After a nice weekend in Dallas for a quick Father’s Day visit, I managed to same-day change my scheduled United flight back to Chicago routing via Houston, allowing me the opportunity to fly United flight 32 from IAH to ORD.
UA032 is one of the regularly-scheduled 787-800 flights that United is rotating throughout the domestic hubs, as well as operating on the newly-launched Denver to Tokyo Narita nonstop.
Within an hour of the change, my upgrade cleared and I checked the United app to see that I had been assigned to 2L, a window. Nice.
Now, I wasn’t all that jubilant: my itinerary involved a VERY tight 40 minute connection at IAH. I must admit, Houston Bush Intercontinental airport is probably one of my least favorite domestic transit hubs. It’s too “Texas-sized’ for me, and in the past, I’ve run into some bad luck with missed connections, often always due to an inbound United (or Continental) Express flight that is delayed.
Rocky has similarly aired his grievances about sprinting through IAH many-a-time. Click here to check out his excellent United 787 report on the same Houston to Chicago route, published a few weeks back.
On this particular occasion, however, I decided to pad my odds by calling United in advance and securing a Special Service Request (SSR) to see if I could have a “Red Coat,” as they call it, escort me between flights to insure that I wouldn’t miss my connection.
I spoke with a lovely Texas-based agent who obviously was a veteran pmCO employee. She was very affable and friendly, and completely empathetic towards my concern, as she herself admitted to wanting to fly on the United 787, with no such luck. She lamented how much she missed being able to non-rev to Paris for a meal nonstop from Houston before United axed the route in 2012.
Anyways, fast forward to Tuesday AM, and I found myself bleary-eyed at DFW airport at 4:30 AM, preparing to board United flight 5165 to IAH. Even though I had only a roller-board, I knew that it was more prudent to check my luggage to Chicago, as I did not want to be held up at the gate in Houston having to gate-check my bag as a carry-on in the jetway. The last time I went through this in IAH, I missed my flight since it took 20 minutes to retrieve my bag from the belly.
Check-in was a breeze, and I was notified that I was #1 on the upgrade list for DFW-IAH, which is a short 20 minute flight anyways. As a note to all DFW passengers traveling with TSA Pre-Check, the only valid TSA Pre-Check areas are located in the middle of Terminal E where the Delta gates are located. Any passenger traveling on an airline that offers TSA Pre-Check can use this line, but it does require exiting the terminal and walking a bit out of the way if you’re checking in luggage with a non-Delta carrier, such as United.
After a quick breakfast at the United Club in Dallas (which conveniently opens at 4:30) I glanced outside the window and noticed it was pouring rain. I had seen some worrisome lightening storms on the drive into the airport, but I was convinced we would be okay per the FIS screens which showed “On-Time” departures for all UA flights ex-DFW.
At the gate, my upgrade cleared and we boarded the CRJ-700 bound for Houston. Honestly, I’m so sick of CRJs. They are literally the most decrepit, piddly jets gracing the skies these days. I can’t imagine how people fly from SFO to DFW in them.
As I sat in my seat, I peered nervously outside my window and noticed that the rain and lightening had picked up. It was not looking good.
We pushed back about five minutes late, around 5:25 AM, and as we taxiied to our scheduled runway, the captain announced over the PA that the weather conditions were indeed adverse and we would need to hold position for 15 minutes until the storms passed to the east. Indeed, it was pitch black outside and lightening flashes were omnipresent, and things were not looking optimistic.
Lining up to 18R, the captain killed the engines as we parked next to a US Airways A321 bound for Charlotte (which, interestingly, I flew last October. Is it sad that I can say I’ve flown the two earliest scheduled flights out of DFW airport this year?)
At 6:01 AM, I pretty much had given up hope. My flight to ORD from IAH was scheduled to begin boarding in 10 minutes, and I hadn’t even left Dallas/Ft. Worth yet.
The US Airways A321 eventually lurched forward once dawn broke and the rain had let up, and 10 minutes later, wheels on UA5165 were also up as we veered south for Houston. At 6:13 AM local time, the captain announced that we were 40 minutes away from IAH, and I knew that the Dreamliner was not happening that day for me.
I dozed in and out for about 15 minutes before I noticed we were descending, and FA’s began doing final safety checks for our arrival into IAH. I glanced at my watch, and it read 6:25 AM. We were really flying! Maybe….just maybe, I would have a chance.
I was biting my nails as the wheels hit the ground at 6:47 AM. When I switched my phone on, the first thing I noticed was that I had received a voicemail from United’s 800 number, that delivers travel notifications in case of delays or cancellations. I dismissed this as a likely courtesy call from United about the weather delay for my inbound DFW-IAH flight, so without even listening to the voicemail, I called United to see if the Red Coat was still waiting for me at the B Terminal, and to PLEASE hold the 787 for Ro!
After stammering a few words to the agent, she said these magic words, “We still have a seat confirmed for you on United flight 32, which is actually delayed until 7:45 due to an ATC ground stop in Chicago.”
“YES!” I exclaimed loudly, startling a slew of passengers around me who had probably already dealt with more excitement than they deserved that day, and it wasn’t even 7 AM. Looks like the Dreamliner was happening after all!
De-planing at IAH, I had now 45 generous minutes to make the transfer to Terminal C. The “red coat” assigned to the gate was noticeably absent (so I suppose I can’t offer more information on how that system works?) but as I made my way towards C, I was reminded of how clunky and outdated the B terminal is at IAH. The walk from the gates to the SkyTrain is pretty annoying.
Luckily, it was only a single terminal transfer from B to C, as opposed to my last misconnect nightmare, which was from A to C. As I took the escalator down at C, I walked over to the FIS board and checked to see if my flight had ACTUALLY been delayed.
After I snapped this picture, I heard the famous last words,
“Final boarding call for United flight 32 to Chicago, please proceed to gate C-40, final boarding call.”
Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot!? It was only 7:05 AM! How was this flight in its final boarding stages?
At that moment, I sprinted, and I mean sprinted, from the middle of the C concourse to C-40. Just like in every scenario when you’re literally seconds from miss the main cabin door closure, the plane HAD to be departing from the furthest gate down the pier. As was the case today.
Ironically, C-40 was also the gate that my last misconnect flight was departing from. My one chance to take a 757-300 series, which still has not happened yet.
I came to a screeching halt at the gate, out of breath, when the gate agent yelled at me, “WALK, NOT RUN!” which in any other circumstance I would have found perturbing. In any case, I was at their mercy, so mild annoyance disappated quickly once I found out that my First seat was safe and that I was cleared to board.
I took a picture with the 787 to document my second Dreamliner voyage. Since the last trip, when I flew All Nippon Airways Dreamliner from Seattle to Tokyo in Economy, the 787 battery issues had been “hopefully” resolved since FAA grounding in January. Additionally, this time, the trip would be in premium class, although considerably shorter in duration.
Photo © Andrew Compolo
It is indeed an immaculate plane, featuring a 2X-2X-2X configuration, which I think is perfect. The seat comes with ample storage space and plenty of legroom, although the one complaint I have is with the width of the seat. The seat is angled to face towards the fuselage, and in seated position, the arm placement feels awkward.
The crew was fairly standard UA (in this case, pm-CO). Nothing too extraordinary. Spry, if you will, but still lacking that geniuine sense of warmth and care that I’ve found on other carriers. Nobody offered to take my coat when I stepped on board, and the FA’s seemed to treat the pre-departure beverage offer as an after-thought. Same with the meal service, “ya still want breakfast? Cereal’s all I got!” Granted, this was domestic first, but nevertheless still First. You be the judge, I guess.
Interestingly, despite the mad rush to get on board, and being the last one to be on board in First, I noticed we stayed parked at the gate for another full hour before pushback. A few times, the purser came on the PA system and made announcements such as, “ladies and gentlemen, please pick whichever seat is available as we are accomodating passengers and misconnects from 3 other flights today,” which seemed a bit strange to me.
I spent some time on the ground exploring the seat in more depth, as well as the IFE. The movie selection was decent and the TV and Audio selections, excellent. I liked the moving map feature as well.
We pushed back finally around 8:15 AM, and taxied for a LONG time before airborne. Each seat came equipped with these little placards with more info on the 787.
Thirty minutes into the flight, breakfast was served. I obviously did not have an option today being the last to board, but it was the standard dichotomized McMuffin or Cereal and Banana combo. My seatmate had ordered the McMuffin, which has had a ground-breaking overhaul since its last appearance in my presence to feature ham this time instead of sausage.
Wow, United, you’ve really out-done yourself here! 😉
The cereal was the standard honey nut cheerios. I remember when Continental used to serve this free to YCL passengers with the 1/2 banana back in the day, as in like, recently, in 2010. Sigh.
I was sinful and said yes to to the freshly-baked on-board Cinnamon roll, which was a huge redeeming factor in this otherwise dull breakfast offering, and it was yummy. The fruit was very fresh, and the strawberry yogurt was standard.
After the meal tray cleared, I stretched my legs before returning back to my seat for a little snooze. I got a chance to test out the lie-flat mode, which served me comfortably for the short duration of the flight. However, I will echo Rocky’s comments in noting that being 5’10, I was able to notice the seats’ height limitations, which I’m not sure would bode over as well for someone who is 6’3″ or something like that.
The headphones UA distributes in F on the 787 are pretty crummy, and since it is two-pronged, you’re pretty much limited to what you’re provided. However, on the plus-side, each seat is equipped with a charging station, a USB-port, a universal adapter outlet and a small magazine rack to store books, etc. You also have the ability to plug in your iPod, iPad, iPhone etc. device into the USB port and listen to your music via the IFE screen, without worrying about juicing the battery.
One other cool feature I noticed about the plane in F was the windows. Obviously, i’ve experimented with the window shade feature before, but one difference here is that each J-Class passenger has two windows to their seats. However, the back window operates in tandem with the forward window, so that you don’t have to bother with adjusting one then the other.
I also got some YCL cabin photos, which did not look too shabby in a 3 x 3 x 3 confirugation.
After a fairly smooth ride up to Chicago, we began our final descent into ORD and had a pretty bumpy landing. Somehow though, I felt very secure despite the crummy landing. Maybe it was something mystical about the carbon fiber, I’m not sure.
So, all in all, I lucked out today. I was pretty convinced for awhile that my luck was too good to be true, but I suppose the travel gods were on my side today. I am grateful that the weather in Dallas decided to bring the weather in Chicago down with it to affect both my legs today, otherwise – I would not be a happy camper right now.
United’s domestic F product is pretty blah, but the opportunity to fly it on a 787 is pretty rewarding treat. Of course, the segments aren’t super long, but the product is great and its definitely a first-mover advantage that United will have over its North American peers. I can also say that sans for the weather, flying with United today was overall a generally positive experience end-to-end, and I’m cautiously optimistic things may be improving one-by-one on the merger front.