Harrisburg to Beijing and back. January 7 - 16.
$900 at United.com Y class (issued 12/10/04)
When I booked the ticket, United.com first offered me a 50 minute connection at ORD, but I chose an earlier first flight, with a generous 2 hour-plus connection. By the way, I investigated all foreign carriers, just to try something new, but United was far more convenient and quite cheaper all around.
On Friday, January 7, I woke up early. I went on line to check the status of my flights and discovered that the first flight I was booked on (UA559) was delayed by 2 1/2 hours.
I knew that United had many ways to get me to Beijing, so instead of calling I drove to the airport. I parked in the long term parking ($55 for 10 days).
It was my first time at MDT's new passenger terminal. It feels a little cheap, but of course it is not built for enormous traffic. Most damaging are two rows of cheesy looking rocking chairs and bottom-of-the-barrel country and rock music. I guess that is what the South central PA flying public feels most comfortable with, but Changi it ain't. Would a touch of elegance seem pretentious and uninviting?
The helpful United agent immediately rerouted me through IAD. Unexpectedly, he put me on a flight from IAD to ORD that was not the first leg of flight 851 (IAD-ORD-PEK). When I asked him how come, he didn't understand my question. I didn't insist.
The security check was extremely cautious and slow. Good thing there were so few of us at this early hour.
MDT to IAD ---- Flight UA 7891 645A-725A Gate B1
Embraer 145 N290SK New C/S Seat 3F (bulkhead, legroom++)
This was my first time in an Embraer jet, and it felt perhaps roomier than a CRJ, with very large windows. The flight was full. The safety instructions were mimed to a recorded tape. No drink service. We took off and landed on time, but we ended up taxiing for 20 minutes at IAD.
We parked at gate G25, a drafty horror, and it was quite a journey to C4. IAD used to be chic...
IAD to ORD ---- Flight UA 1251 820A-930A Gate C4
Boeing 737-500 N927UA Old C/S Seat 4F (economy plus, bulkh., leg++)
I barely made it to the gate, but C4 is not an inviting waiting area anyway, right next to a smokers' cell.
Another nice flight, on time and chock full. The safety instructions were "live". There was a drink service. We parked at ORD at gate B5.
Believe it or not, this was my first time at O'Hare. What I saw of it (concourse B) was bustling but cheerful, more inviting than IAD or ATL. I finally had breakfast, and joined the crowd waiting for the Beijing flight.
The gate agents checked our Chinese visas and stamped our boarding passes.
ORD to PEK ---- Flight UA851 1200N-340P (Day 2) Gate B16
Boeing 777-200 N2625UA Old C/S Seat 32C (OK legroom)
There was a bit of a delay boarding, and we didn't push back until 1235. The flight was, again, 100% full. Naturally, the safety instructions were "live". Thanks to the cold air, we made a sprightly takeoff at 1255. We made up for the delay in the air. The passengers were maybe 1/3 Chinese, 2/3 Americans, and well behaved. My neighbor was a serious Chinese girl who worked on a laptop. When her battery dimmed, she got another laptop out!
At first, the cabin crew struck me as overly folksy-joky. But honestly, they did a fantastic job. As good as SQ, with the biggest difference being the "you guys'' and "honey" manner. They never tired with passengers questions, be they clever or not. Their good spirits never flagged during the long flight.
I had some reading to do, so I just turned on the map and left the earphones alone (Catwoman, no thanks).
Itinerary: Milwaukee - Hudson Bay - Gulf of Bosthia - Queen Elizabeth Island - North Pole - Siberia - Mongolia
Service: Drink - Towel - Dinner I - Coffee - Drink - Ramen and Cookie - Towel - Dinner II, with many water and tea passes in between. I never felt abandoned, as I did on Alitalia transatlantic for instance. The crew never hid behind curtains, and they jumped up to help whenever you went to the rear section during down time.
The dinners were fine, but not as good as they would be on the way back.
I had wondered if it would be a day or a night flight. Well, there were about 5 hours of darkness centering on the North Pole.
We landed at 336P, on "Day 2" of course. The arrival hall and immigration at PEK were sparkling clean and shiny, and the passport control, although extremely attentive, was rapid.
PEK to ORD ---- Flight UA850 535P-430P (same day!) gate 14
Boeing 777-200 Never could see tail # clearly Old C/S Seat30A (exit bulkhead, tons of legroom)
For $3 more than a taxi (total $15), I got the hotel driver to take me to PEK in a clean, smooth car. He drove very fast and I felt glamorous and important.
The departure hall at PEK is, not surprisingly, shiny and clean.
The first step, before check in, is a quick passport and ticket check. I had read again and again about a departure tax, and I had my money ready, but guess what, that has been abolished.
I was about 10th in line at the United windows. There were no agents of yet. By the time they finally showed up, there must have been close to 100 impatient people in line, reading in a trance a strangely worded electronic bulletin board about diseases (You can't catch AIDS by simply living). Then many windows opened and things went very fast.
Security and passport control were well organized for large crowds. When I saw all the exotics destinations available, I really didn't feel like going home...
After one last bite, I exchanged my unspent Yuan into US$ (be sure to keep your original exchange receipts).
The beast was already at the gate.
These giggling ladies had finished the cleanup.
The waiting area was quite comfortable.
And you could catch some interesting sights.
Everything I described outbound holds true on the way back, a full flight again, except that we were on time departing as well. The crew was superb and attentive while informal. The sequence of service was identical, and the food noticeably better.
We didn't come back quite the same way, but we had great tail winds all the way.
I watched Vanity Fair and The Village.
Two things did happen that might interest you.
My neighbor, an American drug-rep, drank 4 miniature bottles of Scotch, 3 beers and 3 bottles of red wine during the flight. And he already stank at boarding time! Yuck.
The lady at 31B, a Chinese Ada Quonset type, smoked in the restroom! Twice! The second time, a F/A was waiting to reprimand her when she came out.
Arrival at O'hare was quite a letdown, in an ugly corridor from which I couldn't see the plane's tail. Lots of walking, and then total disgrace at immigration, with harried agents acting as if it was the first time ever planeloads of people arrived there. They kept switching the heading of the lines, utterly confusing the poor foreign nationals. As always in US airports, foreigners in transit were completely disoriented. The passengers continuing on the same flight to IAD were justifiably irritated too at having to clear security again!
The wretched journey between teminals afforded me a beautiful sunset. I called my wife from the same telephone I had used 10 days ago for one last goodbye.
ORD to MDT ---- Flight UA392 700P-946P Gate C32
Boeing 737-300 By now, who the heck cares about tail # Old C/S Seat 15F (tight)
A mundane conclusion to my journey. And another full flight, this time 45 minutes late. I was getting a bit cranky, and ended up in the middle of a loud group of Penn State students. The plane was very hot, and I managed to sleep a bit. The hyperactive male F/A was wearing plastic fangs while offering drinks.
In Harrisburg there was snow and an icy wind. In the bright empty terminal, Elvis was singing "Viva Las Vegas".
For my Chinese domestic flight, see