Pencil Jet Duo: MUC-ORD-SFO feat. Lufthansa & United
Welcome to the second installment of my latest trip report series, which covers my recent flights from Oslo to San Francisco! This was the latter half of a multi-city itinerary I booked to visit my Norwegian side of the family over my winter break from college.
I eventually settled on the following route: OSL-MUC Lufthansa Airbus A321
MUC-ORD Lufthansa Airbus A340-600 (Y+)
ORD-SFO United B757-300
This particular report will cover the latter two flights. You can get up to speed with my hectic trip to Munich by checking out Part 1 of the report series here: An epic journey off to an... interesting start: OSL-MUC on Lufthansa's A3212 January 2020
First, some context:
I had just sprinted through Munich airport after my inbound connection from Oslo arrived an hour late, and gone through endless document checks and an intense security screening, only to miraculously arrive at gate L21 just minutes before my flight to Chicago closed.
Panting and incredibly relieved, I scanned my Premium Economy boarding pass at the automatic "Quick Boarding Gate" turnstile... and a small printer spat this back out at me:
The boarding gates swung open for me... and that's where I ended Part 1.Lufthansa LH434 / DLH2C
Scheduled Departure (Actual) : Munich - 15:40 (15:59)
Scheduled Arrival (Actual) : Chicago ORD - 18:55 (19:31)
Seat : 6G (Business)
Flight Time : 9h44min
Cruising Altitudes : 34,000, 36,000 & 38,000 feet
Aircraft : Airbus A340-642
Registration : D-AIHI - 15.9 years
I was.... in disbelief. I looked around, maybe imagining I'd see a gate agent wink at me and smile. Seeing no one, I carried on down the escalator to the jetbridge, giggling quietly and doing little to hide the massive smile creeping across my face. The views of my aircraft were nonexistent, so there wasn't any photo opportunity, but I couldn't have cared less. I turned left into the empty jetbridge (one of two) marked 'First & Business Class'. Boarding had almost finished.
Stepping onboard of my first ever Airbus A340-600, I showed my new seat assignment to the male flight attendant standing at the door. He smiled and directed me to the second aisle and into the forward business class cabin.
Let me briefly explain my state of utter shock. In my mind, business class upgrades were reserved for the flying elite--those who fly so often that airlines use upgrades to keep them happy & coming back for more. I'm very privileged to be able to fly as often as I do, but my air travel doesn't come anywhere close to the frequency of say--someone traveling regularly for work. Moreover, I have zero
status with Lufthansa--except, perhaps, for a mileage account with UA that I had only opened when I bought the tickets several months prior. The only previous upgrade I had experienced was in December 2010, when a friendly ticketing agent secretly bumped my mother and I from Y to Y+ on an SK B736. That was an awesome flight, but this... is on a whole new level. 10 hours in business class with a five-star rated airline (at least according to the supreme authority of Skytrax). I was beside myself.
Anyway, I entered the completely full business class cabin and my made my way to my newly assigned aisle seat: 6G. Lufthansa have configured their A340-600's with 44 business class seats, spread across two cabins in a 2-2-2 configuration. One advantage of aisle seats like mine is that you can get up without disturbing your seat mate!
A large spread of bedding--including a comfortable pillow--, an amenity kit, a bottle of water, and a pair of headphones were waiting for me at my seat. The seat itself was quite comfortable in the sitting position, and I had plenty of room to stretch out. The seat control panel was also impressive and came with a number of customizable positions. I did notice that the button for the overhead reading light seemed to be broken and only worked part of the time.
View from my seat
The flight attendant working my aisle brought around welcome drinks and politely introduced himself to each passenger, predicting a rather lengthy flight time of 9 hours and 50 minutes. As we waited for a few more connecting passengers, menus and magazines for 'select duty free items' were handed out. Meanwhile, I called my father and reassured him that I had made my tight connection--with an unexpected bonus!
We eventually pushed back from the gate at 15:59, 19 minutes behind schedule, and began a slow taxi towards Munich's south runway 26L. I then realized that in all my excitement, I forgotten to check what frame I was on. A quick browse of Flightradar24 showed that I was sitting on D-AIHI
, one of seventeen A340-600's currently in service with LH--a number that's decreasing with alarming speed. Mönchengladbach
, as she's named, first flew back in February 2004 and was delivered to Lufthansa two months later.
D-AIHI had stayed on the ground in Munich for the previous five days and needed to be de-iced. The weather had somehow gotten even foggier since I arrived, with visibility dropping to < 300 meters. We waited for some time at the de-icing pad near the 26L threshold before it was our turn for some fluid-on-wing action.
De-icing and engine run-up complete, we finally took to the runway and began a powerful takeoff through the thick fog at 16:37, 57 minutes behind schedule. I decided to film whatever footage I could from my aisle seat, as the engine whine was remarkably loud and the sensation of taking off with almost zero visibility was very weird indeed! You can watch the video here
As we began a right turn via the INPUD departure route, I followed our progress on LH's excellent satellite moving map.
Within minutes, we broke through the cloud layer, and the glorious sunset lit up the cabin with a faint orange glow.
As we climbed, wifi became available, although many people (myself included) had issues getting it to work. I eventually bought a $17 package--the cheaper of two full-flight options, and found the speed to be quite good... over Europe. It worked sporadically over the north Atlantic, Greenland, and Canada, but was generally inconsistent.
This evening's route was very northerly. We cruised initially at 34,000 feet, climbing to 36,000 feet over Iceland, and eventually 38,000 feet over Quebec.
Backtracking the route I flew earlier today!
Before meal service, I paid a visit to the business class lavatory (which is gigantic and has a window!) and changed into the complimentary socks Lufthansa provides. I then reclined my seat and tuned in to Lufthansa's awesome Club Mix by Funkstar De Luxe, which I played on repeat throughout the flight! The noise-cancelling headphones provided felt rather flimsy, but the sound quality was admittedly very impressive.
Service soon began with nuts and a ginger ale. The flight attendant addressed me by name when taking my drink order, which was a first for me. Nice touch!
The appetizer was served an hour and a half after departure, and I went for the Prawn dish, which was simple but delicious.
It was quickly followed by a small salad
I continued with the Roast Beef which was very tasty, if not a bit on the small side (meat-wise)
Chocolates were handed out
And I finished with the Polenta Flummery, which was okay
All in all, a generally satisfying meal.
The erm... unique-looking amenity kit
Amenity kit contents (minus socks!)--more or less what I expected:
By the time meal service finished and the cabin lights were dimmed, we were already approaching Iceland
I wasn't particularly tired, but I still had about 15 more hours of traveling ahead of me, so I converted my seat into a lie-flat bed and tried to get some rest.
Honestly, I found the bed to be quite cramped and difficult to get comfortable in. As expected, I wasn't able to stretch out fully due to my height, which wouldn't normally have been much of an issue, but the bed was also very narrow. In fact, according to Seatguru, it's a whole six inches narrower
than the J seat on La Compagnie, with whom I flew last summer and was extremely impressed
. The footwell is also tiny, and is positioned directly next to the one of the adjacent seat, so it's easy to bump into your neighbor's feet since the center seats are awkwardly angled towards each other.
Now, admittedly, I don't have much experience flying premium cabins, but I would certainly rank Lufthansa's A340 J hard product a notch below La Compagnie's A321neo, which is saying quite a lot considering that airline sells transatlantic J for fares as low as $1000 RT...
The bedding was decent, though.
I eventually gave up on sleeping, and decided to go for a walk around the dark cabin.
I couldn't ride on an A346 without checking out the downstairs lavs! For the record: nowhere near as spacious as the J bathroom upstairs
I noticed a few empty seats scattered around Y and Y+
The flight attendants had laid out some snacks in the galley behind business class. I grabbed some tasty veggies.
Lufthansa's IFE selection is quite impressive.
Can you figure out what movie I'm watching?
I always love flying over Greenland (even if it's dark... and cloudy... and I don't have a window seat!)
Before long, we made landfall over the northeastern provinces of Canada. Around two and a half hours before landing, the cabin lights were switched back on in preparation for the pre-arrival snack, which struck me as a bit premature. Meanwhile, fatigue was starting to set in, and I faced a great dilemma: should I put on my eye mask and attempt a power nap before arrival, or should I stay awake for the meal service? (#firstworldproblems)
Mainly because the bed was so uncomfortable, I knew that it would be difficult to get any meaningful rest, so I settled on the latter option and ordered several coffees to keep me energized though the connection at ORD--which, by the way, I had never been to before.
At 2h16 minutes, my transfer wasn't very long to begin with, and now our delayed departure from Munich meant that we were due in 30 minutes late... so another tight connection is on the horizon! Let's hope O'Hare is as efficient as Munich... (gulp) I would have 1h45min to clear U.S. immigration, claim my bag, hopefully check it back in at a United transfer desk, connect from T5 to T1 by bus (since the people mover is conveniently closed for construction...), get through TSA, find my gate, and board my next flight. Tight, but hopefully doable!
I begrudgingly accepted that I would probably have to skip a snack at Tortas Frontera, which everyone seems to be raving about online. Thankfully, I wouldn't be left hungry, as the pre-arrival snack was promptly served.
The ham and cheese salad with dressing was good, but the highlight of the meal was the warm lentil soup, which was absolutely superb. The small piece of apple pie with whipped cream was excellent, too.
The service on this flight was attentive, polished, and friendly. The flight attendant working my aisle routinely came around taking drink orders, and then walked through at the end of the flight personally thanking us for flying Lufthansa. It wasn't the warmest service I've ever experienced, but I felt very well looked after. I spoke with several flight attendants in the galley about my unexpected upgrade--they all seemed as confused as I did about why I would be upgraded with no status!
Finally, at 6:15pm Chicago time, we crossed into the U.S. over northern Michigan. Close behind us was LH432, another A346 inbound to O'Hare from FRA.
Around 20 minutes later, we started a gradual descent from 38,000 feet and were sequenced into the heavy traffic flow along the WYNDE1 arrival into Chicago.
Eventually, we turned final for 28C over Lake Michigan at 7:12pm, and I could see the lights of downtown Chicago in the distance. I noticed an AA regional jet flying parallel to us on the 27L final.
On final into Chicago... although those are some awfully German-sounding city names!
At 7:20pm, we made a smooth landing on runway 28C, marking my first ever visit to O'Hare (and to the state of Illinois for that matter!).
Time since leaving Munich: 9h44min
Time since leaving Oslo: 13h28min
Time without sleep: 18h30min
We slowly taxied to nearby Terminal 5, eventually docking at Gate M12 at 7:31, 36 minutes late... and 50 minutes before scheduled boarding of my connecting flight to San Francisco, thus beginning my second tight connection of the day. Thanks to Lufthansa's awesome coffee, I was in focus mode.
A familiar sight!
Some final impressions of seat 6G
I was one of the first to disembark, and made my way to a remarkably empty customs area, which I was through in a matter of minutes! Bag delivery began quickly, but mine didn't seem to be there. Recalling my very tight connection at MUC, I feared the worst and began considering my options. Eventually, though, I noticed a familiar gold ribbon in a sea of black suitcases and breathed a sigh of relief. Thanks, Lufthansa!
I quickly headed landside, wondering if I would make it to the UA bag drop in time... I need not have worried. Seconds after emerging from the "international arrival" doors, I noticed a UA employee intercepting the flow of passengers and yelling: "United connections?!"
I approached her and she scanned my luggage tag."Where are you headed?"
"On #741? You should be fine if you hurry. I'll take your bag. The shuttle to Terminal 1 is right outside."
And that was it! Somewhat stunned at the incredible efficiency of the UA transfer experience, I gave myself a massive pat on the back for not having chosen the SFO flight leaving an hour earlier, then stepped outside into the cool Chicago evening. I noticed the distinct smell of weed as I walked along the curb towards the shuttle bus--just about the most "authentic" welcome home I could have asked for! The bus left T5 at 7:59pm; 28 minutes since my arrival at the gate, and 22 minutes before boarding. I was optimistic.
The ride to Terminal 1 took a quick seven minutes, and I was conveniently dropped off by the entrance to TSA. The line looked dreadfully long; ten minutes before boarding, I was still nowhere close to the front. Miraculously, two new lanes opened up just in time! Within seconds, I emerged into the rather dingy-looking airside area of Concourse B.
UA741--the last SFO-bound flight of the evening--was leaving from gate C19. I love the iconic tunnel between the concourses!
As I hurriedly made my way up the escalator towards the C concourse, I received the following text message. Talk about perfect timing!
C19 was right next door. I was in boarding Zone 3, so I had a few minutes to walk around for some photo opportunities of the gorgeous B757-300 that would fly me across the country--my first time on the type since 2011! N75851 was first delivered to Continental (RIP) in December 2001.
That's one looooooooong jet.
It was soon time to board, and I stepped onto my last flight of the day at 8:27pm, about 50 minutes after disembarking my LH A346. For an intra-terminal international-to-domestic connection, that's about as efficient as it gets!United UA741
Scheduled Departure (Actual) : Chicago ORD - 21:11 (21:05)
Scheduled Arrival (Actual) : San Francisco - 23:57 (23:37)
Seat : 8F
Flight Time : 4h07min
Cruising Altitudes : 34,000 & 36,000 feet
Aircraft : Boeing 757-324(WL)
Registration : N75851 - 18.1 years
I was greeted by the friendly SFO-based cabin crew and made my way to seat 8F, directly opposite the boarding door. Although I booked an Economy ticket, I was able to select a seat in the "Economy Plus" section of the aircraft. There's no difference in service between the two classes, but the seats in E+ are slightly more spacious.
As I had hoped, the legroom in 8F is unlimited, and not at all restricted by the emergency exit door.
Pretty killer engine view too!
Twenty minutes prior to scheduled departure, the gate agent arrived with the final loadsheet, mentioning that "some folks from Lufthansa are missing, but they aren't gonna make it." And with that, the cabin door was closed at 8:52pm, 4 minutes before the 15-minute cutoff listed on United's website! This struck me as quite odd; one would think that 4 minutes can be crucial when there are tight connections to be made. I felt sorry for the LH connecting pax (either from my flight or the later FRA one), who would probably spend the night at the O'Hare Marriott... if they were lucky.
Any pity I felt was short-lived, however, as I realized that all the seats around me (7DE and 8DE) had remained empty! Even though the flight ended up leaving with a healthy 84% load factor--and the Economy sections further back were very full indeed--I essentially had a whole area to myself. Soon enough, "James and Zach from up front" welcomed us onboard, announcing a flight time of 4 hours and 10 minutes with a smooth ride.
Meanwhile, I was thrilled to note that my bag had made it onto the flight! I must say, United's app is exceptionally well-designed.
Guess who has five seats to himself?
Once the cargo door was closed, we pushed back 6 minutes early and taxied to runway 28R.
After waiting for a few other company jets ahead of us, we lined up and began a rolling takeoff at 9:20pm, exactly two hours after I landed from Munich. The engine sound from up front was phenomenal! You can watch the takeoff video here!
As we climbed to 34,000 feet, we were treated to some nice views of the Chicago suburbs.
Passing Rockford, IL
What a climb rate! I could feel the nose rise dramatically as we climbed out of some light chop.
Once we leveled off, the cabin crew came around with drinks and snacks. I got a ginger ale, pretzels, and Biscoff cookies, which I was more than happy with. As far as I know, that was the only service during the flight.
Aside from the fantastic legroom, the seat was wide enough and perfectly comfortable. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of USB sockets, which I had been hoping to charge my iPhone with, but the AC power ports ended up working just fine. I also bought a full-flight Wifi pass for $20.99--which seemed quite steep, but the speed was exceptionally good. It quickly got cold by the emergency exit, and I needed to put on a second sweater to keep warm!
Still feeling the effects of Lufthansa's coffee, I only managed a 15-minute power nap over Nebraska, and spent the rest of the flight lazily following our progress on Flightradar24 and identifying various towns as we passed them by. It was a clear and beautiful night.
Sioux City, IA
After three and a half hours in the air, we crossed a state border for the last time, and began our descent from FL360 at 11:04pm. The effects of the caffeine had long worn off, and I was getting seriously drowsy. My 25th hour without any real sleep was fast approaching, and I was SO ready for bed.
Near Modesto, CA
The lights of Stockton in the distance
Leading the pack into SFO tonight
As usual, I listened to LiveATC during our approach, and followed along as we flew the classic FMS Bridge Visual approach to 28R.
After an eerie approach over the pitch black bay, we landed on 28R at 11:27pm. I've linked the video here
Time since leaving Chicago: 4h07min
Time since leaving Oslo: 19h35min
Time without sleep: 24h30min
After a brief taxi, we stopped a few feet from the gate. The captain soon explained that the ramp crew was one person short--perhaps they weren't expecting us so soon! We continued after a short delay, docking at gate F11 at 11:37pm, exactly twenty minutes ahead of schedule.
This company B752 pushed back once we cleared the taxiway; she was flying a red-eye to Newark.
Some final impressions of the seat
I was off N75851 within three minutes, and on my way to baggage claim.
A neat little installation in Terminal 3
Some of you might remember my shoulder injury the previous night in Oslo... I had asked a family friend to meet me at SFO and help with my luggage, and he very kindly agreed. As it turned out, my shoulder had almost completely healed and I could well have managed on my own, but it sure was nice to see a familiar face waiting for me at baggage claim after such a long trip!
Baggage delivery took a while. My bag eventually arrived around five minutes past midnight, and we were in the car minutes later. As we sped down the 280, I called my father back in Oslo, where I had seen him the previous morning, even though it was still essentially the same day for me! We finally arrived at my grandmother's apartment at 12:40am--exactly 24 hours and 45 minutes after I left the house in Oslo--and I was delighted to find that my mother had stayed awake to meet me. Within ten minutes, I was in bed and sound asleep. Conclusion
If I were to say that I was disappointed with Lufthansa's Business Class, I'm pretty sure that I would come across as incredibly pretentious. I paid for and expected a Premium Economy product, and what I received was undeniably superior to that. I did, however, find Lufthansa's A340 hard product to be outdated and uncomfortable for long-haul Business. If you're happy keeping the seat upright--perhaps to get work done--then you'll be more than comfortable. But if you're like me and intend to rest on long flights, I suggest you steer clear. The bed is short, narrow, and awkwardly angled, and the footwell is absurdly small. I had no problems with the soft product; the service was very polished, the food and amenities were generally good, and the IFE well above average.
To be completely transparent: I paid $1200 for an EWR-LHR-OSL-MUC-ORD-SFO routing on Expedia, with the long-haul legs in Y+. That's not cheap, but it's still a pretty good deal--especially for the winter holiday season! A free upgrade to J made this absolutely incredible value. I'm still perplexed about the reason for my upgrade, considering my lack of status with the airline. Other than sheer dumb luck, the only explanation I can think of is spontaneous generosity from the Lufthansa employee I spoke with on the phone from OSL, in light of my delayed flight to MUC. When she couldn't rebook me, did she give me a free upgrade as "compensation" for the stressful connection I would inevitably face at Munich? I'll never know, but it's a nice thought.
So, to sum up:
Am I grateful for this awesomely unexpected upgrade? Of course.
Was my experience in Lufthansa's Business class generally more comfortable than it would have been in Premium Economy? Absolutely.
Would I pay thousands of dollars for a seat in Lufthansa's Business class on a long-haul flight? Hard pass.
...well, maybe on the upper deck of a 747, if I had that kind of money or mileage to throw around.
As for the other flights:As I discussed in Part 1
, I found LH's European short-haul product to be pleasant and comfortable, and they deserve some credit for getting my checked bag through the tight connection at MUC.
United also impressed me. They clearly run a tight ship at O'Hare, and my Economy Plus seat on their 757 was comfortable and spacious. The in-flight service was also quite friendly, and the excellent Wifi made up for the lack of PTV's. I didn't notice any food options available for purchase on the 4hr transcon flight, which would really a show an unfortunate decline in the quality of UA's domestic soft product... but in my exhausted state I may well have missed a BOB offering, so please correct me if one can typically buy food on flights of that length. Anyway, I wasn't hungry in the slightest, so it wasn't an issue.
Overall, this was an awesome rollercoaster of a trip, and despite some shortcomings, I'd be lying if I said I didn't love every minute of it. I mean, come on, logging the rarest subtypes of all three "Flying Pencils" in one day... that's pretty sweet. It was also great fun to write up. Thanks for sticking with me all the way to the end!
More reports coming soon.