Ahhh, college visits returning yet again. Round 2 has officially begun.
This time, we'll be visiting Duke University and UNC (University of North Carolina) Chapel Hill over a weekend where I wasn't as busy as usual. We had a United voucher that was to expire soon, so obviously, we would be flying United again on this short weekend trip. United (along with jetBlue) are the only airlines that offer mainline jet service from the greater New York area to Raleigh; furthermore, United also had more convenient timing for us, so the choice to fly UA was pretty much a no-brainer, despite my previous experience with their customer service. To be honest, the flight time was just over 1 hour each way, so it wouldn't matter that much this time.
Before the Flight
After school ended at around 5:30 PM, we drove from Manhattan to Newark - that involved crossing the George Washington bridge. As is usual for rush hour, the traffic going across the bridge and onto the New Jersey turnpike was absolutely horrendous. Furthermore, my dad also took the wrong exit on the highway, adding about 20 more minutes to our total travel time. However, our flight was delayed, and wasn't scheduled to depart until around 10 PM, which meant that we had plenty of time to get to the airport.
Exterior of Terminal C (Ground Level).
We parked our car at a lot about two miles from the airport, and a five-minute shuttle ride brought us to the ground floor of Terminal C, where the majority of mainline United flights departs. Other than departures to European destinations, United surprisingly does not have many domestic flights departing at this time as compared to earlier during the day. As such, Terminal C's economy check in area was MUCH less crowded compared to previous visits.
Economy check-in area.
Since we had no checked luggage, all we had to do was obtain our boarding passes, a fairly painless process. The security check, though.... not so much. A lot of European flights were departing in a relatively short timeframe between 8 and 9, so the TSA checkpoint was understandably pretty crowded. Despite the crowd, however, we got through in about 20 minutes.
For some reason or the other, both my laptop and my dad's laptop were thoroughly screened, and any bag with a laptop in it was sent to a secondary screening line, where an officer (who seemed to work as slow as possible) took out each laptop and spent a good 5 minutes looking at each one. I honestly have no idea why this was necessary (especially since TSA does not seem to be very good at detecting threats) but I have personally never experienced it before in a non-PreCheck security queue.
This flight would be departing from Concourse C1, the largest of the three concourses of Terminal C. Personally, I prefer to have a flight departing here, because the food options at this end of the terminal are far more superior compared to the other options elsewhere in the terminal. After determining that our flight would be departing out of gate C86 (a regional jet gate at the end of the concourse that United somehow manages to squeeze 737s and A320s into), my dad and I headed to the Global Bazaar, a series of restaurants linked together in the very center of Concourse C1. It offered amazing options such as a ramen bar, sushi fresh from the Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo (flown in on United's daily NRT-EWR service), as well as standard American BBQ options. I opted for some Chinese stir fry, seeking a quick meal to eat at the gate.
Entrance to Concourse C1.
Before I continue, let me just say that although United isn't an airline known for providing world-class service, they really do know how to transform lackluster airport terminals. After they partner with airport management firm OTG, United began brining new restaurants, stores, as well as individual iPad stands to Terminal C. Furthermore, in the past year, many designs aspects of the airport have been tweaked to possess more of the Polaris aesthetic. Although obviously the airport does not stand a chance to HKIA or Singapore Changi (as well as the fact that it is quite far to NYC), it's already far better than most airport terminals around the country.
Walking down one of the "branches" of Concourse C1.
One of the many iPads dispersed throughout the terminal.
A corner of the Global Bazaar.
Walking towards gate C86.
After we finished eating, we walked over to the gate, where the aircraft (N66848, former March of Dimes aircraft) was on final approach from Orlando. It didn't take a lot of waiting, however, for the aircraft to show up at the gate, about 30 minutes late. Interestingly, the ground crew did not clean the aircraft, instead opting to cater and board our flight immediately after the last few passengers from the Orlando flight disembarked.
Given the small gate area intended for regional jets, boarding was somewhat of a mess, with a rude gate agent yelling at everyone who boarded out of turn. I was in group 3, so I had a fair share of waiting before it was finally my turn to board. Not that I minded though; I genuinely felt bad for those who were in group 5 but decided to board with group 1 instead (yes there were quite a few of those people on that flight)
I wonder what happened to those lights on the left...
April 27, 2018
United Airlines Flight # 623
EWR (Newark-Liberty International) - RDU (Raleigh/Durham International)
Boeing 737-924/ER (N66848)
Economy, seat 14F
Flight Time 01:04
As I mentioned before, the aircraft operating our flight would be N66848, a 2015-vintage Boeing 737-900ER equipped with the Sky Interior, and United's B/E Aerospace Pinnacle economy seats. This aircraft was previously painted in the "March of Dimes" livery, which was removed in January 2018. Unfortunately, 737-900ERs delivered from 2013 onwards are fitted with Personal Device Entertainment, which featured streaming video content from the onboard service to mobile devices, instead of DirecTV screens mounted on the seatback. I highly dislike these types of entertainment systems, a reason which will be explained in depth later.
Boeing's Sky Interior really makes the 737 a lot more present. Compared to previous 737s without the sky interior, this aircraft felt a lot brighter and warmer inside, whereas 737s not equipped with the Sky Interior often give off a dreary atmosphere. I proceeded to seat 14F, the second row of "Economy Minus" and just forward of the leading edge of the wing.
B/E Aerospace Pinnacle seats in economy.
Once I sat down, I was pleasantly surprised by the comfort of this seat. Although some people have complained that the B/E Aerospace Pinnacle lacks some padding and is thus too firm, I found them fairly comfortable for the 2-3 hour hops these aircraft are typically deployed on out of Newark. An even more surprising thing that I noticed was that although these seats are pitched the same as United's 737-800s and 900ERs with DirecTV (30 or 31 inches I forgot), the Sky Interior 737-900ERs have about two inches more legroom. I could sit at the front edge of the seat, and my knees would barely be touching the seat in front of me (I'm 5'9" for reference). The reason is because, on the DirecTV equipped aircraft, an apparatus that likely contains stuff relevant to the Live TV system's operation juts out from where the seatback pocket is supposed to be, thus severely reducing legroom. Here, however, I had a fairly large seatback pocket to store my items in. It's a nice consolation prize over the lack of seatback entertainment.
Legroom shot. Even with a full-sized backpack under the seat in front of me, it felt quite spacious.
Boarding was completed in a relatively short 20 minutes, and we soon pushed back after the door closed. The flight attendants performed a manual safety demonstration, and as the mood lighting turned on to a sky blue hue, we started up both CFM56-7B engines and began taxiing to the threshold of runway 4L. At this time, Newark was understandably pretty empty, so when we got to the runway, we held for an aircraft exiting the runway in front of us and began a powerful takeoff roll. Despite the fact that the 737-900ER is known to have terrible takeoff performance, we lifted off the runway in no time likely due to the light fuel load onboard this flight.
Taxiing toward runway 4L. Note the IcelandAir 737 MAX 8 parked at Terminal B.
Taking off over the industrial areas of Newark heading north.
After taking off to the north, Manhattan was visible for a couple of seconds from my side of the aircraft, then immediately disappeared as we made a sweeping 180-degree turn to the south as part of the NEWARK TWO departure sequence.
After we climbed through 10,000 feet, the wifi was activated, and I proceeded to connect to the Personal Device Entertainment (PDE) portal. While United is known for its fairly extensive selection of films and TV shows on internationally configured aircraft, the exact opposite was true for its PDE-enabled domestic aircraft. The entertainment selection onboard this aircraft was absolutely ridiculous. Now, for a short flight (<2 hours) like this one it doesn't really matter, but for longer flights that this aircraft is deployed on, I can see that being a problem for many passengers. There were less than 15 movie titles, and there were only a grand total of TWO TV shows, each with only one episode. That is a very limited amount of content for an airline with global reach like United. Not going to complain too much though, since this problem is due to the type of server installed on the 737s, which cannot support much content. The domestic 777s and 737 MAX aircraft feature significantly more extensive selections.
The majority of the movie selection.
United 737 PDE TV Show selection.
Another problem is the lack of a place to put your device when you are watching content. While United has installed tablet holders on its 777-200A and 737 MAX aircraft, all other PDE-enabled aircraft feature the standard B/E Aerospace Pinnacle seat without a tablet holder. That means that you have to put your device on the tray table (or worse, hold it in your own hands), which can cause neck strain on longer flights. I tried looking for nooks and crannies to hold my phone, to no avail. I did notice, however, that with some sort of a flexible case, you can hold some sort of an iPad or large tablet using the seatback literature pocket, which is located at the top of the seat where the seatback entertainment system would usually be located.
Cabin view during snack service.
At this time, the beverage and snack cart reached our row. I opted for the regular apple juice with pretzels, of which the flight attendant graciously served me a full can, and my dad went with two cups of water and pretzels. Everything was going pretty normal at this point until...
United economy class snack service.
I saw a flight attendant in the back pass an AED up towards the front of the Economy Plus section. Oh god, this cannot be good...
Just then, the dreaded announcement was made: "If there are any doctors on board, please make your way up to row 7. This is a medical emergency."
Yet again, someone was having a medical emergency on one of my flights, only this time, the situation looked much more serious. Right away, three passengers got up and started making their way over to row 7, where a woman was complaining of chest pain. I couldn't really see that far up from where I was seated, but I did see that an IV drip was used, with the woman's husband holding it for her. They were able to lay her down for the rest of the flight near the bulkhead, including the landing. This seemed to be quite a serious incident, as bottles of oxygen were retrieved from the lockers, and I overheard the flight attendants discussing whether we had to divert to Washington D.C. (IAD) or not. Despite the stressful situation, I applaud the crew for keeping calm and performing their duties.
Descending into the Raleigh/Durham area.
20 minutes later, the Captain announced that we were beginning our initial descent into the Raleigh/Durham area, and that first responders would be meeting us at the gate. There wasn't much to see out over the Mid-Atlantic states due to it being very dark outside, and the three doctors retreated to their seats just minutes before landing. One interesting thing was that, because the flight attendants were busy attending to the needs of the sick passenger, a passenger from back in economy volunteered to collect trash.
We performed a smooth touchdown on runway 23R about 25 minutes behind schedule. Taxiing to the gate took just 3 minutes, as there were no other scheduled flights at this time. Once we docked at the gate, paramedics boarded and transported the ill woman out of the plane, to the applause of the passengers.
Cabin view upon landing at RDU.
During disembarking, I thanked the crew profusely for their professionalism during a stressful incident. I didn't get to hang around longer though, as it was already midnight, and we need to pick up a rental car to drive to our hotel, 30 minutes away from the airport. RDU's terminal 2 is basically one long concourse with gates spanning the entire length, so it took quite some time to walk down to the baggage claim level as United's gates are located on the south end of the terminal. Once there, we took a shuttle bus to the rental car pick-up center, a short, 5 minute ride from the airport.
Economy class cabin.
United's seating area in RDU's terminal 2.
Walking down Terminal 2's long concourse.
United's 737-900ERs with the Sky Interior are, in terms of comfort, much more superior compared to the DirecTV 737-900ERs and 737-800s. Despite the fact that the seatback entertainment is gone and replaced by an inferior streaming system, the extra legroom is well worth it that unless you are extraordinarily tall, flying economy on this aircraft isn't that bad of an idea at all. Regarding the airport experience, Newark's concourse C1 is extremely well-stocked with many restaurant options, and all are pretty great (though slightly overpriced, as is the case with anything sold in airports), and it is a great domestic airport to fly out of. I cannot say enough nice things about the crew on this flight. They were all friendly, engaging, and professional, especially when an unexpected situation occurred. I thoroughly enjoyed flying with this crew. Although I was not onboard this aircraft long enough to judge its comfort level over a longer stage length, I hope to be on this configuration soon enough to gauge how it is on longer flights. Until then, I have a May trip to Pittsburgh that I will be writing about shortly, and an ultra long haul in August. Until then, stay tuned!