Topic: Transatlantic Longhaul: FRA-SFO-BZN On UA
Posted 2013-02-08 14:20:49 and read 12333 times.
Hello and welcome to my 27th trip report, which features my journey in March of 2012 on United Airlines from Frankfurt, Germany to San Francisco, California and onward to Bozeman, Montana.
As some readers of the forum might know, I am an American living in Belgium and I try to get home to my native Montana as often as I can to see my family and friends, and to enjoy the natural beauty of “Big Sky Country.” In March of 2012, I took the opportunity to make a special trip home.
My father, a geologist and a true lover of mountains, was about to embark on a scientific expedition involving an attempt to climb Mount Everest, the highest peak in the world at 29,035 feet (8,850 meters)—or FL290, for us aviation fans. At 61 years old, my father is very fit, but an expedition such as this comes with a lot of risk, and it was important to me to see him before his trip. Moreover, my stepmother was planning a big surprise party, and many family and friends were planning to gather in order to wish him well before his departure to the Himalaya.
Unfortunately, by the time I realized I may be able to make the trip, it was just several weeks prior to departure. And by that point, the flight options from Brussels to Bozeman were very expensive, starting at around $1,300 for the roundtrip. After a lot of searching, however, I came across an $850 fare on United’s website from Frankfurt to Bozeman via San Francisco, with a return to Frankfurt via Denver. This was an acceptable alternative for me, as Frankfurt is only three hours by train from Brussels, and the $450 savings in airfare more than justified the cost of the train ticket. And even though the routing through San Francisco entailed an 18-hour, overnight layover, this too was acceptable given that I have a close friend in the Bay Area whom I had not seen in a while and who agreed to host me overnight. The return from Bozeman to Frankfurt would also entail a long layover of over eight hours, but I never mind spending time in airports, plus it would give me a chance to fly the Denver-Frankfurt route on Lufthansa, a leg I had wanted to fly for a long time (the return from Bozeman to Denver and on to Frankfurt will be covered in a separate trip report which I will post soon).
I decided to go for it, and easily booked the reservation on United’s website. With less than two weeks before departure, I informed my employer that I would be gone for a few days for family reasons, and began counting the days until my trip.
TIME TO FLY
On the day of departure, I woke up very early at 04:00. After a shower and some final packing, I set out from my apartment in Brussels and caught the first metro train of the morning. I arrived at the Brussels-South train station around 06:10 in order to catch the 06:25 departure on the German ICE train to Cologne and onward to Frankfurt. One of the nice things about this train is that it actually stops at the Frankfurt airport, so I did not have to change trains. After a pleasant ride of two hours and 45 minutes, I arrived at FRA at 09:10, about three hours before my 12:15 departure to San Francisco.
Here is a photo of the ICE train at the Frankfurt airport station. Thanks for the ride.
Although three hours may seem like ample time to arrive before a flight, I ended up needing most of it. I first waited in line for thirty minutes before I made it to the check-in counter. The agents handling the check in were moving as fast as possible, but there were hundreds upon hundreds of passengers in line for multiple United flights to the US. When I finally reached the counter, the check-in process was straightforward, although given my long, overnight layover in San Francisco, the agent was only able to check my bag to SFO and could only issue my boarding pass for the FRA-SFO leg. She informed me that I would have to check in at the counter and recheck my bag the next morning for the SFO-BZN flight. No big deal. I thanked the agent and proceeded towards passport control.
The line to go through passport control—and thereby leave the Schengen Area—was long and slow-moving. On this day, there were mostly non-EU passport holders in the line, with just one border officer to process them. In contrast, there were three officers designated to the queue for EU passport holders. As such, the airport staff organizing the process instructed a line of us non-EU passport holders to move to the line destined for the EU-only counters. Even so, the process was agonizingly slow.
After forty minutes, I finally made it to the counter, where I greeted the officer in German. He immediately saw my US passport and started to say that I had no right to be in this line, which is for EU passport holders only, and that “normally” I should have to go back and go through the proper queue. Never mind the airport staff had instructed me and many other non-EU passport holders to go to this line. At any rate, while the officer had begun to lecture me, I was in the process of pulling out my Belgian ID, which is not a passport, but which I am also required to show in order to prove that I am living in the EU legally. Once he saw the Belgian ID, he got an annoyed look on his face, scanned the ID and further lectured me that because I had been able to show EU identification, I had been “lucky” this time. I took my card and passport from him, contained my frustration and, without saying a word, simply continued on my way. After many, many encounters with border guards in many countries over the years, I have rarely had any bad experiences other than in Germany—which has happened many times now. Unfortunately, I have come to expect a bad attitude or some kind of problem every time I enter or exit the country. Germany is a country I have spent a lot of time in and otherwise appreciate very much—I just do not seem to get along with the border personnel, who always seem to be on a mission to make a point.
Following passport control, the wait to go through security was another thirty minutes. There were a number of passengers who were worried about missing their flights and asked others in line if they could jump ahead; some people reacted positively, others negatively. I had another 45 minutes until boarding—not all that much time, but not so little that I was stressed and did not let a few folks go ahead of me.
The long wait times to check in, go through passport control and through security—plus the walk between all of these places—combined to eat up a lot of time. Frankfurt certainly seems to require a lot of time to work one’s way through the system. I finally made it to the departure gate, Z23, at 11:10, about 15 minutes before the scheduled boarding time. In anticipation of a long flight in a sitting position, I decided to make a few quick laps up and down the concourse to move my legs and do a bit of spotting. This was Lufthansa territory for sure, as the Airbus A319, A321 and A340-300 frames in the next photo suggest.
There were also a few examples of United metal, including this 777-200.
After my short stroll, I headed back to the gate and joined the long boarding queue.
Outbound Itinerary: Flight 1 of 2
Date: March 9, 2012
Flight #: UA901
Aircraft Type: Boeing 747-451
Aircraft Registration: N105UA / Manufactured 1994
Scheduled Departure: 12:15 CEST
Actual Takeoff: 12:38 CEST
Scheduled Arrival: 14:38 PST
Actual Landing: 14:56 PST
Flight Time: 11:18
Distance: 5,699 miles (9,172 km)
Altitude: FL340 / FL360
Seat: 51K (Window)
Load: F Unknown / J Unknown / Y 70%
Personal Stats: 5th flight on the 747-400 / 51st flight on United Airlines (mainline) / 292nd airline flight
At the gate, my big 747-400 was being prepped for the long flight to the west coast.
The first, business and elite passengers boarded first, and around 11:45 it was my turn to climb aboard. I made my way to the back of the jumbo and found my seat at 51K, a window on the right side. I love this type of wing-view; close enough to the trailing edge of the wing to see its workings, but with an unobstructed view of the scenery below. Perfection!
The legroom was tight in this non-Economy Plus seat, with just 31 inches of pitch. While I find that adequate for short- and medium-haul flights, the 747s in United’s fleet are by nature long-haul aircraft, in many cases flying 13 or 14 hours at a time. In that sense, I cannot say that I found the 31 inches of pitch to be acceptable, even if it is supposedly within industry norms.
The safety card was a bit grubby and drab. Obviously the purpose of these is to describe the safety features of the aircraft, but these cards also seem to serve as one more opportunity for promoting the look and feel of the airline. Would it not be better if the airline put a nice photo of an aircraft on the cover (as I have seen on other safety cards)? Or, at least use a design with a bit more appeal than the drab green scheme seen below?
While still at the gate, I spied this big, beautiful Lufthansa aircraft beginning its taxi for departure to some far-flung destination.
A few minutes after 12:00 noon, the captain made an announcement welcoming us aboard and informing us of a flight time of 11 hours and 12 minutes to San Francisco. We pushed back from the gate close to on-time at 12:20. The engines spooled up, the flaps dropped to takeoff position and we began our taxi to RWY25C (until recently known as RWY25R, prior to the construction of the new northern runway, which now has the 25R title).
At 12:38 we took the centerline of the runway, the engines revved to takeoff power and we accelerated slowly into a gentle liftoff. The departure in this lumbering machine was not dramatic, but it was smooth and impressive nonetheless; after all, there was a lot of heavy metal to get into the air.
Soon after takeoff, we banked to the right on a northerly course away from the Frankfurt airport. The new RWY25R on the northern side of the field came into view; this runway began handling operations in the autumn of 2011.
We continued our climb to the northwest of the airport as we passed through the one layer of broken clouds on an otherwise clear day.
The flaps eventually retracted as we weaved our way out of the Frankfurt area. We were not setting any time-to-climb records, though. According to the overhead screen displaying the flight information, eight minutes after lifting off, we had only reached 11,000 feet.
About 20 minutes after takeoff we passed over Düsseldorf, with the Rhine river serving as my point of reference out the window.
As we reached our cruising altitude over northwestern Germany, clouds rolled in below and obscured my view of the ground. My main point of reference became the number four engine and the slanted winglet of this giant 747.
Once over the North Sea, the clouds broke apart again, just enough to see the blue water below.
Approximately one hour and 20 minutes after departure, the flight attendants reached my seat with the lunch offering. Officially, there was to be a choice of either chicken or cannelloni, but by the time the cart reached me, cannelloni was the only option. It was served with a small salad of mostly just lettuce, a dry bread roll and a piece of cake. The quality and quantity was about what I have experienced before with United—certainly a notch below its Star Alliance partner Lufthansa, and maybe a half-notch below what I’ve experienced on westbound transatlantic flights on Delta (in my opinion, there is a difference in quality between westbound and eastbound transatlantic flights—the meals catered in Europe seem to be a little better, on average). Unfortunately, even though I had my meal, the beverage cart had yet to reach me. I would have much preferred if drinks were offered just prior to the meal, or at least at about the same time. In this regard, the crew on this United flight did not quite have their timing right.
About ten minutes after I finished eating, the beverage cart finally did reach me. I asked for a cup of coffee with cream. Strangely, instead of being given a small container of milk or creamer, I was handed a carton of milk about the size of my actual coffee. At first I thought that perhaps I was supposed to pour a splash in my coffee and return the rest of the milk to the flight attendant; however, by the time I had opened it, she had already moved down the aisle. I like milk, so I ended up drinking it, but it was unusual to be given a carton just for a small cup of coffee.
Unfortunately, there were no individual screens on this 18-year old 747-400. So, I kept track of our progress through glimpses of the map and flight information on the overhead monitors in between segments of the movie and TV programing. It was not ideal, but at least I had semi-regular updates of our progress to inform my view out the window.
Approximately two hours into the flight, the map showed us passing over the Orkney Islands of northern Scotland. Our groundspeed at the time was 552 mph (888 km/h), the headwind was 54 mph (87 km/h) and our remaining distance to San Francisco was 4,782 miles (7,696 km). The projected flight path ahead of us showed a routing over northern Iceland and central Greenland. The view below was mostly cloudy with the blue of the North Atlantic showing through in places.
Three and a half hours into the flight, the clouds below gave way to the unmistakable grandeur of Greenland’s coastal mountains. Although I have flown over Greenland many times eastbound and westbound, this was just the fifth time I had a clear-weather, daytime view of this magnificent terrain.
This particular routing was by far the northernmost of my Greenland crossings. We made landfall at approximately 71 degrees north latitude on the eastern coast, continued over central Greenland and reached the western coast of the island, topping out at the high point of our great circle route at 73 degrees north latitude. This was the furthest north I had ever been, just 1,180 miles (1,900 km) from the North Pole. And for a Europe-North America flight, this is one of the northernmost routes one can get. I will let the photos of stunning Greenland speak for themselves.
Midway across the island, the map feature came on the overhead screens and confirmed to me what I already knew—that we were over Greenland.
Of course, not everyone is an aviation fanatic like you and I, and I understand that. Still, it seems that all too often, passengers and cabin crew alike do not show much appreciation for the beauty of flight and the wonder of seeing the world from the air. So it was refreshing when a seasoned United flight attendant, a woman probably in her fifties, passed through the cabin mentioning to those passengers who were not asleep or watching the movie that gorgeous views of Greenland were just outside the window. A few passengers seemed to appreciate the heads-up and retrieved their cameras for a few shots of the snowy landscape. I continued snapping photos as well.
All too soon, we reached the mountains of the western coast and the clouds rolled in, obscuring part of the view.
We left picturesque Greenland behind and headed out across the mostly frozen expanse of Baffin Bay. The grey sea ice was cut every so often by giant, jagged fractures, some extending to the horizon.
Five hours and 17 minutes after lifting off from Frankfurt, we went “feet dry” over Baffin Island. The view out my window showed an endless expanse of inlets and mountains, all coated in a thick frosting of ice and snow. Simply beautiful.
Just after crossing the coastline, the flight tracking information returned to the overhead monitors and confirmed our position over Baffin Island. At that point, some five and a half hours after liftoff, we had travelled 2,925 miles from Frankfurt (4,708 km) and had another 2,812 miles (4,525 km) to go for San Francisco—in other words, just a little over half-way there. Our groundspeed was 582 mph (937 km/h), we enjoyed an ever so slight tailwind of 5 miles per hour (8 km/h), and our altitude was 34,000 feet (10,363 meters).
Meanwhile, the flight attendants came through the aisle offering a small snack of nuts and raisins, as well as a full beverage service. I took a Coke, which was offered as a full can.
The view outside was far too spectacular to miss, so my eyes were glued to the window as I sipped my Coke.
The glacial activity was particularly impressive.
As we moved inland and away from the coastal fjords, the landscape took on different, no less interesting patterns.
Before long, we were “feet wet” again, crossing over the Gulf of Boothia, which separates Baffin Island from the mainland of Canada’s Nunavut province. The sea ice was mostly frozen, but some liquid was visible in places.
Suddenly, one of the worst things that could happen to photo-taking flyer happened to me. My camera broke. It had been turned off for the past three or four minutes when, as I pushed the power button to turn it on—nothing happened. Usually the lens would have extended and the view-finder screen on the back would have illuminated. The battery was not drained, as I had fully charged it the night before and it had still been showing about 75% capacity before the malfunction (and later on, I tried a fully-charged replacement battery, to no avail). The camera had not taken a tumble of any kind and there had been no indication of a problem immediately prior. I tried a number of novice measures like removing and reinserting the battery. Nothing worked.
It was unfortunate, but I decided to use the demise of my camera as an opportunity to catch some sleep myself. After all, I had been up for many hours and my eyes were heavy. I settled into one of those restless sleeps that occurs when crammed into an upright position in a coach-class seat on a long-haul flight—the kind of sleep that leaves one somehow anxious and with a pain in the neck. Still, it is a part of flying, and therefore what I would consider a “good” pain.
When I awoke fully sometime later, the flight map was visible on the overhead monitor and showed our position over the far northwestern corner of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Our altitude was still 34,000 feet (10,363 meters); we had been in the air for seven hours and 37 minutes and still had another three hours and 40 minutes to go until landing. Our ground speed had slowed to just 466 mph (750 km/h) thanks to a headwind of 71 mph (114 km/h).
I passed the time reading and watching parts of the programing that soon returned to the overhead screens. Finally, it occurred to me that my picture-taking was perhaps not over, after all. I fished around inside my carry-on and found my iPhone 4, which has a camera that can get the job done in most situations. It was not ideal, but better than nothing. As we continued southwest over Alberta, the rectangular lines of farm fields began to appear with more regularity, and I snapped a shot with the simple iPhone camera. After seeing so much beautiful desolation in the far northern latitudes, it was a little anticlimactic to see signs of civilization once again.
Having been seated for over eight hours, I decided to stretch my legs and use the bathroom. It was nothing fancy, of course, but was in decent enough shape.
Soon we reached the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains northwest of Calgary and entered into some light chop as we continued over the peaks.
At one point while crossing the high spine of the Rockies, a sudden swat of energy hit even our huge 747 with such force that it felt like being on an amusement park ride. The aircraft instantly rolled left, as if going into a steep turn, only to be hit by another blow shortly thereafter which returned the wings to level. It felt as though the jumbo was a small Cessna as several more jolts followed in quick succession. Watching out the window, the amount of wingflex was incredible. A flight attendant immediately came on the loudspeaker admonishing in a stern tone one coach-class flyer a few rows ahead of me who decided it would be a good idea at that moment to retrieve something from the overhead compartment. The man returned to his seat. Meanwhile, we climbed up to 38,000 feet (11,600 meters) in search of better air.
The ride grew smoother as we continued over southeastern British Columbia before entering US airspace over the Idaho panhandle. Meanwhile, I noticed the pair of giant contrails billowing like grey clouds behind the two engines on our right wing. I always like seeing this while inflight.
We passed west of Spokane, Washington, just off the left side of the aircraft. I noticed this distinctive bend in a river out my right-hand window, which I later identified as Long Lake and the town of Tumtum, Washington.
As we continued south into the busier airspace over the US, the air traffic around us picked up noticeably in the form of frequent contrails crossing our flight path.
Over eastern Oregon, the flight attendants emerged with the final drink and meal service. I chose a tomato juice and was given a snack box containing a sandwich, chips and candy bar. This was the same product I was used to from United’s eight hour flights from Europe to the east coast of the US; so I found it a bit disappointing not to be given a second hot meal on a Europe-West Coast flight of nearly 11 and a half hours. Nonetheless, it was decent enough and I finished it all.
Soon I began to pick out the Cascade volcanoes in the distance. I later identified the next photo as showing Upper Klamath Lake with Mount McLoughlin visible as the white peak just beyond.
Next, the unmistakable mass of Mount Shasta, in northern California, came into view.
At about 14:25 local time, some 10 hours and 45 minutes into the flight, a brief message from the flight deck informed us that we were beginning our descent into San Francisco. The first officer indicated that we would be on the ground in around 20 minutes and that the current weather in San Francisco was sunny with a temperature of 61 degrees Fahrenheit (16 Celsius). Soon I spotted the blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and I knew we were getting close. I had just crossed an ocean, an entire continent, and now was seeing yet another ocean, all in a day—amazing!
Unfortunately I was on the wrong side of the aircraft to see the spectacular views of downtown San Francisco. We proceeded down the coastline just west of the city before making a sweeping left turn to the east on the downwind leg for an eventual approach to RWY28L. I spied Moffett Federal Airfield at the southern end of San Francisco Bay.
We turned back to the north and northwest towards San Francisco as the giant flap assembly began its incremental drop from the wing.
As we stabilized on approach, the distinctive wingleted shadow of our big 747 grew larger in the waters of San Francisco Bay.
As we neared the runway, the approach lighting of the parallel RWY28R came into view.
And finally, we began to flare just over the threshold. Only a few more seconds to go.
We landed smoothly on RWY28L at 14:56 local time after 11 hours and 18 minutes on the wing from Frankfurt. What a great and spectacular flight it had been!
After a short taxi, we arrived at Gate 96 and the four big turbofans wound down for some well-deserved rest.
The big aircraft slowly emptied out and I found my way to immigration control where I was welcomed home by a friendly officer. Next I grabbed my suitcase from the belt and continued past the customs officer and into the arrivals hall at SFO, where my friend was already waiting to pick me up. I met her and we headed towards the BART train for the ride to her place in Oakland. Of course—not before I snapped one final shot of the ramp action at SFO.
I spent only about 18 hours in the Bay area during my overnight layover, but I still had time to see Berkeley, close to where my friend lives, and spend some nice time with her. Also, as she is a graduate student in photography, she was kind enough to take me to her local camera store where I picked up a new Canon point-and-shoot camera to replace my broken Nikon point and shoot—nothing fancy, just a compact little camera for taking pictures out of airplane windows!
The next morning I awoke at 05:30, showered, and my friend and I departed her place in Oakland for the drive across the Bay to the San Francisco airport to catch my onward flight to Bozeman. Traffic was light at that early hour and the drive took about 25 minutes. Just as the rising sun began to cast the eastern sky in a pink hue, we pulled up in front of the terminal building around 06:30. It was shaping up to be a lovely morning to fly.
I said farewell to my friend and headed inside the terminal. The lines at the United counters were almost nonexistent and I quickly rechecked my suitcase and was issued my boarding pass to Bozeman.
I was through security within five minutes and with plenty of time to check out the early morning ramp activity. There was no question which was the dominant carrier at SFO, whether in terms of large aircraft…
…or small ones.
Having walked the length of all accessible concourses, I decided to have some breakfast at the small café next to Gate 79, from which my Bozeman flight would be departing. While eating, I noticed my ride arriving in the form of a little CRJ pulling into the gate to prepare for our flight to Montana. I am always thrilled to be going home, but this time I was especially excited to be on this SFO-BZN nonstop flight—my first time on this route.
Outbound Itinerary: Flight 2 of 2
Date: March 10, 2012
Aircraft Type: CRJ-200LR
Aircraft Registration: N978SW / Manufactured 2004
Scheduled Departure: 08:09 PST
Actual Takeoff: 08:23 PST
Scheduled Arrival: 11:27 MST
Actual Landing: 11:04 MST
Flight Time: 1:41
Distance: 807 miles (1,299 km)
Seat: 9A (Window)
Load: 90% (Y only)
Personal Stats: 27th flight on the CRJ-100/200 / 29th flight on United Express / 293rd airline flight overall
Boarding began a few minutes later than scheduled at 07:45, but the process was quick and smooth. I made my way aboard the little jet and took my seat at 9A, a window on the left side.
A lot of passengers dislike these little CRJs for being too cramped, and indeed space is tight, as the legroom photo shows above. My biggest complaint, however, is the low position of the window and the need to lower my head to see out the window (I am not a particularly tall guy, either). Still, I must admit I like these CRJs. They look good and are fun to fly in, as they really give the sensation of—flying!
As I settled in, the lone flight attendant, a middle-aged man who introduced himself as Peter, came on the intercom and welcomed us aboard. Despite the early hour, he had a nice, cheery personality and even made a few jokes which caused the otherwise dreary passengers to chuckle. He announced our flight time to Bozeman at one hour and 45 minutes. Meanwhile, the ramp agents loaded the rest of the luggage and prepared us for pushback.
At 08:14, the aircraft pushed back from the gate. The engines were ignited and we quickly taxied to the departure runway, 01R. At 08:23, the high-pitched whine of those CRJ engines increased in volume and we began rocketing down the runway. This was a particularly interesting takeoff for me, as it was performed nearly in sync with a Virgin America A320 departing on the parallel RWY01L. Here are a few shots of the tandem takeoff sequence.
Once stable in our respective climbs, the two departing aircraft diverged—we banked to the right, while the Virgin America aircraft banked to the left. So long!
We passed through scattered clouds as we climbed to the northeast over the Bay.
Fortunately, the clouds let up in just the right place and afforded me a nice view of the skyscrapers of San Francisco bathed in the morning light.
The former Naval Air Station Alameda then came into view with the Bay Bridge and Yerba Buena Island in the background.
Next up was downtown Oakland, with the inner harbor in the foreground and Lake Merritt just to the right of the city’s core.
As we climbed higher, the Bay area slipped behind the winglet towards our six-o’clock position. Farewell, San Francisco.
We rose through more clouds before eventually cresting the uppermost layer and emerging into a world with nothing but blue above.
As we continued northeast, the clouds broke apart again, revealing the snowy landscape of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Although the high spine of the Sierra was visible only from the right side of the aircraft, I had a nice view of the terrain from my vantage point as well.
About 30 minutes after departure, the flight attendant reached my seat with the beverage cart. At this still-early hour, I was in need of a cup of coffee. I asked for cream and was given a powdered version, which is not my preferred type. The bigger problem was that there were no stir sticks, which is quite necessary to mix powered creamer into a cup of slightly less-than-hot coffee. After I dumped the powdered creamer into the coffee, I got creative and fashioned the packaging from the creamer into a stir stick, which did the trick nicely. The flight attendant was friendly and I have no real complaints. I just suppose the beverage product on this flight could be considered very basic.
As I sipped my coffee, one of the pilots came on the intercom with an update on our progress. He mentioned we were level at 33,000 feet (10,060 meters) and had another one hour and two minutes to go until landing in Bozeman, which would put us at the gate about 20 minutes early.
We continued northeast over the arid landscape of northern Nevada and southern Idaho.
Soon the Sawtooth Range of central Idaho came into view, which provided more spectacular scenery.
Over the Beaverhead Mountains of southwestern Montana, the engines spooled back and we began our descent into Bozeman. One of the pilots gave a brief weather update from the flight deck, indicating clear skies, good visibility, light winds and a warm temperature of 44 degrees Fahrenheit (7 Celsius). It was shaping up to be a beautiful homecoming on this March morning.
This was the first time I had flown into Bozeman from the southwest, and as such I was not as used to the visual cues I have come to expect on flights from Salt Lake, Denver and Minneapolis or Chicago. So it was with some surprise when, quite suddenly, the brown terrain of the Gallatin Valley, and the Bridger Mountains above it, filled my window.
I was thrilled to see the familiar peaks through the window, but at the same time, was shocked by the lack of snow in the valley and in the mountains. For early to mid-March, everything was bone dry. It was certainly not normal, and in the opinion of many including myself, not healthy for the local environment. As it turned out, Montana’s light winter in the first part of 2012 went on to contribute to a terrible fire season in the late summer and fall of 2012. But I digress. I was elated to be just moments away from touching down in Bozeman!
We made some final, gentle corrections as we glided the last distance towards RWY12.
At 11:04, we landed with a thud after one hour and 41 minutes on the wing from San Francisco.
We taxied the short distance to the terminal and, after pausing briefly on the ramp to wait for a United Express jet pushing back for Denver, docked at the gate.
Within a few minutes, I was inside the terminal and paused briefly to grab a shot of the CRJ which had just delivered me home.
What were my impressions of United’s product? Based on my experience on these flights, I have ranked the carrier in eight different categories on a scale of one to ten.
Reservation & Online Services: Score 9/10
The United website was easy to use while searching for different flights and itinerary options. Once I identified my itinerary, the booking was quick and easy. Seat selection was available for all United-marketed flights at the time of booking, and changes could be made to the seating assignments at any point thereafter. Online check in was available, but given the international nature of my itinerary, boarding passes could only be printed by an agent at the airport, which was no problem since I was checking luggage anyway. Overall, I was satisfied with the reservation and online services offered by United.
Check-in: Score 7/10
At Frankfurt, it took 30 minutes from the time I arrived at the back of the queue until I reached the check-in counter. This amount of time was not outrageous, but it was not fast either, and I would say that given the number of flights it operates out of Frankfurt, United should look for ways to more quickly process its long lines of Frankfurt customers at check-in, particularly at this time of the day. The agents themselves did a nice job with the process and genuinely seemed to be working as fast as possible given the swarms of people. The process of re-checking in at San Francisco the next day was very quick and easy. Overall, the experience was acceptable.
Seats and Cabin Condition: Score 5/10
The 747-400 on the FRA-SFO leg was 18 years old, and it looked like a veteran workhorse. Still, I would say the cabin was mostly clean and well maintained. The non-Economy Plus seat I occupied for more than 12 hours (including time on the ground) was cramped, however. It is nice that United offers Economy Plus to those with status or who pay for it, but in my opinion the prices for Economy Plus upgrades are disproportionately expensive, and I have never considered doing so. In any case, for the average traveler at the back of a 747, there is little comfort on such a long flight. As for the Skywest CRJ, the cabin was clean and the seat more than adequate for a trip of less than two hours. The window is way too low on those CRJs, but that’s not really the fault of the airline. All things considered, I will give United a score right in the middle.
Cabin Crew: Score 7/10
The cabin crew on the FRA-SFO leg were adequate, though they did not have their timing down with regard to the beverage service coinciding with the meal service. However, one senior flight attendant did do something which I appreciated, namely pointing out to any interested passengers the fact that we were crossing over Greenland. Those are the types of things I think are often missing from the everyday routine of airline operations, and it was nice to see a bit of appreciation for the flight put back into the experience. As for the Skywest flight from SFO-BZN, the lone flight attendant was enthusiastic, warm and showed a bit of personality, which is always nice in comparison to the robotic employees often found in airliner cabins. Overall, there was room for improvement, but my experience was mostly positive.
Food and Drink: Score 3/10
The first meal on the FRA-SFO leg was pretty standard as far as coach-class offerings are concerned. The cannelloni was not bad, but it was the only choice by the time the cart reached me. And as I mentioned before, the first beverage was not served until after I had finished my meal, which was annoying. Also, a second hot meal would have been nice on a nearly 12-hour flight, as opposed to a small, cold sandwich. On the Skywest flight from SFO-BZN, the coffee was more warm than hot, the creamer was a powder, and I had to improvise a stir stick out of the wrapper. When considering mostly the transatlantic flight for the purposes of this score, United continues to serve a food and drink product that is just below the industry average, in my opinion. I have had better meals on Delta more consistently than on United on transatlantic flights, and this experience fit that pattern. And of course, as far as European carriers such as Lufthansa are concerned, the food is a solid notch above what I experienced on United. However, when compared with my experiences on Icelandair, which charged approximately $15 for a basic economy-class meal on a seven hour flight, I cannot judge United too harshly. Therefore, I’ll score this category towards the lower end, but not at the bottom by any means.
Inflight Entertainment: Score 2/10
Some of United’s older long-haul fleet lags significantly behind when it comes to inflight entertainment. For example, the 747-400s, which operate some of United’s very longest intercontinental routes, do not have personal screens in economy class. Instead, small, old-fashioned monitors hang from the ceiling, and even from the best vantage points, watching them can be a strain on the eyes. To United’s credit, they did show the flight information and moving map fairly frequently between the TV and movie programing throughout the flight, which was more than welcome for an aviation enthusiast like me. However, the current offerings vary significantly by aircraft type, especially given the integration of the Continental fleet. Based on this experience, I cannot give United a particularly high score in this category, but I hope the carrier continues to invest in its inflight entertainment product, especially for economy passengers on long-haul routes.
Baggage: Score 8/10
I would definitely prefer if United and other US airlines allowed two checked bags free of charge on transatlantic routes, instead of just one. With that said, my checked baggage arrived on time and in good shape in both San Francisco and Bozeman. Due to the long layover in San Francisco, my bag was not checked from Frankfurt all the way through to Bozeman; however, I preferred to collect it in San Francisco in any case, so it was not a problem. Overall, I was largely satisfied in this category.
Punctuality: Score 8/10
The FRA-SFO flight arrived at the gate about 25 minutes late, despite a pushback in Frankfurt that was close to on time. This was due in part to strong headwinds, and for me it posed no problem given that I was in no rush and had a long layover. This was compensated by the fact that my Skywest flight arrived in Bozeman almost 25 minutes early, which was most welcome after such a long trip. Overall, I cannot complain too much with regard to this category.
RESERVATION & ONLINE SERVICES: 9/10
SEATS & CABIN CONDITION: 5/10
CABIN CREW: 7/10
FOOD & DRINK: 3/10
INFLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT: 2/10
AVERAGE SCORE: 49/80 = 61%
How does this score of 61% compare to my other transatlantic experiences? It is a little on the lower end of the scale, but by no means the worst. By comparison, in my previous trip reports, I ranked Icelandair slightly higher at 66% overall, even despite the poor service and buy-onboard meals—a ranking largely compensated by Icelandair’s excellent entertainment product. In my other previous reports, and according to the above criteria, I ranked pre-merger Continental at 66%, Delta at 71% and Lufthansa at 83%. However, I did rank one experience on United at an even more dismal 55%, so by comparison, this experience was significantly better.
While I still prefer European carriers, or Delta, on transatlantic routes, United offered a generally acceptable product, and I have no major complaints. The criticisms that I have pointed out in this report are my impressions of things the carrier could improve, but overall the product is in the realm of acceptability. I would not hesitate to give United my business, especially when the prices and times are right.
As a quick capstone to this report, here are a few impressions of my time at home. This was my first time back in almost eight months and the first time seeing my family in just as long. It was wonderful to be with them again. My sister and I both surprised our father at his front door. He had no idea we were even in town (he thought I was in Brussels, of course)! It was wonderful to surprise him like that as a send-off before he left for Everest. We had a great time at the party that evening and during the next days. Here are a few photos from my time at home.
The city of Bozeman is seen here with the Spanish Peaks looming in the distance.
This is the view from the front of my mother’s house, looking towards the Bridger Mountains.
One day, my mother, aunt and uncle, and our dog drove about 30 miles (48 km) west of Bozeman to go for a hike near the town of Three Forks. Out there it can be a very dry and harsh, but also beautiful, environment.
I also spent a day on the ski slopes with my aunt and uncle. Bridger Bowl is our community ski area 15 minutes north of town, and we happened to hit it on a day with fresh snow. Even though I knew every last part of the ski area from my childhood, it had been several years since I had skied at Bridger, and returning there for a day of skiing was a trip down memory lane.
Finally, I helped my father pack his gear for Everest. Luckily, as his expedition was sponsored by the North Face and several other outdoor companies, he did not have to pay for any of this nice, expensive year! However, it took a lot of ingenuity to pack it all in the right way.
My return to Europe, as well as the outcome of my father’s attempt of Mount Everest, will be covered in a separate trip report soon. Thanks for reading and stay tuned. Until then, questions, comments and feedback are always welcome!
My other reports on Airliners.net can be seen at:
Iceland Unexpectedly: SEA-KEF-BRU On FI (by BZNPilot Aug 22 2012 in Trip Reports)
A Prop Hop To The Pacific: Horizon Air Q400 (by BZNPilot Aug 19 2012 in Trip Reports)
Big Apple To Big Sky Country On Delta/Skywest (by BZNPilot Apr 30 2012 in Trip Reports)
Farewell CO - A Transatlantic First And Last (by BZNPilot Apr 23 2012 in Trip Reports)
Short & Long On LH: BRU-MUC-IAD, DCA-BOS-FRA-BRU (by BZNPilot Oct 30 2011 in Trip Reports)
Day Tripping: 3 Flights, 3 Countries, Many Pics (by BZNPilot Jun 13 2011 in Trip Reports)
Trans-Atlantic Part 2: BZN-DEN-OKC-IAD-GVA-BRU (by BZNPilot Dec 3 2010 in Trip Reports)
Trans-Atlantic Part 1: BRU-ATL-SLC-BZN On DL (by BZNPilot Nov 15 2010 in Trip Reports)
A Bee-Line To Madrid: SN’s A319 & B733 (Many Pics) (by BZNPilot Sep 13 2010 in Trip Reports)
YVR-PDX-BFI: Horizon + SeaPort's PC-12 (Many Pics) (by BZNPilot Jul 6 2010 in Trip Reports)
Day Tripping: DCA-DTW-MKE-DCA On NW/YX (Many Pics) (by BZNPilot Jul 25 2009 in Trip Reports)
BZN-IAD On Skywest/Delta (Many Pics) (by BZNPilot Jan 24 2009 in Trip Reports)
DCA-SEA + Boeing Field + Holiday Travel Odyssey (by BZNPilot Jan 3 2009 in Trip Reports)
CDG-FRA-IAD On AF/UA (Part 2, Many Pics) (by BZNPilot Nov 18 2008 in Trip Reports)
DCA-ORD-FRA-CDG On UA/LH/AF (Part 1, Many Pics) (by BZNPilot Nov 9 2008 in Trip Reports)
Planes & Trains To Montreal (Many Pics) (by BZNPilot Sep 18 2008 in Trip Reports)
IAD-DEN-BZN-ORD-DCA On UA Biz/Y (Many Pics) (by BZNPilot Sep 12 2008 in Trip Reports)
DC-9+A320+738s On NW/DL To MT (pics) (by BZNPilot Aug 3 2008 in Trip Reports)
DC To Montana On NW (many Pics) (by BZNPilot Jun 15 2008 in Trip Reports)
HKG-ORD-DCA On UA In Coach (pics) (by BZNPilot Jun 14 2008 in Trip Reports)
HKG-MNL-HKG On CX (Business) W Pics (by BZNPilot Feb 25 2008 in Trip Reports)
Manila-Caticlan-Manila For New Years (Pics) (by BZNPilot Jan 24 2008 in Trip Reports)
MRY-SFO-HKG On UA (with Pics) (by BZNPilot Feb 2 2008 in Trip Reports)
DCA-PHL-SFO (with Pics) (by BZNPilot Jan 29 2008 in Trip Reports)
Northwest Tri-Jets To Germany In 1999 (Many Pics) (by BZNPilot Feb 5 2010 in Trip Reports)
Lama Chopper In The Montana Mountains (w Pics) (by BZNPilot Jul 21 2008 in T