Saying Goodbye to a friend – Travelling for the wrong reasons.
A United Experience – LHR-ORD-PHL-IAD-LHR
For DW – Have fun up there!
What’s a matter dear reader? You’ve forgotten how I write my trip reports? Well I’m going to be cruel this time – no rambling intro on how they are written, the bad humour, and random things in them.
Heck. I just mentioned it. Oh clams – Well the usual rules in effect.
On a more serious note – you’ve probably guessed by now that there’s slightly different tone in this report…
Most of my travels – lets face it – have been for fun or business. Unfortunately, a series of events has lead me to travel for the first time for reasons I didn’t want to travel. One of my friends passed from this world to the next, and as a result, I was asked to accompany another friend to the USA to help out and provide support to them.
Naturally of course – I agreed.
However to get there – I would have to go to the nemesis of an airport I have come to dislike – Philadelphia International Airport!
Why do I have a passionate dislike of Philadelphia? Primarily it seems one has to hike a mile from one gate to another… and the INS people REALLY don’t like me when I pass through there (an hour and 15 minutes to get through immigration isn’t my exact idea of “fun”).
But needs must… and travel must be done.
Of course, as a Star Alliance flyer it boils down to two choices at such short notice – UA or US. The term I’m looking for here is… “A rock and a hard place”.
- For US – To be honest, there was one attractive thing about PHL- the Envoy lounge. The rest of the US Airways experience is… umm… I’ve documented that enough I think
- For UA – E+ Seating, IFE, and some okiesh lounges at ORD, IAD and PHL.
Well that’s a hard choice!
There was also the small matter of mileage for my friend (who needs a few thousand or so to get to *S, and I need every single mile I can lay my mutts on to retain Gold), so getting a few extra segments in isn’t a bad thing.
As this was comparatively short notice, fares were at what I’d call “summer” levels. Thankfully, UA were offering reasonable priced flights and after a bit of confudilation with the United.bomb, I had an itinerary worked out for the two of us that didn’t feel like I was being completely taken down the back alley and asked to to enter my PIN number by two burly men.
Your map. (Powered of course by http://gc.kls2.com/) I’ll do some detailed ones later on the trip report – but for now, ORD (Chicago, IL – O’Hare) on the far left, IAD (Washington DC – Dulles) the bottom left marker, PHL (Philadelphia, PA – International) the crossover point in the middle and of course LHR (London, United Kingdom – Heathrow) at the far right. Simples! (You might wish to ask this meerkat about things that are… Simples)
So there it is – no emergency fare, just get there where can and do the support we have to do.
Anyhoo. Forward motion. Lets boogie.
Part I – Off to Kevincm’s 3rd favourite airport in the world
Once again, my journey begins the day before. Unlike normal where I have a rucksack that seems to contain a kitchen sink, I’ve gone with a much more sober looking luggage (dread the thought – almost serious looking)
Be shocked – it’s a suitcase! -My travel trash at work
However At 4:50pm, after kicking a user off the network (a pleasure that Systems Administrators take pride in), I decided I had enough of my work and caught the shuttle bus from work and then onto a train at peak time to High Wycombe – my staging post for the night.
Of course, much Chinese food, red wine, merriment and trying to work out what was being discussed on ensued, before both of us crashing for the night.
All too soon 04:00 rolled round again and by 04:30 it was time to wander to Heathrow.
T1 at 5am in the morning. Fast becoming too much of a regular sight…
After making sure the friend I was travelling had made it to the airport (as we were travelling together), the usual Heathrow organisation (or lack of thereafter) ensued, and by 5:45 we were through security. Then it was a matter of hurdling through WHSmith and making sure we stocked up on ciggies for my friend, it was straight into the Star Alliance lounge for breakfast.
Star Alliance Lounge, Heathrow
Plenty has been written about this good lounge, so of course – I’ll write more.
After being welcomed, being allowed to guest my friend and reminded that no boarding calls were made, I made my way in.
Food was it’s usual wonderful self, and a pair of sofas made for a nice comfortable home before heading off.
On asking, a WiFi code was given, and the performance of the link was reasonable (not fast, but not exactly a slug – certainly better than my performance than USB 3G Modem).
I noticed that although paper supplies were plentiful, the magazines supplies had dropped considerably (in particular, no Top Gear Magazine – little things like this are noted!) – a sign of the times and cuts (unless some so-and-so nabbed it before me!)
Eventually at 07:00, I could see the flight was being boarded, so we bided goodbye to the lounge
Expecting a hike to the high 50’s, it was a pleasant surprise to be boarding at gate 36 – which for once was not at the back of beyond. Zone 1 had just boarded, so we slipped into the queue and made our way aboard.
Part II – London Heathrow Airport – Chicago O’Hare International
United Airlines UA929, 30/05/09
Boeing 767-300 New International Configuration, Seat 27K – Upsold to E+ ($89)
3953 miles flown, 3942 earned.
Channel 9: Not Enabled
Your map. Powered by http://gc.kls2.com
We were greeted aboard and directly to the back cabin of the 767, and slowly but surely, every seat on the plane filled up – in comparison to the 777, it didn’t feel full even when loaded.
Probably the best thing you’ll see on a Y class flight…
The purser made his way around, and after a polite enquiry, Channel 9 was confirmed as off. A minor point, but if you’re feeling horrendously geeky it does kill a good portion of the flight.
The purser then did something quite odd… he wheeled a trolley of newspapers around the plane … and I managed to nab a copy of Business Traveller before he scooted back to the galley (in an effort to look after the E+ customers). Interesting, and definitely, the first time that happen, so thumbs up there.
At the gate – ready for pushback.
Soon enough, it was pushback, and a trundle around to T5 , turning and then after a VS A340 landed, we took to the skies.
Obligatory A380 photo – QF again.
After taking off, we turned oblique to Heathrow, and climbed to 34,000 feet.
Probably the best way to see LHR… defiantly not IN it
Soon enough, the dreaded breakfast service commenced, with a choice of Waffle or an Omelet. Now knowing how rubbery a UA Omelet could be, I went with the Waffle – What wonders would await me….?
Well… this is.. umm… Interesting! The fruit was okie (fresh as usual with apple, grape, 1 piece of melon and some orange segments if you dug hard enough). The projectiles was this wonderful mixed brown and white bread that LHR and MAN insist on supplying with meals… the yogurt was passed on, and the waffle – well I’m going be nice here – it wasn’t burnt, it was warm, the mango topping complimented the sweetness quite nicely.
So what about the Bacon. Oh dear. Even I can cook bacon better than this. Extra Rubbery and Extra Crisp sums it up (how they can do that is beyond me…).
Drinks were distributed and after a while, the cabin was cleared down, the lights switched off, and the long schlep over the pond begun.
Of course, there was near enough nothing of interest on provided IFE (except the map), so you know what happens next…
Blue Harvest … of course
The thing is, if you have a friend with an iPod Touch, who is equally dissatisfied with the crap on the IFE… they sorta get you to build a unit for them…
A couple of water runs were made during the flight – with the flight itself pretty smooth until outskirts of Greenland when it went choppy for a short while, before smoothing out to sheet cloud until well over Canada and almost over US Territory.
The crew was talking, and most defiantly up for a joke, which made for pleasant interaction. The seats themselves as E+ seats were fine – the legroom wasn’t as spacious as a 777, but still a lot better than down the back of the plane.
About 2 hours before landing, it was time for that wonderful United tradition – the lovely chewable Swiss Cheese and turkey ham roll… which was a chewy as ever. The cost cutting is still in place with KP crisps still, but was acceptable.
It’s that chewy roll. BMI Regulars will notice the double finger Twix
Which brings me on to the small matter of coffee. I don’t know how warm it was meant to be, but the term “tepid” seems to fit the description here. Lets just say I could drink a cup in a gulp. Not so good.
Again, the cabin was cleared down, and at that point forms were distributed (1 hour before landing). A bit late IMO as time to fill in the 2 miles of paperwork that the US demands when you enter the country does take time to fill out.
Slowly, the plane begin its decent, as was buffeted as it flew over Lake Michigan, before finally touching down. The plane begun its trundle to the “wonderful” International terminal, where we pulled into gate M12 on schedule.
Overall: Defiantly a reasonable flight – if for the customers service by the Purser. If I was really to pick at something – it’s the paperwork issue. For people like me who make enough mistakes on an I-94(W) form, having it delivered early on in the flight would had been far more helpful than leaving it until the last minute. The food was … interesting, however UA/Alpha/Gate Gourmet … someone needs to introduce you in how to cook bacon…
Part III – A Chicago Interlude – Back at the Bunny.
After deplaning, it was a short walk to the joy that is US Immigration – which was half closed as only one half of the immigration hall was open.
And I’ve got to say – it was the quickest entrance into the US that I’ve had (mentioning certain words seem to make an INS agent whack the passport faster than normal it seems!)
After being stamped into the USA, the belt started spewing out luggage – mine was 6th out (amazingly – the tags worked) – and my friend’s came out about 5 minutes later.
A quick stroll to Customs, and after rechecking the luggage, we were in the USA. My friend celebrated with 3 cigarettes – I celebrated with a trip to McDonald’s to get another diet coke and some fresh air.
Over to T1
After a while, we headed to T1 on the fun ATS, and after going though the joy that is the TSA (with only 3 lanes open…. Clever) – and managing to split my boarding pass . A quick chat with a Mr Chicken and I had a new one in my grubby mitts. Now that was done, it was off to B18’s Red Carpet Club – the “Incomparable RCC”
Just how incomparable is it though?
United Red Carpet Club (B18)
After descending the escalator into the Incomparable RCC, I smiled, handed over my reprinted boarding card, my friend’s boarding card, and thoroughly confused the RCC member of staff with my BMI Gold card
Staff member A) “Is BMI a Star Alliance member?”
Staff member B) “BMI British Midland – Yes it’s a member and his card has Star Alliance Gold on it”
Me: Or to be called Lufthansa UK in the future
After a lot more typing were both allowed in.
The lounge itself is very light and airy – certainly better than some of the ones at IAD – but the food options… oh dear. Sunchips, cookies, fruit, cruets and shortbread do NOT maketh food in a lounge (as demonstrated by the Star Alliance Lounge this morning)!
The comfort zone…
However, apart from one TV with CNN blaring out, it was a very quiet and restful lounge, with power plugs at practically every chair – it’s not a bad place to spend time – better than the RCC’s at IAD and certainly a better option that sating in the main terminal
Soon enough 13:45 rolled around, it was time to head to B12 for the next flight.
Part IV Chicago O’Hare International – Philadelphia International Airport
United Airlines UA376, 30/05/09
Airbus A320, Seat 24F – Upsell to $29, Declined.
687 miles flown, 676 earned.
Channel 9 – No
With the Red Carpet lice clear, we boarded the plane and headed down to the back of it. Was greeted aboard, and then made ourselves comfortable. With 2 people on a 3 seater, it was going to be interesting – would we have a middle seat filler or not?
And as the door closed, and mobile phones we told to be switched off (not that the girl in 25F gave any attention to the announcements) the middle seat was left alone.
A UA 777 on the taxiway waiting for us to clear…
A taxi was done, but we were held in the penalty box for 30 minutes to allow some weight calculations completed.
Off we go again!
After that it was a quick turn onto a runway, turning to Chicago, the up to cloud skip and climb to a higher flight level than the previous flight did.
The Windy City in the distance
Eventually a drinks run was done, with a coke going to me – and a cranapple and vodka for my friend (who forgot the same lesson I made in regards to pouring enough vodka to sink a ship – then pour in the cranapple).
I set up an updated version of a Ghetto IFE for her iPod Touch, and all was good in the world (I on the other hand actually found something of interest – an episode of 30 Rock)
GettoIFE for iPod touch
However as the last cleanup was completed, it started getting bumpy for the approach to PHL. Crew were ordered to return to seats and for the passengers to self regulate using the “honour” system. It’s nice to see the safety professionals doing the role
Eventually, the turn for PHL was made and we landed, and taxied into the D gates.
Coming in over Philadelphia
Luggage delivery finally after a wait – with no attention paid to priority tags. At this point, I tried to pull the luggage handle… which jammed . And of course – UA baggage denied any responsibility
A few new curse words later out of earshot, and it was off across the bridge and into the murky depths of New Jersey
Overall: Not a bad flight, but post flight support was very poor. Not what I accept from United or any carrier. The “shrug your shoulders and don’t fill out any paperwork” quite frankly doesn’t wash with me, and really at least some documentation should had been taken.
Part V – Hotel
Red Roof Inn
Somewhere in NJ, off NJ Turnpike (Why can’t they say “Toll road”… but I digress)
Yes – it’s that “Premium” brand, the Red Roof Inn. This one is more of a fancy motel (room opens out onto the car park), but it’s clean and at $65/++ a night, I’ve paid more for less. Overall… like any hotel – if it does the job then so be it.
(and yes – it was piddling it down)
Part VI – One week later – Homeward bound… to PHL
After being stung by a cabbie who refused to take the express routes (thus a $40 became near enough $70), and stuck to local routes from the back end of NJ to PHL, we made it to check-in. In not uncertain terms, no assisted check-in was available, and only Mr Chicken was possible (even in the Elite land)
Elite queues my….
Sigh. Cost cutting.
After a couple last smokes for my friend, we made our way to the wonderful friends that are the TSA. For a Friday, it was very quiet, and the request for manual inspection of film was made without complaint. The only thing that did raise a smile was the “Sharing Caring TSA and here’s a video to prove we are” that was going on – with various excuses for what screening was used and why.
But enough of that. With an early arrival at an airport it was time to play lounges… and again – the RCC was chosen at PHL.
United Red Carpet Club, Terminal D
Whilst not the largest of lounges (least of all the plain looking door at the lounge), we were welcomed and after a bit of key clicking, was invited in, where we sat near the bar.
Pretty much immediately, there was a lovely hostess, who offered drinks, snacks and served with an a smile – where nothing was too much (I blame the accents my friend and me have). But it wasn’t just us – she was busying herself, preparing snacks and getting other snacks out.
Whilst not as roomy as the ORD lounge, it is defiantly more intimate, and apart from being in the interconnect corridors as opposed to the D terminal itself, it’s a place I would happily spend a few hours in.
However the clocks rolled around and it was time again to pick up our trash and head to the next fight.
A comparatively short walk, and the ERJ was pulling into the gate area – perfect timing. After the previous passengers disembarked and a crew change, we were invited aboard
United Express (Trans-States Airlines)
UA7988 – Philadelphia International – Washington Dulles International Airport
135 miles flown, 600 earned.
Channel 9: Come on – It’s a regional jet!
It’s been some *serious* time since I’ve been aboard a ERJ-145 (although my “home” airline seems to run them out of LHR with no consideration for the rest of the users), but I’m one of these odd people that actually LIKE this series of ERJ… if for a simple reason – the 1 – 2 seating.
Boarding was completed in zones – and of course bags were too big as usual so some victims had there’s gate checked. My bag was pushed under the seat as boarding continued.
I saw my luggage being loaded again – a good sign. Little I was to know what the heck was going to happen next…
Pushback was delayed slightly as the tanker didn’t have enough fuel. Eventually another tanker came around to pump another 500lb of fuel – at which point we were informed due to the short length of flight there would be no drinks service, and soon enough, the standard Republic Airways pre-recorded safety announcement was made.
After a bit of taxiing, it was was quick climb into the air.
With such a low cruise altitude of 12,000ft and heavy cloud, it wasn’t the greatest of flights. Parts of it were rollercosteresque, which made for fun.
Grey cloud. That was the view for most of the flight.
But 40 minutes later, we passed the Steven Udvar-Hazy Centre, and shortly thereafter, touched and and after a short taxi, we arrived at the A gates at IAD
Steven Udvar-Hazy Centre – I can recommend the tower.
We disembarked and headed straight into… the rain. Welcome to Washington Dulles….4
Welcome to Dulles…
Part VII – A Dulles Interlude and home
An IAD interlude.
After getting soaked, we entered the bus shelters that are the A gates and after a little comfort break it was off to the fun that is… the Dulles Moonbuggies over to C concourse. Yes, it’s a fun way of getting from concourse to concourse but really… isn’t it time to put these things out to pasture completely and replace them with something modern… (and I’m including the C/D Concourse of IAD in that)
After raiding duty free (again) and the most patriotic shop in West Virginia, it was off to the C7 RCC.
C7 Red Carpet Lounge
I was greeted with a semi scowl as I fished for my BD*G card, which was presented, and swiped… without drink chits.
Oh dear. Not a wise move. As most of us who use RCC’s know, at a Trans-Oceanic Gateway you get your chits! I then got the line “Only United First/Business” get them… to which the term “Load the rules up was said”.
I was granted my “one time exception” and 3 chits were handed over. Kevincm 1, RCC Dragon, 0
But as soon as I got the drinks from those “wonderfully efficient” bar-people at C7, the gate was called. Rather than waste a drink, both vodkas were drunk in “due time” (i.e. on my schedule not United Airines),
Sigh. Comfort. For a few minutes at least.
After smiling nicely at the dragon as I left the lounge, the gate lounge had mostly cleared, so it was a matter of handing over the BP and the green bit of card that says I’ve left the USA, and it was off down the jetway.
United Airlines UA920, 30/05/09
Boeing 767-300 New International Configuration, Seat 27K – Upsold to E+ ($69)
3667 miles flown, 3667 earned.
Channel 9: Not Enabled
As opposed to being welcomed, I made first contact, and then wheeled down the isle to the last row of E+.
Yup. It was still chucking it down.
As the plane was still loading, there was some overhead space available, which was taken advantage of. Pretty soon another full load was ready to travel to London. A short taxi, and it was back up into the cloud.
See you later USA!
However, it did take time but eventually, we punched through the cloud and into the blue sky.
A drinks service began to be carried out – however, I had my jobs to do…
and after a smile from my friend…
They’re both back again
Pretty soon, dinner came around. Chicken or Pasta… with the chicken being chicken curry. How could UA mess this up I wondered? Plenty is the answer!
Dinner. Ooooh Dear.
The rice was soggy AND burnt the carrots… umm… mush. The Chicken – edible when you could find it. At least the salad was fresh, the projectile was soft and the brownie thing… was something I had a few of at the ORD RCC a few days earlier. I hate to bang on about food – but catering out of the USA has GOT to improve – it’s getting unfunny now.
After food was cleared down, the duty free cart came around, and the lights were switched off until breakfast time.
2 rounds of water were done, with me leading to a discover on a 767 – the water fountains at the back of the plane… How long have they been hiding there?
The last daylight – the cloud had finally cleared
Eventually, light turned to dark…. and then light came again.
Dawn in the sky – why I pay for a window seat
Breakfast was not served until an hour or so out from LHR- Heathrow… which was.. umm. Yeah. I’ll let the picture talk.
A Danish and a Yoghurt.
Oh well… at least the coffee was hot this time as opposed to tepid.
Clear down was done quickly, and the cabin was prepared for landing. After going through the cloud levels, land was visible, with Reading Train station visible, indicating an approach over Windsor -soon enough Windsor Castle was visible.
Shortly the wheels touched down on one of LHR – Heathrow’s runways, before a short taxi to the back end of beyond of T1 – Gate 55 (the furthest possible gate from Immigration).
The bird at LHR
Disembarkation occurred quickly, and we arrived at the border. IRIS was of course.. shut, so it was another quick shuffle to immigration – and welcomed back into the United Kingdom.
A slow shuffle down to luggage claim, and already, luggage was having a fun trip around the carousel. My friends turned up. And I waited.
Eventually, I got bored and checked that delivery had been complete – and it dawned on me that my luggage didn’t make it.
A quick bit of research indicated it was last scanned in PHL, and therefore it was lost in the maze that was IAD. After checking it wasn’t on the next flight, I signed off the customs form and the other pile of paperwork – and I was on my way to the Heathrow Connect, the Bakerloo line to Marylebone and a number 82 to the flat on a wet Saturday Morning.
One day and a half days later, a delivery turned up – and my luggage had finally joined me at home. At least everything made it back.
Epilogue: So with everything over and done with…
There are times when travel is unavoidable – be it for work, love or caring for one another. I certainly have no regrets making this trip. Certainly if I didn’t make the trip – I would had regretted it.
However, United Airlines have left a tiny bit of a sour taste in my mouth (and I’m not referring to the curry). Quite frankly, the luggage handling issues are appalling. At least the team in Heathrow said the magic S word. PHL couldn’t even handle that.
It’s times like this I miss the old BMI Manchester – Chicago flights due to the quality of service on them (which whooped United and co across the pond) – however those days I suspect are gone for now.
In the end, I’ll prefer using UA to US. However – I am a bit excited that CO are coming to the party. Hopefully it’ll force the rest of its fellow North Americas based Star Alliance members to buck their ideas up and maybe improve their service.
And Flying Pig Airlines might take off first.
And so – to leave you on a picture…
To those who have passed from this world – may any rest you find be peaceful… and may those who look after those who are left behind have the strength to go on to remember those who have gone but to look after those who live in their memories.
That’s it for this Trip report. No doubt I’ll be back in October with another Chicago run (I’m original in my city choice – I have to admit)… but I might have something on the boil in the meantime.
Comments and feedback welcome as normal