Trip Report – If you’re going to San Francisco – SFO MegaDO 2008
Yes – it’s another redux trip report! This trip report originally was posted on FlyerTalk in October 2008 (before this blog even was a blink in my mind). Once again – I’ve tarted it up a bit, and added some more supporting content that wasn’t there last time and just made it a bit more readable. I’m still working through the rest of the archive
Yes – it’s another economy report. And yes, I suppose I could had merged it into the previous report. Meh is my response to that
If you’re too used to sitting at the front of the plane, its an insight into how life is down the back of the bus. If life in the back is pleasant enough, you’ll understand where I’m coming from. Again, I’m going to try and keep it more “trip” report as opposed to “flight” report. Moans, complaints, compliments and certifications of madness to the usual box below
And to begin… (Introduction, Preamble, Prologue, oh heck, if you’ve read one of my trip reports before, its the beginning bit with some very flimsy excuse for the journey)
Sometimes I hate FlyerTalk. It gives me WAY too many ideas! In particular was the SFO Mega DO.
On and off this year, I’ve been thinking of doing a mileage run to push for Star Alliance Gold, and in reality, I have been looking for the most flimsiness of feeble excuses to actually get my hind end in gear and actually fly (Singapore and Tokyo was in contention at an early point). The Mega-Do seemed like a good idea at the time (I’m blaming my coffee at work), and after a bit of math, it would go a *long* way to hitting Gold this year.
A mixture of good company and a city I’ve never been to seemed far too tempting…
Meanwhile, in another thread, I had worked out that in some cases, booking code shares was cheaper than actually booking on the originating carrier. In this case it was BMI vs United, with BMI charging £355.50 and United charging £450.50 for the same flights (and then there’s BA charging a whopping £531. Sorry HIDDY… I’m sure you’ll understand!).
That’s a whopping £95 price difference. And £95 is plenty of drinkies or even a hotel room in SFO (actually, 2 nights… but I’m getting ahead of myself).
Flights were booked on the BMI engine, and a PNR issued, and then the task of assigning seats begun.
This is another joy of code-sharing as BD says ring UA, UA says ring BD… Nothing like a joined up system here kids. After a bit of minor hair pulling and speaking in phonetics to the UA call centre, I had a PNR in my greasy hands.
Since this journey was starting pretty much after I got home, I thought there might be a visa waiver issue. Turns out I was as usual panicking over nothing.
As it was a 4 day journey (and nothing more) I decided this time that travelling light was the order of the day. So out went the 100ltr rucksack and it was down to a little rollaboard with a few polo-shirts and t-shirts, a pair of trousers and enough light stuff for a few days.
If you can’t tell where SFO and LHR are…
Map provided by the most wonderful Great Circle Mapper – http://gc.kls2.com
So it begins… again…
Birmingham Digbeth Coach Station -> London Heathrow
It doesn’t seem like 3 weeks I was standing in this exact same spot. Oh wait a second. It was (well, 2 weeks, 6 days and 22 hours – but who’s counting)
As most of you know, the most UK public transport infrastructure shuts down at 10pmish, and it doesn’t wake up until 6am. Considering I need to be sitting in a plane at 10:05, a nice lay-in wasn’t going to happen.
Yes it’s Digbeth Coach station again.
Therefore it was a 04:15 coach… Again this was a trip down the M40, weaving our way through the black British countryside until we reached London Heathrow Airport.
Changing times – where Concorde one sat, there’s now an EK A380…
London Heathrow Terminal 1
Ah yes, the bright spectre of hope and illusion, that jewel of the United Kingdom’s aviation crown commonly known as the hell of London Heathrow Terminal 1.
Terminal 1 – For once it actually looks pretty.
Oh who am I kidding? It’s a retail outlet with some airbridges built into it.
After getting off the coach and rolling my way around to check in, I decided some fresh air was needed, so obviously I went outside and joined the smokers who were polluting the atmosphere for a bit before dealing with the hell of check-in.
Since moving into T1, United seems to have taken an awful big chunk of the terminal for itself, with Zone C being quiet large. I had a look at the Economy queue, which was… getting long. Thankfully, the beloved Silver card was whipped out and I was diverted away from Mr Chicken to a real live agent. After location my reservation and printing me a zone 1 pass, I asked if there was any chance of an E+ seat. This was confirmed as a window seat on the exit row (35K) after parting with £56
My brain was fried at that moment since being up from since midnight and not even adjusting back to UK time correctly, so I didn’t realise the exit slide would be next to me. I only realised this when actually boarding. Oops.
Security was a breeze, with practically no one around. It was then through to departures and the big hunt for the day – a working power plug and a semi working Internet connection. After realising one of the phones I had has the battery endurance of a firecracker, power became more urgent. Except none of the sockets I was finding were working.
Remember I said Heathrow sends people to sleep? Point.
As I was wandering, I saw that Skype were doing free 10-minute calls. This was abused to a small effect as I needed to contact two important persons before I disappeared out of the country, (My mother and father). Alas no working power sockets near by there.
With about an hour to go before boarding, I decided to try my luck at the BMI Diamond Club, fully expecting to refuse me entry as a BD*S on a code share ticket with UA. However, the agents took pity on me (be it my charming demeanour, my honesty, the lack of people in there or the Flyertalk tags on the top of the rollaboard) and let me in. it was then off for a double espresso and a working main socket to charge both the iPhone and the laptop for a bit, keeping very quiet and out of the way. The lounge itself was very empty with most of the long haul flights going or gone, so it was very quiet with the telly mumbling away to itself.
Charging at the now defunct Gate 14 lounge
Gate 14 Diamond Club
After getting a reasonable charge level out of the mains for both the phone and the laptop, it was time to commence boarding, so the hike over to gate 46 begun. As I was hyper on the coffee shot, I was there in no time at all, all bright and breezy. Boarding had already commenced, and so I went in the queue to be processed and boarded.
United 747 looking pretty in the morning sun.
United Airlines 955/BD4495 London Heathrow – San Francisco International
Boeing 747-400 V1 Configuration – Old Colours
Seat 35K (exit row), Channel 9 Enabled
The Boeing 747 is one of the queens of the sky, with its distinctive body and forward humped front. However this queen’s crown is severely tarnished with United. As opposed to some airlines decking them up to the nines (AVOD, New seats in Y – BA, Qantas, Singapore Air, JAL to name a few), United has taken the decision to do nothing bar the bar basics to theirs. In honesty, this is a reminder of what an AI 747 looked like in 1989 (when I did a very long haul journey to SYD).
The cabin itself was clean, but was showing sights of wear and tear, with the old-fashioned red/blue/orange/grey seats still in position, with C not looking much better to be honest. A shame as the fundamental plane is sound.
I was greeted aboard and turned right to find the middle seat occupied, and the crammed up exit row window seat next to the slide. Oh dear. Not a total failure, but still not great. It was still better that row 59 down the back of the plane! After a bit of shifting around, I found a semi-comfortable position that would be used for the flight
I got chatting to the flight attendant who was greeting the side of the plane I was sat in, and asking about her wrist band (not a Get Tilton out one), but she was not Tilton friendly – I reminded her that a lot of frequent flyers would help push him off any cliff…
Speaking of the flight crew, it was a fairly senior crew running the ship with a smattering few young people – it looks like one of their more popular routes for seniors.
After a bit of a taxi round Heathrow, we finally took off. Take off was a bit bumpy, but after clearing the cloud, it was turning into a smoothish flight until about 2 hours in where the transatlantic turbulence hit in – AGAIN.
A combined lunch and drinks service was carried out about an hour into the flight; Lunch was Chicken with a mushroom sauce with sautéed potatoes, with a green salad, roll and chocolate cake thing.
The salad was fresh and crisp; the roll would have only done minor concussion to other people if thrown.
And the chicken?
Tough as old boots. When I was trying to slice it, the fork snapped. I promptly gave up at that point, stowing the cake for later. Clear up followed shortly after, and even through there was coffee on the trolley – it was not offered. Oh dear – little things in customer service…
However, after all the espresso, the diet cokes, the mixed diet Pepsi/coke (Diet Pitr Cola for User Friendly readers), the exhaustion finally got to me and I pretty much zonked out for the next 4-5 hours. So much for using TylenolPM
I came around as the “snack” service was carried out.
I tried to get back to sleep again, without much success, so I decided it was time to annoy people with music (or in particular, my taste in music as the IFE wasn’t exactly stellar). For fun I tried the UA supplied mini-ear bud headphones (the first pair was cracked – the second pair’s performance was less than great), but the iPhone wasn’t connecting.
And proof size does matter – the UA headphone jack is slightly smaller than the normal one. Cheap and nasty that be…
Saying that, I walked around the plane. Ducktape seems to be popular these days…
Pretty sky though when I could find an open window…
Another water run was done, but the crew mainly hide themselves in the galley unless they were required to carry out service.
I haven’t done a “quite” long haul service for some time, but sitting in the flight with darkness although conducive to sleep wasn’t practically. In the end, I was doing a few loops of the Y cabin just to keep myself active and my legs going .
Darkness in front
Lightness Down in back!
The flight was a lot less turbulent than I expected – certainly better than the two recent TATL’s I’ve done in the past three weeks. There was a nasty bit over West Canada, but really, it was a pretty clear flight. As the flight neared its conclusion, there was a few more water runs (plus an addition bottle that was “obtained” from the Diamond Club earlier on)
For flights as long as this, I really feel an amenity kit would be so beneficial, if anything for a pen that you can fill in the beloved INS/CBP stuff with, as not all of us carry pens these days. An eye mask would help people sleep, and socks – well its good to have more cheap socks that fall apart after wearing once.
About an hour and a half before landing, the final service of the day commences in Y with a snack pack of a Turkey and Swiss cheese roll (edible), crisps, chocolate and drinks.
About an hour later, we were lining up for SFO and touched down. However, as we were early and the return London flight hadn’t pushed back, we were penalty boxed for 20 minutes. Eventually the plane trundled into the gate, with First/Business disembarking initially, then economy. Interestingly, both 1L and 2L doors were used to disembark to speed up the process.
Now the real race – how long to get to the food court? There were prizes on this… After being told get get my backside to door 1L in disembarkation, I walked briskly to immigration. There I found no queue at all and was seen to by a comparative friendly INS agent.
He looked at me oddly when I explained the cost part of the journey, but when I said the magic words “Mileage run” there was a nice thud and stamp sound into my passport, and within 10 minutes I was through. However, I took a wrong turn and ended up in the UA domestic terminal when everyone was in the International Food court.
After heading back again on the train, I found them all, with a time of 26 minutes and 13 seconds. If I had done it right, it would had been 15 minutes tops.
A few minutes to settle down and be snowed under with peanut butter Oreo’s, it was time to go to Gate Gourmet.
Part II – The Gate Gourmet Tour
So most of us have attempted to eat airplane food, or try and consume it… but what goes on in the background? Do workers make up straws and cherry tomatoes as cannonballs (bonus points for the reference)? What is in that deluxe mix or don’t we really want to know? Could Lucky9876coins pry himself from the hot nuts? How do you clean up a plane? What happens to broken carts? What airline demands what drinks?
These and more were answered with a tour of the Gate Gourmet factory. If you’ve done any flying it’s interesting and not a really automated process – but very labour intensive, with many workflows to the work.
We arrived and initially had our UA International C Class meal (which was appreciated at this point) and was a choice of chicken or fish (I went for the fish – not overcooked – just nicely done)
Pretty soon it was time to don hairnets, and wander around.
The warm supplies area is where each airline that GG serves has it own pen (for example there was a UA, DL, NW and BA pen that I could see), so for example in the BA pen there was Sunpride juices and 150ml cans of coke, whist the UA pen had international supplies for the TPAC routes
Your map to where to find things in UA land
After this walk, it was downstairs to the food preparation area, where all washed hands and cleaned before proceeding further.
We were guided around the areas, from cold prep, to frozen storage, past the cooking areas, the snack boxes and a few other wonders, with explanations and thoughts.
I don’t care what anyone says – that’s a lot of coke!
Flyertalkers and Drinks – says it all really
Projectiles! I mean rolls.
C Class patters.
The work schedule.
There were explanations about the site, how it linked in with SFO, the security ideas, and how staff were looked after.
Overall a very interesting day – certainly has opened my eyes to how things are done and the sheer work that goes into it.
Hotel: Union Square Plaza
Whilst most of the FT’ers are swanning off to Meridians, IC’s and every other chain hotel, some of us are of course, stuck paying bottom coin. Therefore my home for the next few days will be The Union Square Plaza Hotel. For 3 nights for $237 (£113), I’m not in a position to argue (like I said, £95 saved on airfare almost paid for the hotel). The room had a real key!
Union Plaza Hotel – Reception
Union Plaza Hotel – The room
It’s a room. there’s a bed. And there’s Wolf Blitzer on CNN. Yup. This is the USA. Remember Flyertalk has the best frequent flying talk from the best flyertalking team!
What’s the term: you pay for what you get. 2* my cute backside… more like 1* which is in need of polishing urgently.
Meal – Buca di Beppo
This place is across from the new InterContiental from where a lot of the FT people were staying. Very noisy, but with very generous food portions, it was a chance to get to know my hosts for the weekend.
Cheesecake – generous
MiniBar Party #1
It was fun
Do I need to say much more? Other than we were loud!
But there is one thing the IC has at the club suites – Great views of the city.
However at midnight I bailed – too many time zones, too little sleep and I really needed to crash.
Next: The Deck Party!
Part IV – KalKat’s Deck Party
Thanks to the kind generosity of KalKat, it was time to cross the bay to Larkspur. With a 12:40 start however, this meant I had some of the morning to 1) wake up, 2) sightseeing and 3) stock up on bits.
As 1 happened quite early, I though I’d do 2 the walk from Market street down to the ferry building. However, I miscalculated how many blocks it was, thus negating 3.
However, walking from Union Square down to the Ferry building was pleasant, and a chance for me to grab a few sights.
After catching up with the Flyertalkers in the terminal, and after a short wait, our ferry arrived.
When we arrived, there was a Balloon Reception.
Of course, as at any party, someone ended up in the water…
And the Mr KalKat’s Poker trophy was on display for all to admire
All to soon, it was time to head back across the bay, with some Flyertalkers driving, and some of us taking the boat back
Thank you again KalKat
Part V – Lulu and another Minibar Party, and a few other bits and bobs.
There was food, speeches, a mess-up by the restaurant, and then there was drinks… do I need to say much more?
Other than the view from lucky9876coin’s room was amazing…
as were the drinks that were consumed
The next day, I abandoned the Dim Sum morning special (alas, I had to clear the memory cards) for Folsom Street Fair.
For the sanity of most, and as FlyerTalk and Ghetto IFE is a family community (and for that matter, most of Photoblog is – but that’s another discussion, and also to protect all the conservatives in the world who think anything more than a roll in the dark is all there is to life and procreation), I’ve decided not to publish the Folsom stuff here. You’ll have to visit the Photoblog or ask VERY nicely for them! All I’m going to say is that it’s an experience I would recommend.
The evening was spent on the cable cars and generally snapping shots of San Fran life., and snapping bits of SFO life.
For the second time in my 3 weeks on and off in the states – the skies were grey in the morning with a massive temperature falloff that made it nice and comfortable to walk around Union Square and do a few bits and bobs before heading home.
Still not on any time zone in particular, it was time to head home. After checking out of the hotel, a minibus transfer for a reasonable $15 was booked, and picked up from the hotel, which after a short drive around the market street area zoomed off to the airport.
I was originally aiming to go back on the later flight (merely to catch a 777 and give me a few extra hours in San Francisco, however, prices for that jumped a silly £200. And to be honest, I’d prefer the £200 in my pocket and not in BMI/UA’s.
Besides, I’ll be back one day again. So the laptop was charged up, the iPhone was charged too, and off I went.
Drop off was outside the United area and after sorting myself out, I headed off to check in. Star Silver was recognised with a priority line which was 1) short and 2) moving a hell load faster than the main economy queue. Reason enough to keep *S at least. An United employee said “Camera – ooh nice, but banned by George W Bush”, to which I responded “And fully supported by Kip Hawley?” to a bit of laughter.
Check in was quick, with the agent failing to find any spare seats in E+, so I was consigned it 61B unless I could VDB. She expressed surprise I couldn’t get a cheap seat on the 777 flight, and I tried to switch for the later flight with no successes.
vs Y Check-in…
I had laid a couple of surprises in as usual (a few snow globes, and some leftovers of Folsom in the bag) but alas they just waived it through. I was really looking forward to debating if a snow globe was a WMD.
That this point, there was an hour to go before departure, so it was a short walk around the shopping area (note Chicago O’Hare – an international terminal with ACTUAL SHOPPING INSIDE),before parking up at the gate for a bit and take pictures if planes. Alas, there was no chance to VBD so I was stuck aboard.
My 747 – Note the shades
Pretty soon the boarding calls were made, with boarding through 2L for economy passengers, and duty free pickup beyond the boarding card gate. No requests for passport check was made.
I think that’s the London service arriving…
Up in the air again
After we reached a reasonable altitude, there were various attempts to boot the IFE. These met with various failures with the front portion of Y’s system collapsing entirely, with skykits being distributed. Of course, at my end of the cabin – everything was working.
After a few enquires, it was obvious by the dead static from Channel 9 that today’s captain didn’t want to share his musings on the world. I know its “at captains discretion”, but it does provide entertainment for those of us who don’t want what’s on the IFE. In addition, Air-show was down too. Perhaps this was the most “annoying” part of IFE (hey – haven’t I been here before?)
61B is of course in one of the final rows of a 747, and the row behind is the FA’s seat. The advantage of these seats is that they are in pairs, meaning that a window seat has lots of storage to the side, and there is only person to climb over on the way out.
A lunch and drink service commences after the flight attendants gave up trying to fix the IFE. This was a Beef Hotpot special. Now with some of the insight GateGourmet gave, I could see how the entire menu was built to a design and price.
The roll was actually soft this time for a change (although the corn oil “butter” was awful), the salad was semi crisp (beat my late night snack salad I had by a mile). The hotpot itself was fine, and about the right size for a lunch time meal. At least this time
Oh and Oreos? Soft as heck – the stuffing wasn’t particularly solid – but cheap for a desert option. The cabin was cleared down after, and only minimal lighting on, with none of the crew paying attention if a programme had finished or not.
Pretty soon, I zoned out for abit. Hopefully Id get some more along the way. We hit a bad patch of turbinate so the meeting area behind me cleared as the sign went no – not that a flight attendant could be bothered to do a seatbelt walk.
Day turned into night – and into a red eye flight. Midway, the snack run was done, again consisting of the usual drink and the pack of red pretzels, with Lay’s Stax (read – knock off Pringles) and other things for sale – people passed on those.
Any chance we can have something else one day please? (chocolate bar, peanuts, Japanese crackers – anything than pretzels PLEASE!
As soon as the clear up begun, we ran into some serious turbulence over the northern tip of Canada. It was defiantly not the 1 minute stuff – the heavier turbulence lasted for a good 10 minutes – it was coke lapping over the cup turbulence. After which it dropped off a bit, then back to big bounces. This was defiantly going to be a rollercoaster ride across the pond. Of course, the fasten seatbelt signs mean nothing these days, and people were up and about in the cabin being a royal pain – in fact I was waiting for a nasty bump or two to make sure they were reminded the sign was on for a reason (yes I am a cruel person – and?)
The final service of the flight – a ham and cheese …. Roll? Croissant? God knows – something bready like was served with fruit was served. Whilst its near impossible to mess up fruit, this bready thing could be used to pelt bad flight attendants with. It was delivered with all the dripping sarcasm so we knew what to expect (emphasis on “Delicious” roll).
Our plane took the path over Scotland and down to London. The plane was not stacked, and thus landed pretty much on the money, passing over Twickenham rugby ground
The flight deck was itself pretty quiet (apart from the welcoming speech, a few buckle up orders and the landing speech)
The plane was cleared down, and finally Miss 60B who had her seat reclined since before takeoff at SFO finally worked out how to bring her seat into the upright position.
We made our landing 30 minutes early, and after a taxi past T3 and T2, we were held for 5 minutes for local traffic to clear, before finally pulled into 53 (153) and parked up. A single jetbridge was attached, and disembarkation was through 1L.
Obligatory A380 Shot.
Come to think of it, a lot of big planes have been parking at T1 using 1L for boarding/disembarkation – surely this stamps all over the semi-exclusivity of business – or is business the new economy and is economy bucket seating only?
Again for the second time in a row, IRIS was closed down, but the immigration queue again had 2 people in it. After being question where I arrived from, I made my way slowly down to Luggage collection, and then after I had picked up my emails to customs – where again I was asked where I came in from (a South African flight had arrived before us), and I was cleared to exit.
As my coach was not for some time, I decided to start finishing up this trip report before rushing around and have a price of overpriced coffee – this must be Heathrow – everything is overpriced! I wandered over to the Central Bus station, and managed to jump an earlier service back to Birmingham.
National Express Coach 210
Heathrow Central -> Birmingham Digbeth Station
Oh it’s a coach journey on the M40 stopping at Banbury and BHX – is there really that much more to say? Suffice to say it was back to reality, on time and grey.
And as I walked back to the number 87 bus stop (and if you REALLY think I’m reporting on that – you’ve got another think coming), past the Bull ring centre – I couldn’t help humming “California Dreaming.. like the below…
All the leaves are brown…. And the sky is grey… I’ve been for a walk… on a winters day…
On the ground, BMI came through again, both with ground support and the lovely staff at the Diamond Club lounge – a credit to the London team who both 1) know the rules and 2) can understand when to bend them UA check-in (especially sans chicken machine) was very much appreciated, as was the E+ seat offer. Ground services seemed semi organised at least and much more understanding of elites (even mere silver within the same alliance)
On the plane it was pretty much as expected – pay bottom coin, get bottom coin. The service itself was fine (with more water services to end the of the flight), but there was something missing – Not the friendliness nor service… and I think I can point it at the IFE and the general need of a cabin refresh.
I know for those up the front, this is a small matter, but for those like me who earn down the back on long haul, with 3 hours or so laptop life, every single thing that can relive the boredom is welcome, and I can’t help feeling that UA has missed a serious trick with the 747 fleet refurbishment by introducing IFE and refreshing the cabin, instead of changing United from a “Wordwide Service”, to a “World Class Service”. However with some of the mistakes United is making (over hedging on fuel, service cutbacks, and cutting everything even in the premium cabins, I wonder what is next for this carrier. Certainly, its in a better position that US Airways (which to be blunt, I was dreading going bankrupt before I arrived back in the UK on my last trip). I think when Continental comes to the Star Alliance party, United will have no choice but to buck its ideas up and do some serious work improving services.
Well, we can but hope.
I’d like to thank everyone who I met at the DO for making me feel welcome, and special thanks to lucky9876coins, Wireless for organising and KalKat for being such a gracious hosts.
Next up: I’ve got 3155 miles to fly before the 28th of Jan 2009. I smell a mileage run coming on….