Going to post this now while it's still fresh on my mind. I did take pics (on the flight back) but am going to upload them later when I can resize them (I just installed Tiger on my laptop and haven't reinstalled my apps yet.
So, I treated myself to a holiday in London because I was so enamored with the place. I found a sub-$500 fare and what I thought was a decent hotel (more on that later) and booked the tickets in October.
And so, here it goes:
#1, SFO-LHR, UA954, a B772.
Scheduled departure: 1810, from gate 92
Actual departure: 1855
Touch: 1215 +1
Arrival: 1225, at gate 318, -15
First off, let me say, for all the bad stuff I've heard about United lately, I've got to give them some kudos on their transatlantic service. I was treated professionally by the crew at all times, from check-in to walk-off, and overall I can say I enjoyed both flights. And good lord, none of that silly Air Canada boarding music!
I went to work in the morning, then took BART from downtown SF
straight to the airport at about 1:30, wanting to see if I could get an upgrade. It took me 3 minutes to get from the BART station at the airport to the United ticket counter. After being complimented on my early arrival, the attendant went right down to business checking me in. I asked "Is there any way I can get an upgrade on my seat?" I was in 37G which wasn't the seat I had asked for in the first place. He told me that I couldn't use miles to upgrade to J class, but that I could get into economy plus for $80. I did it - though, in retrospect, I probably shouldn't have bothered. More on that later. There was a choice of 17J or 22A, both window seats, and 17J was a bulkhead. I picked 22A, namely because of a bad experience I had on an Air Canada A333 earlier this year, where I switched from a middle seat to a middle-seat at the bulkhead, and ended up with a bunch of knee pain because I couldn't stretch my feet out.
He finished checking me in, and then I sat in the lounge in front of security for a while and killed time surfing the net, where I found that according to Seatguru.com I should have taken 17J. Oh well.
Went through security after an hour or so, and then found my gate (92). Plane wasn't there yet. It was storming outside, and the weather was getting worse as the afternoon wore on. This had me a little worried, as I wasn't thrilled at the prospect of having to take off in a rainstorm. Had a bunch of pic opportunities as I saw several United jets push back and depart, even saw a BA
744 roar out from Rwy 10L. Finally at about 1730, a UA
777 comes around and pulls up to our gate. I quickly realise that this is the United flight from London that normally arrives at 1720 local time. The pax get off, and then our group makes its way downstairs into the boarding lounge. Then comes the announcement: the plane is going to be delayed. New pushback time: 1857.
I take a chill pill, and everyone mills and waits until the lady comes on and tells us we're ready to board. We wait for our group number (mine was 2) and get on the aircraft. Not the newest of jets, but not raggedy at all. I find my seat (22A) in econ plus, with a wonderful view of...a wing. That's all I would see, the entire flight.
After everybody boards up, pushback is at the new scheduled time, the captain spools up both engines at once (I have only noticed this on 777 aircraft) and we begin our relatively short taxi to Rwy 10R, in the pouring rain. And then I realise two things: it's pouring rain and wind, and I'm on a United plane...and you know what that means: ATC chatter on Channel 9, baby. So I whip out the headphones and plug in.
It's a trip to know how many times a plane is handed off between radio frequencies. We were on a separate frequency for pushback and taxi, and then we got handed off to the main SFO
After a few other jets roared off on 10L we finally got clearance to start our roll. We were on the ground for a long time before rotation. Almost immediately after we rotated, the pilot banked us to the right, fairly hard. We also had quite a bit of turbulence. That was a little harrowing. Thankfully, being able to listen as the pilots talked with Nor-Cal Departure made things easier to deal with. After about a good minute and a half of this, we leveled out, and broke out of the rainstorm. At this point we were almost at the bottom of the Bay, near Alviso, and we made the hook toward the north, flying right over my house and then basically following I-680 to I-80. We had quite a few bumps on the way out, but with my new friend "Lora Z. Pam," I was doing okay. The lights of the Bay Area faded away and I continued listening to ATC chatter as we got cleared higher and higher, finally leveling off at FL350. At one point, according to our LCD
screens, we were going nearly 700 mph.
We were cleared direct to Great Falls, and shortly after that, the F/As started the dinner meal service. I had specified a low fat meal, and while everybody else got their choice of beef or pasta, I got chicken, and it was actually pretty good. Finished eating, had a few drinks of water and continued to check out my view...of the wing.
After sorta flipping through the magazine I'd bought at the airport, I was starting to feel a bit tired, and so I decided to listen to some music. I cued up my "All Aboard...the Night Plane!" playlist on my iPod, leaned my seat back as far as it'd go, and let the tunes (and the turbulence) rock me to sleep. I ended up getting a good 6 or 7 hours. I can see taking this flight to London all the time.
Anyhow. I wake up fully and my window has been closed for me. I open it and it's fairly bright outside - and I see greenery down below. I turn on my screen and notice we're well within Scotland, streaking our way toward London. I plugged in to channel 9 and listened as London Center first put us in a holding pattern to the northwest of London, then allowed us to make what I call the "Canary Wharf Hook" in line for the short final to Heathrow's Runway 27R. I did notice that we didn't get clearance to land until we were virtually upon the threshold!
Taxi and arrival were uneventful, and everybody briskly moved off the plane. Remembering the crawl I experienced the last time I arrived at Heathrow, I ran down the hallways to try to beat the crowd to customs control. There was hardly anyone there. I breezed through in like 2 minutes. Got my suitcase, had nothing to declare, and made my way down to the Piccadilly line for my journey into central London.
London was great, as always. Though I will have to say, Londoners really need to learn the beauties of spice when it comes to cooking their food. It's almost like they're scared of salt and pepper, much less anything more complicated than that. Or maybe I just haven't found the right places to eat yet.
Also, the Park International hotel is a dive, plain and simple. It looked good in the pictures and the reviews were nice, but the experience left much to be desired. The wireless didn't work, my heater didn't work, there were all kinds of weird noises and vibrations from different parts of the hotel, and let's not even talk about the view...I was stuck in the dungeon room. Let's just say I won't be going back.
Unfortunately I had no choice but to come back to San Francisco, and early on Monday, I made my way back to Heathrow for my return flight.
#2, LHR-SFO, UA931, a B772 (probably the same one that came out on UA954.
Scheduled departure: 1405, from gate 319
Actual departure: 1410
Arrival: 1730, at gate 96, +10
Check-in was a breeze, once I walked the 37 miles from the Underground station to the ticket counter. I was informed that since the flight was full, there would be no getting into Economy Plus today. This actually turned out to be a bonus, because, while I lost a few extra inches in seat pitch, I got a great view (some of which you will see when I upload the pics.)
Made my way to the departure lounge, surfed the net and then had a nice lunch at the TGI Friday's there. Talked shop with the greeter about Mac OSX Panther vs. Tiger. As I was finishing eating, we finally got our call to go to Gate 19. I had to chill a little, and stop and get some stuff to read as I knew it'd be a long flight. By the time I had gotten my goods, the notice on the departure screens had changed from "Go to Gate 19" to "Last Call". So I booked it to the gate and found that almost everyone was already on the aircraft. I breezed through and found my seat on the plane - being taken up by someone else. I pointed out that it was my seat, and she said "No, I'm in 33A." I said "yes, but this is 34A." She got up and moved forward a seat and we had a nice chat.
After everybody was seated, I broke out the headphones and listened to ATC chatter again while we got clearance to taxi after an Emirates 777-300 taxied by us, left to right. I was sitting on the left side of the plane so I got a good view of it. Those 773s are REALLY nice planes. As it slid by, we started pushback, about 10 minutes later than we were supposed to. We did a circuitous taxi around the southern side of the airport, eventually queuing up with a bunch of British Airways and Virgin heavies on Runway 27L. As we waited in line for our turn to depart, I missed a wonderful pic opportunity - a Singapore Airlines 744 making a glorious touchdown on 27R. I was a little nervous about bringing out the camera as the seatmate in 34B was fidgety and giving me looks. Finally, we lined up, got our clearance to roll, and were away.
The last time I flew out of Heathrow was on an Air Canada A333. I remember there was a lot of turbulence that day, and was not aware of noise-abatement schemes at the airport. There was one point where I thought we were going to stall and crash! We dropped about 200-300 feet several times and a number of pax whooped and gasped. But after about 5 to 10 minutes of this, finally the pilots spooled up the engines and the remainder of the flight was smooth.
Thinking about that this time, I had girded myself for the possible rough climbout. However, I got the exact opposite: rotation came fairly quick, and was nice and smooth. The captain spooled the engines down as we got up to 4000 feet, and we passed right over a suburb. Hardly a single bump at all in the first 20 minutes as we turned northeast, then finally, northwest toward Scotland and Iceland. We did encounter some downdrafts as we rose to our cruise of FL320, but I was way chill at that point. Couldn't say the same for my seatmate - he was fidgeting back and forth in his seat, and generally very protective of his seat space. At one point, as I was making myself more comfortable, my pillow protruded into his armrest area and he glared at me and said "You're going to move that, aren't you?" and I replied "as soon as I get to it."
I didn't get as many hours of sleep as I had hoped, I went to sleep as we were crossing over the northwest edge of Scotland, and woke up just as we entered the eastern edge of Nunavut. I remember waking up one time as we crossed over Iceland.
Couldn't go back to sleep after we entered Canada, so I just listened to music and read. We did a sweeping left turn over the country, from the Davis Strait and Foxe Basin, south and westward into northwest Saskatchewan and northeast Alberta, over Calgary and Edmonton, flying into Washington just northwest of Spokane, then south into Oregon, crossing that state directly, and finally, into California, just west of Lassen Peak and Alturas.
After crossing Mt. Shasta, we turned southwest over the north Sacramento Valley, crossing over the Napa Wine Country and basically following the coastline down, past the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco, before making the left turn around Redwood City for one of the nicest, smoothest touches I've had into SFO
in quite a while. The clear weather and calm winds didn't hurt things at all.
Taxi to our gate was quick, as was our deplaning and customs clearance. It took longer for my girlfriend to pick me up and take me home.
I may be flying to Seattle early next month, but likely no trips back to London until early next year. I can hardly wait. I will upload pics from this trip in the next day or two. Thanks for reading!