First of all, I'd like to start by wishing everybody a Happy New Year! It's only been two months since Flight Level 360 was founded, and I'm proud to say that it exceeded all of my expectations that I originally had for it. On New Years' Eve, I returned home from a weeklong vacation in Salt Lake City, and will be committed to publishing more on this site over the next week. I had a blast over in SLC, and enjoyed 6 days of pure powder skiing at Alta, Snowbird, and Snowbasin. Honestly, I have a lot to share with you guys, and let's get right into it:
Before the Flight
I woke up at 6:00 AM, despite the fact that the flight wasn't scheduled to depart until 1:15 PM. After leaving our hotel in Ogden, we drove down to the Salt Lake City metro area to return our ski equipment, and proceeded to the Hyatt Place Salt Lake City airport soon after. The Hyatt contains the closest parking lot to a jogging trail running perpendicular to runways 34L and 34R of the airport - a perfect location for planespotters. I'm going to keep this short as I will publish a more comprehensive spotting guide to SLC airport, but if you walk for about 5-10 minutes down the trail, you'll end up at the threshold of runway 34L. From this location, you'll be able to see 34L arrivals fly directly above your head, and will make for some very impressive shots. After waiting for a Delta A330-300 to arrive from Atlanta, we left the location after half an hour of spotting to return our rental car. Thankfully, the rental car return parking lot was located adjacent to the terminals.
A Delta MD-90-30 (N937DN) approaching runway 34L at SLC.
This facility, located to the left of the road for dropping off passengers, is used by rental car companies.
I entered Terminal 1, which hosts all airlines except for Delta, SkyWest, and KLM, and immediately made my way to United's check-in counters. There wasn't that much of a wait for the self-service kiosks, and since I didn't have any bags to check, I printed my boarding pass and went to join my friends. As you might already know, United doesn't have a large presence in Salt Lake City, which is reflected by the fact that there only four check-in counters for customers flying on them.
A view of the line for check-in.
Another view of United's check-in counters.
United's self-service kiosks are located right next to the baggage drop desks.
Unfortunately, I didn't get TSA PreCheck this time, but that really wasn't an issue, because although three security lanes were opened up for the regular security line passengers, only one lane was available for PreCheck passengers. Thus, it took about the same amount of time to go through the regular security line compared to PreCheck. All in all, it took roughly 10 minutes to get past security, at which point I headed upstairs to concourse B, where all United flights depart. Salt Lake City's terminal is very bare-bones - it gives off a very sterile vibe. There were very few restaurants nearby, and it took me over 10 minutes of walking to find a restaurant, where I purchased a bowl of chicken and rice soup. Furthermore, the seating at the gates are adequate for a regional jet, but definitely not enough for the 179 passengers on a 737-900ER. My friends and I eventually found seats at the gate across the hall, though.
The regular security line.
A view down Concourse B.
Some Delta jets at the adjacent concourse C.
Our departure gate, B7.
The very crowded but small gate area.
I looked out the window after hearing the rumble of a 737-900ER decelerating on the runway. Sure enough, it was N39416, arriving from Houston. This former Continental aircraft would do the honors of taking me back home to New York this afternoon.
N39416 pulling into gate B7.
This aircraft was delivered to Continental Airlines in 2008.
Wait a minute... Don't those contrails look like they form the shape of an airplane?
Pretty soon, the call for boarding began, and those who needed pre-boarding as well as Global Services members were invited to board first. Despite the fact that only pre-boarding had begun, tons of families, mostly Chinese tourists with lots of small children, lined up at the front of the boarding gate. Most of them seemed to be MileagePlus credit card holders, as they lined up by the group 2 lane. In fact, the line for group 2 stretched longer than the lines for groups 3, 4, and 5 combined.
I waited at my seat until I saw the last few people of group 2 boarding, at which point I made my way to the front of the line. After gate checking my large carry-on, I headed down the plain white jet bridge to N39416, a 2008 Boeing 737-900ER originally delivered to Continental Airlines. This aircraft does not feature the Sky Interior, but has DirecTV. As this flight would be fairly long, I purchased the DirecTV beforehand for $5.
After passing through the full First Class cabin (featuring the uninspiring black leather seats), I made my way to seat 14F, in the second row of the regular economy class cabin and located just in front of the leading edge of the wing. The seats were the same B/E Aerospace Pinnacle-based seats as found on the carrier's 737-800s. However, as I sat down, I noticed that the inside of the window was covered with a thick layer of condensation. I think the cause of this was that a lot of moisture-rich air got trapped in between the two window panes, causing the water to condense, freeze (while the aircraft is cruising), and re-condense on the two window panes. This severely affected my ability to look out of the window during the flight, as my view was obscured by either water droplets, ice crystals, or both. I should also note that, like my previous flight, the legroom was still horribly bad on this aircraft. It was a tight squeeze just simply trying to get in to my seat, and when I finally got settled, my knees were pressed into the seat in front of me, causing knee pain for the duration of the flight. Also, when I bent over to retrieve something that I dropped under my seat, I banged my head on the seat in front of me. Furthermore, these seats featured an annoying entertainment box under the window seats. Interestingly, I did not notice this problem on the 737-800s.
First Class, featuring wide leather seats and DirecTV.
The cramped economy class cabin.
View of the seatback.
View forward from my seat.
Legroom on United's 737-900ER (economy)... not good...
The clunky entertainment box.
Our neighbor was N14250, a 737-800 from Newark that would continue to Houston later.
We pushed back 5 minutes ahead of schedule once everybody boarded, and the safety video was displayed on the entertainment screens. After that, the number 2 engine (on the starboard side) was started up, flaps were pulled down to 15 degrees, and we began our taxi toward runway 34R. I turned my entertainment system's flight map on, and also activated the ADS-B/GPS device that I built. Unfortunately for this flight, the flight plan was changed right before we departed, and as a result, the route that I plotted was not the same as our actual flight plan with the exception of the approach into Newark.
United's safety video featured its CEO, Oscar Munoz.
Pushing back with the Wasatch range and downtown SLC visible in the background. You can see how dirty the window was in this photo.
A rare American McDonnell Douglas MD-82 (N424AA) parked at concourse A.
We only had to wait for one plane to land before us, and immediately after that, we pulled onto runway 34R and performed a rolling takeoff towards the north. After flying parallel to the Wasatch mountain range, we made a turn due east and seat a course for Newark. The view out of the window would have been very nice, except for the fact that I was sitting on the wrong side of the aircraft for views (the sun was directly above my point of view), and because the view itself was partly obscured due to the condensation between the two panes.
Rolling onto runway 34R.
As you can see, the water droplets on the inside of the window severely obstructed the view.
Initial climb while heading north.
Making a right turn due east.
Not the best time for photography.
For most of the flight, we were heading south of the original flight plan.
As we passed through 10,000 feet AGL, a chime sounded in the cabin, indicating that it was OK for the cabin crew to move about; however, the seatbelt sign itself did not turn off until we passed through 30,000 feet. I reclined my seat immediately after it was OK to do so; however, as you can see in the image below, I did not feel a difference between the upright position and the reclined position. The difference was very small. As for the flight attendants, most of them were fairly indifferent towards the passengers on the flight, with the exception of the purser. He loved to crack jokes with everyone as he made his way down the aisle, and generally seemed to love his job.
I also turned my DirecTV on to the Discovery Channel, which was displaying MythBusters, which as you might already know is my favorite TV show of all time. Unfortunately, my screen seemed to have a problem, so the content was displayed with two annoying gray strips running down the sides. However, this did not cover up any parts of the video, and just made the space where the content was displayed smaller. The person in the seat behind me, who appeared to be a high school student, started kicking my seat for inexplicable reasons until his seatmate in the middle seat asked me if it was OK for me to put my seat upright. I immediately agreed, but I reclined the seat back down again in small increments over a period of 20 minutes.
The drink service didn't begin until almost 45 minutes after takeoff. As this flight departed in the afternoon, we would be served Asian snack mix packets instead of the Stroopwafels that are distributed on morning flights. Like on the previous flight, I requested a Dasani sparkling lime water as well as some orange juice. For this flight, I was given the normal cup of orange juice, but I received the full can of the sparkling water, likely due to it being in low demand with the passengers. The full can was enough for me to pour two-and-a-half cups of the sparkling water. Furthermore, I also requested three packets of the Asian snack mix, which were surprisingly fairly good for economy class snacks. This is where United takes a lead over Delta: You get some unique snacks, such as the stroopwafels, whereas on Delta you simply get the old-fashioned cookies, pretzels, or roasted nuts. That being said, United's own snack offerings can't be compared to what is being offered on jetBlue - you get roasted root vegetable chips, popcorn chips, granola bars, and the like, all available from a walk-up bar located at the front of economy class.
The sun was still shining quite high directly above me, so the images that I took are of fairly low quality.
As we crossed into the Midwest, a large layer of stratus clouds covered much of the landscape.
Here's a better view of what prevented me from taking good pictures during the flight...
After connecting to the wi-fi network, I managed to load some information about the flight. Due to favorable tailwinds, our scheduled flight time was 3 hours and 30 minutes, compared to 5 hours traveling in the opposite direction. In reality, our actual flight time was 3 hours and 56 minutes, a whole hour shorter than the time it took for us to travel in the opposite direction.
Flying over the snow-covered plains of the Midwest.
I decided to pay a visit to the lavatory as well. For this ex-Continental aircraft, only the economy seats have been refurbished. Thus, it retained the exact lavatory layout it had when it still flew for Continental, with an economy lavatory located just ahead of the bulkhead row in the middle of the cabin (First class passengers all share one lavatory up front). Unfortunately, this one was not operational for the entire flight, meaning all economy class passengers shared the two toilets in the back. I should know that N76269, the 737-800 I took on the way to Salt Lake City, also used to have a lavatory in the middle of the cabin, but it was removed and swapped out for slimmer toilets in favor of adding more seats. The lavatory on this flight, however, was very old, and very dirty. Someone apparently had peed all over the toilet cover and the floor, and I had to spend a significant amount of time wiping it down before using it. Aside from this, the sink was of a large size, and the faucet allowed me to adjust the temperature, compared to the remodeled lavatories. That being said, this was one of the most disgusting lavatories that I had ever encountered on an aircraft.
As I returned to my seat, the following announcement was made over the intercom:
Ladies and gentlemen, if anyone onboard is a doctor, please ring your call button and make your way up to the First Class cabin.
It turned out that one of the flight attendants was suffering stomach pain, and three doctors from the economy class cabin had been called on to attend to her. After determining that nothing was serious, the crew and the doctors on board elected not to divert and continue on to Newark. This occurred a little more than halfway into the flight, so we still had about 90 minutes of flight time remaining.
Meanwhile, as we flew over Illinois, we experienced a beautiful sunset.
The rest of the flight was fairly uneventful, as I continued watching an episode of Mythbusters where Adam and Jamie managed to survive on a deserted island using duct tape as their primary survival tool. Soon after that, we began our initial descent over western Pennsylvania. The descent was fairly uneventful as well, and the captain reminded us to stay in our seats upon gate arrival as paramedics would be meeting us at the gate.
17 minutes before our scheduled arrival, we landed on Newark's runway 4R, and immediately used full reverse thrust to slow down. The noise of the reverse thrust was especially noticeable as I was sitting right next to the starboard engine. Furthermore, full reverse thrust is required to slow down the 737-900ER upon landing due to its poor handling.
Economy Plus cabin during disembarkation.
First Class cabin.
After arriving in concourse 2 of Terminal C, I paid a short visit to the cockpit. Interestingly, on the Captain's yoke, there was a printed ACARS message that stated that a portable oxygen bottle had been administered to the sick flight attendant.
Soon afterwards, I was released into concourse 2, which was lined with gates on the outside and a large bar in the middle. Making my way to baggage claim was easy, as I just needed to head past the security checkpoint to access the escalator that would take me down to the lower level of the terminal. As you can see, this area of the terminal was deserted, because most flights that were part of the evening rush to Europe had already departed.
I was hoping that the experience at baggage claim would be a lot better than Salt Lake City. Unfortunately, it was not. Despite the large amount of available carousels, my flight shared one with three other flights arriving from Orlando, Washington (Dulles), and Oranjestad. Because of this, it took over 45 minutes of waiting for my mom's bag to come off the carousel, and almost 2 hours for my own gate-checked carry-on. I wasn't able to leave the airport until 9 PM due to this inconvenience. No one should ever have to wait this long for baggage. Period.
After collecting our belongings, we stepped outside into a very cold New York evening, where the temperature was only 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Original Route: KSLC 34R.NSIGN5 OCS J94 BFF OBH J144 DSM EVOTE NELLS KEEHO J584 SLT FQM3 KEWR
Actual Route: KSLC TCH040013 CHE J56 GOULL KD63W TATTR KP63C BACNN IRK SPI VHP ROD DORET J584 SLT FQM3 KEWR
This flight was certainly a very interesting one, though it was typical as it could be for a United domestic flight. As can be expected, the legroom on these former Continental aircraft is just absurdly bad. That being said, the leather seat itself was comfortable, though the tray table and carpet were covered with stains. As for the service, only the purser was willing to go above and beyond for the passengers on this flight. Furthermore, the snack onboard was tasty, but definitely not adequate for such a long flight, where a full meal should at least be served. Despite the fact that a medical emergency happened onboard, we still managed to land more or less on time at Newark, and fortunately, it was not a threatening incident. The baggage claim process was definitely one of the low points of this trip. Having to wait two hours for a gate-checked bag is just ridiculous. Delta, on the other hand, offers a RFID-enabled bag tracking tool as well as a 25-minute delivery guarantee. Going forward, I'll fly United whenever it makes sense, but after giving them a try this time around, I'm dissapointed to say that on both flights, they did not meet my expectations.