United-Continental CEO promises upgrade for "unacceptable" Australian 747 service

By David Flynn, December 30 2010
United-Continental CEO promises upgrade for

So you think United’s Boeing 747 service from Sydney and Melbourne to the US is a second-rate offering compared to other airlines, especially when it comes to the economy class cabin?

Jeff Smisek, president and CEO of United Airlines, agrees with you. And he’s eager to upgrade the ageing jumbo fleet, which has an average age of 15.5 years according  to airfleets.net.

“The back of the product on the 747 that United flies to Australia is not an acceptable level of product” Smisek admits. “And I know that, I recognise that. But United on its own didn’t have the money to invest in that product. Now (with the United-Continental merger) it does, and we will.”

Smisek told Australian Business Traveller he would "strongly prefer" to upgrade the 747 rather than wait for the first Airbus A350s to replace the jumbo jets from 2016 onwards. This would include an overhaul of the in-flight entertainment in the 747’s economy cabin, which currently relies on an out-of-date system with a dozen ceiling-mounted LCD screens rather than the more modern alternative of personal seat-back video displays with video-on-demand.

“You have to invest, because the price of not investing is that you lose business" Smisek insists. "The A350 is a spectacular airplane, and we have 25 on order, but that doesn’t matter if we can’t give you the service level you deserve, the reliability you deserve and the respect you deserve.”

United-Continental also has 25 of Boeing’s much-delayed 787 Dreamliners on order, which will replace its current Boeing 767s starting from 2016. This represents a dramatic refresh of the United fleet, as the airline’s last aircraft order was placed in 1998 and the most recent arrival was in 2002.

Smisek sees very different roles for the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787, but singled out the Dreamliner for the most praise as well as having significant impact on opening new routes.

“The Boeing 787 is a spectacular aircraft in every sense of the word" he enthused to Australian Business Traveller. "We’re  going to have a huge advantage with the 787, and although it’s been delayed we will still have it years ahead of our competitors.”

“Let’s say you want to fly between Auckland and Houston, and you want flights on a daily basis. We have our (Continental) Houston hub, we have our single carrier network with United and we have the power of Star Alliance. That market is dependent on the 787 – we will not fly that route without the 787. But with the 787 we can make money on that route. That’s one reason we’re very excited about getting that airplane.”


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

United Airlines - Mileage Plus

29 Jan 2011

Total posts 11

Recently I flew MEL-LAX-MEL with my FF miles and it was perhaps the first time in ten years I was behind the Premier Zone (my choice, as I wanted an aisle). The seat pocket was touching my knees and the only saving grace was that the middle seat was blocked off. In spite of having nearly 700,000 lifetime miles on UA, I am unlikely to choose it again, given a choice. Of late, VAustralia and Air NZ have had my custom.

19 Jul 2011

Total posts 3

OK their plane are old, but it was the staff on the last trans pac united flight I took.  They could not have cared less.  I initailly thought it was me and or my "section" of the plane, however waiting in transit in LAX, a person unknown to me but who recognised me from the flight commented that she hoped the next flight had attendants that noticed there were passengers on the plane!  So Mr Smisek, by all means up grade the hardware, but have a good hard look at the staff as well.....


10 Apr 2012

Total posts 59

You could not get away with such a product now.I flew Continental when I first went to the USA back in 1989 and again in 2001 on Air New Zealand and what we had back then was a large screen for movies and flight displays.I admit NZ was better than CO in that the plane was a lot newer and it was a nonstop(Only Qantas and United were doing that same service on a 747SP going back to my first trip)and the service was a lot better.

03 May 2012

Total posts 11

We had a UA flight where some parents booked seats in business class and put the young (and I mean very young) kids back in economy with us. The toddler screamed about 75% of the trip because it was neglected it became lost and distressed down the back of the plane at one point. It took 4 announcements before one of the parents came back to rescue the child. Everyone around was talking about it, so a group of us spoke to the chief pursar to politely complain as we left the flight. He actually laughed at our faces and said there was nothing he could do. I made a complaint to the airline, but they never responded. The service in business class is good, but if you're in economy with me, your checked bags will get better treatment.

United Airlines - Mileage Plus

04 May 2012

Total posts 1

I flew from ORD   to Syd   by way of Vancouver.    My reasons, there was no way  i'd fly United and their rust buckets.   I live in Chicago and  i knew United planes to OZ  were one   screen for every whatever number of passengers.  out dated. And the service... i've read those reviews.  I got lucky and for that 15 hour flight from Vancouver BC  To SYD not only did I have a late model Boeing 777-200.  I had great service on Air Canada    and  .......  the lowest price for my entire trip ORD -YVR-SYD.    My flight to Vancouver I flew United.  It was a dirty 737 or 757  again with one screen for every  whatever number of passengers.  And just not kept.  It looked like a tired dirty plane.  Maybe not dirty, but drab and wornout interior!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

27 Sep 2012

Total posts 1

On the evening of September 19, my flight UA0839 was scheduled for departure from Los Angeles to Sydney at 10.29pm. After boarding the aircraft with approximately 400 other passengers we sat on the tarmac for several hours, being told many different stories about why the plane had not departed. This became extremely alarming as the stories changed significantly with each broadcast. After about four hours we were asked to disembark to the terminal as the flight had now been cancelled by 24-hours.

In the terminal we were advised UA had only 42 hotel rooms available but they were for first and business class passengers and the rest of us were “free to do what we wished”. We were advised also that vouchers of $500 would be available for each of us towards accommodation for the night, as well as “food” vouchers for those unable to obtain a hotel room which was most of us owing to high demand in LA due to the Emmy Awards. The $500 vouchers and food vouchers had run out when I got to the counter. Those who were able to get a “food” voucher complained to me that the food consisted exclusively of junk food – essentially the vouchers were worthless to people who wish to eat healthy food. Pillows and ‘blankets’ were provided as the terminal was very cold.

A cart was wheeled out from the plane and stale buns filled with highly processed “turkey” were distributed along with carbonated drinks – no tea or coffee was provided. The cart was quickly taken away when UA staff left for their hotel rooms – leaving passengers to their own devices.

Because I was unable to secure a hotel room, I and many others including many elderly people and parents with very young children, were forced to sleep in the terminal and wait until 10.30pm the following evening to get the rescheduled flight to Sydney. Not once during that time did a representative of United Airlines inquire about our safety, wellbeing or whether we had any particular needs. There was no communication at all. At the very least we should have been given access to the United Club.

The flight was renamed UA1763 and when I got my re-issued boarding pass I was surprized that I was unable to have the seat I had already been sitting in! How crazy is this? I was placed in row 60 and after take-off I felt I was going to be sick, I looked for a sick bag in the seat pocket only to find there wasn’t one. I had to remove the blanket from its plastic bag in readiness. This sick feeling occurred four or five times during the flight which I believe was a direct result of the poor treatment and complete disregard I metered out by United Airlines. 

I agree with the comments about the poor state and safety risk inherant in the UA fleet.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 Dec 2012

Total posts 3

Hi Jeff,

It's been nearly two years. Thanks for the update re progress :p



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