you is that most of my flying is international to the UK from SFO. AA is far stronger to the UK than UA and is, of course, linked with BA. Now that the link is stronger they are even more compelling. Offering Systemwide upgrades that are useable also is compelling. However, only BA flies SFO-LHR and I can’t use AA SWUs on BA. As I’m stuck in the back, E+ comes into play again…

    I absolutely agree about AA’s financial position and it’s that, more than anything else, that stops me switching. It seems to me that, after the upheaval of the merger, UA will stabilize and perhaps address some of the service issues. It seems to be financially ok at the moment. By contrast, AA does not even seem to have a plan so I can see some savage cutbacks to service being forced on it. I would not want to jump ship for marginal reasons, only to get caught up in a rapidly deteriorating situation.

  3. What a great comparison piece that hits all the right points. Alas I haven’t flown AA much in the past few years, but I find it fascinating that your analysis almost exactly matches my recollection of AA v. UA in the 2003-2005 time period. Which just goes to show, the more things change….

    It is unfortunate that AA chose to eliminate MRTC, as E+ appears to be the only major UA advantage. However I would still choose AA in a heartbeat if I wasn’t forced to fly UA and *A for work. Hopefully AA will figure out a way to survive financially, as the AA personnel are generally so far superior to the other legacy airlines.

    • Thanks for the compliments! The few people I know who switched from UA to AA have similar comments (based on their Flyertalk posts). It is indeed a shame AA eliminated MRTC (more legroom throughout coach), but I’m happy with the exit row seats, of course. I wonder if they regret not having filed bankruptcy like the other majors did who are now enjoying profits in part due to the reorganization Chapter 11 provided.

  4. I’m a UA 1P (going to hit 1K this year) and a AA gold, and agree with all but three of your observations.

    Flight attendants – to me it’s a tie. I’ve excellent service and less than excellent service on both UA and AA.

    Coach seats – without extra legroom afforded by E+, I try to avoid flying coach on AA whenever possible.

    First class food – I’ve never gotten sick eating United’s F food, but I can’t say the same for American. I love their breakfasts, but increasingly I stay away from lunch and dinner entrees that occaisonally look quite dodgy.

    • Hi Brian, thanks for your observations. I agree it can be hit or miss with the flight attendants & I guess I’ve had virtually nothing but hits this year on American. E+ is indeed the winner on United.

  5. I’d love to see your take on Delta. Being LAX-based now, I’ve considered the switch to UA or AA, but the widget keeps pulling me back in with their great staff. Plus they have great technology (mobile BP, wifi) and domestic E+ coming soon.

  6. one should look at how each airline treats it’s employees who take care of the passengers……
    american: c
    united f-

    united is so bad to it’s employees especially retired would make you cry!

  7. I could not disagree more with your “assessment.” I fly both on a regular basis, and United far outshines American. It’s interesting the reviewer leaves out “Continental” on some comparisons, but includes it on others. Very unfair and unbalanced. Regardless, I find United has much better fares than American on the same routes and has a superior frequent flier program (something the reviewer failed to mention). As for service, I’ve had and bad on both airlines, but overall United does a better job. I’ll stilly fly American, but if I have a choice it’s United.

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