Sorry United: Alaska and Virgin Fly Friendlier Skies

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- There isn't any one airline that makes travel within the United States an overwhelmingly fantastic experience. The best you can hope for is a carrier that doesn't keep reducing your motivation to fly.

Even that's usually too much to ask.

When airlines charge enough fees to fill a two-page chart, the line between a great flight and an insufferable one can be as narrow as the space between economy class seats. When I visit my parents in New Jersey, I typically fly United because it offers a rare direct flight between Portland International and Newark Liberty. However, after United ignored fees that my wife and I paid for premium seats with extra legroom on a flight back to Portland in November, I've been loathe make United the default choice.

The airline apologized and refunded us the difference in seat prices, but that really wasn't the point. We had paid for a service, hadn't received it and were forced into the exact scenario we'd tried to avoid: Being two tall people getting their kneecaps crushed by folks in front of us exercising their God-given, Constitutionally affirmed right to recline. I don't direct my anger at those reclining passengers any more than I'd yell at the sun for being hot. I do approach United with caution knowing that booking with them and investing in their premium offerings registers as a polite suggestion rather than a reservation. I realize I'm not in their loyalty program, not a frequent traveler and not a business traveler of any kind, but I labor under the perhaps misguided notion that my spending still matters to them.

It's their $34 billion airline and they can do what they want with it. But revenue that's hovered around that $34 billion mark for three straight years after United's merger with Continental Airlines and profits that have only increased thanks to the reduction of product costs suggest that they're not trying to improve customer service as much as they're trying to make it not seem so bad by comparison.

That's wishful thinking. United's $200 ticket change fee and $150 unaccompanied minor fee are the highest among domestic carriers, while its $25 checked-bag fee and $125 charge for bringing a pet on board have become fairly standard.

Their fare for nonstop service between Newark and Portland came in well above a combined rate from other airlines for an Easter weekend trip, so this time around, I gave them a pass. Instead, I signed on for a trip to Newark by way of San Francisco via Virgin America. Richard Branson's U.S. venture isn't exactly a fee-free discounter -- each checked bag costs $25, while changing a ticket or bringing a pet into the cabin $100 -- but it can't justify its flying tech cocktail lounge aesthetic if it doesn't offer some perks. If you can do without the $3 headphones, its multichannel personal in-seat entertainment system with its own remote comes free.

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