I have not written a trip report in quite awhile, as I find the bulk of my travels rather boring domestic trips, traveling enough to be elite in two airline's programs at present date. However, after much encouragement from several friends, I have written this trip report that turned into more of a longish essay. It's a fairly good representation of my typical airplane experience, of which I'll end up with five or six dozen this year. I'd appreciate any comments.
Like any good US Airways Preferred member, my trip began three days prior to departure with a call to the automated customer service line to confirm my upgrades cleared. For the first time I had complete success with the automated seat selection interface, though options are limited (“Bulkhead or not. Aisle or window?”), but I ended up with seat 1C assigned for all four segments. I checked in online the evening prior to departure to save time at the airport at an ungodly hour and to get my 100 bonus miles. I appeared alone in First Class on the first flight, one of just a few on the second.
Online boarding passes piss me off. I cut the papers in half, so I can just hand the “Agent copy” over at the jetway door, and then I trim the other half down to a standard boarding pass size.
Jacksonville, FL to Charlotte, NC
6:10am - 7:23am
I arrived at Jacksonville International Airport about 5:15am and used my badge to open the gate to the garage, where I parked on the roof. A quick walk into the terminal, quite busy for this time of the morning, and past the queue at US Airways, put me at the food court less than ten minutes later. The US Airways counter at Jacksonville could hold about ten check-in positions, a holdover from the days when their flight schedule neared fifty a day. Now, about five kiosks sit up against half of the counter, manned by an average of two agents. Half of their long counter sits deserted, strewn with discarded computer monitors.
The Jacksonville International Airport recently opened a brand new food court, perpendicular to its former location. The central courtyard has a brand new terrazzo floor with designs representing the First Coast. On Thursday, the new central security checkpoint opened with seven TSA lanes. The space is large enough that it could easily handle several more. It is separated by tall opaque glass semi-circles from the public circulation areas of the terminal. After grabbing breakfast from Burger King, I cleared security in under five minutes and was through to the newly constructed spacious connections area. Three story glass windows are to either side. They will later be the entrances to the new concourses. For now, one must walk down windowed connection corridors around the outside of the building to access Concourses A & C. Concourse B is still straight ahead, past a brand new enclosed Starbucks. Retail kiosks will soon be set up in this area offering sunglass sales, DVD rentals, a Fossil store, and a spa. After the wonderful new areas that make Jacksonville look like a real airport, one steps into the dingy 1960s concourses with low ceiling, worn carpet, and walls in need of paint.
The crew soon arrived, and the Captain managed to set off the alarm as he pulled open the jetway door before the gate agent could swipe his ID badge. Thus, the crew’s entry was delayed until the gate agent could phone the comm. center to silence the alarm. Boarding began about a quarter to six with a call for Zones 1 & 2. I was the only person to step forward, and by the time I reached the gate, manned by the new gate counters at the jetway door that enable one person to work the gate from there rather than the more central formal counter, the gate agent announced Zone 3. I sat down in the first row bulkhead seat to look at a torn magazine and safety card. The flight attendant quickly passed me a bottle of water. I was joined by a US Airways crew member in plainclothes who took the second row. The flight attendants had no longer conferred to each other that we were it for First this morning when two rather loud women, whom I had heard in the gate area asking each other where they were seated, boarded, looked around, and sat in the third row of First. The third flight attendant, performing the head count from the rear, told the lead that all 49 passengers were on board, but two under in coach, two over in First. I heard them just decided to let them stay, which I found mildly annoying. As somebody who gives most of my air travel to the airline for the privilege of an upgrade, I dislike somebody sitting up there who did not, especially when there is ample room in coach. Pushback from B8 was a little early in the dense fog. Live safety demo and a dimming of all cabin lights later, I watched out the window as we taxied very slowly through the fog. All one could see were the blue taxiway edge lights glowing. The flight attendant passed me another bottle of water as she took her seat. By 6:30, we finally reached the end of runway 25. A typical conservative US Airways mainline take-off followed, with nothing visible other than runway lights passing by with increasing rate as the B737-300 vibrated and shuddered down the runway before wobbling slowly into the air as if it took a lot of effort.
The cabin lights were kept off for the entire flight, which was welcome on a flight that would arrive in Charlotte barely after dawn. A couple cups of coffee later, a pass or two of the snack basket, and the fifty-five minute flight was nearly over. Our descent into Charlotte was a slow one, making a few wide turns before rolling out on a rather long final. We came down through the overcast layer as the gear was lowered. The scenery below seemed unfamiliar, for good reason as we landed on runway 23, the cross-wind runway, for the first time in my US Airways travels. Taxi to gate C4 was rather quick, arriving exactly ten minutes behind schedule. My connecting flight was going out of the same gate, so I did not have far to go.
Charlotte, NC to Boston, MA
8:15am – 10:19am
Boarding began after I sat in the gate area for about twenty minutes with a call once again for Zones 1 & 2, which are Dividend Miles Preferred members. US Airways no longer calls for a First Class boarding, as just about everybody up there is a Dividend Miles Preferred. The same flight attendant smiled and welcomed me back on board, then jokingly asked if I was going back to Philly with them from Boston. I took my same seat in the bulkhead aisle and read the latest AOPA Pilot as boarding continued. The other half of my seat pair remained unoccupied. About ninety passengers total were on board, with two or three empty seats in the forward cabin. We pushed back a few minutes late as some minor maintenance work was performed “on the tip of the left wing” and “our paperwork is resolved.” The two gentlemen behind me, both clearly from the northeast, were strangers as they sat down, but began a rather loud conversation that continued for the first hour of flight.
Another slow, meandering take-off from runway 18L and we climbed through the clouds quickly. Drink orders were taken and delivered by tray. Buy-on-board was announced for the coach cabin with two Hard Rock Café options: banana bread or a sandwich that may or may not have involved pastrami. Cash only, thank you. I was hoping for something equally substantial in First, but I was disappointed as the fruit tray appeared with my drink. A small croissant, though warm, was beside a small dish with one each of a melon slice, cantaloupe slice, pineapple slide, and strawberry with about twenty grapes and a third of an orange. A frozen tub of strawberry preserves was on the side. I thought about asking if I could purchase one of the meals from coach but decided against it.
There are certain behaviors that are acceptable on airplanes. There are further behaviors that are mildly annoying, but can be tolerated. The gentleman behind me decided to play pinball on his laptop computer with the sound on. He did not use headphones, and instead we were treated to every little ding of the ball and bells for about 45 minutes. After a half hour, I turned around and asked if he had headphones. He said no, either not taking the hint, or the likely conclusion that he just did not care. I would have thought the owner of a successful direct mail business making upwards of $166,000 a year like him would have a little more courtesy, but I’ve found that brusque Massachusetts accent isn’t normally accompanied by manners.
Landing was about fifteen minutes late onto runway 4R, with a United B737 holding in position on runway 9, through light rain and a low overcast. Arrival was into the newer side of the terminal at gate B19.
I caught the shuttle to the Embassy Suites hotel for the BOS airline show. I enjoyed meeting a number of folks from this website, and from another listserv, and was able to pick up a few items of memorabilia, though found it mostly models and slides/photographs compared to other recent shows that focus more on the safety cards/timetables/postcards kind of collecting. I was able to meet up then at the airport with an old friend and some of his fraternity brothers from MIT who were picking up a brother off an Independence Air flight at 2pm, but came out 90 minutes early with some take-out Chinese food on which we dined in the baggage claim. Facing about four and a half hours left until my scheduled flight back through Charlotte, and not feeling like wandering through a cold and damp downtown Boston amid parade-goers, I bid farewell to my friend and went to the check-in counter to see about an earlier flight. I was put on a delayed 3:30pm flight back through Philadelphia, something I was more comfortable with than my last flight of the night through Charlotte with a further afternoon of bad weather in Boston.
Boston, MA to Philadelphia, PA
3:30pm – 5:01pm
I cleared security and sat in the rocking chairs between the old and new portions of the terminal, watching Colgan B1900s arrive in sequence from Maine onto the B9 ramp. A little after 3pm, I grabbed a wrap from Au Bon Pain, not as awful here as at DFW as at Logan they actually make them fresh rather than pulling them from a refrigerator and into a takeaway bag, and walked down to B4 where the flight was supposed to arrive at 3:30pm (the original departure time) and board about 3:45pm for a 4:00pm departure. With a scheduled connection time in Philly of nearly an hour and a half, this was no worry. N777AU, a B737-400, creaked into the gate and disgorged its load of passengers. About 3:50pm, boarding commenced with pre-boards then a call for 1 & 2, which seemed to make up half of the airplane. I took my seat in 3C, the last row of a full First cabin, and amused myself watching a number of passengers struggle to find space for their abundance of oversized carry-on luggage amid a steady stream of coach passengers with their own baggage problems. Pre-takeoff beverages were not offered this time, but coats were hung up.
Pushback was about 45 minutes after scheduled departure time and we taxied rather quickly to runway 22R before a sprightly take-off and turn south. The snack basket made an appearance, followed by drinks and another round of snacks. One of my favorite features of the US Airways domestic product is the snack basket. Rather than just a “here’s some pretzels” as other airlines offer, or almonds if you are lucky, US Airways has a selection of Cape Cod potato chips, pretzels, XOXO chocolate bars (a new, welcome addition), strawberry and blueberry Old England fruit bars, and salted cashews. I did not avail myself of the beverages, enjoying rather my chicken caesar wrap and bottled tea, but did grab an XOXO bar.
The very slow descent, heavy on the flight spoilers, with little engine power sustaining altitude and a nose-high attitude led to the inference of speed restrictions into Philadelphia, not surprising after our Captain’s short and staccato welcome message. “Welcome to two-nine-eight to Philly. ‘bout an hour down there. Philly’s got overcast, fog, four miles, and damp. Thanks.” Soon we began various turns and short legs with a pronounced nose-high attitude, punctuated by short bursts of engine power. The Captain announced our holding pattern with a release time about fifteen minutes away. We got a wonderful aerial tour of central New Jersey, which I’m sure was enjoying light rain somewhere down below the clouds. The flight attendants read a list of connecting flights, most of them now uncomfortably tight connections. Finally headed for the airport, which was reached in a zig-zag pattern, the flight attendants missed picking up half the First Class drinks before sitting down. My neighbor was asleep, but I envisioned his cup of diet coke and half-full can on the central armrest becoming very much alive and jumping forward on landing. I pondered just sliding my backpack back underneath my legs and letting the coke go everywhere, but I reached out and held onto it as came through the clouds just past the Kvaerner crane and touched down with a thud onto 27R. The diet coke escaped a death on the back of row 2 and the already stained carpet, save a few droplets that slid down my hand. As we turned off the runway, my neighbor turned and apologized.
We had a short taxi and pulled into gate C22 just as I turned my cell phone on to have a message from Charles, airliners.net user CMK10, who I called back during the aircraft’s last jaunt into the gate. We managed to carry-on a conversation about America West advertisements, brought on by his overhearing of “the ding,” while I pulled my bag out of the overhead and deplaned. After a short discussion about my now equally short connection, the forward door opened an hour after schedule and I bid good-bye to Charles and walked briskly through the terminal.
Philadelphia, PA to Jacksonville, FL
6:20pm – 8:43pm
I made it to gate B8 by 6:10pm where boarding was underway. For the first time, my boarding pass was scanned and then handed back to me intact. I boarded and sat down next to an elderly gentleman in the third row. A few minutes later and after a pre-takeoff Sprite, the flight attendants announced the flight was rather empty, so feel free to move around. I looked around the cabin to see that both revenue passengers had been assigned next to each other in 3A & C. Two uniformed Captains came on board and took their places on opposite sides of row 2. I slid over to the window seat at 3F. Darkness officially began as we waited for late connecting bags to be loaded and catering to stock the forward galley. In my observation, US Airways B737 aircraft do not have carts in the forward galley and thus everything must be oddly stowed individually in little compartments, except for a few trays of drinks that slide into slots undoubtedly occupied by meals in the past. Another pre-takeoff drink was offered as we waited. The safety demo was performed well before actual pushback, which came about 25 minutes late. The pilot promised to make-up much of the time en route.
A long take-off roll on 27L right before a Lufthansa A340 Germany-bound preceded a left turning climb out through the clouds and some rough air. Shortly thereafter, the dings sounded, and the now-memorized announcement about electronic devices, welcome to Dividend Preferred members, Attaché magazine, Verizon AirFone service, and first class lavatories are for first class only, thank you, was delivered. The wonderful flight attendant brought bottles of water to the two Captains and then asked me what I’d like. I said that I’d really like to drink, but I’m tired and have to drive so I’ll just have a Sprite. She said that she could always bring me a Sprite now and give me a few drinks to have after I get home, if I tell her what I like to drink. She brought back my Sprite and then slipped a couple of Tanqueray minis out of her apron pocket and into my hand. I thanked her, and she returned with the snack basket. I made a comment about dinner, and then for every item I took out of the snack basket, she pulled another one out and sat it on the tray and said she’d be back in a few minutes. Without a doubt, the most attentive, enthusiastic, and well-mannered flight attendant I’ve encountered in quite some time, on any airline.
I had another drink refill, the full can brought again without asking, and a couple more bags of cashews and a chocolate bar. I finished reading my book, “Naked Airport” by Alastair Gordon that I had started that morning in Jacksonville, an excellent history of airport design and architecture. Shortly before landing, as the seatbelt sign was re-illuminated and we descended relatively on schedule, the flight attendant came around to collect any remaining trash. She asked if there was anything else I would like, and I handed her one of the US Airways Certificate of Excellence cards that the airline sends Preferred members to recognize outstanding employees. I asked if she’d fill out her information at the top, and I’d write a nice comment and mail it in for her. She thanked me and promised to bring it back after she secured the galley. She reappeared a couple minutes later, addressed me by name, and sat down in the empty seat next to me. We had a nice chat for three or four minutes, agreed that we both hoped for many more flights well into the future on US Airways, and she gave the Certificate back to me filled out, then asked me if I ever drank Vodka with my tonic. I said I did, and she slipped a few of Finlandia minis into a barf bag and gave them to me for later. Our chat ended as the bell dinged three times and she took her place back in her jumpseat. We landed just a couple of minutes behind schedule onto runway 7 and taxied into the gate at a quick pace, pulling into B8. I thanked the crew again, and deplaned, walking past the Independence Air gate where 17 or so passengers waited to board their 9pm departure to Dulles. The end of another trip, with just a week or two as usual until the next.