Friday, December 31, 2010

Going for Platinum Part 6 - Chicago City

I had a little over 24 hours to check out Chicago. I got a cheap deal on priceline for a hotel and ended up with the Ambassador East which is in a nice little neighbourhood just a 10 minute walk to Michigan Avenue. It's extremely outdated but it was fine for the one night I was there and the price was right.

Ambassador East Hotel Room - has it ever been refurbished??

Quiet Neighbourhood - The Ambassador East Front Entrance

The hotel was actually just a short stroll from a bunch of trendy restaurants and a small supermarket. It's about a 5 to 10 minute walk to the nearest subway station too so everything is easily accessible.

I ended up walking most of Michigan Ave and then took a boat cruise on the Chicago River with commentary on the cities architecture. The boat then goes out into Lake Michigan so you can get some nice panoramic views of Chicago.

After the cruise I checked out Navy Pier which is home to several amusements, restaurants, shopping centre etc.

After dinner at Navy Pier I decided to check out the John Hancock Observatory on my way back to the hotel. This is the second tallest building in Chicago and had great views!

Chicago by night

John Hancock Observatory Night View

Next up is my trip to Miami via New York - on American Airlines

Going For Platinum - Part 5, Dallas to Chicago via St Louis American Airlines First Class on the MD80

After arriving at the mammoth American Airlines hub of Dallas Ft-Worth I had a bit of time to spare before my next flight to St Louis. The airside train took me to the C gates for my next flight.

DFW actually had free internet terminals scattered around which I used while waiting which was handy. Soon enough it was time for boarding:

My McDonnell Douglas MD-80 ride to St Louis

Gate Area

Another view of my ride - one of dozens of MD80s on the ground here

Boarding was called and First Class passengers were advised to board first. I was off on my first ever MD80 ride!

looking back at the domestic First Class seats

Seating on the AA MD80's is in 2x2 for First Class and 2x3 for economy class. The seat is quite comfortable although seat pitch is bad and as is standard on the MD80s and 737s, there is no leg or foot rests. Fortunately I was on the right hand side bulkhead which has the most legroom by far! I recommend this seat if you can get it:

Ample leg room in the bulkhead row

Blankets are provided in every seat - even on these short hops

1980s Overhead controls

The flight was quite full but we pushed back on schedule and made our way to one of the many runways at Dallas Fort Worth. The great thing about the MD80 with it's rear mounted engines is how quiet it is! Especially from the first row! You barely hear the engine start and during taxi it's almost silent. Even at takeoff power its just a faint hum in the background. Once airborne the wind noise is all you hear.

Climbing out of DFW
This flight was at a non-meal time and was quite short (about 90 mins gate to gate) so only a 'refreshment' type service was provided. I didn't feel like any alcohol so I settled with an apple juice and packet of snack mix:

With no inflight entertainment what so ever on the MD80 I just read the inflight magazine and watched the scenery go by. Seconds were offered on the drinks  from our St Louis based flight attendants. A trip to the forward lavatory was in order during the flight, and it was quite easy to leave my seat without disturbing my seat mate from the bulkhead row.

MD80 forward lavatory

It wasn't long before we were on descent into St Louis, and from my seat I had a great view of this small city.

St Louis City - on approach to STL

Arriving at the gate next to a company MD80

my bulkhead seat as we disembarked, good legroom here and lots of windows!

The pleasant crew thanked us for flying with American Airlines and we were soon off the aircraft and into the terminal, I had a little over an hour before my next leg to Chicago O'hare, time for lunch!

St Louis airport even features rocking chairs - something I had never seen in an airport before!

St Louis' Lambert International airport is the former hub of Trans World Airlines (TWA) so it is a massive airport. But since TWA was merged into American Airlines, American have significantly reduced the operations in and out of this city. As a result many gates are empty and I believe some concourses are completely shut down making for an eery feeling as you walk through this former hub airport.

I went for a walk around - there wasn't all that much happening. Southwest seemed to be the other major operator at STL. I spotted this all white Skywest CRJ-200 parked at a gate nearby:

After a chicken caesar salad lunch from Wolfgang Puck it was time to board another American MD-80 for the very short 40 minute sector to Chicago's Ohare airport. This time I was in the third row, right hand side window. A special hint to those flying MD-80's in First, the right hand side seats have more leg room.
Seat Pitch - a little tight but ok

While I was seated I noticed the aircraft that had brought me from Dallas was pushing back from the gate beside me:

Looking across the aircraft, the left side seats have less seat pitch due to a storage cupboard
We were welcomed aboard by our Chicago based cabin crew, I was fortunate enough to have the seat beside me vacant for this leg. A few minutes later we powered down the runway and soared into the Missouri sky.

Climbing out of St Louis Lambert International

This sector was only a little over 40 minutes, so a refreshment was all that was on offer. I settled with a can of coke. I was looking forward to arriving at one of the worlds busiest airports, Chicago O'hare.

We flew over the city of Chicago before making a u-turn over Lake Michigan. As we crossed the lakes coastline I was really impressed with the view:

It was quite windy during the approach with quite a bit of turbulence. We were conducting a parallel approach with this regional jet off to our right:
Final Approach

American have a large hub at O'hare and you will see loads of AA tails as you arrive at the terminal area. United is the other major carrier here.

Arriving at the American Airlines terminal - Chicago Ohare

Can't really complain about the service on a flight like this, there is not exactly a lot that can be done in 40 mins. It was pleasant enough and I had enjoyed flying on the MD80. Although it's an old aircraft they still do their job quite nicely on these short flights. The first class seat's arent exactly fabulous but it's definitely a big step up from economy class.

my aircraft takes a short rest before it's next domestic sector

Thankfully, my luggage came out quickly with it's priority tags and then it was off to the airport train station to grab a train to the city:

Next up in this trip report is my short stay in Chicago!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Going For Platinum - Part 4, Honolulu to Dallas Ft Worth American Airlines First Class AA102

My short stay in Waikiki was over and it was time to catch a cab. I had a very friendly Vietnamese taxi driver who was very chatty and polite and got me to the airport in good time. I was dropped off at the American Airlines check in area and I headed for the first class counter.

American Airlines Check-In at Honolulu Airport

The check-in girl was a bit confused about my strange routing to Chicago (via Dallas and St Louis) but she checked me in efficiently and stamped my boarding pass with 'GOLD LANE'. My bags were tagged right through to Chicago and I was off to security. I used the priority lane but I was selected for a random secondary screening. After a full pat down my bags were carefully checked over and all my belongings were swabbed for explosives. My wallet was searched and two TSA agents made conversation with me about my routing. They asked why I didn't just take the direct AA flight to Chicago but they seemed to accept my reason (plane lover) and we had a bit of a laugh together. I must say they were both very polite!

Security checks complete and with no lounge access I went for a walk around the terminal and grabbed a coffee at Starbucks.
Boarding Pass

Night was fast approaching and I snapped a pic of this Delta Airbus A330 as it was pushing back:

My flight was departing from Gate 17 at the central concourse and there really wasn't many people around, and only a few more departures left for the night:

Deserted Central Concourse

I was a bit early but with nothing else to do I went to the gate area and spotted our aircraft, N358AA.This is a Boeing 767-300ER delivered new to American in July 1988, making her just over 22 years old.

N358AA Awaiting Her Passengers

I had selected this flight to take advantage of the angled lie flat seats on the 767 for the overnight red-eye to Dallas, it's far better than the 757's they use to Los Angeles! Boarding was announced on schedule and as usual First Class was boarded first, I was off on my first ever flight on American Airlines!

Leg Room

Looking Across - 2 x 2 x 2 Arrangement

I was seated in 3A which was actually the 2nd row in this aircraft. Sitting 2 seats across from me was another mileage runner! This guy must've been publicising his mileage running in the Admirals Club as quite a few passengers were talking to him about it. He was doing a 'turn around' having flown in from Dallas on the same aircraft with just a couple of hours in Honolulu at the Admirals club.

On each seat was a cheap pair of ear phones, the menu, and a sealed plastic bag containing a rather nice duvet and big fluffy pillow.

Pillow and Duvet

Menu and Drinks Menu

These aircraft are fitted with overhead entertainment only on domestic sectors. When used on long haul flights they have portable video players which slot into the seat back in front of you. I don't see why they don't offer this option for the 7 hour flights to Honolulu considering it is just as long as some international routes.

Overhead LCD screen

Soon after I had settled into my seat I was offered a drink from a tray. There was sparkling wine and water on offer. I took a sparkling wine, in a plastic glass.

Welcome Drink

I was new to this seat so I checked out and played with some of the seat controls. The control panel is found on the centre armest as you can see in this picture and is a pretty standard panel for these type of seats. They also have a massage option. One feature I really liked is that the entire seat can move forward or backward on the rails so you can easily get closer to the meal tray. You can make your meal tray extra large by pulling the panel down from the seat in front of you and connecting it to the fold out tray. Very nice.

Seat Controls

If you are confused about the seat controls - never fear! American Airlines play a short video explaining how to use it:

Seat Instructional Video

There are numerous audio channels available along with the video audio and you can select the channel from a small panel, again in the centre armrest. This is where you can press the call bell and light switch too.

Audio Controls - Headset Plugs Just Below

After a very long taxi we took off with the lights of Honolulu out to the left of the aircraft. We climbed into the clear night sky and it wasn't long before the crew commenced dinner service. We started with the classic American Airlines warmed nuts, but for the Honolulu service it's a tropical nut mix, very appropriate! I had a vodka and orange juice to go with it:

A movie was being shown on the overhead, I can't remember which one but I decided to watch it during the meal service. We started with a salad with a choice of two dressings, I then had the steak main, followed by an ice cream sundae dessert:

After dinner it was lights out and most of the passengers tried for some shut-eye.

I managed a couple of hours sleep but spent a lot of time laying awake. The angled lie flat seat is reasonably comfortable but I still tend to have trouble sleeping on them anyway. The same applies to most flights I've been on, I rarely sleep for any significant period of time.

Anyway, an hour and a half out of Dallas we were offered breakfast. This happened in the dark which was nice for those who wanted to remain in bed. Breakfast was a simple cinnamon scone and fruit salad along with drinks. The scone was delicious:

Approaching Dallas

Sunrise over Texas

Soon enough the descent commenced during a lovely sunrise. The clouds cleared as we approached Fort Worth airport and we made a nice approach into 'American Airlines Land'. I knew this was the main hub of AA, but it really is amazing to see just how many AA aircraft are on the ground at one time here.

We parked at the gate and it was time to leave the comfortable surrounds of this Boeing 767 and check out the massive terminal complex. I snapped a couple of pics of the seat and cabin on the way out:

My aircraft taking a rest before she jets off to her next destination, perhaps back to Hawaii?

I was pretty impressed by the domestic First Class service on this route. The flight is as long as many international flights at 7 hours and the quality of the meal and seat was of a good standard. The service during meal times was good but was very much absent during the between times, but this is often the case on overnight flights. 

My main complaint is, why not offer the Audio Video on Demand units on this route? For a 7 hour flight it should definitely be included. The one movie and various television shows on offer on the overhead screens didn't really cut it for me. Overall though, a pleasant flight.... now it's off to find my MD80 to St Louis!

Dallas Ft Worth Airport as seen from the inter-terminal train