Saturday, April 2, 2016

Flying the 747-400 in Seat 1A


There is something prestigious about seat 1A.  Sure, anyone can grab that seat this day and age when flying on an all-economy or regional airline.  But for someone like me who grew up in the 70s watching jumbo jets flying overseas – seat 1A was something special.

Why is 1A special?  Maybe it has to do with the lowest number with the lowest letter making one feel like a winner.  As in "I am number one". Back in the day, when there was First Class on every airplane, 1A also meant you are first of the first.

At a personal level, 1A also felt like something inaccessible.  When I was young, my grandfather, who was a mechanic at China Airlines, went to Singapore on an one-year work assignment.  Upon his return, as a reward, the airline gave him seat 1A on that 747 flight back home.  I remember fondly my grandpa proudly telling the story: about how 1A is always blocked for VIPs and typically flies unoccupied.  He gushed how surprised he was when the gate agent at the last minute assigned him seat 1A.  He was a VIP for the day!  And as any grandfather would do for his airline-loving grandson, he gave me his boarding pass for my collection.  I have it to this day.



Row 1 on the 747 is unique in its own way.  It is the only airliner where occupants in the first row fly ahead of everyone else on the airplane.  And I do mean everyone – all 350 plus passengers, all the flight attendants, and all the pilots!  The view is purportedly semi-forward, akin to a cockpit side window.

Row 1 is located at the first three windows behind the nose. 
The cockpit is above and behind.


United 747-400 in Domestic Service

Airlines have been retiring 747s from their fleet at a fast pace.  The latest iteration of the iconic Jumbo, the -8 model, has not gained traction in sales.  The once-distinctive whale with a hump on its head is quickly disappearing from the skies.

In March, United announced retirement of their 747-400s (B744) would be accelerated to end of 2018.  Though one would never know that at San Francisco; most (if not all?) of the airline’s 22-strong B744 fleet is based there.



When I found out that United would be operating a B744 flight domestically between San Francisco International (SFO) and Chicago O’Hare (ORD) beginning in March, I was not going to let the opportunity pass to take a fun flight on the queen of the fleet.  With her days numbered, how else was I going to fly in a 747 without spending a lot of time and money (and without whipping out my passport)?

Since the same aircraft would be flying the SFO-ORD-SFO roundtrip, I picked a weekend date when the fare was the lowest for a same day return.  In addition, I wanted to upgrade to Business Class on the upper deck, so I had to also consider availability for a confirmed mileage upgrade.  I ended up paying $306 roundtrip for a Saturday daytrip with a confirmed Business Class upgrade on the return flight for 20,000 miles plus $75 fee.

When I purchased my ticket, I was offered to upgrade to First Class for $199.  I was only concerned about upgrading to Business Class, so I ignored it.  After everything was said and done, I thought about it and realized I could have had seat 1A for just $199 more.  I had buyer’s remorse!  I searched the web to see if there was a way to get that offer back.  Fortunately, based upon other’s experiences, I would get the offer to upgrade to First Class again at time of check-in. 

Mission 747 - Preflight

At departure minus 24 hours 30 seconds, I doubled checked the seat map to ensure seat 1A was still open.  It was.  At exactly departure minus 24 hours, I checked in.  Sure enough, I was offered to upgrade to First Class for $199.  I quickly accepted the offer.  I could not choose my seat before payment (which was bad), so I quickly (but accurately – didn’t want to make a typo) entered my credit card information.  After purchase confirmation, I was automatically assigned to seat 1A.  Woohoo!  It knew!

I drove to SFO amidst a winter storm.  El niño, got used to it.  Luckily, being a Saturday morning, there was no traffic on the road in spite of the rainy weather.  My flight would be departing from the International Terminal, which made the experience even more special.



Checking-in at United’s beautifully appointed premium check-in area in the airy wide hall made me feel like a VIP traveling to somewhere far and exotic.



Even though I was selected for Pre-Check, I didn’t need it.  There was no line at any of the security check lanes.  I breezed through into the G-concourse.

It was still early yet.  The terminal was eerily quiet prior to the first wave of mid-morning Asian departures.  At gate G96, my queen for the day, Boeing 747-400 N180UA was there all by her lonesome self.



As passengers arrived at the gate, it became obvious that the 747 still commanded attention.  Families, business travelers, ordinary passengers - were snapping photos and selfies in front of the plane.  I spotted some enthusiasts as well.  As I was taking my photos, some guy commented: “it’s good to always to have your camera with you so you can capture situations like this.”  With a smile, I replied, “Yes, it is!

 

The gate hold area became rather crowded.  The 747, after all, was a big airplane designed to fly a lot of people.  And as the seat map display showed, there was not going to be a lot of empty seats even on a Saturday morning.



The line for Seating 1 boarding was long – I would guess 50-person deep.  Though not unexpected (with SFO being an United hub), it made priority boarding pointless.



Boarding though door 1L, I smiled at the purser who was directing traffic to the proper aisle.  I pointed behind him, to my left, to the small First Class section in the nose.  He quickly got out of my way to let me by.

First three windows were mine!


United’s B744 First Class has 12 seats.  The first two rows are arranged in an 1-1 configuration while the second two rows are 1-2-1.

On three-class international flights, United markets First Class as Global First.  The seat was stocked as if we were on an international flight.  There were two pillows (!) – one day and one sleep – a thick blanket, and a large headphone.  There was no amenity kit, though (nor did I expect one).






Seat pocket reading material.  There were no Duty Free sales.  :)


United’s B744 was showing its age.  Their First Class product is one or two generations behind competitors whose First Class products feature amenities such as sliding doors for privacy or large screen displays.

When I was ready to put away my bag, I came to a rude awakening that there was no overhead storage above my seat.  I had use the bin over row 2.  Even that, the storage was not deep; my backpack camera bag barely fit along with the other person’s carry on bag.  There was no new design curvy Boeing Sky Interior cabin here.  All straight ceiling panels and rectangular overhead bins. Combined with classic overhead passenger service units, this cabin screamed old school.  It pains me to say it, but how can anything from the 1990s be “old”?


Taken after the flight (the cabin was bit of a mess).


As I settled into my seat, the purser asked whether I wanted herb cheese omelet or steel cut oatmeal with fruit plate for breakfast.  I went with the omelet.  My friendly flight attendant followed and took my pre-departure drink order and my jacket (which got hung in the closet right next to me).  We had a pleasant conversation about the 747, seat 1A, and me flying on this flight for fun. I requested Channel 9 (air traffic control on the in-flight entertainment system) to be turned on – but alas it remained off.



While an “almost forward view” was delivered, I did not expect a good view across the aisle on the opposite side.  It made sense since the nose curved so much at this point, with just enough space for two seats and a narrow closet in between.



Legroom



Pre-departure orange juice.



Headset, various ports, seat, and entertainment controls.  Not seen is the power outlet, near the front of my pod.


Mission 747 - The Flight

Aircraft:  Boeing 747-422
Registration:  N180UA
Msn/ln:  25224/867
Aircraft Delivered (age):  July 1991 (24.7 years)

Flight: UA1570
San Francisco (SFO) – Chicago O’Hare (ORD)

Scheduled Departure – Arrival:  8:35 am – 2:40 pm
Actual Departure – Arrival:  8:32 am – 3:04 pm
Takeoff SFO Runway 10R:  9:26 am
Landing ORD Runway 28C:  2:55 pm
Flight Duration
:  3 hours 27 minutes

Flightaware flight track


  

from the first window


We pushed back at 8:32 am, three minutes early.  I have not flown on United in awhile and their new safety video was most creative.  I guess United had to keep up as most airlines have done away with traditional (read: boring) safety videos with something more fun and interesting so passengers would be more engaged.



It had started raining again.  After push back, we just sat on the ramp.  I knew the storm had caused SFO traffic to go opposite directions (Runway 10 departures and Runway 19 arrivals), which typically translate into delays.  However, there were no announcements from the cockpit regarding the hold.  There for the next half hour, we sat on the ramp.  We finally started our taxi at 9:02 am.

Now that we were underway, I could fully appreciate the unusual sight out of the window.  The view out of both sides were as close to panoramic as one could get as a passenger.  It felt like an amusement park ride as we made our taxi around the airport.  As we moved forward, since the seat was at an angle to the direction of travel, it felt weird moving sideways.  While I have flown ahead of the nose gear previously (757s come to mind), it is always fun to see the aircraft go pass the centerline before making the turn.

As we taxied up to the main taxiway, we joined the conga line to the runway amidst the morning rush.  The wet weather was not helping.  Almost one hour after pushing back from the gate, we lined up on Runway 10R and took to the skies at 9:26 am.

The takeoff run felt rather bumpy due to my proximity to the nose gear.  Hangers in the closet next to me banged loudly against the walls.  As the gears came up, there was a noisy grinding sound, but after that, the cabin became noticeably quiet.

The captain announced that our cruising altitude would be 39,000 feet with 3 hours 27 minute flying time.  We would be arriving at Chicago 23 minutes late, into the gate at around 3 pm.  There was no explanation of the departure delay. 

Coffee?  Yes, please!



United “Private Screening”.  A bring your own device (BYOD) entertainment option delivered via the in-flight wifi to the United App on your personal tablet or smartphone.






Looks like there was an avgeek nearby!



The in-app flight tracker had more comprehensive information than the in-seat display.



Though I did not do an one-for-one comparison between the in-seat and BYOD entertainments, the BYOD streaming seemed to offer more programs.  However, I did not want to watch anything on my tiny phone screen when I have a large display in front of me, so I opted with some archeological documentary.

Meanwhile, the sky cleared below us.



Forty minutes into the flight, breakfast was served.  My friendly FA obliged my photo request, setting me up just right with a couple different angles.  Was she cool or what?



Strangely, there was no tablecloth.  Granted, I did not expect International Global First service, but having only the “built-in tablecloth” on the tray made the eating experience less elegant.



The cheese filling in the omelet was sweet and tasty.  The sausage was “high value” in that it was not a typical breakfast sausage, but some sort of chunky sausage (apple chicken came to mind).  The croissant was pathetic.  It was cold, slightly flattened, and tasteless.  It was akin to the rock solid dinner rolls one used to get with the economy class meal.

Down below, Salt Lake City had just passed and this small airport and city appeared.  As turned out, it was Evanston-Uinta County Airport - Burns Field (KEVW) near Evanston, WY.  It was quite a view!  Interstate 80, Bear River, and the Union Pacific Railroad were clearly visible.




After my table was cleared, I received a refill on my coffee.  This is my absolute favorite time on a flight – the after meal.  My stomach full, I am relaxed with my feet up, watching TV while enjoying a hot beverage.  Flying should always be this civilized!



The lavatory was run of the mill – nothing special there.  At least it was stocked with Cowshed amenity bottles ala an international flight.




Next two hours was rather quiet.  Most in my cabin had their window shades closed and were sleeping. The nose cabin was extremely quiet. Rumble from the engines was barely a murmur in the background.  The constant swoosh of air conditioning was only broken by rattling clothes racks in the closet and snoring passengers.



Chasing our own shadow over Nebraska and Iowa.




Puffy clouds over the Midwest.





About 40 minutes prior to landing, I was offered a pre-arrival drink.  “Another coffee?  Or something else?”  I skipped it.  The captain announced the weather in Chicago was overcast with seven-mile visibility.  Winds were out of the northwest and temperature was 71°F.

Approaching from the northwest, we soon tracked east on downwind to Runway 28C on the south complex.  Alas it was cloudy and the distinctive Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan were not visible.




There was no mistaking when the nose gear came down.  Suddenly, there was wind noise following by a loud (and a rather disconcerting) grinding sound.

Breaking through the ceiling with less than 10 miles to go, we soon crossed over Interstate 294 and made a jarring thud upon Runway 28C at Chicago O’Hare.  The sound of the engines reversing was barely noticeable.

As we made our taxi to gate C16, I overheard a flight attendant (and I noticed as well), that various ground staff around the airport were taking pictures of our plane.  There is no doubt, almost 50 years after first flight, the 747 has established itself as a timeless icon!



After the seat belt light went off, deplaning was quick in my small cabin.  I stayed around and chatted some more with my friendly flight attendant.  She gave me a tour of the galley under the upper deck stairs and showed me the galley cart elevator.  One thing that I did not know – normally on long haul flights, economy class meals are also stored in the upper deck galley.  As a result, during meal service, they need to move a lot of carts up and down the lift.

Funny thing about big airplanes.  Even after my chat and tour (which felt like an eternity for a post-flight linger session), when I was ready to deplane, economy class passengers were still streaming out of the back of the plane.


 

Mission 747 Bonus – Return Flight from ORD to SFO

Not as detailed, but notes of interest and photos.


Stepping off the plane into the gate, I noticed the return flight crew was waiting next to the podium.  I told the Captain that I was an enthusiast and asked if he could turn on Channel 9.  He agreed.  He then extended the offer for me to come up for a cockpit visit before takeoff.  "You do know the cockpit is upstairs, right?"  With a big smirk, I replied, "oh yes, and I am flying upstairs too."  "That makes it easy then."

Gate C16 was not conducive to large aircraft operations.  Despite having two loading bridges, there was very little space in the gate hold area.  It was packed and there was no room for all the boarding groups to queue up at once.  Worse, being an United inter-hub flight, Seating 1 boarding must have been 70 to 100 people deep.  The line for Seating 1 extended all the way into the main hallway, making a mockery out of the word “priority”.



After getting to my seat on the upper deck, I noticed a gaggle of enthusiasts was in the cockpit already.  Apparently, I was not the only one! 


Once again, many clicks were going off throughout the cabin.


My seat, row 15 (rear facing) behind the emergency exit.



IFE being reset.  It is apparently a Panasonic system.



First sign of a problem.  We were number two in line for takeoff and aircraft ahead said he "needed a few minutes".  We were asked to go and we replied "we need a few minutes too".  The tower asked, "what is your issue and how long do you need?".  Channel 9 started playing music instead of ATC.  Hmmm...

Minutes later, the cockpit crew informed us of our issue.  Our airplane normally flies long distance with a lot of fuel.  Since we were on a short trip, we were flying with less fuel than a typical flight and the computer didn't like that.  There was a discrepancy indicator that must be reset.  We needed to go back to the gate to fix it.

So back to the gate we went.  One would think maintenance would just come up to the cockpit with the manual and push a few buttons to reset this fuel indicator.  Nope.  As I was later told by a flight attendant, it was some sort of coordinated effort between the cockpit and someone "in the belly".

[To you aircraft experts and mechanics – I am just repeating what I was told.  I have no idea what the actual terminology or impacted system was, so don't flame me!]

Meanwhile, the gate agent announced, "the DOT requires us to tell you if you want off the plane, you can.  You are free to walk to the jetway to stretch your legs.  But if you want into the terminal, then you have to take all of your belonging.  When we are ready to go, we will make one and only one announcement, and then we will close the door and depart" (in other words, if you want to run to McDonald's, do so at your own risk).

Being in the upper deck, I couldn’t tell how many people took the offer to walk about the jetway or even off into the concourse.  However, at least one person in my cabin determined that he was not going to make his connection at SFO and got off the plane to make alternate plans.

So we sat at the gate while maintenance personnel came and went in and out of the cockpit.  At least I was comfortable in my Business Class seat.  The flight attendants did not go through the extra effort of offering water while we waited.

We finally pushed back two hours behind schedule.  With the sun now set, there was no chance for good photos out the window.  To my surprise - the Captain turned Channel 9 back to air traffic control before taking the runway.  Thank you for remembering all of the avgeeks on board, Captain!

Coke Zero with lemon and warmed nuts



Dinner choices were curry chicken katsu or ravioli.  Chicken katsu?  I was taken back.  What an unusual selection on a domestic flight.  More intrigued than anything, I went with it knowing that I would be taking a chance with a breaded fried item.  You never know how it will reheat.

Surprisingly, it was not too bad.  The curry was tasty and the breading still had some crunch to it.  BTW, the entire cabin smelt of curry!



Here was the pasta selection.



Unlike that pathetic cold and hard croissant on the outbound flight, the pretzel roll for dinner was actually warm and soft.  It was good!

For dessert, it was ice cream sundae.  I asked the flight attendant to hold the whipped cream, to which she obliged.  To drink, I ordered coffee and cream.  Funny thing.  I ended up having whipped cream anyway as my coffee was topped with it!  It looked like fancy hot chocolate.





Despite the stormy weather, it was not a harrowing ride down to SFO.  The flight attendants were asked to make landing preparations early.  I later learned at least a couple landings before us ended up diverting.  Fortunately for us, the worst of the storm passed shortly before we landed, as told by the approach controller.  The most "interesting" part (if you call it that) was the zigzag turns for spacing on approach to Runway 19.






We landed at SFO more than two hours late.  Arrival gate 86 was a tow-in gate.  While that in itself was not a big deal, the wait for a tow just made everyone more anxious upon a late arrival.




Despite the delay and a long day, I had a blast!  I thoroughly enjoyed my flights and hope to take more trips on the 747 in the future before they retire.  In the end, it was worth every single penny!