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Posts tagged avgeek

The Man Who Flies Around the World for Free

Rolling Stone did a feature on Ben Schlappig, creator of One Mile At a Time, and it’s definitely interesting. In typical Rolling Stone fashion, I am sure it was edited and in some cases sugarcoated to make the story more intriguing (I for one have never heard of “the Hobby”), but it’s a good read. There is tons of insight into the frequent flier community, including this:

Early editions of Petersen’s magazine featured stories on deals from obscure carriers; instructed fliers on how to duck airline countermeasures; and showed readers how they could win a thousand free miles by subscribing to magazines like Esquire. By 1993, Inside Flyer had 90,000 readers. Two years later, Petersen took the community online as FlyerTalk.

And this:

For some, the game has evolved from a wonkish pastime into an ends-justified obsession with beating the airlines — less Rain Man, more Ocean’s Eleven. While the game’s traditional methods remain technically legal, these Hobbyists — imagine them as the Deep Web of the Hobby — use tactics that routinely violate airline terms and conditions, techniques that can span a gradient from clever and harmless to borderline theft. (Schlappig concedes that he pushes the rules but insists he is careful not to break any laws.) Take the practice of “hidden-city ticketing” — booking your layover as your final destination, like buying a ticket from Point A to Point C, then sneaking away at B — or “fuel dumping,” a booking technique that confuses the price algorithm to deduct the cost of fuel from a ticket, often at an enormous discount.

I decided to read the Flyertalk thread that talks about the article and it was painful. A lot of personal attacks aimed at Ben and his story made it hard to read. I’ve only met Ben a few times and he’s a nice guy, I don’t agree with everything he writes or the idea of pushing credit cards on readers to receive the sign-up bonus, but I am a little jealous that he gets to fly around to really cool places and do it in premium cabins and makes a living from it. I think anyone who is a frequent flier and says they aren’t jealous of some of Ben’s travels is lying to themselves.

For me, doing a full time schedule of around the world travel, even in premium cabins, sounds good on the surface but is something I would probably really struggle with. I like having somewhere to come back to, a base of operations. But I would definitely love to fly premium cabins to exoctic locales more than I do currently.

United Pilot Disposes of Live Ammunition in Toilet

You can’t make this stuff up. From Aviation Herald:

A source had told The Aviation Herald that the aircraft was enroute, when the captain discovered that he was still carrying ammunition consisting of 10 bullets in his luggage, the ammunition not being permitted to be taken into Germany. The captain therefore decided to get rid of the ammunition and disposed of the ammunication into a waste bin. “Unfortunately” a passenger lost her ring in flight, the flight attendants assisted in the search for the lost ring and also checked the waste bins. A flight attendant thus discovered the bullets, dutifully brought and reported the bullets to the captain, who now decided to ultimately get rid of the bullets and dumped them down the toilet. Later the flight attendant inquired again about the bullets, the captain realized that she would file a report, explained the situation to her and informed ground.

Just poor choices all around from the pilot. He could have saved everyone a lot of headaches had he just reported the bullets initially and paid the fine when he arrived in Germany.

I needed to buy a last minute ticket for work recently and Delta was the only option left that had seats and a schedule that matched what I needed. After I bought the ticket, Delta gave me an option to buy-up to first class. The price was right and I had wanted to compare what I had read about Delta’s first class product being great to what I had experienced on United, so I purchased the buy-up.

Time to examine the hype.

The App

For work travel, I rely heavily on airline iPhone apps to keep me updated and to do basic maintenance on my reservations (change seats, make reservations, etc.). The first thing I noticed using the Delta app is just how clunky it is. Sure, picking a seat is relatively easy, but making a booking in the app is a frustrating process. The app does validation before you submit a flight search and will pop up an error if your origin and destination are the same. So, if you need to reverse your search, you have to put in a third airport code to be able to switch the origin and destination without error. There are quirks like this throughout the app. It is the same thing for flight information as well. Some items are clickable and lead to more info, but there is no visual way to know that an item has that feature without clicking on everything so you end up sitting there, hitting random parts of the screen, looking for what you want. Compared to United’s app, which is powerful, yet relatively easy to use, Delta’s app seems to need some serious work.

The Trip

Before traveling, I had added my known traveler number to the reservation and on check-in received PreCheck. Knowing I have PreCheck allows me to show up at Portland’s airport about an hour before boarding and have plenty of time to grab a cup of coffee and do some work before getting on the plane, so that’s what I did. I walked up to the security area, opened up my mobile boarding pass and saw an orange icon indicating that my flight had been delayed. Knowing that an agent would be able to help me at the gate, I proceeded through security.

Making it through security, I look at the delay one more time and realize I will miss my connection because of it. I proceed to the gate and get in line to speak with the gate agent. An agent comes over and asks if I need something, to which I reply, “I believe my flight to Minneapolis is delayed and I will miss my connection”. She says, “I am closing out this flight and I’m not working that flight, walk down the hall and there are phones where you can call Delta”. Ok, that makes sense, so I walk down the hall and sure enough, there are phones. They’re all taken by people trying to fix their plans as well but there is a sign with a 1800 number so I dial it. The prompts ask if I am in the airport and when I reply yes, the wait is no more than 2 minutes to speak to an agent. The agent tells me that she cannot find any options on the same day but that she will see if she can find something on another carrier. A few minutes later she tells me my only options are to spend the night in Minneapolis or take a redeye via Atlanta. I ask if the hotel in Minneapolis will be covered to which she replies, “you would need to ask the agents in Minneapolis”. I am not willing to take that risk so I ask her to explore the American Airlines flight to Chicago that is showing an F seat for sale. She can’t find it. I run to the AA gate to see if they will simply sell me the seat (I’d refund the Delta ticket). Nope, they just cleared a standby into it. Sorry.

Back on the phone I accept the redeye option, simply because I was not comfortable spending the night and trusting that Delta would take care of the hotel (there was weather that night in the area). Well, time to head home because I have another nine hours before my new flight leaves. Here is what I originally booked (red), versus what I was rebooked on (navy).

Nine hours later I was back at the airport for the red-eye to Atlanta. I had hoped to review the meal options on the original flight but the delay squashed that idea. Now my goal was to get as much sleep as possible but I knew that would be a challenge. Onboard there was a bottle of water, a small pillow, and a blanket at the seat. The seat pitch was pretty standard but what I noticed was the lack of an adjustable headrest on the seat. It seems that most of the Delta domestic fleet is the same, missing the adjustable headrests that you can manipulate to rest your head to one side. The flight attendants come by asking if passengers would like anything before we take off. I order a whiskey and water, a nightcap if you will, and it’s quickly delivered.

The safety video comes on. It’s cute but man is it lengthy.

The pilot makes a quick announcement that he won’t be making any other announcements until our descent into Atlanta and that our flight time will be four hours (OUCH!). A few minutes later and we’re in the air. I put on an eye mask and attempt to get some sleep, but, to be honest, it didn’t go well. The seats are comfortable but there is not a lot in the way of lumbar support and without an adjustable headrest I can’t really lean one direction. The entire flight was spent with me readjusting to try and get comfortable and I ended up getting maybe 1-2 hours of sleep.

We landed in Atlanta on time and that gave me about 35 minutes to use the restroom, brush my teeth and make my connection. I walked from concourse A to concourse B and made it to the gate right as they were starting to board. I looked for a coffee shop nearby but there was nothing, the upside being I could try the much touted Starbucks coffee that Delta serves in first.

Legroom in First on the Airbus A320.

Onboard the flight attendant greeted everyone with a friendly “Good morning!”. She then came around first class asking if we would like anything before takeoff. A few minutes later and I was tasting the coffee. It wasn’t bad. Not great, but drinkable, which says a lot about airplane coffee. The taste was much more of what you expect in coffee and less of that metallic and chalky taste you sometimes get from airplane coffee. I was in the bulkhead seat on the Airbus A320 and found the legroom to be fine. There is a little cut out for your feet and that makes it comfortable. If I was a little taller the legroom would have been tight.

There was no overhead entertainment so the safety demo was done by the flight attendants and it went by much faster than the video shown above. A short time later we were in the air.

It was a quick flight to Milwaukee so the only service was beverages and a snack basket (I had a banana and some Biscoff cookies, if you were wondering). I tried to use the Delta Studio streaming entertainment but could not get it to work. Every time I connected I received a screen like below and could never get to the list of shows.

Failed attempt to try the streaming entertainment

An hour and half later and we were on the ground in Milwaukee and I was on my way to work.

Conclusion

Overall, there was nothing about the experience that blew me away making me want to switch permanently to Delta. The boarding process was just as chaotic as United’s, with people blocking the boarding lanes 15 or 20 minutes before the flight is scheduled to board.

Boarding. Just as chaotic as on other carriers.

The way the delayed flight was handled left a lot to be desired. I didn’t want to go into details above but the agent was not proactive in finding other options and I had to suggest a number of things. She also insisted on putting me in coach until I pushed back about being in first class. I am not an elite on Delta so I wonder if that had something to do with it.

For flying a relatively old fleet, the Airbus I was on is 23.3 years old, Delta does a pretty good job keeping the interiors clean and well kept. I didn’t see any panels loosely hanging or build ups of dirt and grime anywhere. The lavatories on both flights were the cleanest I have ever seen on an airplane.

I was happy to finally get to try Delta on a mainline flight in first. I am planning a few more flights on them since some of their schedules to certain destinations are better than what United offers. I am also flying Alaska back to Seattle at the end of this week and hope write a review about their new E-175 service as soon as I can.

I think it is pretty obvious that I am airplane nerd, an “avgeek” if you will. My love of planes and flying has been present since I was a little kid. Only in the last 10 to 15 years has my love of commercial aviation come to life, most of my love when I was younger was focused on military aircraft, especially those from the World War II era. Recently, when I visited the Polish Aviation Museum in Krakow, Poland, that love of military aircraft was reignited.

Yak-23
A number of my friends and I were in town and we thought we would plan a tour of the Polish Aviation Museum so I arranged a van to drive us to the location due to it be a little hard to reach via public transit. I was also able to arrange an English speaking guide for a small fee. He ended up being a fantastic guide and he seemed to love the enthusiasm we all had for aviation and thought it was awesome we came to their museum.

The museum is on the site of an old airfield and they have hold an airshow every year by reopening closed taxiways and runways just for the occasion. The indoor exhibits are fascinating with tons of general information about different conflicts as well as Poland’s aviation history. There is even an entire display of aircraft engines, including one of the largest ever built. But, the real gem is the outdoor aircraft display. At first it looks like there are only a few aircraft, but you turn a corner and you see that there are tons of Russian, American, French, and Swedish aircraft scattered all over the property. There is even a “MiG Alley”, a long walkway containing every MiG aircraft produced, including most variants.

If you have a love of aviation and are in Poland or even a country nearby, make a detour to the Polish Aviation Museum. It really is an aviation geek paradise. Enough words, I will let the pictures do the talking. I have a ton of photos to upload and will update this post as I get them uploaded.

MiG-15

MiG Alley

MiG Alley

 

Soviet Missile Systems

MiG-21

Su-17

“Kwaj”

In World War II, a short, brutal battle was fought between Japanese and American forces for this coral atoll. Before that, the Japanese used the island as an outpost, forcing Korean prisoners and Marshallese natives to do manual labor building up the island’s fortifications. Today the islands exist as a listening station, the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, and home to a large number of native Marshallese. The story of how me, a group of my friends, and 100 other passengers on United 154 ended up on the atoll is nowhere as historically significant or important as the stories of those who fought and died here, but it is a brief look into a part of the world that very few people ever get the chance to see.

3.7.2014

The purpose of the trip was to fly the United “Island Hopper”. The route takes passengers from Honolulu to Guam via stops on the islands of Majuro, Kwajalein, Kosrae, Pohnpei, and Chuuk and takes approximately 14 hours to complete. Keep that duration handy, we’ll be referencing it later. The actual final destination for the trip was Hong Kong and we had a dinner with an old friend planned as well as a plan for some sightseeing on Sunday. The red lines on the map below are what we were supposed to fly. The green lines are where the trip diverged and what I actually ended up flying.

Great Circle Map to Hong Kong

Island Hopper at Honolulu
Leaving Honolulu was uneventful. After the excitement of having nine boarding passes printed I grabbed some snacks, knowing that there was only a breakfast served on the way to Majuro. Our flight departed for the 4.5 hour journey to our first stop a little late due to problems with baggage equipment at the Honolulu Airport. Finally underway, passengers started getting comfortable, or trying to do so. A light breakfast of french toast or eggs was served and before we knew it, we were on the ground at Majuro.

meandmajuro.jpg

Walking off the plane the humidity hit me like a wet mop. The temperature difference immediately caused my camera lens to fog up. I really wanted some pictures from each island so I took a few photos with my phone and made my way into the small terminal. It was a tight fit in the terminal and the humidity made it even less comfortable. We recorded a quick update for the Dots, Lines, and Destinations podcast and convinced Seth to take off the Burger King crown he had put on in Honolulu. A short time later the gate agent was calling for boarding and before I knew it, we were taxiing to the end of the runway. The pilot announced that he would be making a low pass over the atoll for those of us on the left side of the plane. As we departed Majuro faces were pinned to the windows; it was not a typical departure pattern. We flew low and slow. The pilots recognized that this trip is a special one and wanted to give passengers the opportunity to see the atolls closer than normal. I was in an aisle seat but craned my neck to get a gorgeous view of Majuro and the surrounding atoll.

Majuro Airport Terminal

It was scheduled to be a quick trip from Majuro to Kwajalein, right around 45 minutes. I had been chatting with the gentleman in the middle seat since we left Honolulu and learned that he worked on Kwajalein. Our discussion continued on this segment and he revealed that he worked on an island separate from the main one and it required another flight once we arrived at our next stop. He also told me that on arrival all bags are collected, opened, and screened by the security team for the island. His tone was that it was a bit of a hassle but one that everyone knew was necessary.

The Event

As we started our descent into Kwajalein the captain came over the PA and announced that due to a problem with “the flaps” we would need to make a faster than normal approach into the island and that it would be treated as an emergency situation. The crew reviewed the emergency evacuation procedures and the bracing position with the entire aircraft and then made sure everyone in the exit rows were comfortable with opening the emergency doors and guiding people out of the plane. While the briefing was calm, you could sense the urgency in the crew’s instructions. My role was to block the aisle so that the person opening the exit were not rushed by people trying to exit the plane. After the exit was opened, I was to leave the airplane and help other passengers escape.

The aircraft approached Kwajalein and I felt the landing gear lower. We were definitely coming in much faster than normal and as soon as the wheels touched the ground, the brakes were heavily applied. The airplane stopped short of the end of the runway and a sigh of relief filled the cabin. We quickly taxied to the tarmac and announcements were made about the procedures at Kwajalein. No pictures. No leaving the aircraft. We will take a look at the problem and be back with you soon.

As you know, I’m a regular flyer and I am comfortable with turbulence and pilots announcing that they are dealing with issues but this problem and the landing made me tense. Maybe it was because I knew what the problem meant or maybe because I knew how long the runway is at Kwajalein, but I had a slight tinge of nervousness from the time the captain made the announcement until we had come to a full stop.

Sequestered

After a number of attempts by the on-board mechanic (did I mention the Island Hopper carries a mechanic?) to fix the problem, it was found that a new part would need to be flown in. The actual issue was a proximity sensor on the leading edge slats that gives information on how far the slats are extended. Without that information only a visual confirmation of the slat position was possible and that is not adequate as far as the FAA is concerned.

Since it was evident our time on Kwajalein would be longer than originally expected, the crew arranged for us to be moved inside the terminal building. We were asked to take everything off of the plane and to go straight to the terminal. A few of us wandered off the path from the plane to the terminal and were quickly told to get back on it.

The inside of the terminal was crowded and not really setup for a plane load of people. But, there was wifi. Not the fastest and certainly not the most stable, but it was there. I sent off a quick number of e-mails and iMessages letting people know where I was and then did the obligatory Foursquare check-in. I mean, how many times does one get to check-in to a U.S. missile base? Every now and then a pilot would give us an update on the progress in fixing the plane. With every visit my belief that we would be stuck in Kwajalein for the night grew stronger. Around 3pm local time the announcement was made that there was no way to fix the airplane and that a rescue flight was being organized in Guam. There was no exact timeline for when this flight would reach us or if the United corporate office would opt to put us up on the island for the night rather than send the plane in the dark. All of this was met with blank stares. I said a little prayer that the rescue flight would be the option they went with and I am pretty sure there were others saying the exact same prayer.

Using the WiFi in the Kwajalein airport terminal

Using the WiFi in the Kwajalein airport terminal

Then the decision was made to move us to the ferry building because it was more secure. Some passengers inquired as to whether this new location had internet access and were quickly told “no”. This caused a small uproar because people were using the wifi to try and figure out flights and make contact with family members. But the pleas to stay in the terminal were met with “please board the bus”. We packed into the bus (which only held 32 people) over four trips and realized exactly where we were on the short drive to the ferry building. The island was beautiful. We passed a number of beaches and different living facilities. We passed a pool where kids were being given swimming lessons and saw a number of bicycles on the roads. Come to find out, bikes are the primary form of transportation on the main island.

The ferry terminal was a little more open than the airport’s building but had a lot less seating. In addition to the indoor area we were allowed to go back and forth to what I call “the yard”; A fenced in area, much like its namesake at prisons. Between talking with friends and other passengers, walking around outside, and eating, there was not much else to do but wait. And wait. And wait. Eventually a large number of pizzas and water were delivered and we all had the opportunity for multiples of each.

Kwajalein Ferry Terminal

Kwajalein ferry terminal conditions.

I had noticed that the crew from our flight had not come along with us but a pilot (Ryan) and two of the flight attendants did show up when the pizzas arrived and told us that they were getting their rest at the Kwajalein hotel, a facility that is off limits to those who do not have business on the island, aka, those of us on the flight. I had actually asked the lady sitting in the window seat on my row about what she thought would happen if we had to spend the night on Kwajalein. Her response was that they would probably ferry us over to another island called Ebeye where there is a small hotel. She then went into detail about Ebeye and gave me a piece of advice if we were sent there to spend the night, “pick up some small stones and carry them in your pockets, it will help to distract the stray dogs”. My mind filled with images of what this other island looked like. And a little bit of research shows that Ebeye is an example of what happens when money and power mix in way too strong of proportions. During the handing out of pizza and water an announcement was made that United had decided to send the rescue flight and that it was expected to land sometime near 1 or 2am.

Rescued

Around midnight local Kwajalein time we were told that we would be bused back to the airport. It is amazing how quickly people jumped up to try and get back on the bus first, even though we knew we would have to wait for multiple trips before we were boarded on the rescue plane. A short bus ride back in the dark and we were standing in a “check-in” line where we gave our names and boarding passes and checked off a list. We then went through a security screening. No PreCheck here. In fact, I had to surrender the water that had actually been handed out to us by the same people conducting the security check. As I threw my bottle in the trash one of the security officers looked at me and just shook his head, “I know, I know”. The best part was, after taking a seat and using the wifi to send out another quick update to loved ones, the same security officers brought a new case of the exact same water. The water did taste a little funny and the more I think about it, the more I think they were just getting rid of expiring rations.

Another hour in the terminal and a quick check of FlightAware showed that our chariot off this island was close. I strolled outside to watch the rescue flight land. There was a light, intermittent rain but in the distance I saw the landing lights of the 737-800 and shortly thereafter I watched it make a perfect landing. A quick refuel and boarding announcements were made, yep, they even boarded by group numbers. We were finally on our way to Kosrae.

Sort Of…

By this point in the trip I was teetering on delirium. I had not slept much since we started the Island Hopper flights and had only slept a few hours the night before in Honolulu. You can hear this listening to the episode we recorded while at different stops along the way. Near the end I am close to slurring my speech and not making a lot of sense. I even sent text messages to my wife that were incomprehensible, to the point that she asked me about them later.

On the flight to Kosrae I started to doze off in little cat naps since I could not get comfortable. During one of those cat naps I was startled awake when the pilot came on with an announcement. “Not to alarm anyone but we are beginning our descent into Kosrae. The runway here is shorter than most so the landing will be much more rough than you’re used to, just wanted you all to know.”

I am actually glad he gave the warning, it gave me time to watch the approach. We made a sweeping left turn and out of the window I saw runway lights. It was strange because the horizon sank into the ocean, there was no reference point for what was up or down. Seeing those runway lights made what I was (or wasn’t) seeing outside make a bit more sense. As we lined up for the final approach it felt as though we were landing into the abyss. The lack of light made it hard to distinguish the water from the sky and it wasn’t until we were just above the runway that I could tell how high we were.

The pilot was right, it was a hard landing with a lot of braking. We turned around at the end of the runway and taxied back to the terminal. Passengers who’s destination was Kosrae seemed relieved to have finally arrived as they left the airplane. We sat. And sat. And did some more sitting before they announced that they would be doing the security search of the ABC (port) side of the airplane. Those of us seated on that side of the airplane were asked to collect our bags and move to the DEF (starboard) side of the plane as security personnel searched the seats and looked for unclaimed luggage. After they were done we put our luggage back up and sat back down. It felt like a really long time but really it was only an hour and 20 minutes or so. Eventually the pilot made an announcement. The flight would be skipping Pohnpei and Chuuk. Due to the FAA having a waiver in place for the Island Hopper and our particular flight not being covered by that waiver since it was a rescue flight, our next stop would be Guam. The pilot was rather blunt, everyone was welcome to continue on to Guam but they would be stuck in Guam for a full day until the evening Island Hopper left. Then the security team at Kosrae announced that because we were going to Guam a full security check of the plane would need to be performed. They repeated what they did earlier, everyone from the ABC seats grabbed their luggage and moved to the DEF seats. Then, they repeated the steps on the DEF side. For a bunch of people who were really sleep deprived, it was really confusing.

To top it all off, the pilot made one last announcement, if the passengers that were on their way to Pohnpei or Chuuk got off on Kosrae, the plane that broke in Kwajalein would be stopping to pick them up and finish the Island Hopper since it had the original clearance. It would arrive in Kosrae around 4am and everyone who wanted to go to the last two islands before Guam would probably want to disembark here.

There was a bit of a ruckus as passengers tried to decide what to do. People started grabbing their luggage and making a b-line for the door. Some passengers felt very uneasy about getting off the plane and possibly being stuck on Kosrae should something occur (again) to the original plane we were on. After about twenty minutes it seemed that everyone who wanted to travel to the last two islands before Guam had left the airplane. Before Kosrae I actually had a small bit of hope that we would make it to Guam in time for me to catch the flight to Honolulu and then onward to Houston. I had given up on Hong Kong, I would have to wait an extra day to get there now and by that point it would be time to fly home. But now my possible connection to Honolulu was quickly becoming impossible. After two hours on Kosrae we were finally in the air again and headed for Guam.

I fell asleep almost immediately after takeoff. My body had finally had enough and just wanted to shut down for a little while. Next thing I knew the flight attendants were prepping the cabin for arrival and I was lucky to get a nice view of the sunrise over the island of Guam. A smooth landing and quick taxi to the gate and we were finally in Guam, 27 hours after leaving Honolulu.

Sunrise Approaching Guam

Sunrise Approaching Guam

Guam

I walked very quickly to customs where the agent asked where I came from. Honolulu? Well, kind of. I got off in Majuro and Kwajalein and we landed in Kosrae. Blank stare. “Ok, have a good stay.” Looking at my watch I knew I was going to miss the flight back to Honolulu.

Welcome to Guam

Welcome to Guam

I ran upstairs to the check-in area and gave a quick explanation to the agent of what had happened. At first she seemed to understand what I and my three friends wanted. A flight back home and to declare the trip a “trip-in-vain” since we never made it to Hong Kong. After having our passports and boarding passes for close to two hours and flights being removed from our itineraries, we got on the phone and were successful in getting an agent to get us rebooked. Kind of. She was able to rebook me but dropped flights for two of my friends. We were all getting frustrated but after four hours at that ticket counter we had a mostly usable rebooking. One of our friends was on standby to get to Tokyo, yet he had a confirmed seat from Tokyo back to the United States.

Seth calling the United 1K desk

Seth calling the mainland to get rebooked. We also know how much he weighs now.

We used the Priority Pass lounge at Guam for a quick shower and by then it was almost time to board the flight to Tokyo. We had a good crew on the flight north and it was actually one of the better meals I have had on United in a long time. There were artichoke hearts and hearts of palm in the salad. On such flights in the U.S. I am lucky to get a tomato in the salad. We were on time into Tokyo and made our way through the transit security checkpoint.

Meal on Guam to Tokyo

That meal I was raving about on the Guam to Tokyo flight

My flight to Houston was leaving shortly after our arrival into Tokyo so I gave my meal vouchers to my friends and I hear they enjoyed a nice meal of sushi.

The flight from Tokyo to Houston was uneventful. I was able to get a solid 9-10 hours of sleep and my body and mind were thankful. On arrival into Houston the Global Entry line was empty and I was home 30 minutes after landing and more than 72 hours after this whole thing started.

Thoughts

The crew on the original Island Hopper was fantastic and they did everything they could to try and make the situation as bearable as possible. The contract staff on Kwajalein did an excellent job as well, making sure that we were well fed and hydrated. They did the best they could with the conditions they were presented.

United on a whole did a rather poor job of handling all of the missed connections. In fact, the ground staff at Guam were unaware that our flight was so delayed. The agents at Guam were a mix of really helpful and trying and completely useless. It shouldn’t take four hours to rebook four people, ever. There was a flight to Tokyo that had cancelled and the agents were able to help every single one of those passengers in the time it took to process the four of us. That is ridiculous.

The agent issues aside, the trip was an experience. Sure it was a really tedious and grueling delay on Kwajalein but I am glad that my friends were there to experience it together. I can’t imagine going through the same delays and uncertainty without friends there to make the time pass. We even recorded a podcast during the Island Hopper, and there is a bit of a premonition about the possibility of a mechanical problem. The audio quality suffers a little as we were recording in a number of different locations, but it is fun to listen to the progression and hear just how delirious we are by the end of it.

If you are wanting to read about a successful Island Hopper journey, this trip report is a great place to start.

On Sunday I had the privilege of being a part of United’s first revenue service of their newly delivered Boeing 787. The flight was scheduled between the Houston and Chicago hubs. Work conflicts prevented me from buying a ticket in advance for the flight but I was granted access to the plane before the first flight and to the tarmac for the plane’s first revenue taxi and take-off.

The time that the media had on the plane was fairly short. We were granted 10-15 minutes to walk the aircraft, get pictures, and talk to the crew. With people with video cameras, still cameras, etc. walking around aircraft becomes a challenge, but everyone tried to make it work as best as they could.

United 787 Forward BusinessFirst Cabin

United has opted to go with a galley at the main entrance to the aircraft. Some flyers have complained that the airline did not choose something like a bar or open space in this area but I do not see the point of that when the added benefit of a mid-cabin galley is faster service for passengers while in-flight. After making a right turn when boarding you enter the 2nd of the two BusinessFirst cabins. The aisles feel a bit taller due to the way the overhead bins are laid out and it creates the illusion that the cabin is bigger than it is. The BusinessFirst seats are the same ones that Continental installed on the Boeing 757-200s and the Boeing 777-200s before the merger and in the 787 they are laid out in a 2-2-2 configuration.

Walking into the Economy Plus and Economy cabin the seating configuration changes to 3-3-3 with Economy Plus having extra seat pitch (legroom). The bulkhead seats (row 16) seem to be the best if you’re wanting a little extra legroom with the added benefit of no one reclining into you. One thing I noticed is that all seats in coach have a power port, which matches United’s description of the cabin, but not its seat map.

The in-flight entertainment is of the new Panasonic variety and features a slightly updated interface and a new in-flight map. There is also a USB port available for you to use to charge your USB devices.

United 787 Economy Seat

You will also notice something missing in the above photo… A window shade. The 787 is outfitted with electrochromic windows or “smart glass”. As you use the button below the window, an electric charge is applied to the glass, changing its opacity, eventually becoming a still see-through, but darkened window shade. Since the flight I have read a few posts that say the windows do not get dark enough and sun still significantly comes through the shading. You can see what the smart glass looks like on Dan Frommer’s report from the JAL 787.

United 787 Economy Cabin

Some people are probably interested in the exit row on the 787 and whether or not it is worth sitting in. I took a photo of the exit row and as expected, it has a ton of legroom. The window seat does have the emergency slide slightly in front of it but it does not protrude too far into the space of that passenger. The one downside is the proximity to the lavatory. I assume this area will be used as a congregation space for people waiting to use the restroom. Not great when wanting to get some sleep.

United 787 Emergency Exit

Before leaving the aircraft I paid a visit to the rear galley, the cockpit, and the pilot rest area (I hope to post all of these images soon). The cockpit is impressive, especially when you notice that it lacks a lot of the analog displays (altimeter, attitude, airspeed, etc.) that we have grown accustomed to seeing. The heads-up displays were not pulled down but the idea of a commercial pilot being able to keep his focus forward while monitoring instruments, much like a fighter pilot, is comforting. With the 787 the pilot environment has become more about situation awareness and less about removing focus to check instruments.

United 787 Cockpit

After touring the aircraft, Jeff Smisek gave a brief speech about not only being the world’s largest airline but striving to be the world’s best and how he sees the 787 helping to bring that to fruition. He and the flight crew that would be operating the first revenue flight then cut a ceremonial ribbon and the flight began boarding.

United's Jeff Smisek Talking about the 787

At this point, a few of us were given tarmac access to photograph the 787 as it pushed back from the gate, taxied, and took-off. My heart always beats a little faster when I am on the tarmac. There is a lot going on around you and a whole lot of big jets being prepared for their journey. All of that plus the smell of aviation fuel equals an excited me.

The 787 was loaded up, the doors were closed, and the plane was pushed back from the gate right on schedule. I noticed something intriguing and delightful as the engines were started; The sound. Instead of the slightly higher pitch whine that is common with jet engines, the 787 had more of a low pitched hum, making it much quieter than I expected. I knew that Boeing had made strides in making the engine exhaust quieter, but I didn’t expect it to be that significant. I am guessing this is noticeable inside the aircraft as well. The 787 then performed a short taxi to runway 9 at IAH, took off, and made a graceful left turn to head to north to Chicago. Again, the sound during the engine run-up and take-off was much quieter than what I was expecting.

The United 787 Ready to Taxi

All in all it was a very fun experience and I look forward to having my first ride aboard the 787 sometime in the near future. United is currently running the aircraft between Houston, Chicago, and Los Angeles. As the other 787s are delivered, I would expect to see service to Newark as well. If you have flown the 787 I would love to hear what you thought of the flight, if you noticed any impact from the humidified and 6k foot pressurized cabin, or any other thoughts about your trip.