Airline: United Airlines
Flight number: UA923
Aircraft: Boeing 767-322/ER
Seat: 10F (Business Class)
Distance: 3677 miles
Duration: 7hrs 45mins
Date: Sunday 8th July
Photo © Propfreak
Photo © Craig Mills
The day began far too early, 3.15am to be precise, although oddly enough I didn't feel too tired, a quick shower and a coffee and I was ready for the off. My belongings were all packed up the night before, the rest strategically laid out so I wouldn't forget them. I'd been staying at my parents' house with my wife for the previous week. Our rental car was, for some reason, due back at 5am, several hours before our 7.55am departure. Hertz had been gracious enough to supply me with a Mini Cooper S for the week which was quite fun to drive, and the lovely supercharger whine when giving it the beans made it all the more enjoyable. We got to the Hertz lot a minute before 5am, the heavies arriving from the Far East and beyond visible in a neat stack awaiting the opening of the airport. Dropping off the rental car was painless, although I was feeling a little jealous of the guy who'd rented the brand new Mercedes S550 parked just ahead of us...
The short shuttle to Terminal 3 was unremarkable apart from the fact it was my first trip round the 'Concorde Roundabout' since G-CONC had flown the nest for Brooklands. It just doesn't feel the same now...With the demolition of the car park across from Terminal 3 the place felt much more open and after exchanging pleasantries with our driver we made the short walk across the empty space and round the corner, past six cans of Stella Artois to United's Zone G. I'd managed to slice my finger open when helping my wife with the luggage which didn't really help much! Although booked in Economy, yes you did read that correctly, my shiny Star Alliance Gold card granted me access to the Business Class check-in. This had really saved my behind at Dulles on the outbound flight, but in this instance it was probably of little benefit. I handed over passports and my now blood stained Permanent Resident card and asked about paying to upgrade to Economy Plus exit row seats. The agent said she didn't think there were any seats left in Economy Plus and I resigned myself to an uncomfortable ride home...she then looked up and said, 'Looks like you've both been moved to Business Class. You've got good mileage with us.'. Now there are few feelings much better than being told this and whilst I was jumping up and down for joy inside I was exhibiting typical British reserve on the outside. 'Great! Thanks very much' was about all I could manage. We collected our gold boarding passes for 10E and 10F and went up the escalator for Fast Track and all of a sudden things looked a little brighter. As per usual BAA did their best to spoil things, initially with Fast Track being closed. At 5.20am you might think even Heathrow's busiest terminal would be quiet, but no. At this time BAA could only muster enough staff to operate the one X-ray machine, completely pathetic! A fairly long line had snaked all the way round the available barriers and moved exceptionally slowly. This was made even worse by the fact that another team of personnel were standing beside another screening machine but were just chatting....eventually someone from the other area suggested they open up and so they did. We went from a potential 1hr wait to not much more than 30 seconds!
It was time to negotiate our way through the maze of shops, none of which were open quite yet and find our way to the SAS London Lounge. Unfortunately at 5.40am this wasn't due to open for another twenty minutes so we went to the Red Carpet Club, the worst of the Star Alliance lounges at LHR. This time around it wasn't so bad, there was nobody in the lounge but me, myself and I...and the wife. As a minor bonus the lounge appeared to have been slightly remodeled since my last visit and felt quite a bit nicer.
The slightly refurbished Red Carpet Club
My wife availed the airline of a few interesting flavours of Twinings tea whilst I stuck with the coffee. I tried to zone out of the CNN that was blaring around us and we spoke about our upgrade luck. 6am rolled by and we made the short walk to the London Lounge around the corner. Informed of the existence of United's own lounge we remarked we thought this lounge was superior and were welcomed in. Again nobody upstairs nor down, and so we got a couple of magazines from the racks downstairs and headed up to the first floor.
1) The SAS & Air Canada 'London Lounge' in Terminal 3
2) The view from the window across the apron to runway 27L/09R which was hosting the morning arrivals
The London Lounge offers a satisfactory selection of continental breakfast items. I got a couple of yoghurts and a pain au chocolat and read the paper, glancing up every now and then at the screens to see whether our departure would be pushed back. At 7.10am, around 45 minutes before departure we left the lounge for Gate 19. A couple of flights had arrived at the pier and so we were heading against the traffic. United have recently established a red carpet for priority boarding (Business, First, 1K and Global Services) and this was in place at the gate area. We got into the little lounge expecting boarding to begin soon and an announcement was made that explained boarding would be delayed because the incoming flight was late. OK, well stop telling porky pies now, if the incoming flight was late the screens would have showed a delay. I guess if in doubt use the old 'incoming flight was late' chestnut...
After about twenty minutes an announcement was made to explain the boarding procedures. What was an invariably very simple announcement, red carpet if you are special, the other door if you are less special was turned on its head, The announcement was made over and over and was turned into something that was just plain confusing for some. As red carpet boarding was announced we gathered our bags and headed for the woman manning the gate. Alas half the people were holding out blue boarding passes and subsequently directed to the other door. Sigh. A first for me on a United flight, boarding pass stubs were checked upon entering the aircraft itself. Usually nobody cares!
The cabin was spotless, with blankets, pillows and amenity kits already waiting for us. As per usual with boarding any flight I got out my mp3 player and noise cancelling headphones and waited whilst the boarding procedures were completed. My wife's jacket was hung up and I sat back listening to the 'new' Paul Oakenfold Essential Mix World Tour album I'd created on the mp3 player. From my seat at the back of the cabin I was able to see a lot of confused faces. Some were going to economy, then coming back into business and others including one elderly gentleman in particular who eventually took his seat in front of us but only after standing up in front of his seat for about ten minutes just looking around . Champagne, Orange juice and water were offered to which I accepted a water. I thought best to take care of business before pushback and went to the bathroom in the mid-galley. The sink was out of order with sanitiser left on the side. The stuff was horrible though, leaving a nasty slick on one's hands after use. I headed across to the other bathroom to wash my hands off but found it was occupied. I got the feeling the safety briefing was about to begin and so legged it down to the back of the economy cabin and washed my hands there. I took my seat as the safety briefing began and then old man in front came and sat down...
We taxied round the south side of the central area of Heathrow heading for 27R. We had a great view of the inbound aircraft arriving on 27L, as well as a very busy Terminal 4.
Looking over at Terminal 4 I couldn't help but feeling like a bit of a traitor!
We joined the short line for takeoff, and looking out to the port side I could just make out the other aircraft heading our way. We were soon on the runway and after a few seconds the Pratt & Whitney PW4000s just outside the window roared into life, sending us down the runway for the beginning of our 3677 mile journey to Washington.
Departing from runway 27R
After takeoff we turned close to due north, almost as if we were heading for the US West Coast, a very northerly path for an East Coast flight. As we headed away from the London area I was trying to spot landmarks but the ever increasing cloud didn't help my cause so I relied on the sky map quite a bit.
1)Just after departing from Heathrow - runway 09L/27R in the background
2) Slough and Windsor - the West London reservoirs clearly visible in the background
3) Climbing out over Buckinghamshire
It was time to peruse the menu (which we had to share) as the purser was making her way around the cabin. Starting on the port side at the rear of the cabin working forward I thought by the time she got to us all that would be remaining was leftovers but either way I decided to take a look at the offerings.
Your choice of yoghurt and breakfast breads served with:
Spanish omelette with leek and cabbage cake
Grilled Cumberland sausage and a grilled tomato half
Buttermilk pancakes with grilled Cumberland sausage
Cranberry sauce and spiced apple compote
Chilled deli plate with Gruyère cheese, smoked salmon, honey ham, salami, asparagus and egg wedge
prior to arrival
Smoked salmon with kalamata olive and sun-blushed tomato
Fresh seasonal greens
Creamy garlic or honey Dijon vinaigrette
Pan-seared filet mignon with balsamic vinegar sage sauce
Garlic and chive mashed potatoes with carrots, zucchini and yellow peppers
Beijing style seared halibut with lobster sauce
Oven-roasted three potato hash with swede, turnip and green beans
Roasted garlic tomato sauce
International cheese selection
Stilton and Roubiliac cheese
Haagen-Dazs ice cream
Billecart Salmon NV Champagne
Drappier Carte d'Or Brut NV Champagne
Bouchard Père Macon Lugny St. Pierre 2005 (Chardonnay)
Estancia Pinnacles Chardonnay 2004 Monterey
Château Donissan 2004 Haut-Médoc (Bordeaux Blend)
Delas Frères St. Esprit 2005 Côtes-du-Rhône (Grenache Blend)
Fabre-Montmayou Malbec 2004 Mendoza
Aperitifs, cocktails, spirits, liquers and beer
Sandeman Founders Reserve Porto will be offered during the main meal's dessert
STARBUCKS coffee will be available throughout the flight
I opted for the deli plate and my wife took the omelette. Lunch orders were taken too, including a second choice and I went with the filet mignon. Customs and visa waiver forms were also handed out by another flight attendant whilst a third was getting the breakfast service underway with the distribution of hot towels that would have burned the hide off an elephant.
The old man in front of us began to kick up a fuss in the very little English he could speak, complaining there was no Indian food available for him. The crew tried to explain he hadn't ordered a special meal of any kind although he persisted and if anything he got more rowdy with the crew. There was little they could do and he was getting very frustrated. The first course in the breakfast service was a fruit plate with choice of breads, croissants and pastries. Yoghurts were also on offer and I took a cherry one along with a mimosa/Bucks Fizz depending on which side of the pond you are reading this from.
I gave most of my fruit plate to my wife, I don't really like the things but don't like to waste them either...This was followed up quickly with the deli platter. The selection of items was good but some things were of questionable quality, especially the ham which was that super thin stuff you could see through if you held it up to light
Chilled deli plate with Gruyère cheese, smoked salmon, honey ham, salami, asparagus and egg wedge
One person who didn't really enjoy it was the gentleman in front of us. He was handed his choice and then got up out of his seat waving his hand as if it hail a cab! You could tell this guy was getting frustrated as were the crew having to cater to his every whim. After the service was cleared away my wife reclined her seat as far as it'd go and settled underneath a blanket and tried to recoup some of the lost hours of sleep from the previous night. Several others in the cabin had the same idea and I was pleasantly surprised when neither of the two in front of us reclined theirs I reclined my seat just enough so I could see enjoy the view from FL360 without hurting my neck and cranked up the mp3 player.
The wife in the land of nod...
Despite loading up on magazines in the lounges and books back in England I always like to just lie back and enjoy listening to music. The economy seat I was originally booked into seemed so very far away at this time and I just let it all happen; the frequent water top ups, watching my reflection on the Pratt & Whitney engine outside my window and the check ups by the flight attendants. With no movie plot to follow, just the shuffle on my mp3 player the crossing seemed to be going fairly slowly but that didn't really bother me much.
1) Business Class cabin on this United 767-300
2) Flying over the Atlantic between Iceland and Greenland
3) The great view from FL360
Between Iceland and Greenland the calm and enjoyable journey was shattered somewhat by that PA you don't really ever want to hear, 'If we have a medical doctor onboard would they please make themselves known to a member of the cabin crew'. The service went rather quiet and flight attendants were running down the aisles between galleys, with oxygen tanks and first aid kits. I was half expecting us to divert, but the about turn to Keflavik was never made and we pressed on for Greenland and Canada.
We did pass just over the southern tip of Greenland, it reminded me of the first time I saw the place on a LHR-LAX flight in 1991, it was the first of many, many flights across the island and whilst this wasn't the most spectacular due to it being shrouded in cloud it did remind me of some memorable views.
1) Flying over the southern tip of Greenland
2) The end of the icesheet
Not much happened over the next couple of hours, drinks rounds were carried out but I was just trying to stay awake just huddled under the blanket shuffling through my 32 Gigabytes of music. My wife did wake up after being asleep for the best part of four hours and we chatted a little. She was surprised she slept at all given the last time we flew United in Business Class she struggled, I guess this time around the 4hrs of sleep the previous night helped somewhat!
The overwater portion of our flight comes to an end
Landfall was made on the Labrador Coast due north of Goose Bay and we turned in a slightly more southerly direction, correcting our course to head almost straight for Washington.
Around 2hrs 30mins from arrival the preparations began for our lunch service with hot towels and the staple of the American carriers, hot nuts.
Hot nuts and Highland Spring
The gentleman seated with the fussy old man from earlier showed him how to recline his seat, funnily enough he had been sat bolt upright in it for the entire flight so far! He put it right back just as the first cart pulled up beside me. Perfect timing Drinks began again and I asked for a top up on my water along with a glass of the Burgundy, not the best accompaniment for the filet mignon but what the hell.
Smoked salmon with honey Dijon dressed salad
Salad was first out the gate with a choice of creamy garlic or honey Dijon dressing. I went with the honey Dijon, the wife, the other one. I enjoyed the smoked salmon that came with it. It wasn't quite up to the smoked salmon we'd had on a previous flight with UA but was good nonetheless. I nibbled on my bread enjoying the view of the city of Quebec and the St. Lawrence River below whilst the main course was brought out.
The St. Lawrence River with the Quebec Bridge and Pierre Laporte Bridge
The fussy gentleman's antics began again. He asked for a salad and nodded when a spoon with dressing was shown. This was then handed to him and he took one look and got up out his very reclined seat waving at the flight attendant who was now dealing with another passenger. It appeared as though he didn't want any dressing. The flight attendant, looking a little pissed off, went back to fetch some plain salad for him. Heck I was getting pissed off and I was just watching. The mildly amusing thing was he couldn't work out how to make the seat go upright and was eating his meal almost as if he was on a perch!
Pan-seared filet mignon with balsamic vinegar sage sauce with garlic and chive mashed potatoes with carrots, zucchini and yellow peppers
I had broken my usual rule of not ordering steak onboard an aircraft and to be honest it had paid off. I wasn't too enthused about the pasta or the halibut entries either. The steak itself looked quite nicely done and I was surprised to find it was not cooked like a piece of shoe leather. Nice, tender and pink on the inside. The accompanying balsamic based sauce went pretty nicely with it. As for the rest of it, well just a little plain. One flight attendant was making the rounds with bottles of wine making sure everyone was topped up whilst the others were either preparing the food or dishing it out to the various passengers.
Again, Mr 9F was trying his best to get on the wrong side of the crew. His pasta had sauce on it which he didn't want, then the halibut substitute he asked for was, well fish, which he then decided he didn't like. In the end the crew had to being a vegetarian meal back from First Class that another passenger didn't want. They tried to explain to the guy if he has speical meal requests he must order them in advance of the flight. He didn't seem to care too much and just ate his meal. Amidst all this nonsense the crew were trying to make sure everyone else got a meal before we landed! My wife and I had finished our main courses although judging by the periodical roar from the ovens behind us others were still awaiting their main course. The dessert trolley was ready just behind us and we got first dibs at the vanilla and chocolate Haagen Dazs. Would be nice if United could be a bit more adventurous with their ice cream varieties. American seems to have a decent selection with their offerings...I also opted for a cup of coffee, instead of the offered port, with a milk and sugar please
Vanilla & Chocolate Haagen Dazs Ice Cream
We were now back in US airspace heading down passing over Vermont and Albany. Even being so far from Dulles you could feel we were descending quite quickly, sadly we were on the wrong side to enjoy the no doubt, excellent views of the New York City skyline as we headed almost directly parallel to the NJ/PA state line.
As we descended yet further I prepared for landing. I gathered our passports from the overhead locker, went to the bathroom to freshen up and put all my various belongings and goodies into my bag which went bag above us. We were advised that due to the medical situation earlier we would have to remain in our seats upon arriving at the gate whilst paramedics boarded and attended to the unwell individual.
I sat with my neck craned somewhat out of the window trying to make out what I could from the unfamiliar landscape outside. The cooling towers of the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island stood out in the Susquehanna River with Harrisburg and respective airport not far behind it.
Three Mile Island, the Susquehanna River and Harrisburg, PA
Several turns and a few minutes later and you could feel we were really closing in on Dulles. The crew seemed particularly meticulous with their safety checks (unlike on our outbound flight!) asking for all elements of the seat to be moved to their default position, even the adjustable headrests which seemed a bit odd. The gentleman in front was now shown how to bring his seat upright, he really could have used that when he was eating He did take this opportunity to then make the crew known that he wanted a wheelchair upon landing. The crew went to fetch a copy of the manifest and what would you know, he hadn't ordered one of those either The purser tried to explain that you need to arrange special requests in advance of the flight and he sort of nodded in approval. Did he expect them to just magic one out of thin air?!? She further noted that they'd try to arrange for one to pick him up but it could be almost an hour to do so.
With that excitement over with it was about time to land! A couple of light turns over Northern Virginia and we were ready to touch down on 19R, the work on the new runway off to our port side. It was a short taxi to gate C12 and a reminder was made to remain in our seats whilst paramedics boarded and to stay seated until they had left the aircraft. About three guys rushed onto the plane with various medical accouterments which was followed quickly by an annoucement that those in rows 30 and forward could leave the aircraft. Result! But this was then rebuffed with a rather terse announcement that we must remain in our seats! Who were we to believe? The gate or the purser? Sensibly we all took our seats allowing the paramedics to make a quick escape if necessary.
The flight attendant who had been serving us for most of the flight began chatting to us, naturally about the emergency itself. Apparently the passenger went unconscious suddenly and his heart had stopped a couple of times. It seemed a combination of onboard defibrillator and medical doctor had saved this guy's life. This made it even more surprising as to why we hadn't diverted. After a few minutes the paramedics came past with the guy on a wheelchair/stretcher type contraption followed by the gentleman's young family. According to the FA they were en route to Florida and wanted to continue on today! From what I saw of him going past (all ten seconds or so) he looked pretty out of it. I just hope the guy makes a full and speedy recovery...
A minute passed before we were given the all clear to leave the plane and head out for the buses. Now on BA usually the busses come up to the door of the plane but for United you walk through the back corridors of the airport. This time it seemed as though we walked about half the length of the C concourse where a mobile lounge was waiting for us. The cabin filled up with passengers as they slowly filtered down from the aircraft. About fifteen minutes passed by and we were still waiting, our driver had walked off somewhere. Having been on these buses more times than I care to remember I could have actually driven the thing myself. From the 'Dulles regulars' standpoint you get a pretty good view of the driver at work. It was closing in on half an hour since we'd set foot on the thing and eventually our driver decided it was time. The doors shut and we 'lowered away!' almost backing out into a fuel truck that was passing close behind us!!! Maybe I should have driven the bloody thing! We got the grand tour of Dulles Airport that's for sure, right the way down the apron between concourse A/B and C/D and then round to the immigration point.
Midday is a great time to arrive at Dulles, just before the first bank of flights get in from Europe and alas we walked right to the front of the immigration queue. The INS official seemed pretty chipper only asking how long we'd been away and then letting us on our way. Due to the lengthy wait at the mobile lounge our bags were all ready to one side off the conveyor belt and Customs was a non-event. With the exception of the mobile lounge muck up it was a very smooth arrival at Dulles.
All that was left was to brave the July heat, which felt even more intense having just arrived from a fairly damp week in England, and get the shuttle back to the Hilton where our car awaited us.
Well what can I say...sure United's Business Class product isn't top of the line, in fact after some flights in BA's new Club World recently it seems pretty state of the ark and despite this trip my loyalty on transatlantic routes is still firmly with BA. HOWEVER, it is still light years more comfortable than any Economy product and for that upgrade I am truly thankful. If I'm honest I think the current United seat is actually not all that bad for dayflights. It reclines to a healthy angle that makes slouching a very comfortable proposition and you still have a fair bit of space between seats...especially when those in front don't or can't figure out how to recline their seats . My wife managed almost four hours uninterrupted sleep which is more than she managed on her first Club World flight overnight and that was in a flat bed!
Service was pretty good, I do think if the US carrier crews are on a good day they are really superb, amongst the best, whilst this wasn't those days I do think it was above average and I think BA would give these guys a job
Imagestation Album with many more photos