My wife and I booked a five night, long-weekend vacation in the San Francisco bay area for some R&R and a Phillies vs. Giants baseball game at Pac Bell Park. Two nights on the Monterey Peninsula would be followed by three in downtown San Francisco. The financial motivation was an expiring $99 companion fare promotion from the US Airways Visa card. We booked the flight in coach and then upgraded with miles to First Class. Upgrades are a great treat for longer flights, and we try to book them as long as we have the miles and US has the seats.
Despite the fact the award miles are instantly deducted for the upgrade, at US it is necessary to actually check-in with a real, live person to complete the upgrade formalities (unless the upgrade is made at the time of booking and ours was not). The wait at the First Class line was not too bad, but the clerk actually had to write out paper “special service” tickets for the upgrade. I haven’t seen hand written, multi-page, carbon copy tickets in years. It is amazing that in 2003 this manual procedure is necessary for a simple upgrade. With the check-in formalities complete, we headed for security at the “C” side of the US Airways check-in.
Security clearance was reasonably routine, by 2003 standards, except for the on-going and seemingly un-resolvable shoe dilemma. Following media reports of widely variable shoe inspection requirements, the TSA had pretty clearly announced (or so I thought) that shoes that are known to be free of metal of other stuff that will trip the detectors do not have to be removed and x-rayed. My shoes fit that standard. They also said that shoes that have thick soles or look suspicious in other ways would likely trigger secondary screening. Mine have thin soles, so I thought I was OK there as well. I was sure that I had an easy walk through, shoes on.
Alas, words and practice can be two different things. As I approached the screening, the inspector told me to remove my shoes. I told her my shoes were metal free, and she replied that I had to remove them anyway. When I mentioned the prominently posted notice on the TSA website that said otherwise, she said (in a friendly but firm manner), and I quote, “It says we might require secondary screening for those who do not remove shoes. Although you can leave your shoes on if you wish, our policy is that anyone who does so will be subject to secondary screening, no exceptions. I bet the website didn’t tell you that, did it?” Well, she was right about that. It didn’t. Shoes off. So my question is, why doesn’t the TSA simply set policy that all shoes must be removed? It probably makes sense. I would have no problem with that. My objection is publicly stating one policy, and then enacting it in a way that is the opposite of the way it is stated. Lets formulate a policy that makes sense, clearly state what it is, and stick to it coast to coast.
PHL to SFO 06AUG03 3:55pm EDT
AB321 (did not record the registration)
First Class 5A&C
Our trip departed from PHL Gate B5. This is one of gates in the original Philly International Pier B and it has a very small boarding lounge off a very narrow corridor. The flight was a sell-out, so the gate area was jammed with a heavy spillover into the corridor. Even though PHL has been spruced-up over the years, there are portions of the old terminals that are still best suited for DC7’s, not 150 seat jets. This is one of those areas. It was a mob scene. It seems as if US tries to position its 757 and A321 flights at one of the newer B or C hammerhead gates where there is some elbow room, but this one was not.
Pre-boarding for the 3:55pm EDT departure began at 3:30, and we boarded with the other First Class passengers and just about half of the entire passenger load (is everybody a Dividend Preferred member now?). One immediate change noted from our last First Class flight on US (May, 2002) was replacement of the pre-flight beverage service with a pre-positioned bottle of spring water at every seat. The water is a nice touch, and we sipped it throughout the flight, but I am sure some would prefer the old service of getting a Coke or glass of juice while waiting for the boarding to be completed. The full flight boarded in the usual snails-paced manner, and after some last minute baggage work and a delay due to congestion in the B-C alley (typical PHL), we finally pushed back at 4:05pm, 10 minutes late. Taxi-out, crossing active runway 27R, and waiting for take-off took 27 minutes (also a PHL tradition), and at 4:32pm we were airborne off 27L.
Inflight service was adequate, although in First you kind of expect more than adequate. Another change since our last First Class ride was the meal service. Even though this was a flight through the dinner hour, the meal offerings were cold dishes with a cup of hot soup. Westbound this meant a choice of a chicken salad platter or a pastrami and cheese sandwich. Both were quite good, but I guess the days of an actual, multi-course hot meal for dinner are over even on a six-hour flight in First Class. Wine was served in plastic water cups. In fact, there was no glassware used on this flight at all. Dessert, always a treat up front, was now a hot chocolate chip cookie. All this is not to suggest that the meal or service was poor. It was actually OK, and of course much better than the $10 boxed stuff sold in the back. But it was not what I visualize as “First Class”. Maybe what used to be airline First Class service really is history. I hope not.
On the plus side, the First Class seats are still a prime draw, with loads of elbow room and no dreaded middle seat. You are also assured of a great, unobstructed view. Since my wife is totally uninterested in the world from 35,000 feet, that window seat is mine. The AB321 seats seem a bit hard at times, but they are comfortable nonetheless. You get spoiled in a hurry by flying F once in a while.
The movie was Tortilla Flats: a relatively unknown film, but really very good. It detailed the complex, sometimes volatile, and sometimes comical interactions within a family. Gee, don’t we all know about that. The other video offerings included a sit-com (Scrubs, a top notch comedy) and some short features that were more like infomercials. US now uses headsets that clip on your ears like glasses. They are comfortable and effective. However, one other US Airways inflight service downgrade was now noticed. US has eliminated audio entertainment in all aircraft except the AB330-300 and B767. We had the video sound on two channels, and 14 other audio channels of silence. It was not a malfunction. The inflight magazine lists audio for the AB330-300, B767 only. Can dropping inflight audio really save that much money? With operations like JetBlue offering 24-channel TV at every seat, is this really a smart move by US? Time will tell. I guess the next step is to charge for the inflight magazine.
The trip west was smooth and uneventful. I am unsure of our exact flight path, and totally clueless as to our altitude since we heard nothing from the flight deck between “flight attendants prepare for take-off” and “flight attendants prepare the cabin for landing”. But, even lacking the exact route, transcon flights are always interesting with the Midwest farms turning to prairie, then to mountains, and then to the rugged desolation of Utah and Nevada. Other than along the east coast, the weather was clear all the way. Coming into California we crossed the Sierras just north of Yosemite, crossed the San Joaquin Valley, and approached SFO from the southeast. Wisps of fog were coming off the coastal hills as we descended over San Francisco Bay with the sun low in the west. That bay approach into SFO is always exciting. The scale of the bay makes you feel like you are skimming the waves. US 117 touched-down on 28R at 6:53pm PDT, airborne time 5:21. Taxi-in took 6 minutes with final arrival at Terminal 1, Gate 15 at 6:59pm, 14 minutes late. Gate to gate was 5 hours, 54 minutes. Even though the First Class service was a disappointment (by prior First Class experience), it was still a very good flight.
Gate 15 is not a normal gate for US at SFO and has no facilities to handle departures. It is used for arrivals only and probably only to relieve congestion. In fact, several of the gates in that area of Terminal 1 have had the Jetways removed. The last great First Class perk is a quick exit from a full aircraft. Within seconds of the door opening, we are through the Jetway and on the move.
With only carry-on luggage, we headed straight for the Rental Car Center. The Rental Car Center is a large multi-story garage housing all the “on airport” agencies. It is located about a mile and a half north of the terminal complex. Transport to the center was formerly made by shuttle bus, but is now handled by the new airport transit system called AirTrain. AirTrain at Terminal 1 is not easily accessible. The planned direct skybridge connection between the terminal and the AirTrain station is not in place (I suspect because the new baggage screening equipment consumed the terminal areas originally to be the access points), so the trip to the train involves a well marked but circuitous path down to below the bag claim level, through the access tunnel under the terminal roadways to the parking garage, up the garage elevator to the fifth and top parking level, and finally an escalator to the station located one level higher still.
AirTrain is two-car, automated, rubber tire people mover system similar to the subway versions at DEN and ATL, and the aerial version at MCO. It runs on concrete tracks on an elevated guideway. The trains are products of Bombardier, the CRJ people. At SFO, the system has two routes. The Red Line continuously loops the terminal complex. The Blue Line takes the out and back leg to the rental car center. Both routes stop at all the terminal stations.
A Blue Line train arrived within a minute or two, and offered plenty of room for passengers and luggage. For those carrying lots of luggage, the airport luggage carts are permitted on board. Airport terminal stops for AirTrain include the now closed Terminal 2 (for parking garage access), Terminal 3 (with a skybridge in place), International Terminal G, and Garage G / BART. One huge attraction of the AirTrain is the view. From this high perch, you have a simply great view of the entire SFO airfield. My wife suspects that I could ride that thing all day just for the sightseeing, and she’s right. The Blue Line train leaves the terminal area after the Garage G stop and heads north along North McDonnell Road. Arrival at the Rental Car Center was at 7:30pm PDT, 31 minutes from gate arrival to the rental car area.
Return to SFO landside
At the end of our short trip, and having previously dropped the rental car prior to the three nights in SF, we headed for SFO from downtown San Francisco. With our hotel near the Ferry Building, we decided to try the new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) service to SFO. Flight time was 12:20pm PDT. We left the hotel at 10:10am. Our BART farecards were pre-purchased ($4.70 one way each) and we caught a SFO-bound train at Embarcadero Station at 10:20am. For those not familiar with San Francisco, BART is a rail transit system covering about 100 miles throughout the Bay Area. It is exceptionally clean and well run (particularly to those used to east coast American transit). The trains operate up to 10 cars in length and travel at speeds up to 80mph (129kph). At rush hour the trains can be packed, but since we were traveling after the morning crush, the train was not crowded and we were easily able to find both seats and space for our two carry-on bags. The ride is smooth and quite, but most of the line to SFO is in a subway, so sightseeing is not a drawing point. However, a small section in the Daly City area is above ground and elevated. With the tracks on a ridge, the train affords a nice view of nearby residential areas (with that uniquely San Francisco look) and the not too distant Pacific.
Following the Colma stop, the train enters new trackage that extends 8 miles to the airport and the town of Millbrae just south of SFO. The SFO / Millbrae extension opened in June culminating over 30 years of wishing, planning, and finally building this vital link. Once again, most of this new route is in subway. After the San Bruno station, the train turns east on a “Y” extension, emerges from the tunnel, climbs on a viaduct, crosses US 101, and enters the airport. We arrived at SFO at 10:53am (33 minutes from Embarcadero). Although you are indeed at SFO, you are really at Garage G of SFO, a somewhat remote location from the domestic side of the operation. The International Terminal is located just past the east end of the stub-end train platform and is an easy walk. Access to the domestic terminals is either by a very long walk or the AirTrain Red Line. With time becoming an issue, we opted for the AirTrain. Boarding at the Garage G stop (located right next upper level of the BART station) we backtracked our prior ride to Terminal 1, got off and took the trek to the garage, down the elevator, under the access roads, and back up two escalators to ticketing.
Once again, we had to check-in face-to-face and present the Special Service Tickets to get our upgrade Boarding Passes. That took over 25 minutes with just one clerk working the First Class line and everyone in front of us seemingly with earthshaking (bad description in San Francisco), time consuming problems. Once at the desk, our check-in was over in a blink of an eye (the guy next in line actually thanked us for being quick). With 45 minutes to flight time, we cleared TSA quickly (shoes off: I’ve learned my lesson), and arrived at Gate 3 at 11:40am.
SFO to PHL 11AUG03 1220 PDT
First Class 5A&C
Boarding began at 11:50am (gee, we made it to the gate with 10 whole minutes to spare), and although this was another full flight, the boarding process moved along well this time. Push back was on time at 12:20pm. Taxi-out took 20 minutes and we departed SFO on 28L at 12:40pm PDT. We climbed to northwest across the coastal hills, out over the Pacific, took a wide right turn, and headed east directly over the Golden Gate. What a great ride on a bright, clear day! We crossed the San Joaquin Valley, the Sierras just south of Lake Tahoe, and headed to points east.
The on board service in First Class was not bad, a bit more attentive than the outbound flight. This flight had cold meal offerings similar to the westbound (a chicken salad wrap or cold marinated beef, both with hot soup, and the ever popular cookie dessert). We both had the beef (the chicken was gone by Row 5) and it was pretty good for cold food. The movie was “Down with Love” with Renee Zellweger. I like her, but this feature, a Rock Hudson - Doris Day throwback, was, in my opinion, unwatchable. So I didn’t.
Once again there were no route or other informational announcements from the flight deck from take-off until Harrisburg, PA. We were at some altitude somewhere. I did recognize Omaha, but clouds began to conceal the rest of the route. The flight was smooth and uneventful. Approach to PHL was over Mount Laurel, NJ, a turn to the south and then west, and final to 27R. Touch down was at 8:45pm EDT. Airborne time SFO to PHL was 5:05. Taxi-in took 18 minutes including a 10-minute wait for the C-D alley to clear (did I mention that this is a PHL tradition?). Arrival at PHL Gate C23 was at 9:03 EDT, 29 minutes late. Gate to gate time was 5 hours, 43 minutes. Once again, it was a nice flight.
A good trip, two nice flights, and we saw the only Phillies win in San Francisco: 8 to 6 in 10 innings. What more can you ask?