Round Trip Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) to Seoul-Inchon International Airport (ICN) via San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Tokyo's Narita International Airport (NRT), and Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), on return
This was my first routing on United Airlines,
November 1, 2002
IAD - SFO Flight 837
Airbus A320 - Economy Class
I basically did not sleep the night before my trip due to my early departure. The flight was scheduled for 7:20 AM and with the two-hour rule I had to be at Dulles at 5:20 AM. I live in Dupont Circle in the District of Columbia and it is a full 45 minute drive out to Dulles, meaning I had to leave around 4:15 am to get there, park and take the shuttle to the terminal. I was basically catatonic already by the time I checked in.
Because it was such an early flight, there were no lines at the check-in counter. The gentleman at the counter looked at my routing and said, "woah…you've got a long day ahead of you." I think most people traveling from IAD to Korea try to get on the non-stop ANA All-Nippon Airlines flight from IAD-NRT rather than connect through the West Coast. However, the price difference for me on that routing was $700.
Anyway, after check-in I took the people mover out to the mid-field terminal. I had not been to the United Airlines gate (the farther out of the two mid-field concourses). It is considerably uglier than the newer international gate and united express jet terminal. This early in the morning there were also much fewer aircraft at the gates, except a few 757s and A320s. In the past, when I have flown out of Dulles it has been at afternoon rush hour when there are the Saudi 747-400 and Air France 777-200s at the international terminal. After desperately searching in vain for an open coffee place with no avail I proceeded to the gate.
Boarding was prompt and I took my seat in 17A. The flight was less than half full and I ended up having the two seats next to me free. I was pleased to find that the A320 had the drop-down screens and that they were going to show a film. I have had that on Continental narrow body Next Generation 737s but have not always had them on the A320s. I have to say that I like the United interior colors. The economy seat is not bad at all in terms of comfort, with a very nicely cushioned headrest that is adjustable with wings. The gray fabric is also very soft in comparison with Continental's, which is a pretty color blue but rather rough.
We were served a full meal, with bagel-egg-cheese sandwich and danish, along with fruit, quite good and more food than I expected on the domestic flight. I guess that the transcontinental flights still get full service nowadays. I watched Men in Black (II), and then attempted to get some sleep by lying down across the three-seat row. The flight seemed to last forever and it was in the end about five hours twenty minutes, we had a strong head wind. Our routing was pretty northern, taking us up over Wyoming and Northern Nevada. We were over clouds until around Nevada, where I watched desert landscape and salt flats. These transitioned to the green fields of Central California and then the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Our pilot came on to tell us that we were landing from the south and we came in over the mounts and bay towards SFO (which I have never flown into). The waters around the airport are multi-colored and appeared to be used for some sort of farming (anyone knows why?). Our landing was quite smooth and we quickly taxied to the United domestic terminal.
SFO-NRT Flight 837
Boeing 747-400 - Economy Class
After deplaning from the A320, I searched out the inter-terminal bus to the International Terminal at SFO. Before September 11th, one had to leave the United domestic terminal and reenter security at the international terminal. However, since the increased security regime was put into place, United hastily put together an bus between the two buildings so that passengers do not have to leave the secured area. It is not glamerous, however, and one has to take an elevator up to the int'l departure's level, which can take time.
SFO's international terminal is quite nice, airy and bright. I also like how at the departure's level there a big windows that are about level with the top deck of the 747s. The gate is actually an escalator down to a lower level. They also provide plenty of seating at the gate level. My short connection time meant that we were boarded shortly after I arrived at the gate. I was impressed, as I would be the entire trip, about how quickly United boarded its 747s. Despite the size of the aircraft, it only took about 10-15 minutes to board the full aircraft. They are very strict about being at the gate on time and that certainly translates into fast boarding.
However, I have to say that the plane was only about 65-75 percent full in coach, which probably helped. I ended up, to my joy, having a window seat with the middle seat empty. I feel that it makes it almost like a premium economy seat (I would rather have wider room than more room in front of me). The aisle seat was taken up by a friendly Punjabi-American businessman who boarded the plane tipsy and stayed that way the whole way (which meant he talked a little to loud). Shortly after boarding, we got our menus offering Western and Asian dishes along with the ubiquitous pillow and blanket.
Prior to this trip, I had not had an experience with a 747-400. My last 747 was a IAH-LGW journey on Continental Airlines in BusinessFirst. Great flight and great seating but the plane was quite aged. Prior to that I flew Munich-CDG on a TWA 747-200 in 1988 and a long Qantas journey on a 747-200 and 747SP on a LAX-HNL-Cairns, SYD-Brisbane-Cairns-HNL-LAX journey in 1986. I found the 747 interior to be much more modern, with 777 style sidewalls and larger (not 777 style) side overhead compartments (which open up instead of down like the old ones do). Basically, however, the style was the same.
The regular economy cabin comprise the very last cabin on the lower deck (high 40s and 50s rows). My view on the "A" side was of the fully wing, defined beautifully by the six foot high winglet. My previous journeys in the 747 were in the nose and second cabin (on Continental's Business First) and the third and fourth cabin on Qantas. The rear cabin certainly gives you a lot of lateral motion during takeoff and landing and during turbulence rather than up and down motion. I was disappointed, although I was aware it was going to be the case, that United has not fitted its 747s with individual screens in coach. I have to say that if they had offered that, UA's service would have equaled my experience with other European national carriers.
After be pushed back, we taxied to the runway at a usual widebody snail's pace. I love watching flaps, and the 747 slotted flaps are still my favorite. Traffic at mid-day is not heavy for SFO and we were quick in line for takeoff. I had definitely forgotten how loud the 747s can be, and being behind the wing we got the full roar of the four P&Ws. We took off directly over the core of the city and almost immediately we were over the Pacific Ocean, which was streaked by white clouds. I was impressed with how quickly we reached our cruising altitude and I had forgotten how smooth a 747 is when there is no turbulence. One truly feels like you are flying in a big building.
I was really exhausted from having not slept and having already been traveling for more than seven hours. I ended up just sitting there for a while watching the blue sea slide by. We were served lunch about an hour into the flight with the nice hot towels (paper not cloth) given before hand. My seatmate kept pushing me to have wine. I ended up having wine with dinner but held off having anymore to avoid dehydration. He ended up striking up a conversation with people behind us who were engineers traveling to Tokyo.
Dinner was a choice of Chicken Sukiyaki with Steamed Rice (Asian fare) or Beef Brisket with Mashed Potatoes (Western Fare) - I chose the Western fare with a Merlot. Both were served with a Glass Noodle Salad and another Western-style salad and peach cheesecake. Very good! However, United serves their meals on these odd square plastic trays with an indented space for the entrée. It does not fit exactly on the seat tray, which is rather odd.
Because the movie system is the old fashion projection and monitor style, we were encouraged to close the blinds. Unfortunately, the video system was not working properly and the sound kept cutting out. I really couldn't get into the videos anyway. United has way to many boring short films, lots of commercials. The two movies were K-Pax, which I had seen, and K-19 which was way to involved to watch on a little blurry screen on no sleep. I ended up dozing.
Half-way through the flight we were served little servings of sherbert/ice cream with chocolate-chip cookies and a round of drinks again. Very nice touch considering we were an 10 hours 45 minute flight. I went to the bathrooms, which were in the same set-up as on the old -200 series. I noticed they kept the water dispenser stations that I had utilized on the Qantas flights. Bathrooms are vacuum style, however. United does offer hand cream, shaving cream, and such to economy, which is nice.
We ran into very heavy turbulence over the Pacific Ocean between the Aleutians and Hokkaido, severe enough that one could see the whole wing vibrating and the engines going up and down. It was certainly clear air turbulence because we were not flying over any weather and the water below was relatively calm. Flight attendants stayed seated for about two hours. About an hour and a half before landing, we were served our second meal of either Stir Fried Chicken with Noodles (Asian fare) or Pasta Shells (Western Fare. I tried the Asian and was pleasantly surprised.
We descended over the shipping lanes offshore the finger of land east of Tokyo. Our descent took us straight in from the seat over the villages and highways east of the Airport. The only noticeable landmark was the Otis Elevator testing center, which is clearly identifiable by the company name on a skinny tower, which, I presume, is where they test new cars. We came in for a very smooth landing on Narita's main (and only?) runway.
Taxiing took us past a gaggle of ANC 747-200s, a few parked United 777s and 747s and the UA/foreign airline terminal. I remember (like I said I was very, very tired) a Cathay Pacific A330-300, several Korean Airlines aircraft and a couple of Northwest 747-200s) We ended up nosing in at a gate stand (no-jetway) next to a United 777-200ER being serviced (From what I understand United operates several 777 flights on its intra-Asian network). I was pleasantly surprised to find out we were deplaning by stairs. I was so tired, however, I did not, to my later regret, dig out my camera. It was great, however, to climb down near the wing and those big two engines on the wing.
I will end my journey here. My next installments will be NRT-Seoul Ichon (a continuation of the flight from SFO) on the same day plus my return trip to Washington, DC.