With SWISS retiring their final MD-11 from the fleet, I’ve decided to post a rather lengthy trip report from a few years ago. It was the first of my two experiences with the MD-11 and the only one with Swissair/SWISS (the second one was with Delta). Ironically, the flight I flew it on was ZRH-ORD, the same route the SWISS MD-11 will retire with. I still remember all these flights so vividly and I could almost replay it all. I actually first drafted this report two years ago and have made improvements since, but decided to hold back to actually posting it until the time was absolutely fitting. The MD-11 retirement gives me the perfect opportunity to share this with you.
It was my senior year in high school and, for the Christmas holidays, my mom and I were off to New York, making first a stop in Florida to visit a university. This is the university I would end up attending the following year. The plan was to fly Swissair to Miami (also on the MD-11), but those flights were all full. The flight to Chicago still had two seats left that were next to another. So my mom booked that flight, connecting on American Airlines to Miami. Then, we would fly MIA-JFK, stay in New York for a few weeks then head back to Zurich. However, two days before my departure, a massive snowstorm fell on the Chicago area, so many flights were cancelled as a result. That did not spell out good news for our travels. Luckily, ORD was cleaned up in time for our flight (SR124) to make a safe landing, but it was while we were waiting in Chicago that another snowstorm came down…
Date: December 18, 2000
Leaving: Zurich – ZRH
Arriving: Chicago – ORD
Flight Number: 124
Scheduled Departure: 10:20
Actual Departure: 10:48, takeoff at 11:00
Scheduled Arrival: 13:10
Actual Arrival: 13:17 pm, gate at 13:20
Departure Gate: A82
Arrival Gate: M20
Departure Runway: 16
Arrival Runway: 9R
Aircraft: McDonnell Douglas MD-11
Photo © Andrew Hunt - AirTeamImages
Photo © Sam Chui
I woke up at 6:50 am to catch this 10:20 flight. It would be my first time on the MD-11, so I was eagerly anticipating this journey. My mom and I arrived at Zurich airport at 8:40 am to some very long check in lines. This was to be anticipated, as it was the height of the holiday travel season.
Being short on U.S. cash, we headed to the bank in Terminal B to exchange currencies. The shopping area underneath Terminal B (where the bank was located) is looking very dark and old, but there is an abundance of good shops. It took a while of waiting on line at the bank and then my mom and I were off to the check in area.
As usual, we joined the one that seemed the shortest. It was about a good fifteen minutes of waiting until it was our turn at the check in counter. By then, it was 9:20, or about an hour before departure. We checked in our three bags, took four carry-on bags with us, and picked up boarding passes for seats 38H and J. I, of course, took the window seat. Near the check in desks, underneath the old-fashioned (but very functional) departure display board is the passage for passport control that leads to the terminal area. Swissair flight 124 for Chicago, departing at 10:20, on time, from gate A82. While my mom picked up her usual delight from the pastry shop, I delighted at the planes parked outside. There were mostly A330s. It is a real pity the Zurich airport authority has since closed off those windows.
The passport control line was looking quite long, so I didn’t quite wait for my mom to finish to join it. My mom emerged and shortly after, we were past passport control. As it was 9:30, there was no time to do some duty free shopping for Christmas gifts, so that would have to wait until New York. O well, at least we had some bought some Swiss chocolates as gifts. There are some good shops both on the departure level and underneath. We could only walk by, as we had to make the flight. From the departure level, the people movers transported us to the lower level, where I could see various A330s and MD-11s parked at their gates. Two of the planes I spotted were HB-IQB and HB-IQH, an aircraft I’d flown exactly a year prior. At the sign for the last set of gates, we took the people mover upstairs and waited for security.
Security, as always is very thorough and well done. At the gate, there was already a line for boarding. Since I wanted to check the registration of the plane, I had to lose my place in line. I took out my camcorder and filmed the registration, which turns out was HB-IWO. In the background was a Crossair ERJ-145. The line had gotten a bit longer, but at least knew the registration ahead of time. Boarding took quite a bit of time. This was quite a bit of waiting to do in one day – first the bank, then check in, now this. I just had no idea of how much more of it I would get later on, some 12 hours later. Finally, it was my turn and my mom and I boarded the plane together.
As I boarded, I noticed the flag of Canton Schwyz, which happened to be the name of the aircraft. Touched the fuselage as usual and I entered the spacious cabin of the MD-11. Two beautiful flight attendants greeted us at the door and pointed us to the starboard side of the aircraft, down to the end. The seats looked different from the A330s. They were wider and had more legroom, but still had those headrests. Row 38 is actually a row of five seats. Three seats are on the port side, two on the starboard. The middle row is occupied by an enclosure surrounded by carpet. The carpet’s design included a map of the world with the Swissair name and logo in the middle.
I looked down at the two seats that would become our home for the next 10 hours and I must say I was impressed. Neatly presented on each seat were the traditional Swissair pillow, blanket, and toiletry bag with blindfold, toothpaste, and toothbrush. That was the first sign of good service in Swissair’s part. The windows were very big and would provide me with a great view throughout the flight. This aircraft, one of the newest MD-11s in the fleet (del. 1997), was in excellent condition. First I sat down then my mom: I was in the window seat, my mom in the aisle seat. As I looked out the window, I saw another MD-11 HB-IWS.
Spotting was very good; I watched a CX A340 B-HXI (my first taste of an Asian airline) and the first CO 762, N76151. Continental had just started flying their brand new 767-200ERs into ZRH, replacing the DC-10s. There was a green propeller-driven (military/cargo?) aircraft that passed by. I did not recognize the type or registration. The A330 that had transported me to EWR earlier that year, HB-IQO was among the aircraft I spotted. Outside, it was clear but very cold. I leafed through the Gazette while not spotting, checking out the movies and music channels. There were no PTVs in coach, just the main-screen TV screens.
The captain announced departure would be delayed until 11:00, due to our departure slot. Announcements are made in German, French, and English. He also assured us that despite the recent blizzards, we would be able to (if nothing happened in the meantime) land. That was the most important part, since the last thing I wanted was for this flight to be cancelled. We had a slot, we would depart and that in itself was reassuring. De-icing was at 10:25 and pushback at 10:45.
The usual Swissair safety video lit up the screens in each language, starting with English. Even though the video had been redone about a year earlier, the message was pretty much the same. The super-tug lined us up with the taxiway leading to runway 16. I spotted a South African 747-300, possibly ZS-SAT and Thai MD-11. The engines, once fully spooled up, sounded much louder than the P&Ws on the A330. The pilot fully lowered the flaps and deployed the spoilers, then retracted them back to their original position.
We began a slow taxi to the runway, passing by 10/28 along the way. Construction of the Mid-Dock terminal had just started with several cranes occupying the once green area. Part of the reason the taxi was slow was the traffic leading up to the runway, the other, the small presence of ice on the taxiway. The captain announced a departure at exactly 11:00.
True to his word, we lined up to the runway on the hour and began takeoff roll. With the characteristic P&W engine whine in the background, the takeoff roll was very powerful, rotating just before the intersection of 10/28 with 16/34. I love the 270-degree left turn following rotation as upon completion, there is an excellent view of ZRH airport and all the wide-bodies lined up for departure.
From then on, I decided to check out the music channels since they were shut off before departure. Among the 12 or so channels were: traditionally Swiss music, Classical, Pop, Jazz, French, Italian, and Country. Main-screen entertainment had just switched from Air-Show to the news program. There was one music channel I’d tried out before that I found matched the mood of the flight, so I tuned into that one. It would remain on for the majority of the flight. It featured 35 songs, so that meant about two hours of music before repeating.
Watched the scenery below and relaxed throughout the climb. Upon cruise, as always, the snacks were served. I took a coke with it (and can). A very good-looking, smiling and polite flight attendant served us. Ten minutes later, the remains were collected, my mom fell asleep, and I just laid back into the seat. The latching mechanism for the trays was different from anything I’d ever seen: it was an arrow with a circular bottom. The tray itself had these weird ridges on the bottom side.
Lunch was served two hours into the flight. I chose the ravioli option over, I think, chicken. The flight attendant (same as before) handed me over a tray with steaming ravioli with tomato sauce, a salad, Swiss cheese, and Swiss chocolates. The ravioli were quite good, but the salad was a bit hard. The chocolate was excellent, as usual. Even my mom thought it was good. After a satisfying lunch, the first movie began playing on the main-screen. Without PTVs, I had no idea where we were flying over and wouldn’t know until a few hours later, either.
Once the flight attendant cleanup crew was done and aisle was unobstructed, I took a first walk around the plane to the bathrooms. Flushing was via the loud sucking mechanism. A significant portion of the cabin was watching the in-flight movie (can’t remember the name), while another chunk of passengers were sleeping. With soothing music playing through my headphones, I too, was able to rest pretty well, at least for a half hour.
Legroom, as I mentioned, was very good, seats comfortable, so falling asleep was a breeze. The MD-11 may be a loud plane at takeoff, but during cruise, it is actually quite silent. It may not be at the same levels as the A330/A340/B777 but well below the 747. That becomes less relevant when the seats can provide more comfort than on, for example, the Swissair A330s, so it is actually easier to sleep on the MD-11. The movie was still showing when I opened my eyes. Decided to check it out, but got bored, so I switched back to the music after fifteen minutes. Another movie showed, this time, a comedy, but a bit shorter. Watched a bit of that and listened to some music. As the cabin was either sleeping or watching the movie, there was no cabin service, though if one wanted a drink, they could always ask for it.
I fell asleep again, likely towards end of the second movie, for about twenty minutes. I was hoping for at least a small bit of Air-Show, following the credits for the second movie. I got my wish. We were flying south of Greenland at 35,000 feet and 900 km/h. Following this, came an episode of Friends and then Frasier. Dessert service started about 100 miles off the coast of Canada. It consisted of the Movenpick ice cream, which, this time was caramel. This is one of my favorite flavors. The usual flight attendant handed out a small box of ice cream to us. I enjoyed every second of it. This is definitely a plus point for every Swissair trans-con.
Shortly after, I observed an AA 777 cruising below us at FL330. It was overtaking us. I tried zooming in on the registration with my camcorder, but with no luck, it was all blurred because of the digital zoom. Only a few minutes later, I noticed another plane, which I identified as a Virgin Airlines, either 744 or 343. However, the engines looked like those of a 343 (VS 744s have GE engines) and, from the details, the aircraft, I think, was G-VHOL. Heavy turbulence started to rock the aircraft and was among the strongest and most violent I’ve experienced. The movements were very abrupt and sudden as the aircraft would fall then pitch back up. This continued for five minutes.
The flight attendants warned all passengers to sit down or return to their seats immediately. Finally, me, as well as the other passengers sighed in relief as it came to an end. It was fun, though. The Air-show program came back on for the final leg of the flight. Our flight plan took us over Quebec (around Moncton), Ontario, over northern Lake Erie to northern Michigan (near Alpena). Before the descent started, I took one last trip around the cabin, this time filming it. Also, I managed to pick up a few Swissair postcards. The descent was announced near Lake Michigan.
We broke through the clouds over suburban Chicago and what a joy it was. First, the plane went into a 90-degree turn, then was the sweet sound of the Pratt and Whitney engines as they roared to life. The scenery was unbelievable. The entire city was covered in snow with the exception of the roads. I could see the odd car traveling on them, but there weren’t that many. Guess most of the city was home. It was a real winter wonderland. Everything was so tranquil and peaceful. The MD-11 made another left turn to line up with 9R. The few minutes I had checking out the scenery (and the characteristic P&W whine) made for an experience I will never forget. It was one of the best moments I’ve had.
Naturally, I taped the whole approach. This perfect flight in this perfect day was nearly over. Despite the departure delays, we were making good time; we would only arrive 10 minutes late – plenty of time for our connection. During the approach, my mom kept bothering me with questions about connecting terminals and something that “confused” her. Watched the winter white ground become closer and closer until touchdown. The pilot made a perfect landing on runway 9R at 13:15. The whole plane started clapping. Everything was so smooth and well-executed. Thrust reverses and spoilers were deployed and we exited the runway near the International terminal. That would mean a short taxi for us.
Stowed away my camcorder and asked my mom what all the problem was that was confusing her. On our itinerary, it stated we were to depart from Terminal 5 (International terminal), but all AA domestic flights leave from T3. The taxi was indeed very short and we parked at gate M20 next to an SAS 767-300. A simply wonderfully perfect flight had just come to a close. The warmness and competence of the crew and good seats way overshadowed the fact there were no PTVs. It just proves that Swissair really is a world-class airline. With only five hours left until sunny Miami, I couldn’t be happier. I grabbed my carry-on bags, waited a while to deplane and exited to the bright beautiful T5, without clue of what the next five hours (and the five hours after that) would bring…
The walk to immigration was a long one. There were no windows, so there was no enjoying the planes outdoors, but everything was very well-lit and the ceiling was high. Further, it was very clean. Our gate was all the way at one end of the terminal, but the arrivals area was towards the middle. It was a good seven-minute walk (fast-paced). There were no people-movers. There was, however, an abundance of golf carts transporting senior (and not-so senior) citizens. At least that would relieve them of the massive walk. Tired and exhausted already, my mom and I arrived at the immigration hall.
There was a huge “Welcome to the U.S.A.” sign above the immigration booths. Being U.S. citizens, we only had to wait a few minutes (the lines were quite short for U.S. citizens despite the rather large crowd of people) for our turn. Got our passports stamped and off it was to baggage claim. While waiting, we were wondering what to do. I suggested we ask at the transfer desk. There was a Sabena flight from BRU sharing our carousel. I could have never thought these two great airlines would be bankrupt in less than a year. It was a bit of a wait, especially considering we had three bags checked in between us. It took fifteen minutes for all three to appear.
It was a short walk to the transfer desk, where, fortunately, we didn’t have to wait on line. The agent said AA flights leave out of T3, so we should go there. We made our way to the monorail station. After about a minute of waiting, we hopped on a monorail. Making our way outside from inside was something. It was bitter cold outside with wind making it even colder. I admired the scenery from above the terminals. The ride to Terminal 3 took less than five minutes. Stepped off the monorail and headed for the gate. The monorail is a really convenient way to get around the airport, I found. The signs to the stations were well marked.
The first thing we did, as it was already 14:18, was check the flight status. The flight was scheduled to leave at 15:00, so we had a bit of time to get there. However, the screen indicated the flight was going to be delayed until 16:00. O well, at least we had enough time now to get something to eat. Our gate was H4, so it was a short walk. There was a plane at the gate, but the previous flight (also 737-800) to BUF. The plane was pushing back. There was a grill place right near to the gate, so we sat down and ordered a meal. At 14:50, we were all done and satisfied. Turns out, it would be a long while before we would be able to eat.
I bought a magazine at the bookstore right next to the grill place. Once at the gate, my mom and I read a bit. We took a short walk around the concourse. It was very nice and spacious. There were a few AA 738s and MD-80s. We returned to the gate, where an announcement was made the flight would be delayed further and was expected to arrive at around 15:50, so we should depart before 17:00, hopefully. At 15:55, a shiny 738 arrived at the gate from MIA. By then, it had already started to get dark. With the darkness of the night came some snow. First, it was just a few flurries. But then, it started to snow very hard. The frozen tarmac became covered in snow almost instantly. Snow was blowing everywhere. Flights were going to be cancelled, possibly ours, too.
Date: December 18, 2000
Leaving: Chicago ORD
Airline: American Airlines
Scheduled Departure: 15:00 pm
Actual Departure: 17:35 pm
Scheduled Arrival: 18:00 pm
Actual Arrival: Cancelled (gate at 18:55)
Departure Gate: H4
Arrival Gate: H4 (Cancelled)
Departure Runway: Cancelled
Arrival Runway: Cancelled
Aircraft: Boeing 737-823
Photo © Manas Barooah
Boarding was announced, a long finally, at 16:25. My mom and I sprung up, stowed our magazines and headed for the line. The departure screen indicated clear weather in Miami, a temperature of 70 degrees. Everyone wanted to be in a warmer place where it wasn’t snowing, including us. Walked down the air-bridge and entered the 737-800. This would be my first time on a Next Generation 737. The seats looked pretty comfortable. The cabin was fitted with More Room Throughout Coach, so there was good legroom. My mom and I took seat 26F. Right across from us in 26A/B were two beautiful young blondes, about my age.
Before departure, the captain announced we would indeed leave the gate around 17:30 and try to make our way to the runway. He emphasized it would be a big “if” given the conditions, and safety was the most important thing. At least he would try his best. At that point all the passengers hoped for a departure to the sunny paradise. The de-icing truck came around, sprayed the liquid, covering the fuselage, and at 17:35, finally, we pushed back.
Seated next to us was a seasoned frequent traveler with AA with lounge access. He said he would be willing to get us on the next flight in the case this one would be cancelled. Shortly after starting taxiing, the captain came back on announcing it would be about an hour at least before reaching the runway between other traffic and the extremely icy tarmac. After about twenty minutes of slow, slow taxi, we stopped. A few minutes later, the engines shut off. The captain came back on explaining that we would have to wait until further notice. First, it would be an hour until takeoff, now it was looking like we might not take off at all.
As we were parked, I noticed the snow pounding the fuselage even harder. The plane would become icy in the meantime. I spotted a British Airways 747 in the old colors. My mom chatted a bit with our seatmate while I stared blankly out of the window. He mentioned he didn’t have a clue what he was doing in Chicago, but somehow, with flight arrangements, ended up there. Twenty minutes of nothingness passed by. Another fifteen without significant activity…
Finally, the announcement we were all waiting for came. The captain stated the aircraft was too icy to continue and we would have to return to the gate, so the flight would be cancelled. Neither we nor the other passengers had high hopes for this flight to hit the air. We began another cautious taxi, this time back to gate H4. This took another long while. I had no idea where it was that we stopped nor how far or how close it was from the gate. That wasn’t the main problem. The campus visit was the next day at 11:00 in the morning. We had to get on the next flight, which would be the last flight to MIA for the day, provided it wouldn’t get cancelled.
Also, we contemplated catching the late flight to Fort Lauderdale, but Miami seemed to be a better idea, since that’s where we’d reserved our rental car. The captain asked the flight crew to be seated during the final part. At 18:50, we arrived back at the gate. The confused passengers of this full flight started to deplane.
O’Hare Airport (again!):
We exited to a rather busy Terminal 3. Our seatmate accompanied us to the AA lounge in the upper level of the terminal. When we arrived, I noticed a few people trying to get rebooked. There was a 19:00 departure, which was going to be delayed quite a bit, so we went with that one. It turns out, however, that AA had already put us on that flight. I found out soon later, that the plane was going to be a 757, so at least I had that to look forward to.
This was going to be a full flight. There would be the original passengers on the flight (which, from what I understood, were scheduled to be on an MD-80, so this was an upgrade in aircraft) as well as the passengers of our flight, which was cancelled. An announcement was made that our 757 was going to be very much delayed out of Jackson Hole. Departure was, if everything went well of course, going to be at 21:15. To that time, the taxi to the runway had to be factored in, with all the snow on the ground, and to make matters worse, Miami is an hour ahead of Chicago. Boy were we going to arrive late. How late we didn’t know, but we tried not to think about that.
My mom made a phone call to the rental car agency telling them to postpone the car until about 04:00, if worst really did come to worst. Surely, it wouldn’t be before 02:00. Anyway, my mom and I found ourselves at gate H-8 with other stranded passengers doing nothing but waiting. I actually found myself leafing through my Rand McNally road atlas, which I’d put in one of my mom’s carry on bags to make things easier once we arrived in MIA, finding where the heck Jackson Hole was. The name sounded familiar, yet I had a tough time trying to find it. Five minutes later, I found it near Yellowstone Park in Wyoming.
Yawning my way through the waiting, desperately trying to find something interesting to do, I dug out my camcorder. There, I noticed the red light was on. It was recording! Apparently, I’d forgotten to shut it off earlier and the battery was running a bit low. When I rewound it, I found I’d taped two hours of camcorder case darkness by accident! No problem, all I had to do was tape over, but it would mean my battery would die out sooner.
I took a walk around the terminal, but spotting was impossible. I thought waiting back in Zurich was a lot in one day, but here it was far worse. Returned to the gate some fifteen minutes later to some more waiting. Every half hour there were announcements regarding further delays. First, they say it’s going to be delayed an hour. Then, an hour and a half. Then three hours. I sensed another cancellation here. At 21:20, a long last, after over two hours of patiently waiting, a 757 pulls into the gate. But will it takeoff?
This aircraft, coming in as flight 2252 from Jackson Hole, was 6 hours 30 minutes late. I can only imagine what the passengers from that flight felt waiting in the small terminal for this flight. This flight would continue on to Miami with the same flight number. I later found out the story was almost exactly identical the day before and the day after with this flight. I took out my camcorder and tried to find the registration. It was very hard to see, since the wing blocked nearly all of it. I didn’t have much battery power left and had no idea about the nose number, so I just made do with the footage I shot. Even with that footage, I couldn’t see it. I later found the registration on the BTS website.
Meanwhile, I decided to move myself for a bit and check out the other gates really quickly. Activity had calmed down a bit, but there were still many passengers frustrated and not knowing what to do. Boarding was called at 21:30 and 180 skeptical passengers rose to their feet. I only had my boarding pass from the flight that was cancelled, but that was also being accepted. My mom and I were assigned exit row seats (yes!), which meant even more room. Boarding took quite a bit with all the passengers in front of us.
Date: December 18, 2000
Leaving: Chicago – ORD
Arriving: Miami – MIA
Airline: American Airlines
Flight Number: 2252
Scheduled Departure: 20:30
Actual Departure: 22:05, takeoff at 23:00
Scheduled Arrival: 00:33
Actual Arrival: 02:05, gate at 02:55
Departure Gate: H8
Arrival Gate: E5
Departure Runway: 14L (?)
Arrival Runway: 27L
Aircraft: Boeing 757-223
Photo © José Jorge
I boarded the 757 through door 1L, touching the fuselage in the process. I entered the cabin, caught a glimpse of the cockpit. Passed through the F class cabin and then through to Coach. This plane had the old style coach seats, but with MRTC. Seated right in the seats in front of me were the same two blondes from before who were seated across from me. The seats were reasonably comfortable but lacking the winged headrests from the newer Coach interiors. Still, with the more than generous exit row legroom, I had plenty of room to stow all my items under the seat in front.
At this point, I was both extremely tired and exhausted (@#$%ed up is probably a better word) – I was barely aware I even was in an exit row! I’d been up for 20 hours and still had a while to go. The captain announced conditions were better and that after the plane would be de-iced, we would be ready to go. We would have to proceed slowly and cautiously to the runway as there were still snow and ice on the ground. The aircraft was de-iced sometime around 21:55 and at 22:05, we pushed back, a long finally, bound for Miami. The RR engines were started and we began taxiing in the same manner as we had done five hours earlier. I fell asleep during the taxiing, which I never do. I woke up 30 minutes later to discover we were still on the ground! This time, though, we were moving. I had no idea where in the airport we were nor how many planes were in front of us, but it was snowing very lightly. If it started to snow any harder and the plane became a tad frosted, we knew we would have to go back to the gate again…
The snow never picked up pace, however, and the captain announced to expect departure in 10 minutes. We made two 90-degree right turns to the runway, which makes me believe this was 14L or 32R. It could have even been 27L. I had no clue in the pitch darkness where the terminals were nor did I notice any planes. I was so hoping for us to get off the ground as was the entire cabin and that the runway was in good enough condition. At 11:00 exactly, the pilot advanced the throttles to their maximum, to which the twin RB211s make a nice sound. I was seated not far away from the engines, so I could hear every single power adjustment. It was a very powerful takeoff roll and within 25 seconds, we lifted off to a nice pitch angle.
The entire cabin (at least the minority who was not asleep) bid a sigh of relief. An Italian man seated in the seat behind me shouted “Bravo!” At this point, the sun and warm weather in MIA was on all of our minds. Takeoff seemed to be in a southeast direction most possibly, so that would indicate we took off from 14L. A quarter hour after becoming airborne, at least 80 percent of the cabin was sleeping. As the main lights were off, I could see the odd seat light switched on for those who were reading.
I started to doze off into a deep sleep, which took not even a minute. The seat was roomy and comfortable and the engines quiet, plus my tiredness just about did it for me. Maybe while I was asleep there was a snack service. Maybe. But I don’t think anyone really was in the mood for food or drinks. The experience we’d all gone through was tiring and even exasperating at times. To my mom, it was something she’d rather forget. As for me, I had a ton of fun. Yes, fun. Terminal 3 at O’Hare is not a bad place to spend ten hours in. It is bright, airy, and well-lit (OK, it was night most of the time, but still). It is clean and well-kept. It is easy to get around thanks to well-marked signs. It is also very attractive. There is a good amount of stuff to do after security. Maybe the outcome would have been different had the terminal been old and in bad condition.
Despite the long periods of waiting endured, I got to be on two planes rather than one and got a good chance to explore the terminal. Still, I was glad this flight was not cancelled since we had that visit in the morning to make. A nice terminal decked with Christmas ornaments, cold weather, lots of snow, and the Christmas holidays just mix very well together, bringing out, to at least some degree, the Christmas spirit in all of us. I woke up about an hour and a half later, 30 minutes before our arrival. I could see occasional tiny clusters of lights dotting the dark landscape.
Soon enough, the descent was started. All was smooth and we made a series of left turns to align with runway 27L. The landing was very well done at 02:05 and upon exiting the runway and retracting the flaps, a female flight attendant announced our arrival in Miami and that we would be arriving at E-5 and baggage claim 21. She also wished us happy holidays. Finally, I could get some rest. Well, I got my wish, just much earlier than I expected.
A couple of minutes later, the captain came on the PA announcing that our gate was being occupied and there were no gates available. As it was 2 am, no aircraft would be leaving for a while. So, the pilot had to get someone to tow the aircraft at E-5 to a remote location while we waited, so we could get to the gate. I doubt are many tow guys available at this hour. Did the pilot know about this before? Anyway, we waited more time on the ground while I fell into a light sleep. Woke up a bit later to an announcement that we were pulling into the gate. I spotted an AA 757 and A300 N14056. A long last we arrived at E-5 at 02:50. Miami airport was very deserted at this hour, as expected, but I could see the monorail was still running.
The terminal looked a bit funky for the one minute a walked through it, but the baggage claim area was small and dirty. Waited quite a while for our bags to appear (took 20 minutes) and arrived at the rental car place just before 04:00 after waiting a long time (again) for the rental car bus while all the other rental company busses passed at least twice.
Checked into our hotel in Boca Raton at 05:00 and were asleep a half hour later. This single day, for me, lasted exactly 30 hours, making it the longest day ever for me, a record that still exists nearly four years later. The next few days would take us on a campus visit and to the sunny beaches.
Date: December 21, 2000
Leaving: Miami – MIA
Arriving: New York – JFK
Airline: American Airlines
Flight Number: 988
Scheduled Departure: 19:35
Actual Departure: 19:27, takeoff at 19:50
Scheduled Arrival: 22:25
Actual Arrival: 21:54 pm gate at 21:58
Departure Gate: E6
Arrival Gate: 4 (T8)
Departure Runway: 27R
Arrival Runway: 31R
Aircraft: Airbus A300-605R
Photo © Artie Caissie
After having had a very positive tour of the university, my mom and I left Florida very pleased, to spend Christmas in New York. We were scheduled on AA988 to JFK, which was operated on an A300. After spending a good part of the day in Fort Lauderdale, we headed down the packed I-95 to Miami airport.
Arrived, dropped off our rental car, and took the bus to a point just outside Concourse D. There were several check-in desks, but they all said “International”. We desperately tried to find the domestic check-in desks, which we finally did, off to the right. The terminal was looking pretty busy at this hour, 17:10.
We joined a rather lengthy line, but things went smoothly and quickly so it didn’t take as long as we thought. All of our bags were checked in by 17:30 and we picked up our boarding passes for seats 28A and B. I noticed lots of travelers with children, more than usual. Luckily our bags didn’t have to be screened, as I saw some travelers having their checked bags screened along the side.
Anyway, being very hungry, we headed to the food court. There was not much interesting, so we just picked up some fries and chatted with this very nice South American couple. At 18:40, after almost an hour there, we went to the security line for Concourse E. There was a big circle with the letter “E”, so we knew that was it. The line was very short and the job was thorough. Our flight, AA 988 was to leave from gate E-6. A few days earlier, my flight arrived at E-5, so this was the gate right next to it. True to my memory, I did find the terminal to be quite funky but at the same time, outdated. It wasn’t in as good condition as it should have been. It had a very third-world appearance.
I noticed a flight boarding for CDG (?) right next to us. At gate E-6 I was surprised at the relative lack of people. The A300 is a big plane made to seat around 250 passengers. Standing outside in the clear darkness was our A300, so I grabbed my camcorder and went over to the window. I zoomed in on the registration, which happened to be N41063, but never actually filmed it the way I usually do. Boarding was called just as I returned from checking out the plane. The line wasn’t long and in a few minutes, I found myself walking down the air-bridge to a shiny Airbus.
Touched the fuselage and entered the cabin of this wide-bodied aircraft. A flight attendant directed me straight down the port aisle of the plane to 28A. I noticed the cabin seemed very spacious, much like the MD-11 I was on. The seats had MRTC, but were still in the old style. There were also no PTVs but there were the main screen TV screens. I took seat 28A and checked out the scenery.
It was dark outside, but parked at the gate next to me was another AA A300. I zoomed in on its registration. The lights were on and I could see people boarding the flight, but it looked pretty full inside. I think this was the flight to Paris that I saw boarding earlier. So I continued to observe the activity in that plane. Then, I started filming the tail and then the registration again. The registration of this aircraft was N14053. It seemed cool that registration was 10 less than the one of mine. It was also similar to another A300 I’d seen – N14056. Little did I know the tragic fate of the plane I was observing so closely. The A300 standing next to me would crash in New York some 11 months later. The only time before this I’d really admired a plane this closely during the pre-pushback period was when checking out HB-IWB in ZRH (bound for YUL) a few years back. Pushback was at 7:30 pm and I watched slowly N14053 disappear in my window. It was a beautiful plane, all lit up. I don’t think any of those people on board that plane now know how fortunate (or unfortunate) enough they were to fly on a bird that is no more.
I spotted a BA 742 in the old colors on the way to the runway. The taxi to the runway was a long one due to heavy traffic. I spotted a huge number of AA 757s here. Almost twenty minutes later, I observed the AA 757 that was directly behind us in the queue as we lined up for departure. The aircraft stood on the runway for a few seconds just idling before those CF6 engines spooled up.
Takeoff was very smooth from 27R and I could see Miami all lit up. We made some right turns until we were headed in the direction of the ocean. Once over the ocean, the plane banked left to head north to New York. I had intended on resting on this flight and, with less than 60 percent of the seats occupied (even less in the rear cabin), there were many middle-row seats of four empty. After a quick trip to the cavernous bathroom, I chose to lounge in the last middle row. The flushing mechanism, by the way, is done by vacuum. Less than a minute there, a male flight attendant approached me saying I couldn’t sit in those seats, as they were for F/As and emergency purposes. He should at least let me sit there for a while.
With plenty of other rows like this, I moved further up front of the rear cabin. First, I checked out the in-flight magazine for music channels. I listened for a bit then got bored, since there was nothing really interesting there. The snack and beverage service came shortly afterwards. The flight attendants were nice. I rested for about a half hour. The four seats weren’t quite enough to accommodate my full body, but close enough to be comfortable. Took a peek into the forward Coach cabin and it was quite occupied. I decided to move to a window seat, I think 27J. From there, I could see some lights, which means we had made landfall. I filmed for a few brief seconds.
The rest of the flight was very uneventful. I decided to switch to the forward cabin and get some rest there. My seat was most likely 16A, but it could have been anything up to 20A. It was an over-wing seat. By then, we were flying over the Atlantic near the coast of New Jersey. The descent was started not even five minutes after I’d changed seats. It seemed the whole flight went by fast. The coast was all lit up and the weather was very clear. The whole descent was very smooth. I filmed quite a bit of it.
Closer to New York, we banked right then left again to line up with runway 31R. The approach was just as good as the descent. I probably shouldn’t have picked an over-wing seat since the view wasn’t that great. Still, I saw the coast of Long Island lit up. We made an arrival on 31R at 21:55, more than 20 minutes early. Touchdown was perfect and we taxied off the runway near Terminal 7. I spotted a BA 744 G-BNLT with its world tail. The third welcome speech I’d heard that vacation with “happy holidays” came on the PA.
The taxi to Terminal 8 was a short one, we passed over a bridge passing over the highway (I love JFK!) and spotted an AA 757 (again) and (this took me by surprise) an Asiana 747-400. It was most likely HL7418, since it looked like an all-passenger version. Don’t really know what it was doing parked at the AA terminal. We docked at gate 4 at 21:58. Hopefully, with this early arrival, we would be home before 11:30. There weren’t that many people on this twin-aisle plane, so deplaning was quick through 2L.
I walked through the virtually deserted and hideous terminal down to the baggage claim. It was a short walk. Joined my mom down at baggage claim and waited a long time for the bags to come. We phoned the van company to take us home, but there would be about 40 minutes to wait. So much for a 23:30 arrival back home. I decided to explore the terminal a bit. There was no activity, but there was a newsstand. From what I saw the terminal was looking old. Took the escalator back downstairs and waited. Fifteen minutes later, we were on our way home for the Christmas holidays.
Date: January 4, 2001
Leaving: New York – JFK
Arriving: Zurich – ZRH
Flight Number: 101
Scheduled Departure: 18:15
Actual Departure: 18:20
Scheduled Arrival: 08:10
Actual Arrival: 07:50
Departure Gate: B28
Arrival Gate: A67
Departure Runway: 31L
Arrival Runway: 14
Aircraft: Airbus A330-223
Photo © Joe Pries - A.T. TEAM
With the holidays now over, it was time to fly back to Zurich for one final semester of high school. Arrived at JFK Terminal 4 about two hours before departure. At that time, T4 was in its renovation process. The check in areas were still from the old ones as were a few gates in 4W and the duty free shops. Once passed security, it was all the new terminal. There was quite a line at check in. My mom and I ascended the escalator to the departure level. This area, as well as the check in area was looking dumpy. Thank God it would be gone very soon, replaced by the magnificent new T4.
The security line was short. I walked around the new section of the terminal checking out some planes. Among them, a Sabena A333 OO-SFX, a KLM 743, and various Swissair A330s. At that time, Swissair was flying 4 daily flights to JFK; 3 from ZRH, 1 from GVA. All but the late flight from ZRH had already arrived. A quick glance at my boarding pass revealed we’d be flying out of gate B28. Walked over to that gate and looked out at the Swissair A330 parked there, lit up in the night. The registration was HB-IQD, my second time on this aircraft.
The new terminal is very clean and futuristic. There were plenty of chairs at each gate and there were a few Internet machines. The newsstands were pretty small and there was a small bar. I just relaxed at the gate watching CNN Airport news. Shortly after, the flight began to board.
As was the case with SR, there was no order for Y passengers. First, they allowed F and C passengers to board as well as families with children. There weren’t too many of those Economy passengers trying to board first that we all hate. But when it comes time for Economy to board, the line becomes one long mess. I proceeded through the glass-enclosed ramp down to the air-bridge. To my right, there were plenty of newspapers to pick up, most of them European. This is where reality sets in; it’s time to go home.
The aircraft was clean and well-furnished, as usual. There was an amenity kit at my seat, 32A (Ah, the days!) as well as a warm blanket. Pushback was pretty much on time but the line for takeoff was long. We made a 38-second departure off of runway 31L. I’ve timed several A330-200 departures and they’re all around 38 seconds with a rather full fuel load and a packed cabin. Like almost all Swissair flights I’ve been on to/from New York, there was no empty seat in the house.
We followed the Canarsie departure, the one where the aircraft banks fully to the left over a 135-degree pattern. For a while there, it looked like we were flying south from Long Island almost as if we were going to Miami. But reality set in, yet again, when the plane started banking to the left to about 80 degrees, following the Long Island coast almost perfectly.
The flight route took us over Long Island then Martha’s Vineyard and then we curved upwards east of Boston where we followed the coast of Maine to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. It was a crystal clear night, so I could make out Cape Cod and Boston quite well. Dinner was served and I really do not remember what I had. It must have been OK. I dozed off afterwards, wondering why dinner isn’t served immediately after reaching cruising altitude instead of 45 minutes after, since I can fall asleep earlier.
The legroom on the Swissair A330-200 is not very good and the seats are firm and narrow. Most passengers prefer to have their PTVs on since falling asleep is quite challenging. I had a tough time finding a position that was even remotely close to comfortable enough to fall asleep on. I somehow managed, though it took me close to an hour. I think without the winged headrest, sleeping would be close to impossible in this aircraft.
I woke up something like two hours later in the dark cabin, lit only by the bright PTV screens and individual reading lights. It was almost creepy. As I headed for the lavatory, I thought if there is one good thing about Economy on the A330, it is that its seat configuration is brilliant. On Airbus widebodies, it is always 2-4-2, so you never have to step over more than one person, which is a tricky thing to do when they are asleep. I fell back asleep somewhat quicker this time around.
I woke up again and this time it was light out. Breakfast was being served. It consisted of a warm croissant, orange juice, and something else. Swissair always had a great breakfast and this was no exception. Before landing, the PTV screens were interrupted with the usual arrival information. Our arrival gate was supposed to be A67. It also noted flight connection and their assigned gates. There was also information on transportation. We landed 20 minutes early on runway 14 and made a very smooth touchdown. Again, the skies were clear.
I deplaned at A67, a rather long process, not even aware this was my second-to-last flight on Swissair. The arrivals hall was filled with other arrivals and baggage claim took quite some time. My dad was there to greet us outside. As we were approaching the car, my dad announced to us that he’d received a letter from the university we’d just visited in Florida saying I’d been accepted there with scholarship, a great ending to the break.
In the end, there was no forgetting the interesting snowstorm that had us stranded at O’Hare. There was also no forgetting the consistently great service we received on Swissair. Some airlines are great most of the time and other times their service disappoints. I have never had a bad flight or even a mediocre one with Swissair flying with them for 10 years. I have yet to fly on an airline that delivers a better Y product.
Thanks for reading. Hope you all enjoyed it.