Long Way Home – The Spring Commute (LHR-IAD-ORD-CMH-IAD-EWR-LHR)
Yet another Y Class spectacular with United and Continental.
Well after FAR too long on the ground, I’m up in the air at long last (but not as good looking as George Clooney alas).
For those who aren’t familiar with my trip reports, this is my Spring “audit” of the state of travel in Economy on a comparatively fixed route for me – London to Chicago and back which allows me to measure how good things are… or how bad things have dived.
As usual, I will be filling in my report with pictures, commentary bad humour and Ghetto IFE systems.
Comments are always welcome, as well as questions of my sanity.
London Heathrow to Chicago O’Hare. 3942 miles on the Great Circle as it flies.
LHR-ORD – Map by Great Circle Mapper – http://gc.kls2.com
There are four main hopping points into the USA for Star Alliance for the East Coast and the Mid-West – Chicago itself, Washington Dulles, Newark and Philadelphia (there’s also Charlotte as well if we’re being pedantic – but that’s besides the point).
Adding the hops can introduce some interesting mileage runs hitting up 4000 qualifying miles per direction – but you really have to spend time with the fare engines to get 1) sense and 2) that I’m not being dinged too much when it comes to cost.
Once again, rather than risk the wonder that is US Airways, I decided to have a look at the United site, with the aim of a nice afternoon in Washington DC. Then the split segments started appearing, firstly to Chicago-Dulles (with a stop in Port Columbus).
I was almost going to book it there and then – and then for an interesting joke – I added a hop onto EWR and then onto LHR with Continental.
And it priced exactly the same as the LHR-IAD-ORD-CMH-IAD-LHR. The hammer quickly went down on that – and thus this journey became “booked” (and thus the name of this run – Long way home.)
LHR-IAD-ORD-CMH-IAD-EWR-LHR – Map by Great Circle Mapper – http://gc.kls2.com
Remember I said a base of 3942 (x2 = 7884)? This route maxs this into 9542. However, I get this nagging feeling my backside and legs may regret this…
In terms of firsts, a few couple of new ones – I get to try out Continentals product over the pond, and I get to try a CRJ-700. How bad can they be? – but otherwise it’s very familiar territory for me – least of all this mostly replicates my first segment run in most respects – and most importantly, I still find Port Columbus’s IATA code impossible to remember correctly .
So as the Tenth Doctor would say… Allons-y! (An 11th Doctor reference will appear in the next trip report!)
2:45am… on a Birmingham Bus Stop….
Y’know… the more things change, the more they stay the same. These idiot early starts seem to be a reflection on this. The past few hours before I was hunting for memory cards and thus the call for the cab went at 2:10… not too 2am – cutting down the spare time I’d have at the coach station (and hiking from one side of Digbeth to the other with my luggage is entertaining to say the least)
The more things change…
Thankfully, National Express has moved back into it’s home at Digbeth which makes life a lot easier than the car showroom that they were in before. As I crossed the station, boarding was called and I made my way aboard National Express’s finest.
National Express 210 Birmingham to London Heathrow Central Bus Station
There’s nothing like the 2:45 shuttle to Heathrow. In fact there are 101 better things, but these involve spending serious amounts of money (although the coach is getting expensive at £40.30 return these days).
For those who don’t know, the seat pitch on the newer coaches isn’t THAT bad (and on a quiet journey like this, it’s easy to get a pair of seats together to yourself). Of course, things like WiFi and in-seat power don’t exist on these coaches. But still with a bit of recline and a driver who knows how to put his foot down always helps.
At 5am, the coach rolled into Heathrow where the next problem of the day rolled up – the Central Bus station had been shut, and there was a problem parking the coach so we could get out. Once that had sorted itself a bit, I grabbed one of the spare trolleys, loaded up my luggage for the great push over to T1.
T1 is T1. I’ve really written all I can on this terminal, in that it has been spruced up. I rolled over to the 1K line and checked in. After an obvious attempt to try to do a sell-up to C or E+ (which failed) for the first time ever, my main rucksack was sent down the chute, with the tripod bag being sent to Zone Y.
Of course it didn’t help the check-in agent kept my passport
It was then off to security land, with the BAA agents forgetting that if a manual scan was requested of film, it should be granted. Strike one…
But I was in the mood for coffee. And that means a trip to a lounge.
First stop: The BMI “Great British Lounge”
Strategy Boutique visitors been then?
Well someone has been out to The Strategy Boutique since I was last here and re-branded it. But it still it is a very nice lounge, split into distinct sections. I took up home at “The Local” and sunk a couple of coffees to wake up, realising I left one of my phones at home. Which is a pain – as it’s my work line. Oopsie. The more things change…
… and dogs too! (Sorry – no BMI LOLCats I’m afraid
However, man cannot live on croissants and pan au chocolate alone – one of the major faults of the BMI Lounge. So after a pleasant 30 minutes, it was time to hike across from one end of T1 to the other to the dark place – the Star Alliance lounge.
Star Alliance Common Lounge.
It could be me, or this place is slowly going downhill. Whilst it’s a nice environment, it seems to get fuller each time I use it, and seems to get… darker (although it could be me).
Second Dining and work area
Seats – heading towards the busy end
Art. Well, each to their own
However, the pre-flight breakfast was required – and it’s my tradition of bacon roll, a sausage roll and an orange juice… with vodka
7am rolled around far too quick and it was off to the other back end of T1 – Gate 48. A bag and security inspection was carried out and Star Gold boarding was announced at that very second. I therefore made myself present, hoped for a beep that never happened, and boarded my 767 of the day.
United 923 London Heathrow T1 – Washington Dulles International
Boeing 767-300, Seat 35K
Operated by United Airlines
Channel 9: Off
After making my way to my usual position on any plane – the back of it – I stowed my luggage and sat down and waited for the plane to fill up. And although I had a seat mate initially, the loads were not good at all and very very quiet – to the point that Y class beds were available today, and the two seater relaxayvous option was in effect – helpful for a 7 hour long haul flight.
I-94(W) and CBP blue forms were handed out before take off (very wise move) and the crew were all smiles today, so a good a flight was looking onwards. A quick check with the crew, and surprise – Channel 9 was off. However, this lead to the first major improvement in the economy product – New headphones!
Hang on kids – an improvement! (taken later in-flight)
Actually these are very comfortable for economy class headphones – and the sound isn’t that bad either!
So, taxi begun with an early pushback, and taxiing from T1 to T5 and to the runway, with the P&W; Engines going to max and up into the air, turning right and then above the cloud cover to Ireland, then the great circle distance to Canada, and finally dropping into Virginia.
Off we go!
About 40 minutes into flight, the breakfast service begun. A choice of “Eggs or Pancakes”.
Well that’s descriptive.
I decided to risk the plastic eggs to see what they had. And For a United economy breakfast it wasn’t bad!
Not a bad Y class breakie
Whilst the eggs were burnt a bit, the sausage was… pork… and I should say well cooked. Not bad for United.
As I said… Burnt.
However, by the end of breakfast, I was tired out and crashed on and off for the next 3 hours.
The cabin crew were warm and up for a joke today (and I find this with the London crews) and were attentive, doing plenty of water runs and the occasionally trip to the galley to pick up another can of Diet coke.
Of course I haven’t talked about In-Flight Entertainment yet. A quick flight through the listing revealed… nothing of interest.
So of course – time to get the iPhone and the GhettoIFE system! (oh come on – it was coming)
Today: Top Gear….
Meanwhile the outside IFE had cleared to a lovely day.
Soon enough, the snack service begun which this time was a seeded bun with cheese and ham, and not the break-your-teeth pretzel-bread special. Along with this were crisps and chocolate. As I had pigged out earlier in the lounge, it felt a reasonable sized snack.
Soon enough, service was cleared down, and after a few twists and turns, the plan landed at Dulles and docked at C2. At that point, I gathered my trash, thanked the crew and headed off…
Overall: As we all know a crew can make or break a flight. In this case – the crew made the flight. In this case, I have not run into such a friendly crew ever in my travels. A real credit to United. I think even the purser was shocked when I thanked her!
However, with good must come bad, and that brings us onto the joy of Dulles Immigration….
It seems that Dulles Immigration is asleep on the job with only three agents (two doing US Citizens, One for International Guests), with pretty much the whole plane transferring at IAD.
A painful 45 minutes in the queue and I was seen to, and stamped into the USA. However, this time my luck ran out and I was sent to customs where it seems they were searching for fruit or meats. Of which neither I had.
Of course, I had to wait the customary five minutes to be seen, to be checked and to declare everything – to which they couldn’t find anything. I was then sent on my way, and then went to the TSA, where hands were checked for explosives and everything was scanned again – film manually scanned, and I finally made my way 1 hour and 20 minutes later to C17 Red Carpet Club entrance. I was stamped in, then checked the gate – which had changed from C18 to to D3.
A hike to D7 for the lounge before anything goes much further.
United Red Carpet Club, D7
Rats found: 0
Colas drunk 1
Colas borrowed: 2
The D7 club is one of the nicer ones at Dulles – mainly as one can fetch your own drinks without tipping, so much less stress and much more drinking at this club.
Anyhoo, I went in, had my card swiped, keyed and let in, and found a nice window so I could watch planes for a few minutes before next flight.
The club itself was very quiet, and this suited me as I needed to quickly reorganise before my next flight. However time alas was not on my side as usual, and it was time again to head upstairs and hike back to D3 for the next flight.
United 151 Washington Dulles International – Chicago O’Hare International T1
Airbus A319, Seat 20F
Operated by United Airlines
Channel 9: Off
Boarding was its usual chaotically managed self, and I sneaked aboard at the correct moment when Star Golds were called. I greeted the crew to a grunt, and stowed my luggage.
The follows the classic problem of flying in the USA – the million and one rollaboards that seem to appear on every flight. As usual, it was a case of a lot of people had to gate check. Amazingly, the middle seat was free (and one of the few on the plane).
After pushing back from the gate, we taxied around Dulles before heading to the penalty box for 20 minute (It wouldn’t be a Dulles trip without a trip to the penalty box it seems).
Soon enough, we were cleared for take off. Once we hit the skies and pretty much light turbulence all the way – enough for the captain to leave the seatbelt sign on.
Off we go again!
Service of course – was a drinks run (of which I had my customary diet coke)
Come on – you should know this by now….
… and of course, I set up a GhettoIFE system with one of these newfangled sickbags.
Plastic, whilst good for containing barf, is not fantastic when building IFE systems it seems. Paperwaxed ones work better
The flight progressed, and a clean-down was done and the touched down at Chicago, docking at the back end of the C Gates.
Almost there – hotel in the background
By the time I had made it to the luggage belts in B concourse, the Rucksack was making its first trip around the belt, and the ski-bag was being unloaded.
And as I passed, I couldn’t help but notice this…
Why yes – some things never change. Back to the Hyatt O’Hare again. Why this hotel? Lots of reasons that aren’t relevant to this discussion.
But again – the staff were excellent and accommodating, the shuttle bus services worked well, and the beds… I want one! Seriously comfortable!
Looking down to the restaurant
A Statue in the atrium
As usual for space purposes, I requested a twin with a balcony. Why? To watch planes in the quiet moments
The Work area and telly
Part IV – Regional hops, Regional Delays
Soon enough, 5:30am on Monday rolled round however, and it was time to head back to the UK. Again, I took the shuttle bus back to O’Hare and dragged my trash to the Premier Exec lines and begun to make noises at the chicken (Sorry, the Automated Check-In System). One of the staff noticed, and took over and manually checked me in with two tags for each of my luggage, and all of my BP’s onto London (including my CO flight).
The TSA were quiet today – even as they’ve had their new Backscatter X-Ray system installed, but I was seen to quickly, and took my sweet time as usual picking up my trash.
Again, my flight was departing from the far side of nowhere (C29) so it off to the C17 Red Carpet Club after getting hypnotised by the B-C connector tunnel.
Hypnosis by United… more of the pics here
C17 Red Carpet Club
Welcome back to the wood-panelled vision of heck. It seems the staff were in a nicer mood than they were last time when I passed through here, and they even had large bagels out today.
Wood.. and leather.
The lounge was quiet for a Monday morning, with two 777’s either side of C18 and C17 keeping the views nice.
Still this lounge is very dark, and even with the lovely window views could do with a refresh like has happened at the B gates to improve the product.
Soon enough, I made my way over to the back of C, where boarding again had commenced for the Port Columbus flight. I made myself present when called (going through the gate lice) and boarded my next plane
United 138 Chicago O’Hare – Port Columbus
Airbus A320, Seat 19A
Operated by United Airlines
Channel 9: Off
I greeted the crew, who were in a good mood this morning, and made my way to the back of the plane. Again, the planed slowly filled up, with the middle seat being free and the usual luggage issues.
A manual safety demo was given, and we were off into the skies.
Again – it seemed that UA pilots are loving keeping the seat-belt sign on at the moment, and the flight was a bit turbulent.
A drinks round was made, and I opted for a coffee. Shame they forgot the cream….
Well – it might wake me up
However, there was one little fault with the seat – not the usual reclining by itself, but the armrest was coming off…
Upon landing, I took my time getting off the plane (I was no rush to make my connection) and informed the cabin crew of the exact location.
Overall: A short enough flight, however UA maintenance need a slap on the wrist with some of the state they’re sending their aircraft in….
One look around the airport indicates NOTHING has changed in the past 2 years since I’ve been here. They’ve even got the olde American West 757 hanging still.
Anyway, I made it to the gate and powered up the laptop (again – free WiFi is always a good thing). Soon enough the TSA wandered along to inspect the boarding process, and I was stopped for a quick inspection before being let aboard the plane
United 7792 – Port Columbus – Washington Dulles International
Embraer 145 – Seat 1A
Operated by expressjet Airlines
It’s nice getting out and the smell of Jet-1A in the morning. I was warmly greeted aboard, and the flight attendant offered to stow my bag in the front closet of the little ERJ. Pretty soon as boarding was continued (and a Republic captain came by without acknowledging the poor FA, we got chatting and this probably turned into the best flight of the whole trip.
The plane loaded up, and we up to 100%. Soon enough we lined up for departure with a short wait for Dulles to authorise us to leave.
The little ERJ took to the air, and turned over the city of Columbus before climbing up and away onto the short hop to Dulles.
So lets have a quick look around our environment… Seat 1A whilst no First class seat offers some of the largest legroom on this class of plane. In addition, this plane shows signs of its use with Continental… little things like XM radio and Continental boxes in the galley.
The FA did a drinks round, and after he completed it, did another drinks run for the first couple of rows. Its a small touch, but an excellent touch.
1A legroom and drink
Soon enough we were lining up for Dulles, and begun our long taxi to the bus station – I mean the A Gates and I promised to pass on the FA’s details to Robbie Williams if I encountered him.
Overall: Again a short flight, but excellent customer service and a bit of banter always helps. A good flight attendant will always make a good flight.
Back to Dulles
Soon enough, the plane had parked up at A6. With no time to head to the lounge in C gates, I decided to make do and have lunch. Where on Dulles can you get a decent calorie filled lunch that could knock dead a diet?
However, the screens weren’t looking good with most regional hops delayed. Originally listed for a 12:20 departure, the flight had gone to 14:00 departure. At the gate, it was announced that it had been re-timed for a 12:50 boarding, with a 1pm pushback.
Soon enough, the boarding scrum occurred (with near enough no-one paying attention to priority) .
United 7375 – Washington Dulles International – Newark International
Bombardier CRJ-700, Seat 15A
Operated by GoJet Airlines
And then we headed to a penalty box.
And waited a bit more
During this period, I started snoring against the bulkhead and just waited. Finally at 14:15, the engines roared into life and off we went.
So lets look at the CRJ-700 that I’m stuck in. Whilst it seems to be an improvement over CRJ-200 that I flew with Mesa, it still feels like a narrow tube. Of course, being an ExPlus bird, this plane has First and E+ seats.
Not that “Mr Sits in Row 15 or bust” thought about paying the $14 for a 50 minute flight for an upgrade thought it was an idea.
The flight was a grey overcast special, with low cloud all the way – enough for the 50 minute hop with a drinks round during the flight, not much else.
Soon enough after the long delay, we lined up for Newark and begun the long taxi over to C Concourse
Overall: Well I finally suffered my first long ground delay at Dulles. And you can tell these little CRJ’s are might tighter in space. Whilst the service was ok and communication was good from the flight deck, it still felt like more could had been done. Or maybe that Burger did enough to knock me out whilst I was waiting.
Part V – EWR, EWR-LHR and Home.
By the time I got to the gate it was the best part of 15:15 – and my plans for the day in complete disarray. What happened to be a nice idea to head over to the Top of the Rock had relied on me being on time. The fact that the spare hour and the rest of the time was gone that I had budgeted into my connection had thrown the day.
Perhaps someone is trying to tell me something, but it’s looking more and more like New York and me isn’t going to ever mix together going on my previous trips to NY normally ending with short connections and things never working out…
Hardly worth going out – and instead get tiddly on Vodka and Cola.
So with 4 hours or so before the next flight, I took full advantage of the two Presidents Clubs instead. With the time to get from concourse to concourse, another 30 minutes had gone.
Off to Vodka and coke land!
Now, I’m going to lump the reviews of the two clubs together, because whilst the snack selection was no better than a United Red Carpet Club, the “free bar” is a welcome change.
However, the most striking thing in both of these clubs is the sheer amount of people in the clubs. Attempting to find an empty seat in that place was trying to find a needle in a haystack. In addition, whilst WiFi was free within the club, the gateway was taking about 5 minutes to register a computer onto the LAN. Annoying, but still a bit more instant response would had been nicer.
Eventually, I decided to hike down to A126 to see what boarding was doing. And surprise – yet another mass of people, with the CDG flight boarding next door.
As departure time approached, there was still no movement as the plane had arrived late from China and thus BusinessFirst was nowhere near ready, and Economy was barley ready for passengers. Half an hour after boarding was meant to begin, BusinessFirst passengers were held, and Star Golds were allowed to board.
Continental Airlines28/United 3273 – Newark International – London Heathrow Airport
Boeing 777-200ER, Seat 17A
Operated by Continental Airlines
After boarding, I was greeted and pointed in which direction my seat was in.
Being darned near enough first on board, I stowed my rucksack, set the camera up, and then waited for the plane to pack out.
Seating is still nine abreast, in a more “standard” 3 x 3 x 3 layout as opposed to United’s 2 x 5 x 2. Whist not as tight as as it could possibly be (for example those who have squeezed a 3 x 4 x 3 configuration into a 777), it’s still a pain if you need to get up in flight if you’re trapped in a window.
Soon enough, my seatmates arrived and IFE was activated.
20 minutes late, the plane eventually pushed back and slotted itself into the long takeoff queue. Another 30 minutes, the plane turned onto the active runway and pushed into the night.
Turning onto the active
and off we go!
When air born, I prepped the GhettoIFE unit, only this is a nice little IFE unit… after it rebooted.
Rebooting IFE System
Based on the Panasonic eX2, this is a wonderful interactive resource, that 1) actually has a very good moving map (yes – sad), but the core thing that makes any IFE system work – CONTENT.
So for one of the rare times, I put the iPhone away and actually watched content on it…
The more things change…
A drinks run was completed, with… well. I had Continental booze vouchers – it would had been rude to say no….
All of you should know this by now.
A food run (with an additional bar run) occurred. I went for the chicken.
Well, the chicken was edible, the rice wasn’t bad (so two good marks), the beans…. insta-mash, the salad was crisp and was not just lettuce leaf, but the desert – a cookie. Oh dear.
But there was something I haven’t seen in an economy flight for years.
Trays were collected in and the cabin went into darkness for this short hop back to the UK, where I dozed off against the bulkhead, only to be woken when the lights were switched on 1 1/2 hours when breakfast was being served.
Whilst the fruit was cold and fresh, pastry… oh dear. I’m still working out exactly what it is…
If you can work out what this pastry thing is, write to ….
Again, a drinks run was done, and the plane was cleared down as we begun our approach over Heathrow.
Being late of course, we did a turn in the stack, coming in over South London, and finally landing at Heathrow, before beginning the long taxi to T4 (as that’s where Continental is based at Heathrow – nearer its old SkyTeam partners as opposed to its friends at T1 and T3.
South of the river
and thank you..
The plane parked up at the gate, I thanked the crew and left the plane. IRIS was active, and I proceeded through the UK border and onto the chaos that was Baggage Claim. As far as I could tell, the use of two belts confused things, and to top it off, the lack of priority luggage handling was in full effect as my bags were pretty much last out onto the belt. A quick grr, and it was a push through to Heathrow Connect for a connection to T1/3, and up to the Central Bus station to find my bus had LONG gone without me thanks to the late arrival, and the appalling luggage delivery.
Another £6.20, and I had a valid ticket for the next bus ride… and 40 minutes at the CBS.
Heathrow Bus Station
National Express 210 Heathrow Airport – Birmingham
What can I say? On time, with a driver taking his time and arriving on schedule at Digbeth. The driver helped with unloading luggage, and soon enough, I was in a taxi heading back to my front door
and back home again.
In summing up:
I’ve said this a few times – Crews make or break the product. And on every flight, I’ve had great crews (the UA LHR-IAD and CMH-IAD stand out), whilst the other crews did good jobs.
United seems to be slowly improving down the back (with most of the staff smiling), and the customer service was excellent on all encounters – as was Continental – a very solid Economy class product, with all the bells and whistles.
Would I switch to Continental for TATL’s? If the price was right – yes, but there are two little things that have irked me this trip.
Whilst the in-flight experience where pretty much good or excellent, ground handling is quite frankly – unacceptable at both Dulles (where having 3 immigration officers to deal with 3/4 of a planeload of passengers) and Heathrow’s/Continental’s disastrous luggage handling.
So an appeal. Sort out Priority Luggage at Heathrow, and for the Dulles CBP people, try and put a few people more on when you need them please at IAD. It isn’t hard, and would change the connection through IAD from painful to passable…
And also, I discovered I need a better smaller backpack…
Ok. That’s it for this trip. However, compared to last year, I’m heavily down on miles still. I was pondering a trip to Seoul, but the need to requalify for Gold first.
So to that end, I’m off in this direction.
… with a story to match. Tune in late April!
Comments and questions welcome!