On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I woke up at 0 dark thirty (3:45 AM to be exact) and got ready to head out to ORD for the 6:00 AM arrival. I left along with my travel companions for O’Hare at 4:30 AM through the empty streets of Oak Park. We had quite a bit of baggage, including a Lou Malnati’s deep dish pizza, a Roser’s bakery cake (a staple of the Humboldt Park neighborhood), and a cheesecake from Cheesecake Factory that my companion was taking for her grandmother (she can’t get any of this stuff in Puerto Rico). Needless to say I got a lot curious looks at the airport and onboard the planes while carrying that pizza box.
I got to the airport at about 5:20 am to find a long line at the US Airways ticket counter. Fortunately they were trying to check in all PHL passengers ahead of those checking in for the later PIT flight so I was able to bypass the long line. We checked in our bags for Flight 890 and then lugged all of our carry-ons to Gate F8 where our 737-300, N588US, awaited. When we got to the gate they were just boarding so we got on and settled into our seats. This 737 was originally built for Piedmont but went directly to USAir as they had just acquired that airline. As is usual for early morning flights, Flight 890 was about half-full. We pushed back on time and taxied out to Runway 9L where we immediately took off into the dark Chicago skies. I watched the thousands of city lights as we flew over the north side of Chicago towards Lake Michigan. As soon as we hit Lake Michigan, it was lights out for me as I fell asleep. I woke up a little later and watched the sun rise. Nothing beats watching the sun rise or set while at 35,000 ft. We began our decent and approached PHL from the east, giving us a magnificent view of the city of Philadelphia, including the downtown area, Veterans Stadium, the new stadium being built next to it, and the shipping yards. We landed on Runway 27R and quickly taxied to our gate on the B Concourse. Interesting aircraft observed at PHL were a Northwest 747-200 which I assume was carrying the Philadelphia Eagles who had played the 49ers in San Francisco the previous night. This aircraft departed about 45 minutes after it had arrived. I also saw the UPS Olympic 767 parked at the cargo area.
Our next flight was US Airways 1268, a 767-2B7(ER). When I originally booked this flight, it was operated by a 757. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was changed to the 762, which is becoming somewhat of a rare breed nowadays. Another thing that I found surprising was how empty this flight was. This aircraft was only about half-full. I figured it would be pretty packed considering how close Thanksgiving was and the large amount of passenger traffic from the Northeast to Puerto Rico. Upon boarding I noticed the airplane looked pretty tired, despite the fact that it was built in 1991. The First Class seats were cloth-covered as opposed to leather like on other US types. Our pushback was delayed slightly as the fuel truck servicing the aircraft ran out of Jet-A and another one had to be summoned to complete the fueling. Once off the gate we taxied to Runway 27L and again took off quickly.
In-flight service began shortly and consisted of two meal choices, the first being beef tips on rice and the other being penne pasta in cream sauce. I chose the pasta which was actually pretty good. The movie shown on this flight was Men in Black II, which I didn’t feel like paying $5 for when I could rent it at the video store for less. It did seem pretty funny though. After staring at the ocean outside my window, I again drifted to sleep, waking up as the 767 was descending into Puerto Rico. Off in the distance I could see the coastline and the central mountain range. Pretty soon we were entering the island over Punta Salinas and making a left turn to line up with Runway 10. I love the approach to SJU which overflies most of the metro area including my old home and some of the places I used to hang out in. Before I knew it we were over the San Jose lagoon and touching down on Runway 10. I was kind of surprised nobody on the plane applauded seeing as how we had a plane full of Hispanics lol. We taxied past the cargo hangars where there were plenty of old Convairs and DC-3’s of Tol-Air and Four Star Cargo, respectively. We ended up parking at Gate 38 next to a Pan Am 727. Interesting aircraft observed at SJU were Continental 767-400, Delta 767-400, Copa 737-700, Transmeridian 727-200.
I spent 5 days getting some sun and driving the treacherous country roads around San Lorenzo. Although my travel companions had visited Puerto Rico before, there were many places they hadn’t seen and they didn’t know how to get around too well, so I ended up being the tour guide and designated driver. We stayed at the Ramada San Juan in the Condado district, which has some great oceanfront rooms. I also spent some time with family during Thanksgiving, what was probably one of the most festive Thanksgiving dinners I’ve ever been to.
I tried spotting at SJU but the Aeroparque observation deck was closed. I had heard it only opens on weekends now but I passed by on Sunday and it was still closed. It was a total bummer as I was looking forward to shooting some of the stuff there. I did hang out on Piñones beach which runs parallel with Runway 8 for a day. The activity at the airport though was a far cry from the old days. It seemed like almost all the planes there were American Eagle ATR’s, with a few AA 757’s and A300’s mixed in. Really dead.
After 5 days of sunny 80 degree weather, it was time to head back to frigid Chicago. I got to the airport 2 hours before the flight to find a massive line at the US Airways ticket counter. The line moved fairly quickly and soon I was checked-in. The ticket counter area at SJU’s Terminal B is in serious need of a facelift. The area is cramped, dark, and just plain nasty. It looks like there’s some work going on so maybe its being brought back up to date. I stopped by the souvenir shop for some last-minute shopping and then proceeded to the gate. When I got there I found out the flight was overbooked so I volunteered my seat. The gate agents thanked me profusely (this was their first time working an oversale so they needed the help), and gave me a free travel voucher for a future US Airways flight. However there was a slight problem. They couldn’t get me to Chicago on the later flights, and it appeared all the other airlines had no seats to give. So I was put up in a nearby hotel and booked on the same flights the following day in first class. Plus I was given meal vouchers for the entire day. Not a bad deal. So off I went to the Water Club hotel, located in front of Isla Verde Beach. Fantastic accommodations. I’d recommend this hotel to anyone visiting PR although it is a bit pricey. I was honestly expecting a cheaper hotel from US Airways, but this was fantastic. At night I went up to the rooftop lounge and watched arrivals into SJU from above while sipping a cold beer. Fantastic!
So the next day I tried it again. I got a really friendly reception from the US agents as I was in the check-in line. It turns out they were so friendly because they wanted me to volunteer as they were overbooked yet again. “I can’t today. I really have to get back home”, I said. Still the agent persisted and said “I’ll go ask United to see if they have anything, that way you can get a non-stop flight and another free ticket!”. Before I could respond, the little man scurried off to the United ticket counter to see what their availability was. I didn’t mind getting another free voucher, but I was looking forward to first class. He returned to tell me that United had nothing available and the only non-stop flight with seats was American leaving at 6 pm that evening, and he figured I wouldn’t be interested. I wasn’t willing to hang out at SJU for another 9 hours so he checked me in for Flight 596 and I was on my way.
Boarding started about 45 minutes before departure, and I boarded N121UW, an A320-214, and settled into seat 4F. An interesting thing I noted about this aircraft was that in place of the “No Smoking” sign was a sign saying “Turn off all portable electronic devices.” We pushed back right on time, and taxied to Runway 8, where we took off behind a Cape Air C402 and the predominant American Eagle ATR, before turning northwest towards Philly. In-flight service consisted of a choice of either an omlette with ham and sausage, pancakes with the same sides or a cold plate with cereal and yogurt. A fruit plate and croissant were served before breakfast, although they were short on fruit so all I got was a banana. When I ordered the breakfast, I ordered an omlette, however they were all out of that too so I settled on the pancakes. My breakfast left something to be desired. The pancakes seemed a bit on the hard side, and the sides were tiny. But it’s airline food so what do you expect? After breakfast I just went to sleep again, as the movie was Scooby Doo and just by watching the first 15 minutes with no audio I could tell the movie was a big steaming pile of monkey crap. So instead I slept. I woke just as we were about to cross the Eastern seabord into PHL. The approach was the same as the flight in from Chicago, and soon we were landing once again on 27R.
My next flight to ORD, US 295, was delayed due to snow storms in the area reducing visibility and thus creating a ground-stop for all flights into the airport. To hear the gate agent tell it, there was a huge blizzard in Chicago and it didn’t look like we’d be leaving anytime soon. She suggested that all pax originating in PHL should try rebooking for the next day. An hour and a half later we’re boarding. So much for rebooking. We departed only 2 hours late (I was thinking it would be much later) and taxied out to 27L where we took off behind an ex-TWA MD-80. American sure did a crap job of repainting them (or de-painting depending on your point of view). The old TWA planes look ragged. In-flight service consisted of a drink service and a selection of snacks. I asked for a class of Chardonay and some Milano cookies. Yup, I was living the High Life. LOL. Approach into Chicago seemed to take forever and eventually we broke though the cloud layer. I spent the next 10 minutes trying to figure out where we were and found I-88 so I figured we were on approach for 4R. That turned out to be the case as we landed on the snowy runway and then seemed to taxi for hours to Terminal 2. I claimed my bags that were sitting outside the baggage service office-they had arrived the day before-and walked out of the terminal into the 21 degree Chicago evening to brush snow and ice off my car. To think only hours before I was staring at the warm ocean waiting for a cab to take me to the airport.