This is the work trip I reference in my SAT-MEX-SAT TR that I wish I could have gone MEX-MAD-LHR.
I originally wanted to return Saturday, March 30 but for the life of me I could not get a ticket that didn't have a long layover somewhere. Options ranged from JFK, EWR, YYZ, YUL, LAX and SAN. Layover lengths were anywhere from 10-17 hours. Finally, I decided to see what would happen if I booked a ticket returning on Sunday. Presto! No problems, also cheap which the brass would certainly appreciate.
A week after booking the ticket, the following conversation takes place at home:
Mrs. Electra - "We're going to the lake with my family for Easter."
Me - "Cool, when's Easter?"
Mrs. Electra - "March 31"
Me - "Um...I come back from London that day..."
I totally forgot it was Easter! Which would explain why it was nearly impossible to find a flight back on Saturday and so easy on Sunday. As if that wasn't enough, I also found out it was a bank holiday in the UK on March 30 and April 2 so I came for work for a 4-day workweek. I offered to change my trip dates but was told to just enjoy London. Well, who am I to say no to that!
So without further ado, my first trip report of a trip to the old continent. Enjoy!
March 23, 2013
AUS - IAD
United 766 (UA 766)
ETD/ETA: 17:04 - 20:51
ATD/ATA: 17:06 - 20:25
Route: CWK4 TNV LFK ELD Q32 BNA J42 BKW GIBBZ1
First leg was a breeze; I hadn't flown a 'legacy' United plane in a while though I've been in plenty of CO metal since the merger. The captain informed us of channel 9 and that he would be keeping it on. Well, tickle me pink, my in-flight entertainment has been booked solid. It was actually an interesting evening in aviation as Winter Storm Virgil was wrecking havoc in the midwest and heading for the east coast. The flight next to ours at AUS was headed to DEN with a 2-hour delay because of it.
Getting ready for departure!
We ended up taking off from 35L. It was nice to see the FBO, with one of those little jets from NAS CC (they're not T-34's, they're jets but I always forget what kind) and a bigger F-something paying a visit. There was also a U.S. Government Gulfstream parked at the FBO. The lady next to me had introduced herself as a federal government employee so I asked her if she knew who was in town, but alas, she didn't know and we never figured out. Maybe she did know and it was a secret!
Now deep into my channel 9 porn, all planes approaching Memphis Center from the SW were asking for a re-route to the left because of the storm. The captain warned us it was going to get choppy as we flew above the system, but it never happened. As a result of the storm, the captain announced we caught tail winds of up to 180mph and were going to make it in record time. That's cool and all, but IAD is not exactly the most exciting airport to get stuck for more than a couple of hours.
I made it out of the gate with plenty of time to spare for the hike from D28 to C1, basically the length of the C/D terminal. I even took my time enjoying my Wendy's but even then, I got to C1 with about 70 minutes before boarding. Another 777 heading to FRA was scheduled to leave 10 minutes before ours out of the gate next door, making C1 and C2 THE place to be at IAD that Saturday night.
It was looking like our flight was jam packed, but as fate would have it, my 3-seat set was one of only about 3 in all of Y that had the middle one empty. One of them got snatched during those 70 minutes. I compulsively kept waiting for the seat map to cycle through the information screen, hoping this luck would hold. As of boarding time, the luck was not only holding but also surpassing itself: I was about to board N218UA (aka Star Alliance logo jet!). Nice.
March 23, 2013
IAD - LHR
United 924 (UA 924)
ETD/ETA: 23:00 - 09:56 (+1)
ATD/ATA: 23:26 - 10:23 (+1)
Route: SWANN V268 BROSS J42 RBV ACK WHALE N29B NANSO N29B RAFIN NATU XETBO EVRIN UL607 NUMPO UP2 OKESI Y3 BEDEK OCK2F
The Captain said he was going to wait a while because the flight from Denver had just arrived, delayed because of the storm, and we had a few pax from that flight. We ended up pushing back about 30 minutes late but it was cool that we waited for those DEN folks. Still holding on to my luck, a gentleman from the DEN flight boards and begins walking his way toward the back of the plane where 45K is. I just know he got that middle seat and I curse under my breath. Nope, he had a seat on the back rows but on the other side.
While waiting, the IFE rebooted a couple of times after messages from the Captain. I didn't know these things run on Linux! Working for a tech company, even in a non-technical capacity, I thought that was a neat 'nerdism'.
Meh leg room
Doors locked, plane pushed back and I am one of the lucky folks who managed to snag a seat without a neighbor! Woohoo! We are given the safety video and also a video about United's commitment to catering and making sure passengers are well fed with delicious food indicative of their destination (or something like that).
I was able to lift the arm rest and even stretch out a bit to get in a couple of hours of napping, but not before some hardcore channel 9 porn. Taking off from 1C, we basically used up the entire runway before rotating. Saying farewell to departure, we were handed off to NY Center who told us there was some moderate chop along FL250-310 and sure enough, we got a little shake, rattle and roll. The Captain acknowledged the chop when he signed off from that center: "Good night, and yep, definitely moderate chop back there".
Although I had eaten Wendy's only two or three hours earlier, I figured I wasn't going to get much of a breakfast (United's booking said meals were dinner and snack) and wouldn't get to my hotel until noon GMT at the earliest so out of morbid curiosity (obesity?) and logistics I tried the English delicacy of...erm, sweet and sour chicken?? So it is, so much for that commitment. The flight attendants also ask us to pull the window shades down at this point.
I bet this route is virtually a day flight during the summer, when nights are short and days are long.
The English delicacy of sweet and sour chicken
By now, we're about a couple of hours out of IAD and channel 9 is more and more silent. Pilots asking that center for new altitude due to turbulence were told over and over that the current disturbances were location-based and not altitude-based. It really started going silent around the Massachusetts coast, so I was left to explore the IFE. I flip around the options and I don't remember what I watched but I do remember I started watching Pineapple Express after that and totally passed out within the first 20 minutes and woke up with a bit of it left.
I kept being the annoying guy lifting the window shades to see what was going on outside but all I was seeing was white fluffy clouds under us.
We were told that BAA/Heathrow Holdings (nice, little pun there, guys…) are notorious for putting flights in holding patterns and we should expect some delays because of that. Sure enough, we circled above and inside the southern England clouds before being cleared for landing.
Pre-landing snack of some fruit and hard-ish bread.
THE LONG TRIP HOME
March 31, 2013
LHR - IAH
United 985 (UA 985)
ETD/ETA: 11:40 - 15:55
ATD/ATA: 12:10 - 16:18
Route: BORDN J553 ECK GSH STL J101 LIT J180 SWB TXMEX1
After seven days in London, it was time to go home. Because of the time change into BST, I woke up at 0545 not knowing if the local carriers are like in the U.S. and automatically update cell phones. Since I wanted to get up at 0645 I figured I'd get up at 0545 and if the clock had not moved forward I still had an hour of sleep and if it did it was wake up time. Turns out the carrier did change automatically so I would have had an extra hour but I was up already so away I went to the hotel breakfast for one last fix of Cumberland sausages and Nutella on toast.
I got the Heathrow Express and as we approached a purser came around charging for the train but he didn't accept my Oyster card, which I was puzzled since that thing seemed to be acceptable by every mass transit vessel I boarded in the past week. Thankfully, I had the 5,60 for the fare in cash. Not checking a bag, the check in was a breeze and so was getting around all the mooks fiddling around with plastic bags for their toiletries.
I did my security dance but the detector beeped at me, so I was told to put my shoes in a bin, hand it to an agent and he would put it through. The guy actually points to the x-ray I came through, I confirm with a nod, but he places them on the bin to my right anyway. Five minutes later, I am still standing around shoeless and ask an agent who told me it was on the x-ray machine adjacent to ours. Oh cool, a good ol' game of puzzle the foreigner! The one act of defiance to get him through the day.
By now, it's still early. I have time to walk around and check out the spotting locations. With this morning's ops, there wasn't anything around the gate 24 spot so I just found my gate to find Etihad pushing back and Air Mauritius wanting to push back but just kinda sitting there with the walkway pushed away. I went behind the Duty Free as well, and saw Gulf Air getting ready to push back, the Captain was reading the paper prior to push back.
Airside 'spotting' at T4
This morning's departures
By now, I figured it's time to start boarding the flight to IAH except I'm still a little early so I catch a glimpse of the registration of our 767-300 and Google it. Uh-oh. N655UA appears to be somewhat of a thorn on United's side, with multiple discussion board threads discussing its shortcomings. Great, and I'm about to sit in that death trap for 10 hours.
As I take my seat, 30A a window just behind the wing, my neighbor volunteers to grab an open aisle seat that also does not have anyone in the middle (31E, I think) but as soon as he grabs it our dreams and hopes of freedom are dashed as a woman takes her 31E and 31D's occupant soon follows.
The IFE box is this clunky piece of metal that totally gets in the way of kicking off my shoes, but I manage without stomping on my neighbor. The Captain comes on and tells us our flight time to Houston is about 10 hours and 4 minutes and soon we'll be on our way. Or will we?? It would appear some genius loaded the wrong headphones for F and C so we're now going to be a little late. All in all, we pushed back 20 minutes late and started making our way to runway 09R for take off.
Oof! Not nearly enough leg room. I'll consider plunking down for Economy Plus next time.
Our neighbor. I Googled the 'In case of emergency cut here' notice while we waited. The more you know…
As we are taxiing, the captain informs us that Channel 9 will be available as we climb out then he was turning it off until we reached Moncton Center on the other side of the Atlantic. Alright, I can always get behind some channel 9! Except it's super staticky. I can barely hear us over the static, so I'm now officially at the mercy of United's IFE offerings. I am greeted with a lame selection of movies today, including This is 40 which should really be called This is 50. I have yet to meet anyone who live like these people at 40!
The IFE looks super old, actually the channel number on the top far right of the screen reminds me of a TV set my family had growing up in the 1990s. We also have not one but TWO sets of TV show episodes: 30 Rock, Parks and Rec and Big Bang Theory. A documentary about mankind is also showing but only on the English audio channels. The flight starts sounding longer and longer.
After powering out, we took a turn to the south to start heading back west and soon we were cruising over the snow-filled countryside that had been punished with some late March snow. The ride got a little rocky, probably a light chop if I had to qualify it as we reached our cruising altitude at FL320. It seemed cruising over Ireland and some of the initial foray into the North Atlantic waters was a bit choppy.
Powering down 09R! Houston, here we come!
Snow from the week's storms
Good bye, Great Britain!
By now, it's chow time and I go with the chicken; the other option was brisket. The astute reader will remember I dogged United on the outbound for serving sweet and sour chicken so I at least give them kudos for localizing a meal option based on the destination. It's potty time now and I make my way to the back of the plane to find that N655UA is so old it still has ashtrays on the galley walls and restrooms! Wow.
Wine-stained tray table.
Asian chicken something or the other
Having the choice of watching the same movies over and over or peeking out the window I chose the latter and there was actually some cool stuff to see: frozen landscapes and North American cities from above. We were given a little ice cream as the ride started getting choppy from a weather system in the area. By now, Channel 9 was a little more listenable so it kept me company the rest of the way. Memphis said it was choppy for the next 200 or so miles.
Entering North America
One of the last visible places before going over clouds. Can you guess the airport?
Finally, we get in touch with the Ft. Worth Center for a few minutes and I feel like this never-ending flight is coming to an end. We're now officially communicating with Houston Center, and the crew and Houston are discussing the merits of taking the WOLDE (sp?) or the TXMEX1 arrival, given the current stormy skies over Houston. I thought we chose the former, but FlightAware says we ended up going TXMEX1.
As this debate rages on, I rejoice over our final snack: a little turkey and cheese on a roll with some pretty tasty potato chips.
I want some more of these chips...
Once we settled into our arrival, we crossed over the Texas coast one final time and into the dark skies as we approached IAH's runway 26L. The second after we touched down, we were doused by rain.
Beginning final approach, after going out to the Gulf for a bit.
We probably would have to circle around for a bit if we were only a few more minutes behind.
Here's a video of us landing right before the downpour: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJ29vlHYQ6E
March 31, 2013
IAH - AUS
United 371 (UA 371)
ETD/ETA: 18:00 - 18:26
ATD/ATA: 18:59 - 19:26
Route: IDU4 IDU WLEEE BITER6
This trip is not over just yet! I clear immigration and customs, get screened again and head to the gate to my flight to AUS which is an inbound from DCA that got caught in the waiting game as the storm passed over the Houston area so we ended up leaving almost an hour late.
If you've never been on this flight, it's probably one of the shortest commercial flights you'll ever take. After taking off from 15R, Captain takes us up to FL230 and says he is leveling off there for just a few minutes and as such there would be no beverage service. I think we were at FL230 for no more than five minutes before he came back on to indicate we are starting our initial approach. We landed on 17R, almost 60 minutes late.
All in all, next time I go to Europe I'd rather do a 2-3 hour flight from AUS to an east coast hub and a shorter, 7-8 hour hop to the other side than 10 hours in an old plane.
OTHER TRIP REPORTS
March 2013: SAT-MEX-SAT On AirTran (pictures/1 Video)
September/October 2008: JFK-DXB on the 777 (pics)