Wednesday, March 20
UA 810; 2-class 763
Scheduled departure 1100, arrival 1701 (actual close enough)
Seat 16E (Economy Plus)
My first UA flight of 2002 was transcontinental in F and C class (in February; there is a lengthy, archived trip report) and this was to be my first UA Y class trip, except for some shuttle-length jaunts, in about five years. I bought my tickets on United’s Web site in January and got what I think is a great fare for a quick business trip that did not involve a Saturday night stay -- $263 after taxes. I selected an aisle seat (28B) on the way east, and a window (34J) coming home.
I arrived at SFO on a clear Wednesday morning after dropping my car off at San Bruno’s Sky Park – those of you who use SFO’s long-term parking lot or other off-site services like Anza or Park and Fly might want to consider switching to Sky Park, as I have done. They are close, inexpensive ($12 a day to park outside, $15 a day inside) and operate like a valet parking lot. They will also wash or service your car while you are gone (for a price, of course). The people are friendly and efficient, and they serve coffee and donuts to customers waiting for the shuttle bus. I have never had to wait more than a couple of minutes.
Anyway, enough about parking, let’s talk about flying!
I was through security in about 5 minutes, even though the UA terminal at SFO is usually very busy at 9:30 a.m., when I got there. I didn’t have to remove my shoes, but was given a thorough wanding. I went over to Gate 80 just as the CSA arrived to start checking in passengers.
There was one woman in front of me who was evidently upset that she could not get an aisle seat – after being told, “I’ll see what I can do, please check back about 10:30, ma’am,” she left in a huff, and I approached the amiable-looking agent and said, “Tell you what, I’d be happy to let her have my aisle seat if you’ll put me in a window in economy plus.”
He seemed a bit surprised, but responded nicely.
“Well, that’s very nice of you to offer, sir, but she’s already booked in economy plus, and I don’t have any window or aisle seats up there – but I could put you in that section. I don’t believe anyone has ever asked for a middle seat, though!”
Time for a quick decision – scenery or comfort? Never having flown in e-plus, and eager to compare it with American’s MRTC, I told him I’d be happy to take the aisle seat, figuring that on a 767, the seat he offered -- 16E – was worth the gamble, unless 16D and 16F were taken by real ogres.
And, I’d get lots of beautiful late afternoon and extended twilight sights out the window on my way home on a 777, I figured. “Sure, hook me up, I’d like to see how E-plus feels,” I said, and promptly was issued a boarding pass.
After grabbing some coffee I waited for boarding, which began right on time at 10:30 and proceeded smoothly – I love how quickly a 767 boards, especially with the long-overdue carry-on restrictions. I was immediately impressed with the new UA interior – the deep blue upholstery on the seats, the winged headrests, and most of all the seat pitch. I chose wisely! The men on either side were just regular folks who were polite but not talkative – as ordinary and non-intrusive as one could hope for. There were only a few empty seats, one being directly in front of me, so there would be no recline to cut into my pitch, which I estimated to be about 34-35”. Perfect!
We took off right on time from 1R, and had a smooth climb to our cruising altitude of 37,000 feet; of course, I couldn’t see a damned thing and it was a very nice day outside. Oh well. The movie, “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” started soon, and a boxed snack was brought around – ham sandwich on a roll, a little container of cole slaw, and brownie. I got a 7-UP – the whole can, without asking – and watched the flick.
I love the Coen Brothers’ movies and I was prepared to at least appreciate this one, but certain films, I think, just don’t work on airplanes. It was nice that the FAs came around with ice water during the movie, and there was another drink service before we started descending into O’Hare. We landed on time and parked at Gate C-9, so I got to endure the Neon Tunnel on my way to landside.
The service was friendly and professional, the ride smooth, on-time, no complaints. I was able to cross my legs a few times during the flight (technical note: I’m 5-7) and overall was very pleased with E-plus. Just slightly better than MRTC, at least on this flight.
Friday, March 22
UA 151, 3-class 777
Scheduled departure 1640, arrival 1906
Actual departure 1745 (wheels-up 1916), arrival 2124
After a very nice conference at the Fairmont, I headed back to O’Hare on Friday afternoon for my 4:40 p.m. flight back home to the Bay Area. I got to the airport early, and waited 15 minutes in line to ask an agent whether I could get on an earlier flight.
I should have known better – one look around the huge UA terminal on this Friday during the height of Spring Break told me I was going to be killing at least three hours at the airport. Still, a very friendly CSA put me on standby for UA 147, which was, like my scheduled flight, on a 777, but leaving at 3:15 instead of 4:40. Off to Gate C-16 to wait; my scheduled flight was to depart from C-29, so at least I wouldn’t have to take that eerie ride through the Neon Tunnel more than once today:
Photo © AirNikon
I wasn’t even going to waste time asking about economy plus on this leg! What a zoo. Hordes of people were spilling out of most every gate, and all the concessions were jammed. Even though Chicago was having a late cold snap, the inside of the terminal was incredibly hot and uncomfortable. I was damned hungry, and hadn’t been in this terminal in quite a while, but I stupidly assumed there would be a nice choice of places where I could sit down and be served a meal.
Photo © Chris Barrow
When I stopped by C-16 at 2 p.m. to make sure that they knew I was there, the gate was already packed with people waiting for UA 147; I asked the CSA what kind of seat I could expect. “You’ll be lucky to get a seat all, I’m afraid, but if you do it probably won’t be an aisle or window, sir.” My thoughts turned to being stuck in the dreaded 5-across … then to getting home a bit earlier … then back to the bad memories I have of all the DC-10 flights when I got stuck in the middle 3 of 5 … then to the nice dinner that was waiting for me.
Well, I had some time. I lugged my junk all the way from one end of Concourse C to the other before I spotted something that looked promising -- Berghoff’s Café, way the hell out by Gate 26, near where the flight on which I was scheduled would take off. I was really, really hungry; but just grabbed a quick beer because I didn’t want to miss the call for standbys a half-mile away at Gate 16.
From 2:30 to 3 I stood by the gate but did not hear my name; they could have mispronounced it, but at this point I really didn’t care; I decided to go back to Gate 29 and check in, then over to Berghoff’s to eat whatever the hell they were serving, as long as it wasn’t moving or glowing in the dark. From my earlier visit I knew I might not even get a stool, the place was jammed.
Over to Gate 29, a trip made tougher by a malfunctioning moving sidewalk at a time when I could really have used one. Again, the agent was really nice, but when I asked whether I might improve on my 34J, he smiled and said, “Not tonight, not a chance! But don’t worry – this is a brand new triple-7, and these are the best coach seats in the business. You’ll be fine, enjoy your flight!”
Well, alright then. Reassured, I was off to get lunch/dinner. Berghoff’s has great fresh-carved sandwiches, as it turns out. I had roast beef on a Kaiser with a nice 20-ounce glass of amber ale, and man, it was the most delicious thing I’d tasted in weeks! A woman I sat next to said she always ate here whenever she flew through O’Hare, even if it meant changing terminals!
I called my wife to let her that things were on schedule, and I’d be home by 8; oops, spoke too soon. As soon as I hung up I was called by United’s new automated flight notification service – “Your flight will be delayed until 5:40.” Oh, man! It was true, so I hung out at Gate 29 for a while – it was beginning to get very, very crowded – then went back to Burghoff’s and got another sandwich! It was just as delicious as the first.
Back at the gate, it was nice to see the skipper come out and explain the delay. His name was Capt. Wood and if he wasn’t a real pilot he would be playing one in the movies. Rain and clouds in San Francisco had cut down runway capacity, he said (I knew exactly what he was talking about – blow a smoke ring on the bay and they can’t land side-by-side) and, in addition, winds from the south were screwing up the usual approach patterns, etc.
Capt. Wood said it was highly preferable for us to wait now instead of circling for one or two hours over San Francisco, that being safer and all, and I have to respect that, even though I just wanted to get the hell OUT of Concourse C. Anyway, having the captain come out to make an announcement any CSA could have handled made me feel good about this crew and about United in general.
We finally boarded starting about 5 p.m., even though we were warned that we might not actually take off for some time. I was pleasantly surprised by the interior of the 772, which they said was only a few weeks old. (Sorry, didn’t get the tail number.) My seat was, indeed, quite nice, for a regular old economy seat. I love the 777’s headroom. Whoever designed the overhead bins was a genius.
We departed an hour late, at about 5:45, and promptly parked. The purser announced they would start up the video service to keep us entertained. There were four movies plus some TV shows offered on the seat-back screens. I picked “K-PAX,” with Kevin Spacey as an alien or maybe not an alien, maybe just a wacko, maybe both.
Here's my big regret: I dozed off for a while and later learned that, while waiting on the tarmac, Capt. Wood had offered cockpit visits to anyone on board who wanted to "see all the really cool equipment we've got up here."
After an hour or so, we finally got under way, and took off about 7:15. Man, it felt great to be off the ground again, and heading home! It was dark by now, and I was a little upset because, if we had taken off on time, I would have watched a beautiful sunset stretched out over an hour or more as we flew westbound, instead of seeing it in real time as we sat on the tarmac!
There was a nice young woman in the aisle seat to my left who told me she had a bad cold, and that’s why she wasn’t going to be very talkative tonight. No problem, lady, whatever. I watched the remainder of “K-PAX” and had the boxed snack – turkey sandwich this time, with a little bag of carrots and ranch dressing for dipping, and some cookies. I asked for some wine, and got it with a polite refusal of my cash. “The first one is on the house tonight, to thank you for your patience,” said the FA serving my section, a striking brunette with a dazzling smile.
All the FAs, male and female, were genuinely nice, acted like true professionals who really like what they do for a living. I took a walk up and down the aisles midway through the flight, and didn’t see any difference in the forward Y section from the aft section. The Y seats all seemed to have the same pitch. I didn’t ask, but I wish I had, because it made me curious – was UA going to outfit its newer planes like MRTC?
We cruised at FL35 for most of the flight, but after hitting some light chop over Iowa went up to FL 39 for most of the rest of the way. Smooth as silk after that. After “K-PAX” (my rating of this film -- well, it killed some time) I watched the ridiculous but somewhat entertaining “Musketeer.” I could have seen “Remember the Titans,” but I had already seen, and liked, it. (Monday footnote: Way to go, Denzel!) They also were showing something called “Dinner Rush,” with Danny Aiello, which must have gone not straight to video, but straight to airplanes. I’d never heard of it until this evening.
After the second movie, and another drink service, I dialed through the audios and came across a real gem, “United We Rock,” on Channel 20 but not available on the older aircraft. It was great! Good selection of artists like Sam Phillips, Pete Yorn, Whiskeytown, Elvis Costello.
Instead of the usual up-the-bay approach to 28, we came in through the rain over Oakland and into SFO on 19L; planes were coming in exactly opposite to the normal pattern. I’d only landed this way a few times previously. After a landing that was among the smoothest I’d felt, we got over to Gate 82 about 9:30, and I was home.
UA’s people evidently care about the future of the airline, and the ones I encountered on this trip really made me feel like a valued customer, even though I was just your basic cheap-ticket guy.
Endnote: Those of you who have labored through this long report, I’m curious what you think about SFO’s plans to finally get some runway separation – it’s a huge controversy out here because it would involve filling in some more of the San Francisco Bay, but I think it would be preferable to building a new airport. We’ve got a 21st century International Terminal but the airfield is really pretty much the same as it was back in the Mills Field days! What do you folks think?