Readers of this site know that I have selected American Airlines as my airline of choice. I live near Austin, Texas: only Southwest offers more service from Austin than American, but Southwest does not offer international service or service to Hawaii, so that eliminated them from my consideration. I try to do all of my traveling on American Airlines or one of its Oneworld partners.

I recently had to attend a conference in San Francisco: the corporate travel agent made the reservations for me and I had no choice in the matter, I had to fly on United Airlines. I hadn’t flown United in several years, and thought a comparison of UA and AA would be of interest to you.

I have flown around the continental United States, to Hawaii, and to Europe on American Airlines, and have elite status. I have taken three flights on UA, and do not have elite status.

Flight Status Notification:
Each airline lets you register for free flight status notification. Once you sign up for this service, the airline’s computer will call you in advance of your flight to let you know if it is on time and what the departure gate is. I always sign up for this at American and have found it to be a very valuable feature. I also found that there is a difference between the way the two airlines operate their notification systems.

American continually updates their notifications. If you are supposed to depart from Gate 14, but there has been a change to Gate 6 instead, you will get a call to let you know. United apparently does not offer this feature. My flight home from San Francisco had a layover in Denver. I received a call with one gate listed for my departure, but the video screens in the airport listed another gate that was at the other end of the terminal. I have never experienced a disagreement between the video screens and the notification system on American, but now I had this problem with United. I decided to go to the gate listed on the video screen, and that was the correct decision. If I had gone to the gate provided by the flight notification system, I would have missed my flight.

United also called me to let me know the arrival time of my flight. Since I did not get this message until after I had landed and turned on my cell phone, this did not help me at all. However, if you set it up to have the call go to someone who is meeting you at the airport, it would be a great help.

Check In Process:
American allows passengers to check in with a reservations agent, or use a self-serve kiosk. If you check in with the agent, he/she issues your boarding pass and receives your checked baggage. If you use the kiosk, the kiosk issues your boarding pass, but you then have to stand on another line to hand in your baggage.

United has combined this. Everyone stands on one line (unless they are flying First Class, which has a separate process) until they reach the check in counter. They use a computer terminal to check in, then give their checked baggage to the agent behind the counter.

Extra Legroom:
I have elite status with American Airlines, this allows me to reserve exit row seating which gives me extra legroom.

I checked in for my Austin – San Francisco flight and the agent asked if I would like a seat with extra legroom. Would I? It’s a four-hour flight! Of course I would! How nice of them to offer!

“Yes, I would love extra legroom!.”

“That will be $49, would you like to pay with cash or charge?”

“Neither, thanks for offering.”

Since I don’t have elite status with United I could only get extra legroom by paying the extra fee. I declined that offer.

On my return from San Francisco I took two flights, San Francisco-Denver and Denver-Austin. The cost for extra legroom was $78. Again, I refused this benefit.

Most of my flights on American are on MD-80s, some of the oldest aircraft in their fleet. My United flights were on an Airbus A-319, Boeing 737 and 757. In each case, the United aircraft felt newer than the MD-80s I normally get on American.

In-flight Entertainment:
American does not offer in-flight entertainment (IFE) on the MD-80, so I rarely experience it. All three of the United flights offered it. None of the flights were long enough to show a movie, but there were several TV shows. In addition, there was the standard choice of music channels to listen to.

My favorite feature on United is Channel 9. This channel lets you listen to the air traffic controllers as they talk to the aircraft, and the replies from the cockpit crews. I’ve always been fascinated by this and really enjoy listening to it. You never know what you will hear.

You’ll hear the expected “United 43 heavy clear for departure on runway 27 left” mesages, but also hear pilots asking if they can change their altitude or course to avoid turbulence. When we backed away from the terminal in Denver for the flight to Austin, I heard the controller tell our pilot “I have 15 aircraft getting ready to depart in the next few minutes. If you can leave now, I can put you in front of them all.” Needless to say, our pilot accepted that offer!

When we landed in Austin I heard our pilot tell the controller that the spotlights in a maintenance area were shining directly in her eyes as she taxied to the terminal.

I love Channel 9 and wish other airlines offered it.

It’s 2008 and neither airline offers food in coach unless you buy a snack box. You can get a complimentary non-alcoholic beverage.

Power Outlets
American has 12-volt power outlets on its aircraft, providing a place to plug in your laptop or DVD player. United does not. This is a definite advantage to American, particularly on a long flight where your battery will not last long enough to get you to your destination.

Arrival Information:
Without exception, every American Airlines flight I’ve taken has featured arrival information announcements. One of the flight attendants announces our arrival gate, where to pick up our luggage, and departure information for connecting flights.

United offered no information other than the recommendation that we review the video screens in the terminal for information. This was a problem when we arrived in Austin as passengers from my flight wandered around the luggage area trying to figure out which carousel had our bags. An on-flight announcement would have helped prevent this.

There you have it, a short and totally un-scientific comparison of American and United Airlines. Did I find one airline to be dramatically better than the other? No.

American offers more service from Austin than United does, so I will continue to give them my business.