Here is a comparison report, but I tried to make it fun. Please do not be offended by any sarcasm. I flew to Seattle three weeks prior to this trip report and wrote separate reports about each flight.
First Class Chicago To Seattle On A United 757 (by RoseFlyer Jul 23 2006 in Trip Reports)
I thought it would be fun to write a comparison report about what it is like to take the exact same flight exactly 20 days later. I will try to add comparisons to see how a different crew and plane function on the same route. How consistent is the service that United offers from a frequent flyer’s point of view?
For this flight, I knew that I was going to go to Seattle again on United. There were two options. I live in Rockford Illinois. Rockford has a small airport and United has two daily flights to DEN. I have flown to Seattle twice this summer already. First I flew RFD-DEN-SEA. The most recent time I flew ORD-SEA. Both take about the same amount of time with the driving time factored in. However I prefer the convenience of RFD since there is free parking at the terminal and it is such an easy airport. Although it is fun to look at the planes in ORD, it is a huge hassle since it is in the top two busiest airports in the country. If I already had my boarding pass, I could easily get to the airport 15-20 minutes before the flight and have no problem. Well I looked up the different fares for this trip. The 2:24pm departure from Rockford was costing $1150 and the 5:25pm departure from ORD cost $510 (a refundable ticket would have cost $560, but I decided not to do that). Well it is obvious what choice I made. I booked one month ahead of time. Now the crazy thing is that I looked up fares out of curiosity the day before I left. With 20 hours advance purchase the fare from Rockford was $574 and the fare from ORD was $1150. I could not believe it. What type of pricing strategy does United employ? The fare from RFD, which was my preferred airport dropped in half. I considered changing my ticket, but with the fare difference and the $100 change fee, that would have been another $170 on my credit card and since I was paying for this trip I deemed that unnecessary. I know it is annoying when people complain about why one airport might be cheaper than the other of the fact that a flight between BWI and LAX is often cheaper than DCA to BOS. However I cannot understand why 20 hours advance purchase causes the fare to drop in half. I guess United is hoping that there are enough people (and companies like the one I work for) that send people from Rockford and will pay ridonculus fares.
To the Airport
For this trip I began from work just like the other. I was flying flight 949, which is the 5:25pm departure from Chicago to Seattle on a United 757. I left work at 2:30 pm just like I did last time, but this time I knew not to stop by my apartment or get gas. Last time I made it to the gate while they were already boarding within 20 minutes of departure time, but getting there 20 minutes ahead of time was preferable to running out of gas on I-90 or getting a ticket in Illinois and having them take my drivers license, which would result in some problems at the TSA. The drive from Rockford Illinois to ORD is about 80 minutes. I now have an IPASS, which I did not have last trip, so the tollway to ORD is a lot easier now, especially with open road tolling opening up. I still cannot understand the whole point of a tollway. Why can Illinois not get its road money from other sources that are not so inconvenient? But at least they are opening up open road tolling so that you do not have to slow down at the toll booth.
I made it to the economy parking lot approximately 90 minutes before my flight, which was much earlier than last time. Since thirty minutes can make a big difference at an airport. They had part of the lot blocked off, but I found a way to get into the section, which had more parking spaces open. Whenever they “guide” you to an area with more parking spaces, it is a good idea to do your best to circumvent the guidance and park in the space where they are getting you to avoid since there usually are spots there from people leaving. I parked very close to the train this time and then walked on over and hopped on to make the ride to terminal one, which is the fourth stop. At the international terminal a nice older lady who had just flown from Stockholm sat next to me and we started talking about Europe in the summer. She got off at terminal three to catch an AA flight to STL.
At the Airport
I got off at the United gates. I made my way to the priority security line again. And by priority line, I mean just another line for people that want to think of themselves as important or special. This time the line was snaking out in front of the premier check in. I was wondering how much of a priority this security is. I will admit that most priority screening as a whole in most airports is a lot faster and you can count on not waiting 20 minutes in line, but not here not now. This is pandemic to ORD, but are you really surprised? For my last flight, it took 15 minutes, which was bad since I arrived at the terminal 40 minutes before my departure time. I realized why the line seemed longer. They had built a little room behind the United ticket counter where the priority line use to be. There was also only one check point open instead of two like last time. When I got to the checkpoint, I pulled out my laptop, took off my belt, took off my shoes, took off my ring, removed my cell phone and wallet and made it through security after stripping all of those extra necessities that make me who I am. I feel like I am disrobing for them since I have to take off all the accessories from my body, but I guess that is what it takes to ensure safety these days, even though things are getting way worse since the latest terrorist threat. I gathered all my belongings and reassembled myself in a way that looked mostly presentable. I checked the monitors and today flight 949 was departing from gate C26 just like last time. Same gate. That was nice. I wonder how much gates vary for flights at an incredibly congested airport like ORD.
At the Gate
I was holding an economy boarding pass and had waitlisted for first class. The upgrade was not confirmed this time like it was last time, which was a bummer. I am Premier Executive, and I have never had a problem getting an upgrade that I listed for ahead of time. What made things worse is that United lost my seat assignments. When I checked in at work earlier in the day I noticed that I was assigned in seat 27E, which is a middle seat in regular economy. I was quite upset and tried changing the seat, but there was nothing other than a middle seat in the last row of the plane available. I am sorry if I sound stuck up, but I am not loyal to United, and deserve more than to end up in middle seats near the back of the plane especially when paying over $500 for a 1721 mile flight. Economy plus is worth paying the extra to fly United. I looked at my itinerary and noticed that I had no seat assignment for the flight back either. This was not good. So I immediately called up the Premier Executive phone line to get that fixed. I got through to an agent immediately and she was even an American or at least had an American accent. I asked if there were first class seats for this flight available and she said there were still open seats, but they were under airport control, which meant that I would have to just hope once I got to the airport. She then gave me seat 11A for my return flight, but of course could do nothing about the outbound trip to Seattle since departure time was just four hours away. I also checked on my reservation to LHR at the end of the month and switched those business class seat assignments. The lady was very nice to me and was American. I really liked that. She also sympathized for me being less than happy about being assigned a middle seat in the back. I could have flown other airlines for less, but I am loyal when United treats me well and because of this flew over 70,000 miles last year with them.
Ok with that rant out of the way, I wanted to check with the agent to see if the upgrade was possible. I know agents absolutely hate doing this. But I wanted to know mostly because I was hungry and wanted to know if I would get a real meal or not. The economy snack boxes just do not do it for me. Salty processed food does not count as a meal although you cannot expect much more for just $5. I still do remember the days in 2003 when those snack boxes were still free on this exact flight. To inquire about my upgrade possibilities, I picked a time when there was no line and went up and asked. I kind of lied and asked if I was on the list and the chances of it clearing, although I knew I was already on the list. I thought that if I made her go as far as looking up my name on the computer, she might be more likely to let me know if I would get the upgrade and therefore, food, sleep and free booze on the flight. She told me that the list was long and would not give me an idea of the chances of an upgrade were however. She was not that nice. I stood near by and noticed many people inquire about upgrades and their stand by status and each time this woman said that she could not check where they were on the list, which to me is a total lie since I have had plenty of agents do this. I think this woman was just being lazy, but maybe she could not check for the flight due to some lazy gate agent virus that infected her computer, but I still will not reserve judgment. I did notice though one passenger come up and inquire about an upgrade and she immediately printed his boarding pass. Ugh.
Boarding started just as another agent began calling names for upgrades. She called two names and neither passenger showed up. And then I heard the words that I really wanted to hear. She called my name. I ran up there with a big grin on my face waving my ticket in the air as if I was chasing down a train as it was leaving the station. Ok, I did not do that, but I was handed a boarding pass for seat 1C. That is a whole lot nicer than economy, but still the worst first class seat on the plane. Oh well, I was happy. I was the last passenger to get an upgrade.
Photo © Manas Barooah
Photo © Daniel Wojdylo
They were boarding first class and I pushed my way through the huge crowd of people. I feel horrible doing this. All these people are waiting for economy and surrounded the boarding door and gate reader. I did not want to look like one of those snobs that waves around a first class ticket and says “excuse me, but I am in first class” as if I was better than everyone else. I do not think of first class passengers as better or anything, so I did not want to be rude, even though at heart I wanted to push through so that I could get my carryon bag in a bin. The agent had already called for economy seating area 1 to board by the time I got to the door. ORD boarding is pushy and not very nice, but it is way better than how they do it in some airports, like those in Russia or India when it is a mob scene, or for any Lufthansa flight even if you are in first class. The last time I took this flight 20 days prior, I boarded with Seating Area 2 since I was late, and being on time this time around let me board in Seating Area 1. Maybe next time I will actually board with first class. But fortunately I had a confirmed upgrade the last time I flew this flight. If I was on the waitlist that time, there is no way that I would have gotten the seat since I would not have been there when they cleared the list. I was happy that I made it though.
I boarded the plane and was greeted by a flight attendant. I made the turn left towards first class, which is always a good thing since it means that it will be a good flight. I put my stuff in the overhead compartment above row 2 and sat down in first class. The wall was so close. This is a horrible bulkhead, but I cannot complain since it is better than the economy seat that I would have had. But still I preferred seat 5A which I had last time I flew the route. I like window seats and rows 2-5 are nice since there is plenty of space and you have full recline. First class is comfortable for shorter flights, but not for long haul of course since sleeping is not that easy in these seats unless one takes or drinks something to make the process a bit easier.
A flight attendant came by with water. There was no ice. But I was thirsty. Last time there was ice and the option of orange juice or water. But I noticed that the catering truck was just pulling up to the plane, so I am guessing that they were not catered yet, which meant a limited service. UA did better last time in that regard. Neither flight had a delayed inbound plane, so there is not much of a reason for them not to be able to cater.
I relaxed and flipped through the Hemispheres magazine. I noticed that the movie today would be Mission Impossible III. This is a decent movie and filled with action, so I was happy. Boarding was soon completed on time and we were ready to go. I was watching the flight attendants in the forward galley do their work. The purser considered doing a full beverage offering this time, but she was not able to since there was not enough time. The jetway was retracted after the final announcement from the ground staff in Chicago was made. At this point the flight attendant was surprised that there were three seats open in first class. I was too since there apparently was such a long stand by and upgrade list. I think that gate agent was lazy and full of herself personally. A plain clothes man who was riding in the jumpseat came back and took an open seat in first class. I contemplated moving, but then that probably would have angered the person that I would sit next to since they were probably looking forward to having an open seat next to them, so I remained in my assigned seat.
The safety video played and again I watched the Spanish subtitles so that I could pick up new words and pay attention to the video that I have seen many times. The subtitles do not serve much of a purpose though since they pop up so quickly because the flight attendants in the video speak very quickly. If English was not my first language, there is a good chance that I would not have been reminded to look around and locate the two exits nearest to my seat and that in some cases my nearest useable exit may be behind me. At least this plane had the updated video that United recently did with the new uniforms and actual graphics. We pushed back while this was playing.
After the video I turned to channel 9 just like I did last time. I could not hear anything. I turned up the volume and played with it, but there was not anything. We began taxiing, so I knew they were talking. I was fearful that there would be no channel 9, which would be such a shame. What would I do, if there was no channel 9? Regular audio just does not fulfill the same void in my life. But then a flight attendant came up and flipped a switch and it worked. Maybe the audio programming had not been turned on or something. We made a decently long taxi towards the runway. There was a fairly long line. It was longer this time than it was on the previous flight 20 days earlier. There had been some low clouds in Chicago that morning, but everything hand cleared up and the weather was perfect. We waited for about 10 planes to takeoff. We finally pulled on to the runway at T10 just like last time.
Takeoff and Departure
The engines spooled up and we began our launch down the runway. This 757 was just as powerful as the last one with its glorious PW engines, so we were up and off the runway in just 38 seconds. That is so much shorter than the 1:02 takeoff roll that I experienced on an A345, but of course there is no comparing the longest flight in the world to a domestic flight on a 757. We made a sweeping left hand turn to head northwest. Just as we reached 5000ft we were cleared to 13,000ft and turned due west for climb, just like the last time. Same departure and everything. We were cleared to 23,000 and then up to our final of 35,000ft just like last time.
On our climb the flight attendant eventually began to take orders for dinner. She did it by rows and the offerings were chicken or pasta with red sauce. These were pretty much the exact same as last time. I asked for the chicken this time since I had the pasta last time and it lacked flavour. Next the other flight attendant came by and offered drinks. I had some white wine and my seatmate had red wine. I noticed that pretty much everyone had alcohol. Some had wine, but others had beer and then there were plenty of mixed drinks too. Although mixed drinks do not work very well with the small United glasses that they fill completely up with ice. I saw someone have a gin and tonic and that drink must have been ¾ gin, which is definitely strong. The bar section of the cart was being heavily used. Slightly, but not fully warm nuts were also served and a warm towel came too. There was no warm towel on the last flight. I am not sure why. There should not be a difference as far as hot towels go. My white wine was not that great. It was an Australian wine, which was a bit bitter for my tastes. It was a De Bortoli Chardonnay 2005. I liked the wine served on the last flight more although it definitely tasted like cheap wine. But overall United does not serve the best wine in first class anymore for domestic flights. Champagne is also gone as well. United changes the level of service a lot in first class it seems.
The purser came by and asked the people in 1A and 1B if they would not mind switching to the pasta since the chicken was overequested. She started explaining that she would have to go by status for who gets what. She pointed out that it was between me and the person in seat 1A. I was a bit surprised that a Premier Executive was on the bottom of the priority list. There must have been a lot of 1Ks or global service passengers, but I guess that is why my upgrade did not clear ahead of time. I however offered to take the pasta since I was pretty confident that I knew what I was getting and it was not that bad. I like pasta a lot personally and it was a tough decision to begin with to go for chicken.
Dinner service came and it was a bit different from what I had expected. At first I was like OMG, what is wrong, United threw me a curveball. So do you want to know what the difference was? They had stuffed pasta shells instead of ravioli. The stuffing was the exact same, the red sauce was the same, but there was a bit less parmesan cheese, phew. Ok I will settle down after that surprise. Overall it was slightly different, but still essentially the same meal. I am kind of curious as to why they changed it. I am sure someone in cost analysis has a reason, but overall it tasted the same. I was also sipping my cheap Australian wine and enjoying the same bland salad with the same ranch dressing from the stupid little plastic cuppy thing that holds most of the dressing in and will not let you pour it in any coherent way at all. A flight attendant came by with bread and this time since I was in the front there were more options than just dinner rolls that cost 20 cents each at Walmart. I have always been a fan of the bread that they serve on United, but I guess I am just a bread snob. I ate my meal rather slowly while enjoying the wine and somewhat watching Mission Impossible III. The movie is filled with action, so it is easy to half watch, or at least if you are a guy and like that kind of thing. My seatmate quickly finished his food as if it were a race, but I ate it slowly. After all when you have four hours where you do not have to do anything, you might as well savour your food. Flying in first class is so nice since you can just relax with no responsibilities. Winning the food race does not serve a purpose, especially when you are not shoveling in the most tasty creations on the planet in to your mouth. Normally in life I have to worry about a lot of different things and often feel bad just sitting and drinking a glass of wine since there is probably something else that I should be doing. But on a plane it is different. I guess that is why the EWR-SIN flight on a Singapore Airlines A340-500 in Raffles Class was probably some of the best 18 hours of my life.
But I digressed. The meal was pretty good. It was not great, and just like last time; I would be dissatisfied if I had paid for it at a restaurant, but this was on an airplane, and it certainly was not bad. I wish United would have less bland food. I love their catering for flights within Asia since it is a bit tastier since I guess they know that food should taste like more than nothing in that part of the world, but I guess many Americans enjoy food without too much spice or flavour. Eventually I finished and had my tray cleared after I had four glasses of wine. I will just say that I was feeling pretty happy and it was probably a good thing that I was in an aisle seat. Shortly thereafter another flight attendant came by offering desserts. It was the same tiramisu, which looked pretty, but I will give you one guess for what it tasted like? Did you make your guess? Well you would be correct if you said nothing. So I chose not to have it. I can take my extra 300 calories in some other form during the day and enjoy them much more. I then passed out in my seat and went to sleep. I have found that this is my routine on flights now. Sit back, relax, eat, drink and sleep. What a perfect life. If only I was allowed to do that at work, life would be perfect.
I woke up about 40 minutes out of Seattle just like the last time. I listened to channel 9 briefly and realized we were over about Spokane Washington and would shortly begin our descent. I flipped through the IFE channels, but none of the XM stations were working so the only things on were the short subject programming and channel 9. I guess the highly successful system of 8 inch cassette tapes that United uses for its IFE failed on this case. They have not even installed satellite receives, but just record the stations. The United short subject programming is pretty low quality. It is filled with advertisements for United, NBC and its shows, or networking junk that is directed at business travelers. Maybe there will be one sitcom. I am sorry, but I have nothing to do with my companies networking needs, so can we please not get bombarded with these advertisements? Thanks.
I got up and went to the lavatory, and on the way back asked for some Pepsi from the flight attendant sitting there since I was tired, but wanted some caffeine so that I would have energy to have a fun night that I was planning upon arrival in Seattle. The flight attendant searched all over for glasses, but could not find one. I said I could just take the can, but he seemed to get offended at that thought since I would not get ice and that would be such a travesty in his mind even though I actually like soda without the ice. But he insisted on making my United experience as good as possible, so we compromised and he found a plastic cup and put ice in it and handed me the can with the cup of ice, which I took back to my seat. I then pulled out a book and started reading. I just sat their with my book and listened to channel 9. I was so comfortable that I actually wanted to slow time down or extend the flight. But alas we began our descent.
I listened in on the traffic, but there was not too much going on. It was only 7:30pm, so most of the evening arrivals in Seattle were not making it in yet. The skies would be a lot busier in an hour or two, since so many planes RON in Seattle. There are just tons and tons of arrivals at night in Seattle and all the planes leave again in the morning. So departures are busy in the morning, but arrivals are empty and the opposite is true at night. It is kind of weird since you would naturally think that planes would come and go at the same time, but on the west coast things work just a wee bit differently. Just as we began our descent, we hit a few bumps, so the pilot turned on the fasten seat belt sign. But then it was turned off as we smoothed out about 5 minutes later and we got the typical message from the pilots with the weather, expected arrival time, distance from the airport, how long until the seatbelt sign would come on, and finally a thank you for flying United (and if the flight was late there would be an apology at the end). It is a very orderly speech, and I sometimes wonder if it is prescripted and the pilots just read something inserting words like Seattle, 140 miles, 74 degrees, and partly cloudy in. But everything that pilots do on a normal basis is found on a checklist somewhere or in standard operating procedures, so I guess this is normal.
Descent and Arrival
Just on time, the seat belt sign came back on when we were at about 23,000ft. We stepped our way down as we flew in and made the exact same turn over Issaquah to the south towards Lake Tapps. At this time the purser came by and picked up my plastic cup and asked where on earth I got that from. I wanted to make up something funny like saying I was a contraband plastic cup thief, but I think the company polo that I was wearing gave away that I am just a poor measly engineer. I was honest and said that they ran out of glasses, and she then commented by saying that they used an inordinate amount of glasses on this flight and wondered why. I could have answered by pointing out that about 20 people had alcoholic or mixed drinks at some point, and they drank away the fresh supply of glasses, but I kept my tongue in my mouth and just smiled.
We continued southwards and over Lake Tapps where we made our turn to downtown Tacoma. This time ATC was smart enough to know that planes only descend at a certain rate, so we were not told to turn to base and final too early. We cruised over Tacoma and at the point the final announcement, err flick of the smoking sign was made. This caused the flight attendants to jump up and ready the cabin. I pulled up my seat like everyone else in first class did. First class flyers know what the ding means. Well I guess most a.netters do as well. But in case you do not, or need to be refreshed on proper landing etiquette the flight attendants came on the PA to tell us. Seat backs and tray tables in the upright and locked position, by the way, how do you go about putting your seatback in the locked position. I may be an engineer, but this is something that I have not figured out yet. Maybe next time I will take out my padlock and lock it in place next time. But of course if I did that, I might have an Air Marshall up my ass, so I might not do that. Oh also, pass your trash or to be more politically correct, “items that you wish to discard” to the flight attendants rather than leaving it on the tray table as you lock it. That makes a mess, and that is not very nice.
Guess, what, it is time to make a right turn, which means we are turning on final approach. I am listening to channel 9 at this time and we are following a FedEx MD10, but the controller got confused and said something along the lines of “DC 10, actually MD-11, oh you know what I mean”. We were continued on our way towards the runway as an American 757 and Southwest 737 follow us. We are still on approach and the AA 757 and WN 737 are both told to contact the tower. Our pilot obviously feels left out of the party, since we were ahead of those other guys and he calls up and we switch over to tower as well. We are cleared to land on runway 34L. The landing was a nice one. No bumps or bruises today. We slow down with reverse thrust and just as we are told to cross the other active runway, the flight attendant comes on to give us our welcome to Seattle announcement. Somehow announcing the time of day dropped out of this announcement, but it was a good thing that I was ahead of the game and changed my watch somewhere over Iowa.
We made our way to gate N1. We pulled in and the engines shut down and everyone prepared to stand up as they were waiting for the seat belt sign to go out. I particularly like how they needed to prepare by leveraging their arm on the seat. It is almost as if they need to prepare for the huge ordeal of standing up. So they prepared by having their hand on the seatbelt and other one on the armrest so they could win the battle in to the aisle and therefore overhead compartments first. Because you all know that your rollaboard suitcases spoil and go rotten if you leave them in the overhead compartment for more than the absolute minimum time required. Well since I had an aisle seat, I did pretty well in the race and was able to get my bag out before the line even started to move. I was proud of myself. Eventually we started to move and I made my way all the way back to row 6. I said thank you to a flight attendant that I had not interacted with at any point in the flight before that point and was off. I made it to the escalator and after a quick bathroom stop was on the subway train to the main terminal. I made it out without trouble and two of my good friends from way back in high school met me. After the compulsory hugs, we were off in her Toyota Prius saving gas and the whales as we went out for the night.
United is very consistent in their product. They offer a pretty good first class offering. They still have real glasses and real flatware except for the plastic knives, but at least they are high quality plastic and coloured gray. In fact they might be strong enough to rival the old knives, but that should not be mentioned. The flight attendants offered a good service and I enjoyed the flight. UA serves cheap wine, but there is plenty of liquor available and the first class passengers are pretty good at drinking it. I plan on doing this flight more in the future. It is a good one with a good departure time from Chicago and good arrival time in Seattle.
I hope you liked this trip report. I tried to make it a bit more fun since I reviewed the exact same flight 20 days ago. I also added some attitude and humor. I hope it was not over the top or offensive. I was just joking around. Read my other trip report if you want a more serious version of the same flight. Also please leave your comments about what you liked, or what you did not and anything else that you would like to discuss. Also do you like the more entertaining style of writing? I will try to write a trip report about my next flight too, but I do not know what that will be since my trip to London at the end of the month got postponed because the organizers did not want to go to London after the terrorist threats.