Background / Pre-trip:
Seven years ago I moved from southern Connecticut to California. While at a camp in CT/NY I met Charles (the man posting this TR that I’m writing). Charles and I have the same aviation interests and became good friends. When I moved to CA we lost touch for a while, but in October 2002 he came out to visit me for a weekend. Now it was my turn to go out and see him. July 4 weekend seemed like a great time to go. I found an average fare on UA and grabbed it because it was on some great aircraft.
Date: Thursday July 3, 2003
Flight: UA 132 SFO – ORD
Photo © Glenn Stewart
Departure: 6:30 AM
Arrival: 12:28 PM (2 minutes early)
Registration: N119UA Nose: 8119 Delivered: 03/26/1999
Pax Load: Full or very close to it
Flight Time: 3 hr 20 min Flight Level: 37,000 ft
I woke up at 3:30 AM after not getting a lot of sleep because of a great evening I had had before with some girlfriends of mine. My dad got up also and we had a small breakfast before he drove me to the airport. We live in the South Bay so it takes about 40 minutes to get to SFO. With no cars on the road the drive was easy and we made it to the parking garage on schedule. There were only a few agents working the check-in line, which was very long, so I used a United EasyCheck-In machine. I was sitting in row 49 on the 747 and was able to move up to row 34, which is the last row of the mini economy section behind business class. I left my dad at the security checkpoint and went through security and the mandatory shoe removal. To get to the gate I had to take the long walk out to the rotunda and bear left to gate 84. The 747 was a magnificent sight to see when I sat down at the gate area. I went up to the counter to try to get an economy plus seat. I am not a Premier but it doesn’t hurt to ask. The agent was very rude to me and as a result I kept my original economy seat. Boarding started at 5:50 with boarding group 1. This was my first time on a United flight with boarding groups. I was in the last group, group 4, so I had to wait a while before getting a chance to board my 3rd 747 (my 1st UA 747). Finally I boarded through door 1L and worked my way back to seat 34G, the aisle seat in the group of middle seats. As I was making my way through business class I noticed that there were a lot of children in that cabin…those lucky squirts. Even though it was the last row in the small three-row section, there was still a full recline. On each seat was a blanket, pillow, and a newly packaged pair of headphones. Pull back came on time and we taxied out to runway 1R. It was exhilarating to hear the 4 engines warm up and then feel the plane roll down the runway and takeoff. According to the Airmap, which was showing right after takeoff and before landing, showed us traveling at a ground speed of a whopping 640 mph. Gary Sheridan was piloting the flight, and I failed to catch the name of the first officer. The movie presentation entitled Bringing Down the House was the started. The film was very funny and a good choice for an airplane movie. Breakfast service also began. Breakfast consisted of cereal with a banana and bowtie like buttermilk doughnut strips, or the other option was the breakfast burrito. Without a hesitation I went for the cold option with a cup of orange juice. When I opened up the silverware bag, I found that my plastic spoon had a large crack through it. When I brought this to the attention of the flight attendant, she went into Business class and brought me a metal spoon (how nice of her). It seemed that there were only 4 FA’s working the economy cabin, and they disappeared for long periods of time. Breakfast was cleared and after the movie ended, NBC In flight began. There were only a few segments on before we began the descent into ORD. The plane landed early due to a slight tailwind, but our gate was not ready. We taxied around the C Concourse before stopping on an exterior taxiway for about 10 minutes. We then taxied around the terminal again before parking at gate B16. Both jetways (16A & 16B) were attached to the plane. Before getting off I asked to go upstairs to see the cockpit and the flight attendant gave me permission. The pilots were not available upstairs because they had a tight connection to make, but the flight attendants upstairs let me peer into the cockpit anyway. The upper deck is larger than I imagined and seemed like a great place to sit on a flight. Finally I had to say goodbye to the magnificent plane, but it wouldn’t be a long goodbye because my next flight was departing from gate B14, right next door. On a side note I found out that this plane goes back to SFO and then heads out to SYD. The picture of the plane above was taken July 5, which means that it was taken 2 legs after I flew on it.
Date: Thursday July 3, 2003
Flight: UA 650 ORD – EWR
Photo © Martin West
Pull back: 2:00 PM
Takeoff: 2:25 PM
Arrival Time: 5:25 PM (10 minutes late)
Registration: N430UA Nose: 4630 Delivered: 02/01/1996
Pax Load: 12/12F 88/126Y
Flight Time: 1hr 46min Flight Level: 25,000 ft
After getting off the plane in ORD I needed to stretch my legs and find some food so I took a short walk down to the end of the B Concourse (gate B22). There was no food that direction, but I had never seen this part of the terminal. When I got back to B14 the plane was pulling in from CA / KDCA), USA - Virginia">DCA. There was a Starbucks right there so I got myself a bagel and Tazoberry. The area around the gate was not very full, so I went up to the counter to ask about an economy plus seat. This agent was very pleasant and happily checked for me even though I was not a Premier. She had the bulkhead open and gave me seat 6F. I originally had 14D, and I didn’t mind the bulkhead. The flight boarded on time and was only about 2/3 full. When I got to my seat I was pleasantly surprised to find that the bulkhead had the same foot space as the seats in first class. I had 3 windows to myself and there was also empty middle seat. Everything was running on time until we started taxiing to the runway. The pilot announced a ground stop on flights heading to the northeast due to bad weather in the flight routing. The ground hold was set at 20 minutes, during which a new route would be drawn for us. So we sat for 20 minutes in the 95-degree heat on the taxiway. Finally 25 minutes after our scheduled departure, we were permitted to takeoff. The pilot informed us that we would be flying at 25,000 feet to avoid choppy air instead of flying at the normal 37,000 feet. The flight was beverage service only and the flight attendants served me a bag of Fisher Cheddar Snack Mix with cranberry juice. According to UA there was supposed to be a short feature shown on the plane, but this did not occur. As we got closer to EWR our pilot become more of a traffic reporter. He was giving us updates on the NJ Turnpike, roads into Atlantic City, and into NYC. Then we proceeded to fly at a low altitude for a long period of time before landing. We touched down on runway 4R after making up some time in the air, and took a short taxi to gate A14. I walked toward the terminal from the rotunda and met Charles at the security checkpoint.
I had a great time in NY with Charles. I got to see my old hometown in CT and check out some of the sights around NY and NJ. We also took the train and the subway out to see JFK. It was the first time either of us had visited each of the 9 terminals. I got to catch my first live glimpse of the Concorde as well. Charles also took me to HPN to show me the new terminal. They did a very nice job with the airport. But alas after the fireworks, movies, and other excursions, it was time to head back home.
Date: Monday July 7, 2003
Flight: UA 7188 (operated by Atlantic Coast) EWR – IAD
Photo © Søren Geertsen
Scheduled Departure: 2:45 PM
Actual Departure: 6:15 PM
Arrival: 7:15 PM (3 hours 11 minutes late)
Registration: N623BR Nose: N/A Delivered: 096/18/1997 in United Express colors
Pax Load: 50/50Y
Flight Time: 36 min Flight Level: 20,000 ft
Charles and I left at 11 AM from NY for the drive to EWR. There was very little traffic and we made it to the airport in about an hour. To get more bonus miles I checked in at the EasyCheck-In machine again. The machine claimed that due to weight restrictions on my IAD-SFO leg, a Boeing 777, my original seat assignment could not be assigned. However when my boarding passes wee printing, I ended up with my original seat, 25B. Charles and I did some spotting from the balconies on either side of the Terminal A and then I said goodbye and headed through security. United Express departs from gate A10 and I found a seat and waited for the CRJ to arrive from IAD. Meanwhile a flight to ORD ate gate A12 was very overbooked and they were working on accommodating everyone. My plane arrived on time and boarding began a little bit early. Our boarding passes had the boarding groups on them, but it seemed like a waste to have 4 groups. I was in group 4, with my seat being 2C on a 13 row plane. The two UA agents working the flight had never worked a United Express flight so they did not know how to tag carry on bags that are too large for the bins. We were already to pull back early from the gate when the first glitch on my exciting trip home occurred. The baggage handler for our flight got on and told the pilot that 2 bags were missing identification. Because the destination tags were missing, the ground crew had to remove the bags and determine the passenger and final destination for each bag. That way they could be properly tagged. The time was 2:20 PM so none of the passengers were worried because the departure time was not until 2:45. However when 3 o’clock rolled around, no progress had been made. The pilot reassured us that with a 36-minute flight time we would still arrive 20 minutes early. Finally after sitting in the hot sun at the gate, the bags were cleared. We pulled back only to have our trip delayed again. One minute after pulling back, the pilot announced that a ground stop had been put into effect for all flight to and from IAD. We taxied out in front of Terminal A and parked. I was ticked off at this point because if the flight had left on-time, we would have missed the ground stop and made it to IAD (which would have helped me down the road as you will see). Other planes began to park along side us as we sat in the hot plane. The ground stop was only supposed to last 20 minutes but it was soon extended until 4:20. Our plane was not catered due to the short flight, but the flight attendant found enough bottles of water to serve the passengers. He also found some left over sodas and went through the cabin a second time. The pilot, even though we were away from the gate, let passengers use their cell phones. I called my mom to tell her the news and to help me find alternative ways home. The pilot was almost allowed to pull back to the gate twice, but he did not want to lose his spot in the event the ground stop was lifted. Working through my knowledge of flights to SFO I had my mom call the airline while I saved my batteries. Meanwhile I was helping the passengers around me with their connecting flights. There was a couple across the aisle going on vacation to CDG and my seat mate who was trying to go home to South Carolina after being in London. The passengers thought I had been on the phone with the EWR Air Traffic Control, but I said no, it was only my mom. I checked the fight status of my companions connecting flights and showed them the easiest way to get there if we ever made it to IAD. I also kept the plane updated with information I learned from my mother on the weather and from what I could see was happening outside at EWR. It started to drizzle at EWR, but we were given the chance to takeoff. We taxied out to runway 29 (I believe) and were number 3 for takeoff. We did not get the chance however. The ground stop was reinstated as we waited in line to takeoff. Instead of taxiing back to the spot we had spent the last 2 hours, we just powered down near the runway. By this time we had a sort of tag-team crossword puzzle party going on between passengers in my row. It helped to pass the time and the bad feelings concerning all the connecting flights that we were almost guaranteed to miss. After sitting on the plane for 4 full hours in the sun and rain, the ground stop was lifted. On our third attempt at departing we were successful. The pilot requested that everyone stay seated for the flight, including the flight attendant, due to projected turbulence. The flight was very smooth though. We were placed in a holding pattern for one full seat of left turns before being allowed to land on runway 1L. We taxied over to the T-gates to park, but the pilot missed the gate the first time and had to back out and re-circle the taxiway to try again. The flight attendant read us connecting gate information, but it was useless because he had gotten it 5 hours before. While we were taxiing I noticed that there were very few UA planes at IAD and that made me nervous. We pulled into T-14, the last gate in the T concourse, and had to wait a few minutes for our carry-ons to be removed from the plane. I ran into the terminal to find it basically deserted. I wished all of my fellow connecting passengers good luck, and then found a flight information monitor. I checked for flights to SFO and my heart sunk when I found the next flight leaving at 7 AM the next morning. My body kind of went into automatic mode as I ran down the concourse in search of a United agent or the mobile lounge the D-gates where my flight was supposed to leave. I got on the mobile lounge and on the trip I saw that my gate was vacant. My adrenaline was rushing at this point and I think I mumbled some nasty words to myself before getting off at Concourse D. I ran to gate D7 to find the waiting area empty and no United agent at the gate. I went up and down the concourse looking for some help before finding an agent working a flight to DFW. I asked her to confirm for me which SFO flights had left and when, and where I could go for some rebooking help. She told me I missed UA951 (my original flight) by 20 minutes and that the 9:30 flight was going to leave on time. I asked her about the 6:30 flight (UA 203) and she said, oh yeah that flight has been delayed until 8:30 and was leaving from gate C1 (It was approaching 7:45 at this time). So I picked up my heavy duffel bag, and I ran all the way through the D and C concourses feeling like a train was chasing me. During my run I passed a lone customer service desk open with 2 agents working a line that stretched across the terminal and then down into oblivion. This was the only service desk I found open after passing 3 closed ones. I finally made it to the crowded boarding area around C1. A LH flight was boarding out of C2 so the waiting area was cramped. I got on the line and was behind two people who I met on the CRJ from before. They told me that the 9:30 flight was already overbooked and that this was the only option. We asked the sole agent if we were wasting our time on the line and thankfully she said that there would be seats open for everyone. A kid had to cut in the line before I made it to the counter. Both he and the agent claimed that they didn’t see anyone in the line…a likely story. I ended up with seat 29F, which meant I could keep the aisle that I originally had on the 777.
Meanwhile a whole team of experts was working behind the scenes to help me get home (even though their work went to waste). This team consisted of my mom, my dad, me, and my friend Charles. My dad works with a consultant who is a Million Mile member of United. The consultant called the special phone number to try to get me advanced on any standby list. He managed to get me confirmed on a flight the next morning to LAX with a connection to SFO. Other than that he could do little for me. My mom was trying to get me anywhere, but the United agent on the phone could not even confirm if flights had left or were still at the gate. Charles got sneaky and got the Premier Executive phone number from his friend. He claimed that he was my brother and that he was trying to help me get home. He had them make a note in my PNR that I was to be treated as top priority. He talked with a supervisor who got me on a backup flight at noon on Tuesday from EWR-SFO (if I never made it our of EWR). He was also told that UA could do nothing for me at IAD, but they put a note in to get me a hotel. Charles also had his dad on call to pick me up from EWR if I got stuck there. Charles left messages on my cell phone telling me under no circumstances should I go to IAD and that I should get off the plane in EWR. I never checked that message until I got home, but it worked up since I couldn’t get off in EWR anyway. So basically I was booked on 4 flights going home different ways at different times on different days.
Date: Monday July 7, 2003
Flight: UA 203 IAD – SFO
Photo © Graham Hitchen
Scheduled Departure: 6:30 PM
Actual Departure: 8:30 PM
Arrival: 11:07 PM (2 hours 4 minutes late)
Registration: N649UA Nose: 6349 Delivered: 07/27/1992
Pax Load: about 2/3 full
Flight Time: 5hr 4min Flight Level: 35,000 ft & 37,000 ft
For the first time I was glad a flight was late. Otherwise I would have been sleeping somewhere in the greater Virginia area. I boarded the internationally configured 763 and found that the flight was only 2/3 full. I found my seat near the back and was glad to be on a plane that was actually going somewhere. I talked with the lady sitting in 29G about my ordeal and then we made some small talk. I heard that my plane had come from Europe and was forced to stop in Harrisburg, PA during the ground stop. That led to the delay, which ended up saving me. We pulled back at 8:30 but sat on the taxiway until 8:45 because of routing issues. There were too many planes in some of the sectors so we had to wait for airspace to clear. Finally we took off. On the right side of the plane you could see huge thunderstorm clouds that stretched upward as far as you could see. Inside these clouds were magnificent lightning shows that consistently lit up the sky. This was some strong storm, even though it never actually made it to IAD. All they got was some light rain. The flight was surprisingly smooth considering there were a lot of storms nearby. The personal in flight entertainment systems started and I was planning to watch Bend it Like Beckham, but that was the one channel out of nine that was not functioning. Instead I watched Chicago, which I really enjoyed. The flight attendants soon came around with the dinner cart. The main dish choices were beef, chicken salad, or the vegetarian pasta. By the time they made it to my row the choice was beef or beef. Accompanying the main dish was a salad with light ranch dressing and bread sticks. The beef was in mashed potatoes, peas, carrots and corn. Milano cookies were included for dessert. The meal was very tasty, especially since I hadn’t eaten any thing substantial since leaving Charles at noon in EWR. For some reason not all of the meal/drink carts were loaded on the flight so the flight attendants had to serve all the meals before going back and serving drinks (full cans were served). During the meal service the flight attendant asked me to put my seat up because the man behind me was having trouble eating his meal. I said ok and was allowed to recline again after the meal. After the movie I put the airmap on, adjusted my headrest, and went into a relaxed state. I think the flight crew felt bad for all the delays because they came through the cabin with half filled cups of read and white wine. They were offering these cups for free. On the airmap I noticed that we were zigzagging around the country. We started off flying basically south before heading west. Then we were heading northwest and back southwest. We finally got back on a normal route into the Bay Area. There was a good size headwind that added some time to the flight. The winds over the Bay were very strong and we encountered the most turbulence during the last 2 minutes of the flight. When we finally landed at SFO, the purser was trying to kiss up to the passengers with all his “welcome to…,” “thank yous,” and apologies. While they were thoughtful, it was not enough to make me content. We taxied to gate 89, all the way at the end of concourse F. Walking through the terminal I noticed many of the redeyes were delayed until midnight and that the 9:30 flight from IAD was running 30 minutes late. My parents were waiting at security and I finally got home to my house at 12:30 Tuesday morning. So instead of arriving at SFO just before 8 o’clock, I got in over 3 hours late.
I am in the process of writing a letter to United concerning their poor service and unhelpfulness on my trip home. Considering the delay was originally their fault, I feel that they did not do an adequate job in trying to help the stranded passengers.