Having spent about 3 weeks of winter break at home with my family, it was time for me to head back over the pond for the second half of my study abroad program. After the good experience with split itineraries (see part 1 and part 2) and with about $250 remaining in Delta redemption flight credit, I had decided to book a round trip from Frankfurt to Chicago (among the cheapest ports of entry for my dates and a city I had intended to visit anyway) and on separate tickets, the domestic connection to/from RDU.
For my flight back I was looking to leave some time after New Year’s day and before our first day of class, January 9th. For all dates between Jan 2nd and 7th however, airfares were insanely high. I therefore took the risk of flying all the way back on the day before classes would restart, since flying on the 8th saved me around $300 over the next cheapest date. I was a bit anxious about the weather as I’d be connecting twice, one of that a self-connection that included re-clearing security.
However, beside the monetary savings this routing allowed me to log 3 new types and 2 new airports on 3 segments - and for one of these types it would likely be among the last opportunities to do so. Therefore I didn't really hesitate and booked the following flights:
FRA-ORD on a United 777-200 and a domestic onward journey on DL, routing me ORD-ATL-RDU on an MD-88 and a 737-900.
As the departure approached, it looked like neither FRA, nor ORD, ATL or RDU were to get any snow, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Another factor was the shutdown so I kept an eye on news from Chicago, since I would transfer from a UA to a DL ticket there. I figured that the nearly 4 hours should be enough, but I hoped for no delays and no TSA breakdowns.
I was therefore relieved to see my inbound plane appearing on time when I awoke at the ungodly hour of 4:30am on January 8th. After packing the last things, I left the house at 5am with my dad who, again, volunteered to drive me up to FRA where we arrived after just 55 minutes in the car. Having parked at Terminal 1, I walked over to the UA check-in counter. I hadn’t been able to do OLCI but didn’t worry too much because my fare included a seat reservation, so I had picked a window seat in advance.
There was already a small line at the counter that seemed not to move at all when I got there, but it was just the security questions holding it up a bit and after about 10 minutes of waiting I was checked in and had my bag dropped off at 6:20. I said goodbye to my dad and made my way up to the skyline train to get to the dedicated Terminal 1 A/Z stop. This is a little "life hack" I can only recommend: Especially since UA’s counters are in hall B, the walk to the train stop is shorter than to the big T1A security checkpoint. When taking the train to its final destination, there is a very small checkpoint right below the stop which is almost always deserted because nobody goes that way. In fact, when I got there I was the literal only passenger and had all the time in the world.
The deserted AirLine people mover stop with some residual Christmas decoration
Early morning departure boards in Concourse A
After getting some food and a coffee in the A concourse I went through the passport control and upstairs to the Z concourse, from where I’d be departing, at 6:45. UA945 being the first intercontinental departure of the day from concourse Z, there was no line there either. Upstairs I took a seat by the window in the departure gate Z20 and waited until boarding began bang on time at 7:40am.
My plane, N791UA waiting in the darkness outside
08/01/2019 – United Airlines flight UA945
FRA – ORD
Scheduled flight time
- 08:30 – 11:00 (9hr 30mins)
- 08:39 – 10:30 (8hr 51mins)
- Boeing 777-222ER (N791UA), 21.4 years at time of flight
- 38A, Window, Economy
Boarding has started for the early morning departure to Chicago
Remember how I mentioned I had a seat reservation above? Well I had originally made a reservation for seat 39A, but the night before, when I tried to check in online, my seat was indicated as 38A. I was a bit surprised and upon checking the seatmap I found out that my plane in fact didn’t have a row 39 at all.
First of all, kudos to UA for still honoring the fact that I had reserved an “A” side window seat and not randomly relocating me wherever, but most importantly, it dawned on me when I boarded:
I had scored a plane with UA’s reconfigured interior! Indeed, N791UA’s cabin gave no indication of the fact that it was built just 3 months after I was born, in service for far over 21 years – it looked factory new!
The boarding process went by quite orderly and at 8:20 the doors were closed, followed by the pushback just 3 minutes later. Around that time the rising sun broke through the rain clouds, casting the most beautiful golden light over FRA – a wonderful scenery to be departing in.
After the safety video on the IFE screens was concluded, we began a very quick taxi out and without any hold performed a rolling takeoff from runway 18 at 8:39, rocketing into the aforementioned gorgeous morning skies.
The brand-spanking new cabin of this classic 777
The view and rather decent legroom at seat 38A
Pushing back into a gorgeous morning as the sun begins to rise
Taxiing out and onto departure runway 18
Easily the most beautiful takeoff I've ever witnessed (at least from FRA)
Breaking through the scattered clouds over the Rhine river
About an hour after departure as we were cruising on our initial altitude of 33000 feet, the crew began the first meal service. After a drink and one of the famous stroopwaffels, there was a choice between an omelette and chocolate crêpes – the first time that I was served breakfast food as the main service on a plane. I went for the latter and the crêpes were pretty good, however I was glad they were served alongside some fruit because they were quite sugary, so something fresh helped.
For the next hours, the crews did frequent drink runs but I mostly settled into my seat (I didn’t perceive the seats in the 3-4-3 configuration as very narrow, but I’m also rather skinny; legroom was objectively good though being 6’1’’ / 185cm) and watched a couple of movies. I would actually say I prefer UA’s IFE over Lufthansa’s, especially the moving map was much more informative.
As I mentioned, I was impressed with the new cabin but apart from just the seats, UA put on a strong performance – an example was the fact that they had hand lotion and other cosmetics (by Cowshed I think) in their economy class bathrooms. Much welcomed for my dry hands and the first time I saw this.
The seatback with the IFE system
Cruising above the clouds somewhere
Landfall over the Canadian Atlantic Provinces
This entire flight took place in each respective time zone's morning, which made the light quite pleasant along the journey
Nearing our destination
About 90 minutes from landing, the F/As distributed a hot ham and cheese sandwich (pretty similar to the one I got on ZRH-EWR in the summer) and before long, we left our final cruising altitude, FL360, at 10:53 local time over the Michigan peninsula. In fact, we descended quite rapidly, before flying a few tight turns over lake Michigan to get us aligned with ORD.
Already left our cruising altitude
After breaking through the clouds at around 3000 feet, we passed by Chicago’s downtown skyline in broad view and minutes later touched down on runway 28L at 10:30 CST. The taxi in was very quick, after holding short for one departure off 28R we parked at gate M16 just 5 minutes later.
Passing the Chicago skyscrapers on approach into O'Hare
Back in the states!
The Polaris cabin during deboarding
Now, I was quite relieved to be there so early but there was still some worry left about how long immigration and TSA would take given the shutdown, but all those worries were unnecessary: It took me precisely 10 (T e n !!!) minutes between getting up from seat 38A aboard N791UA to having my passport stamped and waiting at the baggage claim – I have never seen such an efficient immigration process, a stark contrast to the mess that was EWR in August.
After a somewhat lengthy wait for my bag I left Terminal 5 and took a bus shuttle (the APM was shut down) over to Terminal 2 where I rechecked my bag at the Delta counters. Since it was barely 12 noon at that time, I took a little stroll along the curbside to catch some air before going through TSA – there were only about 5 people in line before me so it was a swift deal.
Terminal 2 curbside and the Delta check-in area inside
Once airside I still had a solid 2.5hrs until my next departure so I decided to discover what an airport like ORD had to offer – its sheer size was very impressive and I walked all across Terminals 1, 2 and 3 before eventually grabbing lunch at Subway and settling into my departure gate to wait the remaining hour or so until boarding.
View of the Terminal 3 apron
The famous pedestrian tunnel with the light installation
Back at my gate - my vintage ride had by now arrived
08/01/2019 – Delta flight DL1675
ORD – ATL
Scheduled flight time
- 14:50 – 17:47 (1hr 57mins)
- 14:50 – 17:19 (1hr 29mins)
- McDonnell-Douglas MD-88 (N992DL), 27.2 years at time of flight
- 20E, Window, Economy
The boarding process began roughly on time and was concluded pretty fast. I took my time to board and was delighted to find that the seat next to me was remaining vacant. I had purposely picked a window seat on the right side of the plane, since there are only 2 seats there and I got lucky enough to score both a window seat and direct aisle access. We were pushed back at 2:40, ahead of scheduled departure, and after a swift taxi we lifted off from runway 28R at exactly the scheduled departure time of 2:50pm CST. After a wide left turn to bring us on a southern heading, we took pretty much a straight shot towards ATL, the next turn we’d do was already part of the downwind approach.
View from 20E
Taxiing out and onto our runway
Chasing our shadow
View of Chicagoland after lifting off
Once in cruise, at FL350, the flight attendants came through the cabin and offered drinks as well as a choice of biscoffs, pretzels, or chips. In fact, they even offered a round of seconds, so there wasn’t a big difference to what I had experienced in F in December. The flight was very calm through clear skies and, being seated ahead of the wing, the cabin of this old plane was remarkably quiet. I did however make a visit to the lavs and the noise of the JT8Ds in those last rows was pretty much unbearable. Before long, the captain already announced that we had left our cruise altitude and we began to join the busy approach route into ATL.
Calm cruise over the endless flat land of the US Midwest
Cabin view of this MD-88
Incredible light and colors as we pass what I think is the Tennessee river between Scottsboro, AL and Chattanooga, TN
The world's busiest airport comes into sight as we fly past Atlanta on an eastern heading for the downwind approach before turning back for a westerly landing
After a downwind approach eastward we turned base and touched down on runway 26R, the northernmost one of the world’s busiest airport, at 5:19pm EST.
Again, the taxi that followed was very fast and we parked at our stand (gate B1) just 5 minutes later.
Now on final approach over Atlanta's sprawling suburbia
Arriving on stand with a lot of siblings
After deboarding I headed straight to the plane train for the 1-stop ride over to concourse A. I was pretty tired at this point so I just got a seat at the gate opposite from mine and watched the beautiful sunset outside.
Luckily, my last flight for the day was not delayed either, so as boarding began, I relocated over to gate A17 and waited for my zone to be called
My ride already parked at the departure gate
Meanwhile, I spent some time at the gate opposite from A17 to watch the sun set
I obviously knew that Atlanta was the world's busiest airport but the I had no idea how busy it actually was - the constant stream of airplanes arriving and departing, being pushed back within minutes of each other at the concourses across from me was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
Before long, it was go time on the final flight of the day
08/01/2019 – Delta flight DL2008
ATL – RDU
Scheduled flight time
- 18:48 – 20:10 (1hr 22mins)
- 18:57 – 19:54 (57mins)
- Boeing 737-932ER (N840DN), 3.8 years at time of flight
- 28A, Window, Economy
The cabin of this 737-900 thrust me back into the 21st century after two back-to-back flights on planes older than 20 years, especially the MD-88. The moodlit Sky Interior cabin was, as always, pretty to look at and once at my seat I was welcomed by the unexpected luxury of a PTV for this short hop over to RDU.
View from 28A
Boarding was concluded at 6:42, and just over 5 minutes later we began to taxi out on time, passing all of ATL’s bustling concourses on the way to the departure runway, 27R. From there, we roared into the night skies at 6:57pm for a scenic departure that had us circle around ATL from the south, giving an overview of the entire airport and the near endless chain of landing lights inbound for the airport.
Circling around ATL after departure
The cabin, still darkened after takeoff
Owing to the short distance, our maximum cruise altitude was 29000 feet, and even those were left just 5 minutes after reaching them. The flight attendants were very busy trying to serve everyone on board and in fact for a minute it seemed like their service wouldn’t reach my row, but I managed to get a drink and a snack as we were already descending again.
I-40 and Southpoint mall close to Durham, already on the downwind approach for RDU's runway 23%
Just like the rest of the flight, the approach into RDU was very uneventful and thus we touched down on runway 23R after just 57 minutes airborne. We reached the arrival gate C7 about 10 minutes before the scheduled time, so I was out of the airport in no time where my roommate was waiting to pick me up.
I was so glad to be back and it was a new, but good feeling to return from home to a "second home".
Due to the slight jet lag I had no problem being up bright and early for my 8am class the next morning - this is UNC's famous bell tower on the way to class
This concludes part 3 of my series and therefore the last installment of the series for which I had already written the report and just procrastinated uploading it. I will however try my best to put together the next ones as soon as possible, those will cover a spring break trip to San Francisco and the eventual inevitable return home on an A350.