As a pilot, every year I must attend simulator sessions wherever my airline finds better (or cheaper, as we don't have our own). On this occasion we (my training captain and myself) were assigned to United's Training Center in Denver Colorado. Yay!
Isn’t funny how the very first though about something it's not often very accurate? When I heard that DEN would be our training city I imagined brisk mornings with light and gentle snow flurries falling down the sky, sipping hot chocolate around the hotel's fireplace while reading an interesting B737 operations manual. Well, nothing farther from reality as it was hot as hell with clear skies, sunny mornings and just for the records, no complimentary hot cocoa!
We stayed at the Renaissance hotel on Quebec Street, just two blocks away from United's facilities and RIGHT in front of what up until 10 years ago was Stapleton International Airport (the coolest thing of my trip, as I had a nice view of the Control Tower, a parking building? and the reminisces of some taxiways).
Well… Back to my trip; on simplicity's sake we could have taken a direct MEX-DEN non-stop flight on Mexicana; but as we are their direct competitors they don't want to do any kind of business with us (and neither we do). The friendly skies of United included our plane tickets with the rental of their Boeing simulators. A couple of years ago, before Mexicana left Star Alliance this would have been an impossible trip. Probably as per Mexicana’s request we would have been denied the training application. But it is new story now and we can benefit from the increasing Aviacsa & United business opportunities. It is a shame that we are not big enough to enter the alliance, but it would certainly be great to have such a nice big brother.
So we ended up having a +5 hours flight schedule on UA which would take us from Mexico City to Los Angeles and then to Denver.
Ladies and gentlemen prepare for gate departure!
Airbus Industry A320-200
United First Seat 1C
Photo © Luis Tena Orozco
Once again I was surprised on how unpredictable Mexico City's traffic is. This flight was scheduled at 7:15 AM. Being and international departure I woke up way before the cocks announced the end of the night (no NOTHING intended on this phrase ). Driving to the airport area took me a mere 15 minutes, but the 200 feet before the entrance to the actual terminal got me sweating for more than 40 minutes due to the constructions around it. Despite I have been living in Mexico City for some time now I never thought it would get so busy on the wee hours of the morning.
It is our company's policy to sign-in at the airport office and go cash our per-diem and hotel expenses money BEFORE we actually go checking-in for the trip with whatever the carrier is. So in compliance with that I was getting progressively late and late (added to that the fact that the pay clerk was everywhere but in her office), thus reducing the chances of getting a decent window seat on the blue Airbus.
All hurried and stressed-out I checked-in less than one hour before the departure time. All my preparations and search on http://www.seatguru.com on the previous days looking for the best seats went down the drain as the only seats available were middle seats next to noisy babies and their smelly (and potentially dangerous) formula. Not having another option I just thanked the check-in agent and proceeded to run to security so fast that Ana Guevara would be jealous of my speed and style.
Up to that moment, not a very exciting experience besides these three facts:
I was already sweating at 6:30 AM; and I was late.
I had a crappy seat in the aft most position on the plane and I WAS LATE.
I had diarrhea; well you don't need to know that. Bad tacos, bad tacos.
I finally got to the boarding gate and just when I was about to be a "selectee" and have a buff security guy pass his stick all over me (I should write porn) I heard:
"Mr. Marin on United's flight 992 to Los Angeles please come to the desk at the boarding gate".
- “Are they calling me? What did I do now? Why are they paging me? I haven't steal the Safety Card... yet.”
Turned out that we were eligible for an upgrade due to our airlines agreement. There IS a God up there. So before anything else happened I grabbed the new boarding pass, smelled it (I don't know why but I vividly recall doing so) cut the boarding line while giving my former "class mates" THE glance and gayer-than-Christmas I asked "are you boarding First already?".
God! That is so wrong but feels so good!
And there I was; seating on wide 1C, getting familiar with my comfortable surrounding: Plenty of legroom, a pillow (cloth case), a blanket, a gazillion of magazines in the rack and something really unusual... an un-used airsickness bag! (I travel a lot and 8 out of 10 have chewing gum inside). I don't recall being offered a drink, but the other fellow passengers were having juice, coffee or water.
Photo © Justin Cederholm
We had a mixed male/female crew. The welcome announcements were done both in English and Cuban-Spanish ("Bienvenidos a boldo de este vuelo intelnacional...") All of the flight attendants were extremely nice and seemed to enjoy their job.
1C is an aisle seat and I had my Check Captain seating across the aisle on the same first row. Because of the nature of his job training pilots in the simulator he travels a lot that route, so he started to make conversation with one of the flight attendants he knew and who because of her seniority and personal preferences, -I later knew- only does LAX-MEX-LAX.
I must say that she is probably the nicest flight attendant I have ever flown with. All a lady in her mid 50s, with that attitude that would make you doubt whether you are in a United A320 or in a DC-8 from the golden age of air travel. Well… wait a second; she probably worked THE golden age.
The boarding ended soon and I happily realized I had the window seat next to mine available. Evidently I switched places as I enjoy watching outside (albeit the windows on airbuses are way too small).
With everyone seated we were shown the safety video on the drop-down screens. The information on the video was clear with caption in both English and Spanish. It was very informative and most important, concise (Continental’s on the other hand are boring long). It was very well presented but implied that the inflation of the life vests should be done inside the aircraft, situation which was clarified verbally by the flight attendants on their English and Cuban-Spanish speeches.
We pushed-back exactly on time, and with no other safety duties pending, our purser asked us our preference on French toast or cheese omelet. Having worked in catering myself before becoming a pilot I chose the first, as the egg under certain conditions of time, humidity and heat turns green and hardens. Besides, it would have been really uncomfortable for all of us given my rather delicate stomach situation at the time.
The taxi route to runway 05L which we used gives the passengers on the right hand side of the plane a nice view of all the tails along the terminal building. Among the most interesting I saw a Japan Airlines 747 and an Iberia A340.
We held short of the runway for a little bit and just when I was closing my eyes we started to move. Having flown lately a lot on anything but Boeings I must say that Airbuses are some silent metal tubes. I mean, the full thrust on take off is way quieter than the “idle” of my dear old Boeings. The roar of the engines decreased even more as we passed through 1,000 feet and the crew did a brief cutback once the so-called Second Segment of the take off was cleared (technical stuff though).
Almost immediately after take off the announcements about the on board services and lavatories were done. We were also told about the movie and the sound channel selections. At the moment I had already on my brand new earphones and was pushing like maniac the little buttons on my armrest, trying to make work channel 9 (live ATC). For some reason it wasn’t on; I guess due to some kind of regulatory restriction as we were still well into Mexican airspace (and about 2:50 hours before entering USA’s). Anyway, I was so tired from my early morning mess that I just selected the jazz channel and dozed). I guess that nothing interesting happened for the next few minutes, except probably that the guy seating behind me started to snore. And so I did.
These are the two things enjoy the most in the morning: Wake up sex and coffee. I don’t get much of the former so I have to be grateful with life for some great Starbucks. We were just leveling off when our purser came into the cabin offering hot towels which we really appreciated. Soon after that she came with our trays and breakfast selection. Boy it looked yummy! Three thick slices of sweet French toast with two pieces of Canadian bacon, hot maple syrup, fresh fruit and a croissant. I had some apple juice, water and got to try that great-smelling coffee.
The movie was on already; it was “The hitchhiker’s guide to the Galaxy”; a 1 hour and 43 minutes waste of celluloid.
With empty trays I proceeded to fill the immigration and customs paperwork, something I always find fun to do trying to imagine my luggage full of fruits, plants, food, insects, meats, animals, disease agents, cell cultures, snails, soil, livestock or in the best event, 10,000 dollars. Insects? Disease agents? Cell cultures? Well I probably have those, but… 10 grant? Come on! I laughed loudly on that thought and woke up the guy on 2B.
What happened on the following hour and a half or so? I don’t know. I was totally unplugged from reality. Just could hear every now and then the “thump – thump” on the floor as someone walked through the aisle and also my instructor talking with the nice flight attendant.
After catching up some good sleep I had some coffee and quickly took a look at the Skymall magazine and to Hemispheres. I used to collect inflight magazines when I was a kid but had to stopped due to lack of space. I remember that UA’s magazine was Vis á Vis. Can anybody out there tell me since when they changed the name?
We were already in US airspace so I changed to channel 9 to hear some live ATC. Hearing the technical phraseology going on, the request for weather deviations, and all the fascinating stuff while I was comfortably seated back in the cabin made me feel respect for the folks in the front. I realized that was the kind of respect I want to feel more often and that I ultimately DESERVE. I felt proud of what it is both my passion and profession, despite that for some –including some employers- we pilots are just some spoiled and “overpaid” drivers.
Being well informed on the progress of the flight I deducted that the time for descent was approaching. I reviewed the little LAX gate map on Hemispheres just to have a quick idea of where we were going to be arriving. I noticed that the “prepare for take off” and “prepare for landing” callouts from the cockpit to the flight attendants are done well in advance and in some cases up to 15 minutes before the actual take off or touch down.
I also noticed that the seat belt sign is strictly observed by the passengers and crew and is on just when it is needed to be. Many pilots I know including myself) for some long time periods just ignore that little seat belt switch and leave it on even when the flight is smooth. That reduces the passenger’s respect to that instruction thus being common that our flight attendants go crazy seating their a$$es down when truly needed.
Now on final approach we were vectored for the arrival and landed rather quickly and were cleared to the gate on first contact. I got my stuff ready for a quick escape from the plane trying to beat the rush time at immigration and luckily we succeeded on that.
After I exited my little first class world I was struck by reality. Albeit we were the first in line at immigration the officers were changing shifts and were taking their BIG time, drinking coffee, feeling like God and plain acting their little show knowing we were looking at them. I kind of understand their position with a gazillion of people from all over the world to check, but come on! it was roughly after 9:00 AM, can’t you at least return my “good mornings”?
We waited and waited for my luggage to come. 30 minutes after we arrived to the gate I finally had my hands on my Samsonite, ran to Customs and cleared it in a breeze.
Economy Plus Seat 9B
Photo © MSTAerodrome
We were told at the arrival into LAX that despite our flight to DEN had the same flight number, a gate an aircraft change was needed. We went to the new assigned gate and our seven-five was already there.
There I was staring to it through the window. It was impossible not to think, that that aircraft model in the exact same colors became a protagonists of the horror of 9/11. That thought crossed my mind again when I was inside the cabin. I just stayed silent for a moment…
Despite my efforts and that we were already waitlisted for an upgrade, this time we were not lucky and took our pre-assigned seats in Economy. I played my cards right back in Mexico City when I checked in for the whole flight as I requested any seat on row 9 and luckily I got 9B with lots and lots of legroom (as the boarding door on the left side of the 757 is right ahead of the row). It was a FULL flight but for me it was very pleasant.
Photo © Chris Barrow
Photo © Chris Barrow
The first thing that caught my attention upon boarding was the extremely nice welcome I had from one of the flight attendants. Absolutely adorable; a young 24-25 years-old gal blonde with short hair. She was all excited about her job, helping everyone with their bags, giving attentive announcements, offering help with carry-ons and relocating families together. Her niceness was so that I noticed some rolling eyes from her older (way older) coworkers; like when saying “you newbie, stop working so hard, all of these bastards will think we are all the same!”.
As my seat was right in front of their jumpseat, during take off and landing I had the time to chit chat a little bit. What a sweetheart!
This time all the announcements were done only in English and after several headcounts we finally pushed back slightly late. The 757 has one of the most impressive performances on take off. Again the announcements about services on board were done practically after the landing gear was up. We rocketed and leveled off in no time.
Our service consisted on a tiny little bag of pretzels and a beverage. I had diet Pepsi (and got the whole can for you wanting to know). Lost the next hour and a half watching Madagascar. Funny stuff!
I listened to Channel 9 again and followed the approach and landing as if I was doing it; speed reduction, flaps, gear down… Boy I landed smoothly!
What a beautiful airport DEN is! This was my first time in it and definitely loved how well designed is. I thought the passengers facilities were bigger; airside it is absolutely gigantic. It is comfortable, easy to navigate and really friendly.
Photo © Aaron Mandolesi
Photo © George Canciani
We disembarked and on this occasion the first bag came on the belt less than 15 minutes after our arrival. I personally thanked the young flight attendant and told her about her excellent job and attitude she has. I hope she never changes and finds her job as exciting as day one.
Up to that point I was absolutely in love with United. There were some minor things on the return trip that I will write sometime later this week. The training facilities are nothing but amazing with several full-motion simulators (737/747/767/777), great rest areas, impeccable briefing and debriefing rooms and what it is best, honest, friendly people!
Thank you United for such a great experience!