My first flight on UA since 2003, my first flight on LH since 1979, my 26th and 27th transatlantic crossings, my first time on any Airbus model since 1991.
My most recent transatlantic trips were on CO, to LIS and to CDG .
Several months ago, my (French) parents and siblings decided to rent an apartment in Venice for the fall school holiday. I was invited, and since I had some miles with United Airlines, I redeemed 55,000 of them on this Star Alliance itinerary. I was thrilled that the itinerary included a segment on a LH 744.
OCT 24: MDT to IAD United 7883 / sched 14:30 - 15:19
OCT 24: IAD to FRA Lufthansa 0419 / sched 17:45 - 06:50
OCT 25: FRA to VCE Lufthansa 4082 / sched 08:10 - 09:25
OCT 31: VCE to FRA Lufthansa 4091 / sched 06:55 - 08:25
OCT 31: FRA to IAD United 0953 / sched 10:00 - 14:22
OCT 31: IAD to MDT United 7952 / sched 17:25 - 18:15
I designed the itinerary departing from Harrisburg (MDT) because the long-term parking there is only $7 a night, and the security process is easy and fast. Leaving from MDT did not save me time, since I live only 2 1/2 hours from IAD, but it made for a much shorter driving time. I did not check in any luggage.
Three Mile Island from MDT
I arrived at MDT during a rainstorm. Although the terminal MDT is new, it always gives me a creepy feel, sort of "Green Acres meets The Langoliers." I believe this is caused by the numbing country music, which resonates through mostly empty concourses, and by the ghostly presence of the previous terminal.
My larger carry-on was collected and tagged at the door of the Embraer 145. We taxied right on time, but as we were about to enter the runway, the pilot turned the other way. He announced that there was a groundstop at IAD. We eventually took off at 15:15. The short flight was 3/4 full, uneventful and comfortable (nice seats, large windows). At IAD, we had to wait a little while for a gate in concourse C, an unattractive area.
I thought the mobile lounges were a thing of the past, but I had to take one, as squeaky and humphy as ever, to the more pleasant Concourse B. I had a small bite while waiting. The handsome LH 744 was already at the gate, and it was amazingly clean. The wings looked freshly waxed, with no flaw or stain on their glossy grey finish. There was an announced delay of 15 minutes.
The Lufthansa agents were stricter than usual with the size of carry-ons. My larger bag was, fortunately, of a permissible floppy kind. However, many passengers had the more rigid kind with wheels, and most of them did not pass the Lufthansa test. This led to some frustration for some passengers who had clearly travelled in other cabins with their disallowed luggage. The boarding sequence was well organized. The interior of the 744 was clean but dated: lots of overly detailed putty colored plastic elements which, today, would be more rounded and white. The egg yolk, navy blue, and gray combo, however, is timelessly classy.
We pushed back at 18:25, 40 minutes late. The flight was chock-full, with a well-behaved mix of American, Germans, and connecting Indians and Africans. No one was noisy. Come to think of it, there were no groups at all. The service was good, more polished (less folksy) than with US carriers. The live safety demonstration was the most synchronized I have seen since the 80s.
The food was fine, not special. There were two films playing consecutively on the ceiling-mounted TV monitors: "The Proposal," a derivative but enjoyable variation on "Meet The Parents," and the "Night at the Museum" sequel, which I skipped. Breakfast (cold) was preceded by a hot towel service. We circled Frankfurt in the clouds for quite a while before landing half an hour late. We could keep track of our circling on the TV monitors, which was interesting.
FRA was neither the best nor the worst. There clearly aren't enough restrooms for the morning rush. Also, there is an awkward passport and security check between levels, understaffed, unclear and cramped. I had to run to faraway gate A32, a little worried because my boarding pass for this flight wasn't printed. An exceptionally courteous LH ground agent told me I was already checked-in, and not to worry as the flight was also a little late.
FRA features enjoyable all-glass jetways. The Lufthansa A321 had that new-plane smell, and the interior looked wonderful. The headrest weren't yellow, only trimmed with a yellow embroidered accent. I had seat 11C with unlimited leg room. The flight was 20 minutes late, leaving at 08:30. The taxiing distance was amazingly short. One minute we were at the gate, the next we were taking off, it felt. This was another classy flight, with views of the alps, and of Venice before landing.
VCE Marco Polo is a fine, unremarkable airport. Signage is poor for ground transportation, as it is almost everywhere. I bought a Venice Card at the airport, which allowed me to get to town via a bus to Piazzale Roma, where I caught a Vaporetto.
For the return, I checked in on line and printed my United boarding passes at an internet café near the Piazza San Marco (internet cafés are regretfully few in Venice, presumably due to real estate costs). The web site offered me to upgrade to Economy Plus (for the transatlantic segment) for $69 which I declined, not having overly long legs.
There are buses to the airport from Piazzale Roma starting at 04:40, but the vaporetto wasn't available at that early hour. I left my family's apartment at 5:10, and walked in dark, ghostly Venice to the Piazzale Roma, which took 20 minutes, in time for the 05:40 bus which got me to Marco Polo at 6:05.
I checked in at the counter (because I didn't have the Lufthansa boarding pass printed in advance) and joined the sleepy crowd at gate 29.
This A321 wasn't brand new, but the flight was right on time, and I had a whole row - the rearmost - to myself.
FRA was a madhouse around 9:00. There were lines at every restroom. The restrooms are very small (2 urinals and one stall per unit), which led to embarrassing questions between strangers regarding need for number 1 and number 2 - I'm not kidding. Again, there was an irritatingly located passport and security check.
During boarding, a hard-to-understand United agent told me to "go to the counter." It took me a while to figure out that the gate was not equipped to accept paper boarding passes. I was issued a new one at the counter.
The 767-300, in the current paint scheme, felt ancient but the interior was very clean. I sat by the window, over the streaked and stained wing, and next to a talkative Ukrainian grandmother. And it was an Economy Plus seat after all!
The safety demonstration was mixed up because the PTVs in Economy were not working. The captain was female, but she left all the announcements to the male 1st Officer. While taxiing, I saw 3 Air India 777s on the ground at FRA. Is that normal?
The flight was completely full, and we took off quickly and on time. Honestly, it was a long flight (9h) but just as good as the Lufthansa flight the prior week. The UA flight attendants may not be as elegant, but they are as attentive, and they smile more than LH's. The food was fine. Some water was passed during the dull stretch between the two meals. When it was confirmed that the PTVs would not be rebooted after all, the purser passed vouchers, which I thought was classy. I just traded mine for 7,000 miles on line (rather than $150 to be used within a year).
I was in an A seat, and I had closed the shutter against the blinding sun. After some hours, I realized that the shutter, previously hot, was now cool. I opened it and saw that we were in a strange light mist, where we remained for a good bit. I also noticed that the inboard aileron was never flush with the rest of the wing during cruising but always set a few inches higher. After landing it was flush with the wing.
We landed early and immigration was a snap, which gave me almost 3 hours to kill at IAD... while I live 2 1/2 hours away by car! I didn't feel like going home at all, and I would gladly have hopped on the SAA 340 I saw: "sorry, Boss, I'm in Dakar." I did most of the waiting in Concourse B, only walking to raucous, bus-depot like Concourse A shortly before boarding.
The last flight was bumpy but on time, and soon I was back at rainy, ghostly MDT.
In conclusion, all six flights were great. I was glad to have an excellent novel for the nine hour segment with no entertainment (A Golden Age by Tahima Anam, about the Bangladesh war of Independence). And I advise anyone transferring in FRA to go to the bathroom before landing.
[Edited 2009-11-01 16:04:01]