Saturday, October 31, 2009

United 840 ( UA840 ) - Melbourne to Los Angeles via Sydney

After finishing work at 0630 I went home for a 2 hour nap before the very long journey to the United States of America. Today would be my first visit to the USA since I was 15 years old ( in 1997). I took a taxi for the short trip to Melbourne Tullamarine airport for my 12 noon departure. I arrived at the terminal about 10am and headed for the United check-in.

United Check-in at Melbourne airport

Check-in was busy but the premium check-in area had no queue. I was checked in very promptly by a lovely check-in agent who confirmed I was crediting today's flights to bmi (British Midland). It was nice for a check-in agent to actually know who bmi was, although she did call it British Midland (the name used prior to 2001). I was invited to use the United Red Carpet Club, and given boarding passes in gold (for Star Alliance Gold and premium pax). I had 3 boarding passes in total, one for the first hop of United 840, Melbourne to Sydney, then another for the next hop of United 840 from Sydney to Los Angeles, and another for my connecting United flight to Las Vegas (LAS).

Flight Information Display - QF93 to LAX is delayed several hours

It was absolute chaos at passport control, fortunately I had an express departures card so avoided all the queues, which were snaking right out the doors and into the checkin zone.

After passport control and sercurity it was time to go sit in the lounge. Knowing very well that the United Red Carpet Club in Melbourne (and in most places) is horrible, I went to the more pleasant Air New Zealand lounge. I was greeted warmly by the lovely male lounge attendant, and advised that the lounge would close soon after the 11.35am NZ flight to Auckland departed. This would suit me fine as the UA flight leaves at noon.

Loumge Breakfast, Air New Zealand lounge Melbourne. Bacon and egg muffin, cheesy scroll, fruit salad and some sparkling wine. Lovely way to start the day!

Boarding Passes, in GOLD for Star Alliance Gold status, helpful for priority security, boarding etc

I sat down with my breakfast and wi-fi and watched the China Southern and China Eastern Airbus's out the windows. I found out through the handy screens in the ANZ lounge that my flight to Sydney was being operated by N180UA and the load for MEL-SYD was just 148 passengers! This aircraft was built in 1991, making it just over 18 years old. Still good for probably another 5 or 7 years I guess for United.

After a while the Air New Zealand flight was called for boarding and I was the only person left in the ANZ lounge. I decided that since I had never actually set foot in the United Red Carpet Club Melbourne I would pop in for a drink before my flight left. I went back upstairs and into the Red Carpet Club, which is just horrible in comparison. It is amazing how few people know that they do not need to use this club when departing on United, the masses just seem to assume they must go the the operating airlines lounge.

time for a quick coffee in the very plain looking Red Carpet Club

There was only about 6 people in the lounge, I had a quick coffee and read a bit of the Herald Sun before the lounge attendant announced boarding had commenced for our flight. So it was back up the escalators and out to our aircraft. 

N180UA is preparing to depart to Sydney. This aircraft will then operate the San Francisco flight from Sydney.

Since it was such a light load for the initial part of the journey boarding was quick! Our aircraft would today be operating as UA840 to Sydney, then it would operate the United flight to San Francisco in the afternoon. Our UA840 flight number would be operated by another United 747 that was already in Sydney.

There is 4 different classes, First (in the nose), Business (upper deck, and forward main deck), Economy Plus and Economy. There was a time when Star Gold got Economy Plus seating (34 inch pitch vs 31 in economy), however that is now restricted to United Mileage Plus elite card holders only. You can upgrade for 1 or 2 hundred dollars online before the flight if you like. There is a small chance if the economy cabin is full, other Star Gold's may get upgraded for free. This was not the case for me however!

United Economy Class Boeing 747-400

United have fitted numerous LCD screens on the fleet in economy class. Business and First have person Audio-Video On Demand Units in each seat.

On this first 60 minute flight from Melbourne to Sydney I had an entire row of 10 seats to myself. The load was very light indeed! The captain made a very friendly announcement, welcoming us to United's Friendly Skies and advising us that he would be switching on 'Channel 9' after takeoff. For those not familiar, Channel 9 refers to the audio channel 9 on United aircraft, which, at the pilots discretion, can be tuned to the Air Traffic Control frequency that the aircraft is currently listening to and transmitting on. For aviation freaks like me, Channel 9 is fantastic! It's great fun listening to ATC command your aircraft to do something, and then seeing it actually happen out your window. For me, having channel 9 is far better than any other entertainment system.

Once doors were closed we pushed back to the tunes of United's safety video and we made a quick taxi out to the threshold of Runway 34. It was a quick takeoff roll and we were up and away!

Baggage Handler boys having a rest and a drink

Leg room shot, not much leg room, oh well

Moving map display,I like the software they use, nice and clear

I had an ENTIRE row to myself for this first segment

Safety video

Lining up Runway 34, Melbourne

Lifting off, short take off roll, here you can see the new International terminal under construction, and a Singapore A380

Another view of the terminal, Qantas on the left, International in the centre, Virgin Blue, REX and Tiger to the right

Climbing out to the north over my beautiful home state of Victoria. Looks nice and green, will be brown over summer.

There is no meal service on this short sector, however they do come around first with a small cup of orange juice. Then they bring a drinks cart around, and you can have any drink you like (including Alcohol), along with some pretzels. I had a VB :)

Orange Juice, Channel 9 selected for my audio entertainment

Would you like a drink? I wanted Heineken but settled for a VB, and some mini pretzels.

Prior to commencing descent into Sydney I was listening to Air Traffic Control, due to heavy traffic in the Sydney area ATC directed my pilots to enter a holding pattern. It was fun to hear the instruction from ATC and be aware of this before the rest of the passengers. The Captain came on the PA system to announce the hold shortly afterwards, and I observed the aircraft making right hand orbits over New South Wales.

Holding pattern, at about 23,000 ft.

Turning finals over the NSW coastline

About to touchdown at Sydney Runway 34L

We made a standard approach into Sydney's Runway 34L, touching down pretty much on schedule. We would have been a little bit early had it not been for the holding pattern. Was a nice landing and we exited to the left towards the International terminal. As we approached you could see the United 747 that had arrived from San Francisco earlier. This aircraft would be continuing as United 840 to Los Angeles, with me in it. N180UA would become the San Francisco flight 1 hour later.

Approaching our gate you can see United Boeing 747-400 N197UA, will be operating as UA840 Sydney to Los Angeles

Disembarkation was quick with the light load and we had parked right next door to the aircraft which would take us on to Los Angeles. Boarding for the Los Angeles flight was already under way as I arrived in the terminal, I simply turned to my left and got directly on the next aircraft. I spent all of about 3 minutes within the airport terminal.

The flight ended up being quite full, I was sitting at the back row with 2 seats on the side, unfortunately the seat beside me was occupied.! This was going to be a long hop across the Pacific crammed into this small seat with no personal TV to keep me occupied.

We soon pushed back and headed to Runway 34L for a much longer take off roll to the north. It was a marvelous day in Sydney with fabulous views of the city and harbour out to the right side of the aircraft, we made a turn to the right and left the Australian coast, 14 hours of ocean ahead of us!

Beautiful day in Sydney as we slowly climb away from Runway 34L

Classic Australian scene! Goodbye Australia!

Soon after take off the (rather elderly, but extremely friendly) cabin crew came around with the drinks cart. Today's flight would be serving 2 meals and a snack in between. We started with lunch. I had some kind of chicken with potatos. It came with a salad (basically all lettuce), bread roll and piece of chocolate cake. Very simple looking when compared to some of the asian carriers, but the chicken was quite good.


Ocean as far as the eye can see. Flying towards the sun....

Gets dark quickly after departure from Sydney

It wasn't long after take off the the crew asked everybody to put the window shades down for the remainder of the flight, nothing to see out there they said! I took a sneak look every now and then and found it got dark a couple of hours into the flight, as we were flying toward the sun.

I sat back and watched a documentary about Yellowstone national park on the overhead LCD screens, they then showed several movies. I was quite happy with the content on the overhead's, in fact I found it quite entertaining and I didn't even miss personal on demand screens that much. I then tried to get some sleep with my blow up neck cushion. I managed a few hours.

Halfway through the journey the crew came around in the semi-lit cabin handing out snacks. They were very good not to turn on the lights, they worked in only a dim light so as not to wake those who were sleeping. Snack consisted of a small sandwich and an almond cookie. They also brought tea and coffee around.

midflight snack service

United cops a lot of flack because of the age of some of its cabin crew, particularly on flights to Sydney and it's lack of inflight entertainment systems in economy, but I found the service from the crew to be very nice and cheerful. It was never a problem to get you a drink if you rang the call bell, and service was always with a smile. Thumbs up!

cabin crew at work

blurry sorry, but we are almost there! starting to get over this flight at this stage

the sun is rising


Soon the sun was rising and we were nearing the Californian coast. About 2 hours before touchdown it was lights on for breakfast. The breakfast pictured above was awful, the eggs just were not right. I ate the bit of bacon and the potatos and the croissant. Very poor !!!

Nice view with about an hour to go

Well, the flight was coming to an end, breakfast trays were cleared up and the captain announced fine weather ahead in Los Angeles. We would be arriving on schedule, with a landing towards the west, means we would fly past the airport before coming back around to land.

Turning finals, we see Los Angeles city, flaps partially extended

crossing a freeway on very short finals, I like this shot!

Approaching the United area of LAX - welcome to the USA!

We had made it! After just under 14 hours we had arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. We parked at the United terminal and disembarked to find a very long immigration queue! After about a 25 minute wait,  I was briefly questioned about why I had come to the USA, where I was going and how long I was staying by a reasonably friendly customs officer. I was only here for 4 nights but that didn't phase him at all. I was stamped in, and headed off to collect my bags. I had to collect the bag and then re-check it for the domestic leg to LAX after clearing customs. 

Next flight is to Las Vegas!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bound for the USA

I have finalised plans for the quick trip over to the USA. The combination of a strong Aussie dollar and the low prices currently on offer for Trans-Pacific flights due to increased competition on the route makes a short trip a possibility!

My allegiance to Star Alliance has me flying United Airlines on a super-cheap mileage earning fare. Sadly though, United has the worst in-flight product on the route, particularly when you are comparing the Economy class cabins. No personal TV's on United Boeing 747-400's in economy, only overhead LCD screens. But what United DO have that all the others do not, is Channel 9. This is one of the audio entertainment channels and so long as you have a captain who uses this feature, you can listen in to the VHF Air Traffic Control frequency your aircraft is currently tuned to! For aviation buffs like me this is FABULOUS! Of course, for the majority of the trans-pacific sector the aircraft communicates on HF radio whilst over water, so this is only useful at the beginning and end of the flight.

My schedule is as follows:

Melbourne-Sydney-Los Angeles-Las Vegas .... 2 night stay ... Las Vegas-Los Angeles-New York JFK ... 1 night, 2 day stay ... New York JFK-Los Angeles-Sydney-Melbourne.

All sectors are on United, aircraft flown are Boeing 747-400, Airbus A320 and Boeing 757-200. This will be my first couple of flights on a Boeing 757!! I actually have never flown on one, we don't see them much in Australia and Asia where I more frequently travel.

This will be my first ever visits to United's Red Carpet Club's in LAX and JFK (and MEL also) airports. I hear they are really very poor when compared to the lovely lounges we get to enjoy in Australia and Asia with airlines like Air New Zealand, Qantas, Singapore, Thai etc.

Red Carpet Club

I'll post trip reports either during the trip, or when I get back!!

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Jetstar Starclass - Bangkok to Melbourne

JETSTAR flight JQ30 Airbus A330-200 VH-EBC (the white as opposed to silver A330)
Bangkok to Melbourne
ON TIME - arrived almost 1 hour early

I recently returned to Melbourne from Bangkok and happened to pick up a very cheap Jetstar fare (about 8000 THB one way) with the thought to upgrade to starclass at the airport. I had read on that the price had recently dropped to 5900THB for the 'On Departure Upgrade' for this sector, which seemed like a bargain. Checking online the day of the flight showed 13 Starclass seats available, I hoped these wouldn't go before I got to the airport, so planned to arrive nice and early!!

Flight was scheduled out at 22.00, with check in opening at 19.00, I got there about 19.20 and went to the service desk for Jetstar to inquire about the possibility of a paid upgrade. There was no queue at the service desk, and on arrival I was told the price was 8000 THB! I was disappointed the price had gone up, but what the hell, you only live once, plus I had been meaning to try it out for a long time. The check in girl and her supervisor were quite polite, and in about 5 minutes I had my boarding pass for 5J, an aisle seat... much to my disappointment there was no windows left! I noted a couple of other pax also paying for upgrades at this time.  I was told how to get to the lounge, so I headed to the Qantas business class lounge, my first time to visit this lounge in Bangkok (as I only hold elite status on Star Alliance, and am not in Qantas Club).

Jetstar check-in, at row W, the southernmost check-in row

Flight information display tonight

Qantas and British Airways share lounge's at Bangkok for their matching schedules to London and Sydney. Jetstar also use Qantas lounges when available. There is both a First Class lounge, and a Business Class lounge, Starclass pax use the Business lounge. My boarding pass said nothing about being in starclass, in fact it still said Jetsaver as the fare type, so I wondered if I would be questioned on entry, but I wasn't, they simply swiped my card and invited me in. I went in and settled, surrounded by the 'Mums and Dads and Kids' holiday crowd, in shorts and t-shirts!!! Hmm, not my cup of tea!! I'm used to the pleasant well to do business crowd in the Silverkris Lounge! It was quite busy, I assumed not all of them were in Starclass, and a lot must be Qantas club members plus families (who get to use QF lounges whilst flying Jetstar).

the BA/QF lounges are on the G concourse

The lounge food was ordinary at best, a selection of sandwiches, cold meats and a very poor version of vegatarian Pad Thai were the 'features'. The drinks selection was good however, with many wines, including sparkling and a good selection of beers, spirits and soft drinks. I poured a glass of champagne which finished the bottle, there was a staff member hovering nearby and I asked her if she might retrieve the next bottle from there store rooms. This is the exchange of words:

Me : "The champagne is finished, could you get some more?"
Her: (smile)
Me: (gesturing at empty champagne bottle) "It's finished, can you get more? finished, see?"
(by this time an Australian woman was waiting beside me for some champagne with her flute at the ready)
Her: (smile) "Finished?"
Me: "yes.... it's finished... some more please?"
Her: (smile) "Finished?"
Me: (smile) "yes! more? more champagne?"
Her: "Finished"

At this point I gave up, wished the woman waiting for Champagne good luck and returned to my seat. After I finished my glass I returned to the wine area expecting a fresh bottle, but alas, it was not to be, there was only ordinary white and red wines. The same lounge attendant was still there, by the time she had learned a new word (probably asked someone else out the back) "out of stock!". HOW COULD THE QANTAS BUSINESS LOUNGE BE OUT OF STOCK OF CHAMPAGNE!! Outrageous!! Outrageous I tell you.
Instead I filled up on vodka and pineapple juice, and by the time the boarding call came, I was quite merry!

lounge food - Pad Thai, sandwiches and cake, I was absolutely disgusted that they 'ran out' of champagne after I finished this glass

drinks area

The new security arrangements at BKK meant we could leave the lounge at the last possible minute as we had already cleared security just after passport control. So along I trundled from G to E concourse for the flight, about a 600 metre walk.

hand baggage search at boarding area, showing the QF codeshare flight number QF266 on the display

By the time I had arrived most economy class passengers were already on board so it was a quick hand baggage search (normal on flights to Aust ex-BKK) and straight on board. Starclass seats were already filling quickly. I settled into 5J with 5K already occupied. I was disappointed at the leg room, being only marginally better than Thai or Singapore economy class. Within a couple of minuted I was offered a choice of water, juice or sparkling wine, I took the sparkling of course. Don't ask me what wine it was, I have no idea!

legroom, plastic glass of sparkling on the centre arm rest (I admit I am slouching forward)

another leg room shot (I admit due to a few drinks i am slouching forward)

view of the centre console showing seat controls, audio controls and drink tray

Departure time was rapidly approaching and the starclass cabin quickly filled up to 100% capacity. Other peoples trip reports I had read online had pretty low loads in starclass, so I considered this reasonably unusual! I listened to the chatter going on around me and soon discovered that many of the passengers tonight were on staff travel. I was disappointed the service was not going to be quite as personal, and I couldn't have a window seat which I like to have!

The last few passengers trundled on board and the Captain welcomed us. Flying time tonight was expected to be a very quick 8 hours and 15 minutes, with a few clouds on the departure but mostly smooth for the remainder of the flight. We would be helped along with a nice strong tailwind over Australia. We pushed back on schedule and made our way over to runway 19R for a departure towards the south and the gulf of Thailand. Takeoff was smooth and there was only a little bit of minor turbulence during the climbout. I must admit to being half drunk at this stage so I was enjoying the ride!

Starclass cabin soon after departure, a full house tonight

Airshow system - showing an early arrival forecoast

The starclass lavatory - nothing exciting here! No special amenities or flowers

About 30 minutes after departure the dinner service commenced. We were being served by 1 Thai based male Flight Attendant and 2 Australian based females. Dinner was served off the trolley and drinks were offered from the same trolley. There was several choices, including chicken with pasta, pork with rice, and a couple of others I don't remember. There was no menu offered at any time, including no drinks menu. I took the chicken with pasta and got a vodka and orange juice. The friendly cabin crew kept my vodka topped up during the meal service.

There is virtually no difference to the Starclass meals when compared to the pre-purchased economy class meals, except it is an open bar and there is a dessert and fruit service following. The meal is served on a small plastic tray and comes in an aluminium tray. Overall, very disappointed in the food offering, it is worse than what you receive on Thai or Singapore Economy class on flights to Australia.

dinner trolley making its way down the aisle

my dinner, there is 2 small chocolates in the box at the back left side

Shortly after dinner the crew came around offering AVOD units to those passengers who wanted one. AVOD is included for all starclass passengers. I took one, although it is quite uncomfortable having to sit it on your tray table all the time. They do offer noise cancelling headphones, although these are poor quality and I chose to use my personal set of Sony's. The selection of movies and shows is quite poor in my opinion, but enough to get me by for this sector.

AVOD and a voddie

After the AVOD was handed out and dinner trays taken, another trolley came around with a selection of fruit and a chocolate mousse cake. I decided to try a piece of the cake, and it was handed to me on a plastic plate.
Chocolate mousse cake - average at best

I started watching some animated Australian movie I don't remember the name of, about a young girl from Australia and her pen pal who is an old man from New York. It was mildly entertaining. As it was getting quite late it was time to put the seat in recline mode, although the recline is simply awful, and the leg rest angle is only small too, making the seat only MARGINALLY better than economy class. Perhaps it is comparable to a 'premium economy' product on Qantas. Nevertheless I managed to doze off for several hours at this point.

daylight emerges over the Aussie desert

I woke up to find us powering along over the Australian desert at a ground speed of almost 1150km/hour with only a little over 2 hours remaining to Melbourne. It wasn't long before I could smell some coffee brewing and it was time for the breakfast service. Breakfast involved the crew wheeling a trolley down the aisle and offering everyone individual options for breakfast, you could mix and match what you wanted. On the trolley was yoghurt, fruit and egg, bacon and cheese foccacias. I took the foccacia and yoghurt.

my breakfast

The food was very ordinary at best. The foccacia was fairly tasteless! They did offer coffee and orange juice to go along with it, the coffee was not too bad. Breakfast service was packed up with a good hour or more remaining until arrival.

The captain made his arrival announcement somewhere over northern Victoria, Melbourne was looking mostly clear and we would be arriving almost an hour ahead of schedule, we were warned it was windy in Melbourne with winds at 50km/h and temperature was 14 degrees (much to the disgust of the pax next to me). By this time we were cruising at 39,000 feet and all was good. We started our descent and approach into Melbourne's Runway 34, passing the airport out to our left with a couple of left hand turns over Melbourne's western suburbs to line up with the runway. There was a magnificent view out the windows to the right of the Melbourne CBD. A wobbly short finals with the gusty wind but a nice touchdown ended the journey. Melbourne airport was absolutely chaotic at this time, I counted 8 aircraft waiting takeoff, this can occur when single runway ops are in progress at MEL in the morning. There was also at least one or two intl flights awaiting parking positions at the still under construction Intl terminal.

lots waiting to leave Melbourne

This morning also marked the first arrival of a Singapore Airlines A380 on commercial service into Melbourne. SQ227 from Singapore was conveniently parked at the gate as we taxi'ed past, right next to a Qantas A380. My shot below show's what I believe to be the first time 2 x A380's have been at the gate at MEL at the same time!

SQ and QF A380's at MEL Intl

We parked next to the SQ A380 and disembarked. Immigration was quick and painless but we faced a 50 minute wait for bags!! They claimed congestion in the baggage area was the fault, but we were the only group of people waiting for bags at that time, so seems unlikely. I and the other passengers were furious!!

Overall whilst I did enjoy the upgrade from Jetstar economy, I don't think Starclass is worth the money, certainly not worth the prices they charge when you book the flight originally in star. On the other hand, I did get 120 status credits and about 6000 FF points posted to my QF FF account so for those needing SC's or points it might prove a good option!!

My rating: 3 out of 5!