Apologies for the lack of pictures and brevity of this report - I didn't make any effort to take notes or photographs because this was an overnight flight after a long day of driving, and I was more interested in getting some sleep
However, it is worth mentioning here as United's first day of arrivals into Heathrow Terminal 1. UA are moving (along with a number of other airlines, including AC and NZ) to T1: they're occupying space formerly occupied by BA. T1 (and subsequently Heathrow East, which will replace T1 & T2) will become the Star Alliance hub at Heathrow. bmi (BD) are Heathrow's Star Alliance host, and these moves can only improve connections for most passengers.
I'm a more regular flyer with BD and would normally fly direct MAN-ORD on BD's very comfortably three class A332 service. However flybmi.com was offering economy roundtrips on their United-operated codeshare from LHR for about £200 less than either the MAN flights or the LHR flights on united.com, so I jumped at the chance. For reasons I shan't go into here I was upgraded to United Business class on the return, although let's just say that UA's financial woes could be improved by getting more C passengers to pay for C instead of Y.
I flew LHR-ORD about ten days earlier in Economy Plus but haven't bothered reporting it because it was a fairly forgettable experience. The LHR T3 departure was adequate with crowded airside facilities and an annoying series of secondary security checks at the gate. United's Y+ is only worth the extra $$$ for the tallest of passengers, nothing changes except for the extra legroom, so the food was still poor and the alcoholic beverage service was still paid-for. My headphone jack didn't work either, so I happily passed the flight reading and, as an apology, received a derisory 10% discount voucher for future international UA travel. Nothing suggests a culture of defeatism than the fact that United crews now carry pads of pre-printed apology cards with compensation codes for online redemption... I bet that the headphone jack is still broken and every passenger who complains is getting compensated.
Thursday 3 July 2008 / Friday 4 July 2008
Chicago O'Hare (ORD) to London Heathrow (LHR)
Flight number: UA938
Departure time: 21:49 CDT (scheduled) 21:44 CDT (actual)
Arrival time: 10:51 BST (scheduled) 10:10 BST (actual)
Type of aircraft: Boeing 777-200
Registration: (not known - awaiting LHR movements info, please comment if you know)
Had to return a Hertz rental car at O'Hare by 18:00 so was early for check-in. Used my bmi Silver Star Alliance card to check-in at the Premium / Business / 1K counters - very short queue but still had to endure an arrogant and whining Indian businessman ahead of me who huffed and puffed at the thought of any kind of queue at business check-in. I made more of an effort to be friendly to the floating UA agent and wished her a pleasant holiday weekend before she waved me down to the first class check-in where a pretty monosyllabic check-in agent got me through with very little conversation. No chance of any kind of upgrade on my Y ticket at this stage, especially since I have no UA status.
Stayed landside for a very expensive beer in the Hilton's very cheap looking sports bar with my Chicagoan host. Don't recall any of ORD's terminals having much in the way of facilities landside, although at least T1 has more concessions, bars etc airside than the rather threadbare T5 that I normally depart from.
Again used my BD silver card, this time to go through the priority security line. Should have realised that my lowly BD status got me such handy queue avoidance last time I was here. Security was ok, but not much room to re-shoe afterwards.
Headed down the escalators and through the passage to the remote C stands. At this stage I was still holding a Y boarding card for seat 41H (whoop-di-****ing-doo) but dropped by the Red Carpet club to see if I could repeat the luck of my last trip (http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/trip_reports/read.main/116831/) and fool the agent into letting me in with a Silver bmi card. It didn't work, but always worth trying when at a station of a Star Alliance airline that doesn't know much about bmi Likewise I asked at the gate about being added to the operational upgrade A or B list (see the stickies in the Flyertalk forum if you want to learn how to improve your chances of getting UA op. upgrades). Still no luck - the flight was apparently full, and shortly after asking the agent made an announcement over the PA system that passengers should save their breath when asking.
Had another overpriced beer and sandwich at the Goose Island bar near to my departing gate (C10). Why do we seem to be happy paying $8 for beer and eating boring dry sandwiches in airports?
Returned to the gate with about twenty minutes before boarding was scheduled. I like United's gates at ORD for their large flatscreens that cycle through information about the flight, aircraft, boarding, route and destination. They also show lists of passengers on standby and those who have been cleared for upgrades etc. This time noticed that my name had appeared on the list of "Cleared passengers" ... or at least part of my name, since only the first three letters of the surname and initial are shown. Unsure if it could be someone else, I returned to the gate to find out.
It wasn't someone else, but as I mentioned earlier, I shan't go into details here. All I can say is that you should be polite, courteous, friendly and interested in every airline employee you ever meet. Treat them well and they will treat you well.
I left the podium with a new boarding card, this time for 13H in United Business. I don't particularly like aisle seats, but if they recline that far and have that much legroom, I can acquiesce
Boarding began just a little behind schedule (although I had watched our a/c being tugged into position not long before) and I boarded through gate 10. Economy passengers were headed through 10a, and the gate agents were giving short shrift to those passengers who didn't listen to which gate they should be using.
United's own seatmap is here:
Pre-departure service was provided by two very friendly members of the cabin crew, with sparkling white wine and juice offered in plastic stem glasses. My neighbour for the flight in 13J arrived as I was offered a second glass. He asked if it was champagne, to a rather amusing grimace from the member of the crew. I suggested that two glasses of cheap sparkling white wine might equal one glass of champagne, and it got pretty close for me
Once the walking freight had loaded itself we were closed and pushed back on time for a short taxi and rapid take-off. The fireworks from the Taste of Chicago event were visible to the south, and later the captain offered to keep an eye out for any more we might see en route. Unfortunately our route would take us over some fairly sparsely populated regions of Michigan before crossing eastern Canada, so no more were seen.
I had genuinely not expected this upgrade, and having already eaten something in the airport decided to skip dinner and just concentrate on sleep. I was pretty tired for a 250 mile drive earlier in the day, and had a half day on a National Express coach ahead of me to get home from Heathrow. The menu was offered round and featured:
Duval-Leroy Brut NV
Lanson Brut Black Label NV
Selbach Riesling Kabinett 2006
Estancia Pinnacles Chardonnay 2006 Monterey
Liberty School Chardonnay 2005 Central Coast
Chateau Longbosq 2005 Médoc (Merlot/Cabernet blend)
Chateau Bonnin Pinchon 2004 Lussac (Merlot blend)
Warburn Barrel Matured Shiraz 2007 Barossa Valley
Pedroncelli Three Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 Dry Creek Valley
Sanderman Founders Reserve Porto
Citrus-cured smoked salmon
Fresh seasonal greens
Mustard-braised pork fillet
Roasted chicken with curry sauce
"Today's Express Dine features an appetizer, a fresh entrée salad topped with hot basil parsley shrimp served with ranch dressing and Eli's Belgian Chocolate Cheesecake for desert. This is a complete meal served all at once at the time of your choosign, so you can maximise your time on board."
International cheese selection
(Jarlsberg, Reny Picot Fontina)
Forgive me for being a high and mighty old worlder, but absolutely nothing on that menu appealed to me, not even the rather patchy sounding wine menu. However I noticed that I was not the only one in the business cabin who decided to skip dinner. At least three other passengers either brought their own snack on board or decided to recline and bed down immediately after departure. I went forward to the galley that sits between the front few rows of business and the larger rear section of business, and chatted with the very friendly British (LHR based) crew about choosing something else or something lighter, but seeing the express dine option on the tray certainly didn't swing it for me.
I shan't pass judgement on something I haven't eaten, but the menu did not read like a business class offering, and indeed as I drifted off a little later I clearly recall two passengers behind me commenting on the toughness of the pork and the lack of quality in the other (unknown) dish.
So I decided to take advantage of my unexpected upgrade with the real advantage that 13H has over my original 41H ... the seat. Although not the new generation of Premium International Business that United are currently installing across the fleet...
...the seat was still very comfortable and reclined to a decent enough angle for me. My last business class experience was AC's Executive First on an unrefurbished (non XM / Extreme Makeover) 762 from YEG to LHR (see the link above). This was certainly better than that, and once I had found my perfect position found it easy to drift off. Not having had a working headset on my outbound flight, I plugged in the noise cancelling headset and tuned to audio channel nine to listen to the radio chatter as we levelled off and headed for England. We were passed from Chicago ATC to Cleveland, then Toronto, then Montréal. After that I presume I was sleeping, since I kept the headset on and enjoyed the occasional burst of radio communication as I drifted off. It being the 3rd of July, many pilots and controllers exchanged holiday greetings, especially to those such as our own who were leaving the US for an overnight journey. Once again, you must forgive me for being a high and mighty Brit. However, as much as I love visiting America and as much as I miss it when I'm gone, I swallowed hard when I heard one pilot signing off with Chicago ATC with the words "Happy fourth of July - still the greatest country on earth." Having personally seen the lines outside Chicago soup kitchens and having counted 435 murders in Chicago last year, I remain to be convinced...
Slept soundly across the pond until we reached Shannon, when the radio chatter picked up once more. More familiar call signs such as "Speedbird" and "Ryanair" began to come through, and a soft Irish accent from Shannon control reminded me I was almost home.
Breakfast was a little underwhelming - an icy cold plate of fresh fruit, with blueberries, grapes, rock hard melon and a near frozen strawberry that almost gave me a headache. An orange juice woke me up, and rather burnt coffee (presumably Starbucks?) finished the meal. London ATC brought us in over the southern coast of Wales and we had no holding to endure as we approached London over the south of the city, turning back with Canary Wharf and the east end visible to my right through my neighbour's windows.
We touched down on LHR 27L, catching sight of Concorder and the BA and bmi hangars to my right. We taxied alongside T3, but of course today was the day that UA moved to T1. The on-board crew (and the gate crew at ORD) had forewarned us of the change, unfortunately telling us that connections with their partner airline British Midland would now be easier - bmi hasn't been known as British Midland since 2003. Backtracking towards T1 was slow, and we came to a stop twice. The captain apologised - we were held up waiting for a delayed outbound flight to free up our gate. Ultimately another gate became free so we moved round to gate (1)50.
Deboarding was rapid, although I took the opportunity while waiting to leave the plane to chat to one of the London based crewmembers. UA seemed to have scheduled as many non-US employees onto this flight, perhaps to avoid painful holiday pay for those who would be away from home over the fourth. This colleague wished me a pleasant weekend, saying she would be back on duty on Sunday for another trip to ORD.
The walk to border control was long - we will have to wait and see if passengers prefer the T1 experience to T3. Because of the location of gates 36 - 55 between T1 and T2, there came at one point a risky looking junction of corridors, with T2 arrivals to the left and T1 arrivals to the right. Hopefully everyone made it, because I would imagine that would mean arriving in a different terminal to your luggage.
With a UK passport I had no queue through border control and then another elongated walk to baggage reclaim. The border control appears to have moved to a new location since my last visit to T1, and I passed through the old border control hall en route to baggage.
I had no bags to collect, so passed straight through the "nothing to declare" channel and into arrivals.
I knew that the Star Alliance had been busy on a new arrivals lounge in T1 (even if the United crew didn't know this - they were unable to advise me if it was open yet, and as such I doubt that many people from my flight would have found it). If you arrive in LHR T1 with a UA first or business class ticket, you're welcome to use the lounge. Finding it isn't immediately obvious though. After baggage reclaim and customs, you enter the public arrivals hall. I battled my way through the drivers and families awaiting passengers and reached the bank of lifts at the far end of the space. From here, only the right hand elevator goes to the second floor, where the lounge is located. Arriving on the second floor you must turn left and then right through some nasty looking fire doors. Only then do you reach the rather elegant (but ultimately well hidden Star Alliance arrivals lounge). I noted that this lounge is branded with Star Alliance identity, and not bmi who effectively host the alliance at LHR. This will be the same I imagine with the new departure lounges, although I have yet to sample these.
I surrendered my boarding card, and asked for a shower. On the right is a soft seating area and a café dining area. Both of these look out over the T1 check-in area, which is below. None of the furniture looks that comfortable or expensive, but the breakfast bar is very well stocked - a definite compensation for the rather average UA business class meal. There's a bean-to-cup coffee machine, plentiful flavours of tea, cereals, muesli, granola, yoghurt, fruit, muffins, croissants, sweet pastries, breads, jams, spreads and three juices (top marks Star Alliance for ordering classier cloudy apple juice than the normal acidic stuff offered on flights). Coke and diet coke are in the fridge with bottled water. I pocketed a few muesli bars for the onward journey. I also ordered a fresh bacon roll, one of a handful of hot options, which was able to be delivered wrapped in foil to go (a nice touch, since few people will really want to linger). I noticed a relatively new guestbook at the reception desk, including such requests as coat hooks and hair dryers in the bathrooms.
The shower rooms are around the back of the breakfast bar. I counted at least ten or twelve of these - will this be enough once AC, NZ, BD and UA have a full compliment of morning arrivals into LHR?
The bathroom itself was reasonable spacious, although lacked clothes hangers or hooks to put clothes on while I was in the shower, or even a large horizontal space other than the sink counter on which to open a suitcase. The shower is in a raised and spacious shower alcove with black slate tiles. Unfortunately some of these are already chipping and discolouring slightly... doesn't anyone listen to us architects when we tell them that rough slate is not a durable material?
The shower was powerful and had a large head which could be adjusted for angle. Nice smelling shower gel and shampoo are available in handpumps on the wall. Towels are reasonable though perhaps not as generously soft as you might expect in a business or first class arrivals lounge.
Grabbed my bacon sandwich on the way out and was on my way. The central bus station is conveniently just above the tube station and was shortly en route with National Express to my final destination.
Thanks for reading. I enjoyed my unexpected chance to taste United Business class, and by skipping dinner I think I may have come away with a better experience than some. However, it occured to me on my way home from LHR that if you ignore the United Economy Plus cabin, I could compare UA's three class service with BD's three class trans-Atlantic service from MAN. I reckon UA First could be comparable with BD Business, since UA Business is definitely comparable with BD's Premium Economy.
The new Star Alliance arrivals lounge is a welcome addition to T1 and is worth checking out if you arriving there any time soon. If you have any queries or comments don't hesitate to ask...
[Edited 2008-07-05 07:16:27]