Bewarned, this is a LONG report.
My partner’s cousin got married in Atlanta on March 8th, and his extended family all converged in ATL for the weekend. My “in-laws” offered to use their miles to get me all the way from HNL to ATL, but I decided to take advantage of UA’s elite status qualification extension (for a $25 fee, they allowed Mileage Plus members who were within 10,000 miles of elite status to extend their qualification period to March 30th). I was a Premier Executive, but since my layoff I haven’t flown much, and I was 5,400 miles short of qualifying for Premier. HNL-LAX v.v. was insufficient for me to earn the miles I needed, and so I decided to fly HNL-LAX-SJC v.v. and my in-laws used their miles to get me from SJC to ATL and back to SFO on AA. In any case, UA’s fares were cheaper to SJC than to LAX, even though SJC was an ad-on leg to the LAX flight. I think the fares were fixed this way because AA has nonstop SJC-HNL v.v. services and they wanted to match them on price.
So, this set the stage for my eight-segment odyssey across America, along with lots of bad food…
UA 56/6March HNL-LAX
Economy Plus, Seat 11H
Checked-in at a very rainy HNL at approximately 9.30pm. Along my way to the UA desks I noticed that all the majors had self check-in booths, except UA. As UA has five red eye flights each day from HNL (two each to LAX and SFO and one to DEN), there was a long line for the check-in desks, and a somewhat shorter line for First Class and elite status Mileage Plus members. I joined the latter line, and because I had no bags to check-in I was very promptly picked out by a security staff to go to a ticket desk behind the main check-in desks. I was checked-in by a friendly agent and I requested that she check me in only to LAX because I wanted to use the Easy Check-in machines at LAX in order to get bonus miles (United gives you 500 bonus miles for the first time you use the machines, and 250 miles each time thereafter). She handed me my boarding pass and I was on my way to security. Interestingly, this time round I was not selected for additional security screening (indicated by “SSSS” on your boarding pass). I was surprised because I have almost always been selected for screening, and I always suspected it was because my name doesn’t sound like “John Smith” or something. Interestingly, I wasn’t selected for screening on any of my subsequent flights. I wonder what has changed. Another thing I noticed was that there was an ad for Eclipse brand breath fresheners on the back of the boarding pass jacket. I guess UA was grabbing any revenue it could get!
I joined a rather long security line behind a scruffy 50+ bald guy with a long beard wearing unwashed combat fatigues and a torn t-shirt. I hate it when I make assumptions about people based on their appearance, but my first thoughts about him was that he would hold up the line… and I was right! He put four items through the x-ray (an overstuffed backpack, a fanny pack, a coat and a plastic bag full of clothes) and the screener apparently saw suspicious items in both bags. Needless to say, this guy also beeped the metal detector and he was very rude and abusive to the TSA staff. I (and the passengers behind me) were unable to get around this man or the three TSA staff that were dealing with him, but luckily one of the TSA staff saw that we had collected our bags from the x-ray machine, and she made way for us to get through. I felt hungry and after security I made my way to the food outlets – which were almost all closed – and had an overpriced $4.95 Pizza Hut personal pan pizza.
Boarding began at Gate 7 at about 10.15pm. After boarding first class, they boarded the elite Mileage Plus and Star Alliance members. I went on board to find a rather large and sour-looking 50+ man (not the same one as the guy holding up security) seated in11K. He shot me a hostile look as I took the seat next to him. All passengers had boarded the plane by 10.40pm, and I saw that the flight was about half full. The two-seater in front of me was unoccupied and I switched over to 10H. This was the first row in Economy Plus, and unfortunately the seat arm was not moveable. As I had a suit with me, I asked an FA if I could hang it in the First Class closet, and she very cheerily obliged.
We pushed back from the gate 15 minutes early, and taxied immediately to a rather wet runway for takeoff. I had flown the HNL-LAX red eye twice before, but both times were in First Class, so this time I was somewhat surprised to learn after takeoff that no meals were served on this almost five-hour flight! Thank goodness I had that yucky pizza. Flight attendants came round soon after we reached cruising altitude with drinks and pretzels, and after that they came round with breath mints (that explains the Eclipse ads on the b/pass jacket!). All was quiet from then on. A Jane Seymour movie about horses (can’t remember the title) was screened. It seemed uninteresting, and I drifted off into a fitful sleep only to be woken every once in a while by loud snoring from my original seatmate, the sour-faced man. During the course of the flight I don’t recall seeing any FAs coming around with drinks. To quote a certain other a.net member, I was “unimpressed”.
The captain came on about 30 minutes prior to landing, and the cabin was prepared for arrival. FAs then came round with OJ. We hit land over Santa Monica, took a turn near downtown LA, and came in to land at LAX. We descended through layers of brown smog, which was visible even at this early hour. While descending, I saw the brightly lit “9000” sign of 9000 Sunset Boulevard building (two blocks from my old apartment building), and saw Century City, my old workplace. Although I left LA only nine months ago after my layoff, my past life there seems so distant and strange. I miss a lot of things about LA – the diversity, great food, beautiful (if fake) people, and spotting Angelyne billboards. Having said that, I am also (mostly) enjoying my life in HNL. Now if only I was paid half as much in HNL as I was paid in LA….
Landing was smooth, and we taxied towards Gate 70A. Just before reaching the parking bay, we stopped to let a tow tug attach itself and tow us into the gate. This is standard practice at some bays at LAX’s Terminals 6 and 7 because some bays there are narrow. Disembarked and made my way to the Easy Check-In counters at the start of the pier and I checked myself in for my next flight and earned my 500 bonus miles! Woohoo! From there, I made my way to McDonald’s for a McMuffin. I usually avoid fast food like the plague, but I was too hungry to care. After eating, I made my way to the restroom, brushed my teeth, and then found a cozy spot near Gate 86 and drifted off to sleep before my next flight, which was to depart in two hours.
Overall Impression of this flight: I wasn’t happy about the lack of food and the lack of crew visibility throughout the flight. While I understand the desire to avoid disturbing people on a red eye, this wasn’t acceptable!
United Express (Operated by Air Wisconsin)
UA 5910/7March LAX-SJC
CRJ, Seat 02C
Boarded our little CRJ at Gate 86 and was greeted by a solitary FA. After all passengers had taken their seats, the FA made an announcement requesting any two passengers in Rows 1 to 4 to move to any seat behind Row 10 in order to resolve a trim problem (This was a surprise to me – I thought the CRJ would be tail heavy… can anyone explain?). Two people in Row 1 volunteered, and we shut the door and started pushback and taxiing. I’m not sure if it was because this was a flight to the Silicon Valley, but it seemed as if there was a preponderance of electronic gizmos on board this flight.
The flight was short and uneventful. We were served drinks (I got the whole can) and pretzels, and I had an interesting chat with my seatmate about wireless technologies and PDAs (he works in the industry and I am about to start working on a business for an entrepreneur in the field) and I learned more about the industry and applications during our short chat. The aircraft landed smoothly at SJC and I walked through the United terminal and took an inter-terminal bus to the American terminal.
Overall Impression of this Fight: Quick, painless flight. I missed Economy Plus though!
AA 3086/7March SJC-ATL via STL
Economy, Seat 21B (Exit Row)
After alighting from the inter-terminal bus, I walked up a flight of stairs to the check-in hall at Terminal A shared by AA and WN. AA’s signs were confusing. There were self check-in counters for e-ticket holders (even those with bags), counters for First Class and elite Advantage members and a set of counters marked “Narita”… but where were the counters for peons like me? I wasn’t the only person confused by this, but in the end we all went to the “Narita” counters because it looked as if Narita check-in was over (ie, no significant numbers of Japanese in the check-in hall). The check-in agent made sure I was aware that the flight stopped over in STL. After check-in, I joined the long and snaking queue for security. There was a special line for First Class and Elite Advantage members, and that line wasn’t short either. The person marshalling the line told us that it would take 10 to 15 minutes to get to the security check-in, but in the end it took closer to 25 minutes. Several desperate people asked to cut the line and I let one woman in front of me. Bet that earned me a few karmic points.
Once through security, I went to search for some food, and I ended up having a somewhat-decent clam chowder. A female First Officer sat next to me having a sandwich. After eating my meal, I strolled to the gate and made some calls on my cellphone.
Boarding began at about 12.30pm, and I was among the first to board after First Class and Elite Advantage members, as I was in “Group 1”, as indicated on my boarding pass. The gate attendant announced that this flight was a “Bistro” service and advised us to take our meals from the cart on the aerobridge. Reaching the aerobridge, I dug into the cart for my paperbag of “goodies” and walked to my exit row seat (a friend who works for AA got me exit seats for the entire AA portion of the trip). It was immediately obvious to me that this was an ex-TWA aircraft, as the décor was different from the two current AA decors.
After most of the passengers had boarded, a flight attendant came round and asked the usual “are you wiling and able to assist the crew with the emergency exit” question. We then taxied for takeoff, during which we were told that our bistro bags could not be placed in the seat pockets and that we had to put them under the seat in front of us. Again, there seemed to be a lot of electronic gizmos on this flight. This flight was about 75% full. The seat next to me was occupied by a stock analyst who followed tech stocks, and we had a little discussion on wireless, broadband, and all that geek stuff. I’m not a techie, but I have done enough consulting projects with tech firms to understand the basics. More importantly, my background as a management consultant makes me sound knowledgeable about things even when I don’t have a clue!
After takeoff, we were served drinks (didn’t get the whole can), and I opened my bag of goodies. In it was a small pack of baby carrots, potato crisps, a brownie, a ham and cheese sandwich in a rock hard bun and a small packet of mustard. Scrumptious… not. I squeezed my mustard out of the packet and spread it using the packet (it was either that or my fingers) and I tucked into my meal. I watched in envy as a large Asian man across the aisle took out two packs of sushi and ate them. The FAs on this flight were probably ex-TWA crew as they were based in STL. We also had a female Captain.
The rest of the flight was uneventful. The MD80s don’t have any inflight entertainment whatsoever, and so the only thing to do was try to sleep. The stock analyst next to me slept the whole way through. I slept fitfully (I never sleep well on planes) and was kept awake by snoring from the large Asian man across the aisle – his head actually moved with each snore. A second drinks service (again, I didn’t get the whole can) was made before descent into STL. I do not recall seeing any FAs walking through the aisle offering water between the two drinks services.
We landed in STL a little early and taxied across two runways. We were initially supposed to arrive at Gate C21, but another aircraft was at the gate and we waited awhile before being redirected to another gate. The crew did not announce the change in arrival gate, and I wonder how many people with connecting flights got lost because they expected to be at Gate C21. We were on chocks at exactly STA, instead of being a bit early. Passengers going on to ATL were given the option of going into the terminal or staying put. I decided to take a walk into the C Concourse. Luckily, I noticed that we were at Gate C5, and I made a mental note to return to C5 instead of C21. I was hungry and I walked up and down C concourse looking for decent food. Unfortunately, the places with what looked like good food were crowded, and so I ended up buying a hot dog and returned to my gate. Yuck, more junk food.
The flight reboarded on time at Gate C5, and we taxied a long way, crossing I think three runways (how many does STL have?). Before long, we were on our short 1 hour + hop to ATL with a different crew. This flight was about 50% full and I had an empty seat next to me. Drinks were served and before long it was time to land in ATL.
Walked through the somewhat deserted terminal at AA and waited for my partner to come and get me. He arrived 10 minutes later, looking rather frazzled. He’d just come from a reception for the two extended families to meet one another and the apparently the bride’s Southern Baptist family wasn’t too friendly with my partner’s liberal Catholic California/NY family….
Overall Impression of this Fight: What’s up with the bistro service? This is a case of cost cutting gone too far! Having to stow them away from the seat pockets also adds to the inconvenience. SJC-ATL was a four-hour flight, surely the FAs could have come by with water during the flight? I know we’re free to ask for more drinks at any time, but it would have been a nice gesture for them to offer them anyway.
Had an interesting time in Atlanta. The wedding ceremony was short and the reception was relatively painless. I got to meet my partner’s extended family, which was good (I had only met his aunt before). We did have a few minor issues, though. The photographer ignored my partner and I, and one of the wedding guests shouted something that could be interpreted as a homophobic slur at us as he departed in his truck.
AA 477/9March ATL-DFW
Economy, Seat 21EF (Exit Row), 22BDEF
I flew this leg with my partner, his mother, sister, her husband, and their infant. Because there were so many of us and we were carrying baggage this time, we left early and checked-in with the skycap, who very efficiently and courteously took care of us. We went through security without any fuss. I didn’t even have to look at the gate numbers to locate our gate – all I needed to do was look for lots of big hair and leopard print blouses. We were on a flight to Texas after all! The gate was rather crowded and we sat on the floor outside. Chomped on coffee and muffins, and before long we boarded the aircraft.
This flight was very full, but we still managed to get a spare seat for the infant and my partner and I had the exit row, thanks to my FA friend who arranged our seats. One of the first things I noticed was one of the FAs. One look at her and I wanted to break into song….
I’m a Barbie girl
In my Barbie world
Injected with plastic
You can brush my hair….
Oh, and speaking of hair, her visibly un-blonde roots were showing. My gawd, talk about trim problems – she must have serious back pain. And trust me, after four years in LA I know fake boobs when I see them.
Had a long taxi to the runway. We departed a little late, and no explanation was given. Along the way, saw an SAA 744 and Hooters Air. I wonder how long they’ll stay in business. After takeoff, we were served drinks. I asked for a diet coke and I didn’t get the whole can. Someone in the row before me asked about pretzels, and Barbie Girl very abruptly said: “we have nothing here”. Charming! A simple: “I’m sorry but we only serve drinks on this sector” or something like that would have been a lot more appropriate.
Before landing at DFW, we were given our gate information. Our arrival gate was Gate A11, our connecting flight was scheduled to depart from Gate C32, and we only had 39 minutes scheduled connection. Not only that, it was getting obvious that we would be a few minutes late to the gate.
Arrived at the gate about 7 minutes late. The FAs did make an announcement requesting passengers who did not have tight connections to remain seated to allow others to disembark first, but most people didn’t adhere, or perhaps almost everyone was connecting. A ground agent came aboard and asked Reno passengers to see her, and I heaved a sigh of relief because this probably meant that they would hold our flight for us. We were, nevertheless, a little anxious as we had no luggage, and this meant that they could close the door on us if we were not there at STD.
We said our hurried goodbyes to my partner’s family (they were going to LAX) and made our way to the TrAAin stop which was thankfully nearby. The train came within a minute, but for some reason the doors started closing even before all the disembarking passengers got off. The embarking passengers had to push the doors to keep them open. The train did not travel at a consistent speed – it slowed and accelerated for no apparent reason. We got to Gate C32 just before 12 noon, and the gate agents were getting ready to close the door on us. Thankfully we made it otherwise my already-frazzled partner would have been very unhappy.
Overall Impression of this flight: What’s with the lack of pretzels? Barbie Girl’s attitude was pretty off-putting as well.
AA 1471/9March DFW-SFO
Economy, Seat 09EF (Exit Row)
Walked down the aerobridge to see the dreaded Bistro cart, and a flight attendant taking a number of bistro bags out of it. She cheerily said: “take your bags, boys, this is going to be your meal, and she said that she was taking extra bistro bags on board because some people may have forgotten. My partner asked if there was a veggie option (apparently his Dad forgot to order VGML when he booked the award tickets) and she said there was none. Upon boarding the aircraft, I heard her ask the Purser if they had VGMLs. She later came to us after we were seated to say that she didn’t have VGMLs but she can give us the extra bistro bags. We told her we would ask for them if we needed more food.
We took our seats in the emergency exit row, and once again the FA came around to ask if we were ok assisting the crew. The flight was about 60% full. Before taxi, we were again told not to place the bistro bags in the seat pockets. After taxi and takeoff, we were served drinks and pretzels. I got the whole can this time! My partner gave me the meat from his dry bun, and I gave him my carrots. Fair trade, I guess! Inflight entertainment comprised of short features from CBS which we didn’t bother to watch. There was an awesome audio program, though – one of the channels had music from great artistes including Siouxie and the Banshees, The Jesus and Mary Chain, and Joy Division. I am glad I remembered to bring my headsets from a previous AA flight, as AA now allows you to keep the headsets after you pay for them. We tried to check out the program listing, but one seat pocket had February’s “Attractions” guide and the other had January’s!
Drinks were served one more time before arrival into SFO. We landed smoothly, taxied to our gate and before long I was out on the arrivals area. My classmate from graduate school arrived to pick me up 10 minutes later.
Overall Impression of this Flight: Good service overall. I was happy with this flight. The FAs were friendly and it almost made up for Barbie Girl’s transgressions on the earlier flight.
Stayed in SFO overnight, caught up with friends, ate at my favorite Thai restaurant (Khun Phoa) and watched the stage production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at the Victoria. This film/musical is highly recommended.
United Express (Operated by Skywest)
UA 6948/10March SJC-LAX
CRJ, Seat 02C
I traveled alone on these last two segments of my journey. Took the Caltrain down to Santa Clara and transferred to the free shuttle bus at Santa Clara. The train took about 90 minutes, and I expected the shuttle to go straight to SJC, but instead it went to the long-term parking lot and circled twice before taking the airport perimeter road to the terminals. Dropped off at the United terminal and checked-in at about noon. Again, I asked the check-in agent to check me in only to LAX because I wanted to use the Easy Check-in machines there and get bonus miles. The check-in agent complied, and she also told me that SJC will have easy check-in soon.
Went to Gate C3A and sat down. Again, there were a lot of electronic gizmos being used by people around me. Boarding began 15 minutes before departure. We were greeted at the door by the sole FA for this flight, a young woman who did not look too friendly at first glance (she didn’t smile much). After a short taxi, we were on our way. The flight was about 70% full, and I had an empty seat next to me. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, the FA served drinks, and I got a full can of diet coke and a choice of snacks – pretzels or cookies. This came as a surprise! The FA still didn’t smile too much, but she was pleasant and professional. Then came another surprise – she came around and offered a second round of drinks! Impressive. I did not opt for any. Soon after, we started our descent into LA. We flew over Ventura and Oxnard and then hit Malibu and Santa Monica before banking left, heading towards downtown and then turning around to land at LAX. Of course, the ubiquitous LA smog was visible. Landed smoothly and taxied to Terminal 8. I disembarked, walked into the terminal, and headed to the easy check-in counters at the start of the terminal to check-in for my next flight. 250 bonus miles. Woohoo! Once this was done, I went to Wolfgang Puck Express for overpriced BBQ chicken pizza at $8.95. It’s the same price as those you get outside the airport, but the airport ones are smaller in diameter. After eating my first somewhat-decent airport meal, I ambled over to Gate 70B to await my final flight back home.
UA 63/10March LAX-HNL
Economy Plus, Seat 12F
Boarding commenced at about 1550. Looking through the terminal windows, I saw that we had a female First Officer. So, two out of my 16 cockpit crew on this trip were women. A good sign! People were crowding around the boarding area long before actual boarding commenced, and this is quite typical for this flight because there are many tourists and non-frequent flyers on the route. Boarding commenced at about 1545 with First Class, followed by Elite status Mileage Plus members and Star Alliance FFP members. I had to make my way through a group of British tourists who were blocking the boarding area, and the gate staff had to tell passengers to move away in order to let others board.
Once on board, I settled into my seat on the third row of Economy Plus. The flight wasn’t very full (maybe 70%) and once all passengers were on board I spied the Captain (his name was Bob) greeting passengers in First Class. I expected the Captain to introduce himself only to First Class passengers, but then he made his way up the aisle into Economy Plus, and then into Economy, and then down the other aisle and back into the cockpit. First time I ever saw such a thing! I wonder if he did this before UA’s Chapter 11.
I had the entire row of three seats to myself. After taxi and takeoff, drinks were served drinks (full can!) and the crew passed out agricultural forms for Hawaii and entry forms for the “Halfway to Hawaii” contest. Captain Bob then came on to give details about airspeed, winds, etc, and it was left to us to decide at what time we would reach the halfway point. After this announcement, meal service started, and I opted for the chicken option. I know that it isn’t standard practice to distribute menus in Economy, and I don’t expect them to, but it really would not hurt if airlines announced the menu options and gave a short description of what came with it. “Chicken or beef” just doesn’t do it for me, because I have no idea what accompanies the meat in either meal. Anyway, I chose the chicken because I have had negative experiences with beef catered out of LAX. The chicken turned out to be a good choice. The chicken wasn’t overly tenderized, and it came with a good marinara, rice and carrots. Also on the tray were a salad, French dressing, butter, a sesame seed cracker, and shortbread. Pretty standard stuff, but my first proper meal on this trip! I requested another diet coke with my meal and I got the whole can. The FAs came round later with coffee and tea.
Inflight entertainment started during meal service, and it began with shorts from NBC, including a very early episode of “Just Shoot Me”. UA supplies headsets free, which is a plus over AA and CO where you purchase your headset and you have to remember to bring it each time you travel. I reached into the seat pockets to check out the audio programs, but none of the three seat pockets had a copy of Hemispheres in them. After the NBC shorts, they showed a Clockstoppers (a Nickelodean film). I wasn’t interested in that so I stretched out over my three seats and went to sleep. During the course of the flight the FAs came around twice with drinks and coffee. About an hour before arrival another drinks service commenced. Approach into HNL was smooth and I had a great view of the city lights as we descended. We arrived at the gate about 20 minutes early. Captain Bob stood at the door to wish us goodbye!
Overall Impression of this Flight: Hands down the best flight of this trip. Captain Bob’s personal touch was a first for me, and the HNL-based crew was good.