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US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sat Feb 19, 2011 11:41 pm

The journeys that change your life always seem to begin at night.

Waking before the alarm clock, furtively glancing through the darkness at the illuminated time and cursing the nervous insomnia that plagues me when I know I have an early morning plane to catch. Stepping out of the front door onto the cold pavement, seeing nobody else on the streets and only darkened windows of a sleeping city that knows nothing of where I’m about to go.

This journey has, in fact, two such nocturnal beginnings. One in Glasgow, and one in Belfast. The first flight of this trip report is relatively mundane for me, because for almost two years I’ve been commuting between my home in Glasgow and my place of work in Belfast. This double lifestyle involves quite a bit of flying, although those flights never take more than 30 minutes. I’ve included this short hop here, because departing from home in Glasgow seemed like an important first step in this life changing journey.

At less than two weeks notice, I realised I needed to get to San Francisco, and to get their at the earliest possible opportunity on a certain date to ask one of the most important questions in my life.

The question? Read on.

Trip planning

To serve my regular commute, I had, during one of their regular sales, previously purchased a number of day trips with Easyjet from Glasgow to Belfast. This meant a number of day trips for £18.99 each way, inclusive of all taxes and charges. What follows was the first leg of one such day return. I decided not to use the return portion, and travel onwards to Dublin to fly to San Francisco from there.

At the start of the trip planning process, I had a pretty meagre balance of 56,158 destinations miles in my BMI Diamond Club account. That balance was just 92 miles short of the 52,250 required to redeem for a miles only round trip from the UK to the USA, one way in economy and one way in business. My plan was tolerate the outbound daytime flights in economy, and then return overnight in the relative comfort of business.

For those of your interested in the numbers, the Diamond Club redemption table (accessible here: prices all redemptions as roundtrips, with one ways being calculated at half roundtrip total. BMI locate the UK in redemption zone 1 and the USA in redemption 3. A roundtrip in economy from zone 1 to 3 therefore costs 45,000 miles plus taxes. One way costs half that, 22,500 miles plus taxes. However both a roundtrip and an economy can be upgraded to business class for just 1.5 times the number of miles - which when you consider the price difference between cash fares for economy and business classes is quite a steal. So the plan was to find a one way flight in economy class to San Francisco SFO, and a one way business class for the return. Booking two singles instead of one complete roundtrip is a top tip for redeeming Diamond Club miles, as once the first sector of a roundtrip redemption itinerary is flown, no subsequent sector can be changed.

So the miles added up as

Outbound [ 45,000 ÷ 2 = 22,500 one way economy ] +
Inbound [ 45,000 ÷ 2 = 22,500 one way economy x 1.5 for business ] = 52,250.

You’ll be able to read about my return - in heavenly Air New Zealand Business Premier here: NZ: LAX-LHR (C) - Business Premier For £15.20! (by jamesontheroad Feb 19 2011 in Trip Reports)

As I had been lead to believe by friendly fellow travellers on the BMI Diamond Club forum of FlyerTalk (, a polite request to the Diamond Club call handlers revealed that being 92 miles short wasn’t a problem. This was the final blowout, as I emptied my Diamond Club account, probably for the last time. It was not a surprise, but perhaps appropriate, that just a few days after confirming the itinerary, BMI announced it was to quit the Glasgow / Heathrow route, the only BMI service I still use.

My choice of departure airports and airlines was quite large, as Diamond Club miles can be spent on any Star Alliance airline (and Virgin Atlantic). Because of my dual existence in Scotland and Northern Ireland, I could reasonably choose from CO/UA to SFO through EWR from EDI, GLA or BFS or BD and AC/CO/UA/US/VS through LHR.

Plugging the numbers into ITA’s tax matrix calculator reminded me, however, of a stunning opportunity. Departing from DUB, in the Republic of Ireland, instead of any airport in the UK, would immediately remove the £60 APD (economy class long haul) tax. I could also enjoy the benefit of US Customs and Immigration Pre-clearance at DUB (the RoI being one of only two countries in the world to have a pre-clearance agreement for US-bound passengers) and arrive for a quick connection en route without having to clear immigration.

Choosing not to pay half cash and half miles (another option when redeeming Diamond Club miles), and traveling on a tight budget, the departure taxes were going to be the stinker for me. So I looked south, and checked availability via ANA’s website and the Diamond Club call centre for any possible itineraries ex-DUB. CO had some possibilities, but not on my preferred departure date, and their flight departed at 0900, meaning a really early start from Belfast.

US suddenly caught my eye with their daily service to PHL. Departing at 1105, I could comfortably stay the previous night in Belfast, and connecting in PHL I could be in SFO the following evening (albeit eight hours behind GMT). Plus - US don’t levy a separate fuel surcharge on their flights, so the taxes and charges worked out much cheaper: just £46.40 for the entire 5793 miles!

The itinerary was booked as follows:

10/2/11 US723 DUB (1105) - PHL (1350) / US967 PHL (1800) - SFO (2125)

Neither BMI’s call centre agents nor the ANA Star Alliance seat checker showed any availability, but I had a sneaky eye on the earlier US969 departure from PHL. Traveling with hand luggage only and having cleared customs and immigration in DUB, I was hopeful that I would be able to standby for the earlier connection.

But first, to get to Belfast.

Glasgow - Belfast

Until last year, when I wasn’t doing a day trip or traveling at short notice, Ryanair were my preferred option between stwick (PIK / EGPK), United Kingdom">PIK and BHD (and you can read my trip report of a typical trip here: stwick (PIK / EGPK), United Kingdom">PIK-BHD: Ryanair's Shortest Route (pix) (by Jamesontheroad Jul 22 2009 in Trip Reports)). However in early winter 2010, the initial three year agreement between Ryanair and BHD expired and FR walked away, apparently because BHD refused to play ball and continue to offer the airport fees that FR was willing to pay. As is the Ryanair way, the airline simply walked away from three years of hard work to go and print money somewhere else. The profit line says that the business model works, but I felt particularly sorry for the excellent crew who had made Belfast their home (and had only three months notice to relocate) and who always delivered such friendly service.

I now fly with the two airlines who remain on this route, FlyBe (GLA - BHD) and Easyjet (GLA - BFS). BFS is much less convenient and more expensive to reach from Belfast itself, but Easyjet’s fares are generally cheaper. Since FlyBe and Easyjet serve the city pair with aircraft based at opposite ends of the route, Easyjet have the earliest arrival into Belfast and FlyBe the earliest into Glasgow, and the two seem to have a comfortable coexistence.

My morning was a typical early departure from Glasgow to Belfast. I was awake before the alarm sounded at 04:30. That’s a little earlier than normal, because I had more packing to do and more things to check off my list.

Just after 05:00 I left the apartment and caught a bus in to the city, busy with other early risers and commuters. Once in Glasgow city centre, it’s a two block walk for me to the nearest stop for Glasgow’s competing airport bus services.

Until early 2011, Arriva held the exclusive franchise to serve Glasgow Airport directly from the city of Glasgow with their ‘Glasgow Flyer’ branded service - basically a regular city bus with extra luggage racks, leather seats, wifi and hugely inflated fares. When their contract expired, it was awarded to First Bus and their ‘Glasgow Shuttle’ - a regular city bus with extra luggage racks, leather seats, wifi and hugely inflated fares (you get my gripe?). Arriva, however, chose not to roll over, and the two operators now compete head to head, with buses departing to and from the airport within minutes of one another (although without the “official” status conferred upon it by BAA, the operators of GLA, Arriva no longer gets the prime bus stops immediately outside the domestic arrivals).

I was on St. Vincent Street with time to spare for the pair of competing buses that both departed Glasgow Buchanan at 05:30. Depending on which one ‘sweeps’ the route of confused passengers first, either the Arriva or First bus arrives first. How a visitor to the city can be expected to differentiate them at half-five in the morning is beyond me - since both carry route number 500. If you have a return or day ticket with one, it won’t be valid on the other. Don’t be surprised if you hail the driver and he informs you that you’ve stopped the wrong bus. It’s a dreadful way for the city to represent itself to visiting business and leisure travellers, but its absolutely typical of the dismissive attitude that Glasgow and most other UK cities have towards public transport: the domain of hugely profitable multinational transport companies. This morning the First service came (appropriately) first, and the driver slowed and changed lanes towards my stop expecting my hand to rise up. I waved him out of the way and caught the eye of the Arriva driver right behind. While I prefer the First bus for their network day tickets, today I wanted a simple student single and Arriva’s is cheaper.

Flight one of three

From: Glasgow International (GLA)
Arrival: Belfast International (BFS)
Airline: Easyjet (U2)
Aircraft: Airbus A319
Reg: not known
Flight: EZY462
Seat: 2A
Load: 131/156 (84%)
Departure time: 07:00 (scheduled) / 07:01 (pushback) / 07:12 (take-off)
Arrival time: 07:45 (scheduled) / 07:43 (landing)
Fare paid: £18.99 inclusive.

Twenty minutes later I was outside GLA, nipping under the new covered walkway that connects the drop off zone (and banished Arriva bus stops) to the terminal building. I had checked in online for this flight immediately after purchase, so it was straight up the escalators to Glasgow’s impressive security checkpoints. This relatively new facility works very efficiently during the morning rush hour, especially before about 07:00, when the vast majority of passengers are regular flyers catching flights to London and other UK cities. It begins to get slower after that as less experienced passengers, shall we say, take more time to get through the security check. From entrance to exit, I was through security in five minutes, although that was helped in no small part by my fellow passengers, who had their coats off, laptops out and pockets emptied before they got to the x-ray machines.

After security, GLA seriously lets itself down, with a dreadful chicane of overpriced booze and gifts. As with many UK airports, you can’t avoid this, you have to plough through it to get to the gates, presumably because some moron who works in marketing assumes that enforced exposure to whiskey that’s more expensive than on the high street makes it more appealing. Maybe it works with holidaymakers, but at 06:00 it seems it doesn’t.

My flight wasn’t listed on the screens, but don’t be fooled. EZY462 currently departs from gate 8; it just isn’t listed in the main airside part of the terminal so as to keep you close to the shops. I headed straight for the checkpoint that isolates the domestic piers from international passengers, and turned right towards the quieter of the two domestic piers where local screens listed upcoming departures (including U2 to BFS, STN and Aer Lingus to DUB) Parked on stand by the main domestic pier within sight were a handful of FlyBe Q400 and a BMI Regional ERJ. Over on the further pier were a couple of Loganair Saab 340 and, towards the far end, a selection of Easyjet A319.

I was at the gate for 06:00, which gave me about thirty minutes to lean my head back and attempt to nap. A friendly gate agent was promptly on hand to arrange the hand baggage gauge and barrier tape as a divider between Speedy Boarders and main group passengers. At around 06:30 boarding began, Speedy Boarders first (two of them), special assistance requests (one) and then us. We descended the stairs at gate 8 and were held behind a tensabarrier for about ten minutes, as is normally done. This “pre-boarding” is somewhat annoying but at least it gets everyone together and out to the plane reasonably quickly.

Our bird for this morning’s flight was G-EZBN (?). I boarded by the front steps and chose seat 2A. I generally prefer 1A/B/C but being first on board know it can cause a blockage to sit there. Having boarded first I didn’t appreciate the large queue behind me. In the end 131 passengers boarded, many of them Scotland football supporters en route to Dublin for an international. The vast majority of the male fans were dressed in kilts and sporrans for the event. Take care following one of these up the airstairs on a windy Glasgow morning.
Pushback. This kind of load is unusual - I normally overhear a headcount of between forty and fifty on this early morning flight. After it’s early morning roundtrip to Belfast, the plane and crew make a return trip to a short haul European destination; on a Wednesday I believe the four sector shift is made up with a trip to Faro and back, although this varies depending on the day.

Pushback was just after seven, and we followed a FlyBe Q400 out towards runway 05. After waiting on the threshold for that flight to clear the immediate airspace, we were airborne about ten minutes after leaving the stand.

From GLA, our flight turned south and followed the Ayrshire coastline towards Stranraer, the pilot reporting a cruising altitude of 12,000ft. The flight is very short - usually 25 minutes and probably the shortest Easyjet has anywhere on it’s network. When Ryanair were flying into Belfast, their flight from Prestwick (about thirty miles south of Glasgow) clocked in at less than ninety miles, on one occasion taking me across the water in just twenty-two minutes tarmac to tarmac. Thankfully Easyjet don’t enforce their retail procedures on cabin crew as vigorously as Ryanair (who obliged the Belfast-based crew to offer a tour through the cabin of the fully prepared bar cart on even that short flight). In this case, cabin crew described their breakfast selection over the PA and then walked through the cabin taking orders.

The flight was smooth, and shortly after turning east to cross the North Channel, we began our descent at about 07:30. We’d be landing on the westerly runway ?? at BFS, so it was an almost straight shot to the north of Belfast, with the slumbering city and suburbs around Belfast Lough visible to our left through the clouds during the descent. We were on the tarmac a few minutes ahead of schedule, taxiing past the ever busy cargo apron and international pier of BFS (the latter occupied by a Jet2 737 and a Thomas Cook A320). We taxiied over the windswept range of stands to the north of the domestic gates, and I was out of the terminal by 7:55.

Along with dozens of Scotland supporters, I was on the 08:10 Translink Airport Express bus, which took a rush-hour average of fifty minutes to deliver me to the Belfast Europa. Buscentre.

I had meetings and work to attend to in Belfast for the rest of the day, before collapsing into bed before nine o’clock that evening. Early starts are one thing, but early starts on top of a mostly sleepless night are another. I was hopeful to get a good few hours of sleep that evening, because the following day was going to be a marathon.

Belfast - Dublin - San Francisco

The alarm was set for 05:00 this time, and in fact it woke me up, so I must have got to sleep eventually. But for hours I had been tossing and turning, rolling in the darkness and trying to get comfortable in a semi-familiar bed. Preying on my mind was not the long journey ahead, but the events at my destination that I had tried to plan out over the last few weeks. I was excited, I was nervous, but most of all, I wasn’t sleeping much.

I was dressed and packed, again into a single piece of hand baggage, my hard wearing and modestly stylish Muji briefcase. There isn’t a branch of Muji in Belfast or Glasgow, so I generally succumb to their simple and sturdy travel gear and stationery when I’m in London.

I had pre-booked a cab from the small local dispatch at Stranmillis Taxis for 05:30, and found it waiting outside five minutes early. When in Belfast I proudly avoid the two largest cab companies (if you know the city you’ll know the firms) who have big marketing budgets, big fleets but in my experience still maintain useless dispatch times and pricier fares. I’d allowed myself far too much time, and was back at the Europa Buscentre before 05:40.

My distrust for multinational bus companies is heightened by my respect for Northern Ireland’s entirely state owned transport system, known as Translink. Although commuters share the same gripes as bus and train passengers the world over, Translink provides a decent network of local and intercity buses and trains. The fares are reasonable and the spread of the network is impressive - there are few villages in Northern Ireland without at least a modest connection to either Belfast or the nearest big town.

DSCN4252 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

Airport and Dublin services are the only buses to run through the night, and I was aiming for the 06:00 Goldline service to Dublin Busaras. Although I prefer the ‘Enterprise’ train for trips to Dublin (and day returns from Belfast start at £10), the train doesn’t serve the airport and doesn’t get you to Dublin Connolly until around nine in the morning. The bus, however, is hourly, and Dublin Airport (being north of Dublin) is just over two hours away.

DSCN4255 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

My bus was ready at stand 14 and was soon being prepared for the trip, which was more than two thirds full with passengers, most heading like me to DUB. We left a few minutes late (due to the large number of people buying fares from the driver, the ticket office being closed).

I dozed a bit during the trip, which passed quickly. Daylight began to creep into the sky once we had crossed the border, and apart from some sudden and thick patches of sea fog that had rolled in from the Irish Sea, the day was setting to be clear and fine. The only traffic congestion came less than 10km from DUB, where roadworks are ongoing to add extra lanes to the older southern section of the motorway.

The approach to DUB is even more impressive now, with Terminal 2 now complete and the access road for Terminal 1 and the bus station passing right underneath the structure itself. Being an architect, I must admit I’m not crazy about the exterior of this building. It’s a big meaningless blob, and the cladding just looks cheap. I also doubt very much whether it will age well. Inside however, was another story.

Flight two of three

From: Dublin Terminal 2 (DUB)
Arrival: Philadelphia Terminal A (PHL)
Airline: US Airways (US)
Aircraft: Boeing 757-200
Reg: N963UW
Flight: US723
Cabin: Economy
Seat: 19C
Load: not known
Departure time: 11:05GMT (scheduled) / 11:03GMT (actual)
Arrival time: 13:50EST (scheduled) / 13:33EST (actual)
Route: (courtesy FlightAware) INKUR4A INKUR ETARI 5700N 02000W 5900N 03000W 6000N 04000W 5900N 05000W PRAWN YDP N334E COVAN J563 ALB
Distance: 3,267sm (direct) 3,876sm (flown)
Fare paid: (for DUB-PHL-SFO) 22,500 BMI Diamond Club destination miles, plus £46.40 taxes.

flightaware_dub_phl by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

Now US have previous form with me, after losing all my luggage during a connection in PHL. I recall saying out loud (quite loud, and probably with some blue language garnishing the statement) that I would never fly with US again, particularly after experiencing their dismissive customer service both on the ground and over the phone. The attitude of every representative of the company following the loss and the subsequent compensation for the lost bags was derisory.

However, I’m fickle.

And this time I’m not going to risk checking any bags in.

DSCN4260 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

DSCN4261 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

DSCN4262 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

DUB’s bus station is just a few minutes walk from the new T2. As I said above, I’m not really a fan of the blobby shape or metallic cladding, but stepping through the doors it’s a another story. The fit and finish of the materials, the signage and the quality of the lighting and spaces is most impressive. I was immediately won over, so much so that I was too busy admiring the building to take many photographs of it.

The new Dublin T2. by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

As a consequence of BMI’s decision (mentioned earlier) to cancel the Heathrow / Glasgow route, BMI offered some of it’s valued Glasgow customers a year’s free upgrade to Diamond Club Gold status. Sadly the shiny new card didn’t get to me in time for this trip, but strangely I didn’t need it, as I was able to walk straight through to the head of the priority check-in line as a Star Alliance Gold member for about 08:30. On my way to the desk, the usual pre-check-in security questions were handled by a young agent working from a podium laptop. He asked me the purpose of my trip to the United States, and in an unguarded moment I told him the precise reason, with a candid honesty I’d not shared with anyone outside my closest family and friends up to now.

A huge smile broke out across his fancy, and he said “oh, wow!” He wished me a very pleasant trip, and I continued to the head of the line, happy in the knowledge my secret was gradually becoming public knowledge.

Without any bags, check-in was quick. The agent explained to me how to reach departures (up the escalators two levels) and that I needed to get to US Pre-clearance for 09:35 at the latest. Boarding gates would be displayed beyond pre-clearance, and the boarding pass simply listed boarding time as 09:35, and the gate printed as “USPC”.

DSCN4665a by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

I climbed the two flights of escalators, impressed by the blue glass enclosing the elevator shafts. I particularly attractive feature of T2 is the extensive use of large opaque glass panels on interior wall surfaces. These reflect light and turn long narrow spaces such as corridors into much more attractive spaces. Interestingly, they could also be retro-fitted to existing parts of the airport, suggesting that T1 could receive a makeover that would match T2.

Security was very quick and efficient, and from there I took a few moments to look out from this high vantage point onto the stands below.

DSCN4266 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

I go to airports to fly places, not to buy stuff, so the shops and bars bore no interest to me. From the second floor bar I could see an EI A320 immediately below me, an EI A330 and a DL 757. No sign of a US tail, until I descended one level by elevator and saw that deep blue and red fin at the far end of the pier. Instead of turning right towards the gates and USPC, I turned left and walked the length of the airline lounge corridor (which currently features a small interim Aer Lingus Gold Circle lounge (also for Continental and Priority Pass travellers) and the Ethiad lounge. I got another glimpse of my bird from here.

DSCN4269 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

DSCN4270 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

DSCN4271 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

Above: EI-DUZ ‘Aoife’ parked at T1

This corridor continues straight into T1, arriving beside the Eason newsagent and bookstore at the eastern edge of the airside concourse. The BMI Diamond Club is just upstairs from here, so I climbed the stairs and checked in for a half hour to grab a coffee and croissant. This is the designated Star Alliance Gold lounge for US departures from DUB.

The BMI outstation is now closed, and DUB only receives LHR-based aircraft and crew. There were no BD services for the next hour or two, so along with just three other Star Alliance Gold passengers, the lounge was quite empty.

I left the lounge at about 09:15 and walked back towards T2. Turning into the main pier of the new terminal, you get this impressive view along the length of the building. It’s a great opportunity to notice how good the DUB signage is - very classy but also legible and coherent.

DSCN4273 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

DSCN4272 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

EI A320 at T2 gate 407.

With the main gates at first floor level, US Pre-clearance is accessed via stairs, escalators and elevators one floor below, at ground level beneath these gates. As with airport security, the process involved is not for describing here, but overall it took me about an hour to get through.

The controlled zone beyond US Pre-clearance has about six gates, most of which are arranged along the western side of the pier. DL’s flight to JFK was closing as I passed through towards the last gate, number 406, where almost immediately, boarding for my flight commenced at 1015. Seated in 19C, I was allocated to boarding group 4. Again, the new terminal has an excellent feel to the interior, with big windows (and reasonable ground level views onto the apron to the west of the new pier) although it is seriously lacking in amenities. There is one catering outlet, a coffee bar which had a long queue and apparently little or no food available (with both open fronted refrigerators closed).

DSCN4277 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

Our aircraft for the seven and a half hour flight to PHL would be N963UW, freshly arrived from her six-weekly inbound service. After a few minutes, group 4 was called, and I passed through the gate and up the stairs. This layout means these gates can be isolated either from or to the pre-clearance zone downstairs, and used for flights to all destinations.

DSCN4279 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

EI-DUB ‘Padraig’ at the adjacent stand, about to depart for JFK.

At the end of the airbridge, my beautiful bird awaited. I’ve read some people’s opinions about taking a 757 across the Atlantic, but my experiences (with Thomas Cook to Canada and US to PHL) have only increased my affection for this plane. Even after all these years, not only is it still a bit of looker, but the 757 is also perfectly suited for ‘thinner’ regional routes across the pond. Both Continental and US know this and (if you’ll excuse the term) carpet bomb the UK and western Europe with these narrow-body flights from their east coast hubs. It’s the right plane for the right job, and I always enjoy the pairing of a 757 and a trans-Atlantic flight.

The flight was busy, but 19B remained open, as did a number of middle seats around me. The seats are finished a simple blue leather, and are perfectly adequate for the trip. Legroom was good, although I discovered my seat had a habit of reclining when I didn’t intend it to. There is no personal IFE, but the overhead CRT monitors have at some point been replaced with fixed flat screen units. They still provided an opportunity for a taller passenger to smack his head against the plastic moulding a few rows in front of me - an audible wince came from those around me, although he seemed ok (perhaps used to trials of being tall?)

The cabin crew completed boarding at 10:43 and we pushed back at 10:53. The captain announced we were first in line for take off, and I caught a glimpse of DL’s 757 taxiing out behind us for their (slightly earlier scheduled) departure. We were rolling down runway ?? just after 11:00. Take off felt mighty powerful, and we adopted a steep ascent as we headed west over Ireland.

Inflight service began in the first hour. I was planning on working on some unfinished papers during the flight, so didn’t really pay attention to the in-flight entertainment. US offered their two prong headphones for sale. I have an adaptor somewhere, pilfered from a Thomas Cook flight in a 757 to Canada many moons ago, but instead contented myself with the occasional mono distraction using my iPod headphones.

DSCN4281 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

The crew provided lunch service from two carts, one providing beverages and the other providing the meals. Of the two options, chicken or pasta, I chose the pasta, and it was perfectly fine for a long haul economy meal. The little “TexMex” salad that had been defrosted to accompany the hot meal was an odd combination for an otherwise Italian meal, but it was decent enough.

Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, if you love a good trip report) I’m not so good at recreating the long, slow, arduous experience of a long haul flight. I continued to work, getting some writing done and only looking up from time to time to catch a glimpse of the two main features on the overhead screens, ‘Morning Glory’ and ‘Wall Street - Money Never Sleeps’.

DSCN4282 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

Without a window, I didn’t pay much attention to our first sight of North America, but tracked in over Labrador and the down the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, where you can usually spot the distinctive long narrow fields stretching back from the shore many miles in land. If my memory serves me correctly, this unique landscape was caused by Québec settlers being assigned no more than a certain width of shore line on the river, but almost unlimited land as far back as they could farm.

We skirted over Sherbrooke and then crossed into US airspace towards Albany. Just before 12:45 the captain announced our descent. As we banked and turned over Philadelphia for the final approach to runway 27R, I caught a sight of the light snow that had dusted the city. While it has been a long cold winter in Scotland and Northern Ireland, I’d almost completely forgotten that I’d be landing in a much colder winter landscape in the eastern US.

We touched down for 13:30 and were soon on stand at terminal A gate 13. I had one last chance to take a look at N963UW before leaving her. In the bright early afternoon sunlight she looked almost factory new.

DSCN4283 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

Photo by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

In transit: Philadelphia International Airport

American readers should take a moment to consider the ways in which we Brits look at your airports. In the UK, airports are no longer part of the public infrastructure. They’ve been sold off, and they’re run to make money. Not to serve flights, but to make money. Not to be pleasant places to transit through, but to make money. Not to provide nice big windows or pleasant environs, but to to make money. The shops, bars and cafés come first. You’ll struggle to find your gate because someone will have put a Starbucks in front of it.

So it’s always a pleasure to return to the United States to discover what airports are like when they’re designed and run as publicly owned facilities. Sometimes they can be dour, sometimes they can be a little retro, but they have in my experience always been pleasantly neutral spaces in which to transit.

The immediate advantage of arriving into PHL from DUB was, as I mentioned, the US Pre-clearance in Ireland. Stepping out of gate 13, we could have been arriving off a regular domestic service. So I made tracks straight towards concourse B, and the US Airways Club that spans the upper level between concourses B and C.

As I also mentioned earlier, I had my eyes on an earlier connecting flight to SFO. I wasn’t sure what US policy might be in this regard, having heard I might be required to pay a small fee to move forward from US967 at 18:00 to US969 at 15:55. However, the extremely welcome US representative at the reception desk was able to bring me forward without a hitch and without a charge. He apologised for not having any window or aisle seats, but I explained I would happily accept an earlier middle seat. Whether or not this was a standard service or perk extended only because of my Star Alliance Gold status I’m not sure.

DSCN4663a by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

DSCN4285 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

There are several US Airways lounges at PHL, and I suppose in retrospect I could have taken advantage of these and gone exploring. However with one long trans-Atlantic flight in the bag and another long trans-continental flight to come, I was more worried about having a break. The lounge is on the upper level with a fine view out over the apron between piers B and C. The windows are tall and there’s a variety of seating areas, either next to the windows or clustered amongst low room dividers along the length of the lounge’s central aisle.

DSCN4286 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

There is a limited selection of snacks, mostly fresh fruit and salted snacks but a decent self service tea and coffee selection. There’s a paid bar, with the free items you might expect to find sold at US$1 to circumvent state legislation on liquor sales. So when in Rome... I ordered a Bud and sat back for the hour or so I would have in transit. With no electricity plugs on either plane, I’d took full advantage of the power plugs to charge up my laptop and phone.

Flight three of three

From: Philadelphia Terminal B (PHL)
Arrival: San Francisco Terminal 1 (SFO)
Airline: US Airways (US)
Aircraft: Airbus A321
Reg: not known
Flight: US969
Cabin: Economy
Seat: 7B
Load: not known
Departure time: 15:55EST (scheduled) / 16:54EST (actual)
Arrival time: 18:45PST (scheduled) / 19:37PST (actual)
Route: (courtesy FlightAware) INKUR4A INKUR ETARI 5700N 02000W 5900N 03000W 6000N 04000W 5900N 05000W PRAWN YDP N334E COVAN J563 ALB
Distance: 2,517sm (direct) 2,566sm (planned) 2,568sm (flown)

flightaware_phl_sfo by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

At 14:58, an email arrived into my inbox:

We regret to inform you that  flight # 969, from Philadelphia to San
Francisco on Feb 10 at 3:55 PM is delayed. Your estimated time of
Departure is 5:00 PM.

Your updated flight information:
Departing on: Feb 10
flight # 969
Depart: Philadelphia (PHL) at 5:00 PM

We apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you for choosing US Airways.

One minute later, at 14:59, a second email arrived:

We regret to inform you that  flight # 969, from Philadelphia to San
Francisco on Feb 10 at 3:55 PM is delayed. Your estimated time of
Departure is 4:30 PM.

Your updated flight information:
Departing on: Feb 10
flight # 969
Depart: Philadelphia (PHL) at 4:30 PM

We apologize for the inconvenience. Thank you for choosing US Airways.

I suppose that works out as good news then? An 65 minute delay immediately being reduced to 35 minutes. A little before the revised boarding time of 16:00 I packed up my bags and left the lounge, offering my thanks to the staff on the desk. My gate was listed as 13B, at the end of the B pier.

DSCN4287 by jamesbrownontheroad, on Flickr

When I got to the gate, I was disappointed to find that the windows were in a pretty filthy state. While I could clearly make out the shape of A321 outside, I wasn’t able to get the registration, and subsequently forgot to ask the crew. Boarding was called almost immediately, however, so I was hopeful that the delay might have been made up.

The atmosphere amongst the passengers both at the and on the plane was quite different from on board my flight from Dublin. As you can imagine, while these two sectors are not so different in terms of length, there is something much more workaday about a trans-continental flight in the USA. Once on board there was soon a polite battle of words as passengers gently fought for overheard locker space. A number of the overhead lockers in the rows immediately ahead of me had difficulty closing and remaining closed, and it took the intervention of a dead heading captain to assist the cabin attendants in shutting one of them. This same compartment would be impossible to open later the flight, with one of the attendants eventually standing on the arm of a seat to reach into the compartment through an adjacent lid.

That said, I’m a European, and something of a patriot at heart. The Airbus has an immediately more appealing interior than the (admittedly older) 752 that brought me from Dublin. The fit and finish of the materials, both on the interior of the plane and on the seats, was much tighter and appealing. The seats were harder, however, and my fingers were tightly crossed for two thin, narrow shouldered and soft elbowed passengers to occupy seats 7A and 7C. When they arrived, they reminded me by the mannerisms of the mundanity of these flights to so many Americans. Both knew exactly how and where they wanted their hand luggage, and once installed in their seats were quickly headphone’d up and removed from the hustle and bustle around us.

The crew on board this flight was, I believe, all female, and like the inbound flight from Dublin consisted of a generally older group of women. It’s another observation as a British traveler in America that airlines from the USA seem to employ a much older demographic in the cabin than you would experience in the UK or Europe. I may be wrong about that, but I presume this is because the highly protectionist employment contracts of the USA (free market of the world, eh? and you still own your airports and public transit corporations  ) If there is one noticeable difference to having a modestly older crew, it was that service was subtly different. It was not effusive but extremely friendly and confident. There was also an appreciable attention to detail - with cabin attendants complimenting passengers’ attire, jewellery and even knitting during the flight.

Once loading had been completed the captain apologised for the delay and explained that a routine computer part was required on the flight deck, and that a spare had just arrived in PHL on another US flight. Within less than ten minutes, we heard some discussions from the front of the cabin, and an engineer successfully installed whatever was needed. The usual polite conversation between strangers ensued, hoping it wasn’t anything important.

We pushed back quite late, but with the promise from the flight deck that we should still arrive close to schedule. My fellow passenger in 7A, who seemed much more used to this journey than me, commented that US seem to have highly padded schedules on these routes.

And indeed we pushed back and were on our way to 27L for departure just before 17:00EST.

Being in a centre seat on a very busy flight, I was less inclined to get up and take photographs during this sector. I could see from my seat the forward cabin attendant taking orders for passengers in Envoy class, and got the occasional whiff of the early evening meal being offered to them. Back in coach, service consisted of the paid menu offered on domestic US mainline flights. Nothing in the menu appealed to me, although I noted a lot of passengers around me buying the warm option or the cheese plate. I had a two complimentary cans of soda during the flight.

There being no IFE on this flight, I had few distractions from my work, so I continued for as long as I could to work on my laptop and to read the papers I’d brought with me. The passenger seat to my left in 7A attempted to use the GoGo inflight internet with some success, but the coverage seemed patchy and pages were loading pretty slowly.

The rest of the flight passed VERY slowly. After what felt like a couple of hours (and I don’t wear a watch) I peered out of the window and was surprised to see Lake Erie. It felt like we’d barely scratched the surface of this long trip. I continued to read, but as the ever lengthening day began to attack my body, I felt more and more tired. By the time we had left Philadelphia, it was almost 23:00 back in Belfast, and after barely two or three hours sleep the previous night, I was pushing 18 hours of solid travel, and I was not feeling particularly great. However on the second bar service I asked for a coffee (aside from a decaf coffee in the US Airways Club in PHL, this was my first of the day, I’d be carefully avoiding it until I absolutely needed it).

As is often the case with people who don’t know one another but who are traveling long distances together in constrained spaces, conversation between strangers didn’t really kick off until the last ninety minutes of the flight. As all three of us took turns to use the restrooms at the back of the cabin, we started chatting some more. The gentleman on my left was traveling home on business. To my right was a man traveling first on business to a conference in San Francisco and then on to Florida to visit friends. Like me, he worked in a university and we were able to compare notes on the perilous financial situation of institutions on both sides of the Atlantic. We exchanged travel experiences, our paths having taken us in similar directions.

It was in this way that Nevada slipped away in the darkness beneath us, and at long last we began our descent into San Francisco. Arriving from the east, the Bay Area crept up on us with very little warning. I’d familiarised myself with the airport on maps before now, but this was to be my first time passing through SFO. The inky black bay opened up below us, and gradually the bright lights and busy fast moving freeways of the peninsular appeared to our left. We landed on one of the 28 runways, presumably 28L as there was no pause between leaving the runway and taxiing onto stand at terminal 1.

Despite being seat in row 7, it seemed to take an eternity to leave the plane. By now the small dose of caffeine had combined with the realisation that the purpose of my trip was just a few hours away from being realised.

I didn’t recall which stand we parked onto, nor did I particularly care. It was certainly at the extremity of the pier, however. After thanking the cabin crew and wishing my fellow travellers in seats 7A and 7C safe onward journeys, I began to walk quickly, then I began to jog. It was already late evening in SFO, and many passengers were still waiting for flights home or flights to their next destinations. I, meanwhile, was almost there, probably an hour away from my destination.

With some elevators out of action, I sprinted up some stairs and across to the transit platforms, where a train soon arrived to take me all the way round to the rental car center. This short journey of maybe just five minutes felt like it was going to take as long as the trans-continental flight I’d just deplaned from. We passed every terminal, and then the automated transit cars continued away from the main terminal area towards the fringes of the airport. Already standing by the doors when the cars pulled into the rental car center, I was able to spot my counter from a distance, and was at the head of the line in a few moments.

At times like this, the smallest delays can seem to conspire against you. My driving license and credit card both carry a new address, but my account with Alamo had strangely pulled up a long departed address, presumably from a previous booking. Each time the agent tried to change it, the system froze. In the end a compromise was found, and I had the paperwork for my rental car. I picked out a new model Kia Forte, and was soon on my way, the adrenaline of my imminent arrival ensuring at no intersection or turn did I forget the greatest danger of jet lagged Brits on American roads, somehow turning across into the wrong lanes.

It was a drive of maybe twenty minutes to my destination. I made a few wrong turns, but with printed directions in my hand, I was soon on the right path.

I had never been to my destination before, but I recognised the lights of the small town when they appeared over the horizon on highway 1. I counted intersections, turned left and counted some more. Then I recognised a street name and turned right. One more left, and I was there.


In a small Linda Mar rancher home, at about nine o’clock one evening, a family was sitting round the table for dinner. Mom and dad were visiting from the midwest, and their youngest daughter was on the fourth night of her annual trip from Scotland to visit family and friends. The eldest daughter, her husband and baby boy were entertaining their guests.

There was a knock at the front door, and the son-in-law went to answer it. In on the biggest secret that had been perpetrated for a long time, he blocked the view out of the door just long enough to ratchet up my nervousness even more.

He opened the door wide, and in I stepped. The
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 12:24 am

Congratulations mate!

And a very nice report too, by the way!

Glad to hear your impressions of our new terminal were so positive!
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 1:19 am

What a story, what a read! Thanks for the entertainment, but please, can you finish the last sentence?   We know the answer, but details please!
(and great report about a long flight!)

Flights booked: NWI-AMS-JNB-DUR, JNB-AMS-NWI
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 1:21 am

Quoting signol (Reply 2):
What a story, what a read! Thanks for the entertainment, but please, can you finish the last sentence?   We know the answer, but details please!

Sorry! deleted this when I went in amend a detail within the first hour of posting - it can't now be corrected (Mods - could you help out?) Here it is!

He opened the door wide, and in I stepped. The youngest daughter stood up with a look of complete surprise. She thought I was still in Scotland.

Three hours later, I asked her to be my wife. She accepted.

Thanks for reading, everyone! Watch out for the return trip report posting shortly, NZ2 LAX-LHR in Business Premier!
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 3:10 am

Very nice trip report. But one question.... Why do the boarding passes shown list you
as a Silver member if you are Star Gold?
PRINAIR - Puerto Rico International Airlines
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 6:38 am

Thank you.

Quoting Prinair (Reply 4):
Very nice trip report. But one question.... Why do the boarding passes shown list you
as a Silver member if you are Star Gold?

I'm resident in Glasgow and was bumped to *G by way of an apology for the cessation of BD's GLA-LHR service. However this happened after I was ticketed and before I flew, so I had to take reams of documentation (emails, statements etc) to prove my status. This wasn't a problem with US, and when I got home a week later I found a shiny Gold card waiting for me 
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 10:53 am

Great read and congratulations!

I've had quite a few US Airways flights, always found them to be a pretty decent airline.

I agree with your comments on the exterior of the new Dublin terminal, looks quite dull, however the interior looks pretty decent, I like that they have used lots of glass, let's the light in!


111 732 733 734 735 736 73G 738 739,7M8 BBJ 741 742 743 744 752 753 762 763 764 772 77L 773 77W L15 D10 D30 D40 AB3 AB6 312 313 318 319 320 20N 321 21N 332 333 342 343 345 346 359 351 388 CS1 CS3 I86 154 SSJ CRJ CR7 CR9 CRK 145 170 175 220
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 10:57 am

Nice trip report, it was a pleasure to read.
Next trip report: Well worn A330s and Hassle free MUC transfer
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 11:41 am

Quoting jamesontheroad (Thread starter):
The flight is very short - usually 25 minutes and probably the shortest Easyjet has anywhere on it’s network.

Not quite - LPL-IOM is 96nm shorter!

Great report, and a happy ending as well.
No trees were harmed by this message. However, several million electrons were terribly inconvenienced
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 9:30 pm

Quoting ba319-131 (Reply 6):
I agree with your comments on the exterior of the new Dublin terminal, looks quite dull, however the interior looks pretty decent, I like that they have used lots of glass, let's the light in!

On a grey Irish morning - yes, it looks dull! On a sunny day, it looks pretty impressive!

The interior is awesome - very high quality finishes, loads of space. There are some definite reminders of LHR T5 as I believe the architects were the same for both projects?
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Sun Feb 20, 2011 11:34 pm

Wow great story, was left on tenterhooks when it cut off haha.
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Mon Feb 21, 2011 12:43 am

Quoting jamesontheroad (Reply 5):
e. However this happened after I was ticketed and before I flew, so I had to take reams of documentation (emails, statements etc) to prove my status. This wasn't a problem with US, and when I got home a week later I found a shiny Gold card waiting for me 

Not sure about BD's systems, but with UA, if you are in that situation, you can ask them to remove and re-apply your FF number to the booking. This will then refresh with your current status.

All my life, I've been kissing, your top lip 'cause your bottom one's missing
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Wed Feb 23, 2011 6:33 pm

Good TR, and fantastic story.

Quoting jamesontheroad (Thread starter):
Not to be pleasant places to transit through, but to make money. Not to provide nice big windows or pleasant environs, but to to make money. The shops, bars and cafés come first. You’ll struggle to find your gate because someone will have put a Starbucks in front of it.

You have not been to T5 then have you! Nice big windows with amazing views from all 3 buildings of the airport, lots of places to keep you occupied on transit, with clearly marked gates.
(The views on this site are my own and no one elses)
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Wed Feb 23, 2011 7:20 pm

I didn't realize it cut off and you posted the rest. I was sitting here like "WHAT HAPPENED?!"

Great TR and even better story.
-Travel now, journey infinitely.
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Thu Feb 24, 2011 12:15 pm

Quoting lhr380 (Reply 12):
You have not been to T5 then have you! Nice big windows with amazing views from all 3 buildings of the airport, lots of places to keep you occupied on transit, with clearly marked gates.

My fault for being a Star Alliance bunny That said, Stansted was similarly beautiful until BAA realised they could make more money out of it if they put shops everywhere. I give BAA ten years to completely screw up LHR-T5.

Quoting Whappeh (Reply 13):
I didn't realize it cut off and you posted the rest. I was sitting here like "WHAT HAPPENED?!"

Yeh, sorry about that - I had to come back in and make some edits within the 60 minute window after posting, and with each edit, seemed to lop a chunk of the end without me noticing. By the time I noticed, it was too late  

I notice that on editing a post (within that 60 minute window) the BB code of the original post has been expanded into HTML. Perhaps the text edit field then has a limited number of characters, and any text that's added in automatically pushes the end of the post out?

[Edited 2011-02-24 04:17:14]
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RE: US: DUB-PHL-SFO (Y) To Ask A Question (some Pics)

Thu Feb 24, 2011 5:27 pm

I just flew the PHL to SFO in economy on US scareways. It is a 6 hour flight, almost as long as the europe flight from JFK to LHR. It was quite long and painful, I must say. There is no inflight entertainment, not even the United Central TV or channel 9 or headphones. Nothing. Just the US Air magazine. At least in United, you get economy plus, channel 9, Satellite radio, a movie with NBC entertainment. I try to avoid US Airways as much as possible.

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