Early this year I decided to go on a 5-week mission trip to Uganda with my church in California. Since our group was made up primarily of college students from around the country, we decided that as a group we would meet in Heathrow and from there fly Kenya Airways as a group from LHR
to Entebbe, Uganda, via Nairobi. Coming from Denver, I had a difficult decision to make. I could fly BA
for around $1200 r/t on a nonstop flight, but my mileage alliance was with United, so this was not my first choice. The problem with flying United is that (because of Bermuda II
) they do not have any nonstop flights from DEN
. Thus, I would be forced to connect through IAD
. United was also about $100 more than BA
. It was still my plan to book the trip on United though, because I planned to use some of my dad’s confirmed systemwide upgrades to move up to business class.
Assuming that this was the best option and prices could do nothing but go down, I sat for about two months waiting until April to book my trip departing in July. While I waited, however, all of the upgradeable seats on the flights to London were booked up and the prospect of flying United became less appealing. On the positive side with United, I would earn 10,000 MP
miles, and I would get Econ+ seating, ensuring that I would have no trouble sleeping. Yet to do this, I would have to spend $100 more than BA
and make an additional stop. In the end, I decided to bite the bullet and book the trip on BA
. They offered me a free night in a London hotel as well, which really sweetened the deal.
Because of our bizarre group booking on Kenya (paper tickets the whole way), we had no assigned seats prior to check in, and were required to physically check-in in LHR
. This meant I would have to clear customs, claim my baggage, and then wait to recheck for the KQ
flight. Considering that I would have an 8+ hour layover, this was not a huge inconvenience, but having to clear security an extra time is never fun.
As my trip neared, I began looking into my BA
reservation to see the best way to earn mileage with partner carriers. I was horrified to find that a $1200 ticket was only enough to earn me 25% of my flown miles and that because of some (government?) regulations, I would be unable to earn mileage on my AA
account for BA
transatlantic flights. In the end, I earned no mileage at all for the trip, deciding that 2,500 Alaska Airlines miles were worthless to me.
The night before my flight I went onto BA
.com and checked in for the flight. I selected an aisle seat (the site confirmed this selection) and clicked continue, but the booking program showed me checked-in with my initial pre-assigned seat selection (a window-less “window” seat according to seatguru). Clicking continue again the site said “now that you have printed your boarding pass…” at the top of the next page even though I had done no such thing. Utterly aggravated with the online check-in system I spent about 3 hours on the phone with BA
staff trying to simply get a aisle seat assigned. Some of the staff were helpful, one eventually tried to call the BA
staff at Denver to change my seat (the only way it could be done once I had “checked-in”). In the end, though, we were unable to get in touch with anyone at Denver, so the phone agent sent a Telex to the Denver staff to read in the morning and I went to bed hopeful that everything would work out fine, not realizing that my seat assignment would be completely irrelevant.
The next day, July 3rd, as I closed my laptop for what I thought would be the last time for 5-weeks, Gmail popped up with an email saying “Flight Cancellation.” As it turned out, my flight to LHR
that day (BA218) had been cancelled with no explanation (in the email at least). I was already planning to arrive at DEN
about 5 hours ahead of my flight as the rest of my family was flying to OAK
earlier in the day, so I slammed the laptop shut and we drove as quickly as we could to the airport.
On the way to the airport, we called the number BA
had provided us and after about a 20-minute wait, we got through to an agent. I explained that I was meeting a group and had to make it to LHR
that day. She booked me on an AA
flight to LAX
and then on BA268 to LHR
. This arrangement would have worked in theory, but the flight arrived in LHR
a little bit later than I would have wanted (only about 4 hours before my flight to NBO
, assuming no delays). Furthermore, the agent could not give me a seat assignment for the BA
flight, so I suspected it might already be oversold. I asked her to book me onto United’s one-stop service that got in far earlier (11:15 AM
vs. 3:30 PM
). She refused, saying that all they could do was book me onto a oneworld flight. I asked to speak to a supervisor, and 30 minutes later I was still on hold. Eventually the supervisor got on the phone and gave me the same story.
When I arrived at the airport, BA
’s staff was much more helpful. I was the fourth person in line for a flight of around 300, so I was in good shape. There was one agent there, who explained that the rest of his staff would be arriving in 15 minutes, when the station opened. We learned that there was a security issue at T4
in Heathrow, forcing the entire terminal to evacuate, and necessitating the cancellation of numerous flights. Since the flight into Denver was cancelled, there was no plane to bring us to London. Similar circumstances caused cancellations for PHX
flights, amongst others. 15 minutes later, the remainder of the BA
staff arrived. One woman had already checked bookings from home and came to work knowing that there was room, though barely any, on BA
’s flights out of IAH
, but that that seemed to be it.
About 15 minutes after the staff arrived, they were able to book me onto UA
connecting service and I was off to United’s desk to check in for the flight I would initially have been on had I booked the UA
itinerary. The staff there got me assigned seats in economy plus on each leg, and I made my way to concourse B to wait for my flight to depart some 3 hours later.
I killed an hour sipping soda and eating Chicken Wings in one of the Sports Bars before going up to the “Qwest Business Center” on the 2nd floor. There I was able to get on the internet and check my email. After about an hour I made my way to the gate and waited for boarding.
Tuesday, July 3 2007
Denver International (DEN
) - Chicago - O'Hare International (ORD
United Airlines 938
Scheduled departure: 4:53 PM
, Actual: 5:00 PM
Scheduled arrival: 8:17 PM
, Actual: 8:05 PM
Even though I was not even booked on this flight until 3 hours before departure, I managed to snag a bulkhead seat, so I was more than satisfied. We left our gate right on time and taxied to runway 8 for a quick takeoff. I got an orange juice and then spend the next hour and a half reading and playing sudokus in Hemispheres. I wish I could provide a more detailed description, but the flight was two months ago and that is about all I did.
As we prepared to land in ORD
, I began watching out the window. I grew up in Chicago, so it was great fun to fly in over the city. We passed right over the United Center and the Sears Tower. I could see the “L” trains snaking their way through the city and over the waterways. We made a U-turn over Lake and headed west towards O’ Hare. As we were on Final, I heard channel 9 mention traffic “500 feet under you” to our pilot. A little American Eagle ERJ screamed by underneath us and lined up for an approach to a parallel runway. Our pilots were not pleased that another plane was allowed to pass right beneath us without warning or reprimand, but dropped the issue as they had more important things to deal with (like landing the plane). We were soon on the ground and taxied to the gate at O’Hare.
Our arrival gate (B10) was right by security on the B concourse, so in order to get to my departure gate (C16 iirc), I had to take the under ground walkway. This walkway is my favorite part of O’Hare. The neon lights always used to fascinate me as a kid, and it’s nostalgic to see them once again. Once I verified the location of the gate and boarding time, I rode in circles on the moving walkways in concourse C trying to perfect the voicemail message that would greet callers while I was away. I returned to the gate several minutes later and it was time to board.
Tuesday, July 3 2007
Chicago - O'Hare International (ORD
) – London – Heathrow (LHR
United Airlines 938
N778UA Delivered: July 18th, 1996
Scheduled departure: 9:29 PM
, Actual: 9:45 PM
Scheduled arrival: 11:15 AM
(+1), Actual: 10:43 AM
In case you hadn’t already noticed, UA938, is strangely operated by two different a/c, even though the flight is billed as a direct flight. I have heard that for tax reasons it is advantageous for United to make the DEN
segment one leg of an international journey, though I’m not sure if that’s true. Nonetheless, boarding commenced, and as a premier associate (ooooooo), I was able to board ahead of the majority of passengers. I settled into my seat just over the wing and continued trying to solve my first sudoku while the remainder of the plane boarded. Flight attendants walked through the cabin distributing newspapers while the aircraft continued to board, something I’m not used to in economy. It seems United kicks its service up quite a bit for international flights. The gentleman sitting in 25G got the last Financial Times, while my seatmate, a pleasant guy from South England, snatched the last Chicago Tribune.
Time seems to pass quickly while you are staring at numbers, and we soon were taxiing for departure. The taxi (to rwy 14L, I believe) was rather long and along the way I could see fireworks going off in the distance as Chicagoans began celebrating the 4th of July early. As I was occupying the window seat, I pointed these out to my seatmate, thinking that fireworks were always worth noting. He seemed rather uninterested, though, and I realized that as an American I was probably much more excited about fireworks on the 4th than he was.
Takeoff was powerful and I watched out the window as we passed over soldier field before reaching the black of Lake Michigan. About the time we reached the Eastern shore of the lake, hot towels were distributed by one of the FAs. Beverage service followed quickly and I took a sleeping pill with my ginger ale and began watching Shooter on my PTV. The movie was decent, but was nothing to right home about. During the movie we were served dinner. I opted for the Pot Roast, which I thought was quite good. There was a salad with a balsamic dressing, potatoes, veggies, and a brownie. After the trash was cleared, I visited the restroom and took out my contacts and then returned to my seat and slept.
Before this flight I had never really had success sleeping on planes. 35” of legroom and having almost nothing to see out the window did the trick, however. I slept for about 4 hours, and when I awoke it was already light outside and we were being served a light breakfast (a fruitplate and roll with yogurt). At this point I checked for channel 9 to see if it had been turned on mid-flight (it was unavailable at ORD
). It appeared to be dead-air, so I asked one of the flight attendants. He said that the captain had told him earlier that there wouldn’t be Channel 9 on this flight. No reason. Oh well, no big deal, I suppose. As is common at LHR
, we had to hold for about 10 minutes before landing. Approach was to the west and we passed over downtown London before touching down smoothly on runway 27L.
After taxiing to the gate, we deplaned and made our way to customs. This was no small journey, taking the better part of ten minutes. Once I reached immigration, however, the wait was minimal. After informing my immigration officer that I would be transferring to Uganda, he proceeded to teach me a little bit of Swahili (not used in Uganda, but still interesting). Bags took about 15 minutes to come out, and once I had claimed my bags I went out to the Starbucks in the arrival lounge and waited to meet the remainder of my group.
The rest of the group was coming from LAX
, and SEA
. One of our group members was on the (afore-mentioned) cancelled BA
flight to LHR
, however, and had to connect down to LAX
to get on the flight I was initially supposed to be on. I had to kill about 4 hours in the airport before the bulk of our group arrived, which was not that bad. The biggest problem with such a long wait was that I was tempted to purchase incredibly expensive goods (a combination of airport prices and an unfriendly $/£ ratio) in the terminal.
It was strange when the group arrived, because I hadn’t seen any of them in a month and a half and was now meeting them in a foreign country. As a group we took the elevators/lifts to the departures level and got in line for check-in at KQ
. The remnants of the prior day’s confusion were everywhere. Along every wall people were sleeping and a massive tent with free food and coffee had been erected on the road outside.
The line took about 30-40 minutes to clear. Our check-in was more complicated than normal because we were all traveling on paper tickets without seat assignments. The KLM agent seemed competent, however, and assigned us all seats. He asked me if I wanted to sit in a window seat next to a stranger or in a middle seat next to a friend of mine. I opted for the middle seat (bad choice). Our leader waited back (for the girl on BA268 from LAX
to arrive) while the rest of the group cleared security. Once through, we went to our gate at the extreme “right” side (as viewed if exiting security) of T4
and boarded not long after. I had spent the entirety of the 4th of July in England of all places, but enjoyed it nonetheless. The girl connecting SEA
did make the flight, but with about 15 minutes to spare.