Round The World and other travels

A frequent flyer's collection of trip diaries

Flight Log : February 2009 : UA930

San Francisco (SFO) - London Heathrow (LHR)

I left the rather nice United First Lounge, where I'd been very comfortable for the previous hour and a half, before any announcements were made, and made my way to the gate. I don't like leaving these things to the last minute. Shortly after arriving at the gate area, I was able to board. I was welcomed aboard and made my way to my chosen seat, 3J, where I was quickly relieved of my jacket and offered a selection of newspapers and a pre-departure tipple. The choice was Champagne, water or orange juice and - surprise, surprise! - I had the fizzy stuff.

I was in what could be described as the back corner of the F cabin, there being three rows of four seats in 1+2+1 formation. As promised by Seat Expert and Seat Guru, I quickly formed the opinion that mine was the best in the cabin, even though I knew that there would be no curtain between F and J. The equivalent seat on the other side, 3A, was set aside for crew rest purposes, but that apart, the cabin was full. I noticed that there was a higher than usual proportion of women, then quickly realised that at least four were United crew travelling in their civvies. The cabin itself was fairly pleasing, although it revealed more than a hint of age and tattiness on closer inspection. Still, the seat was comfortable and private, and I had lots of easily accessible storage space. I also quickly formed the impression that the LHR-based crew were a nice, friendly bunch, so it seemed that 18 years after my previous United flight, they were still very much the Friendly Skies!

Everything seemed to be going swimmingly, until and Captain came on the blower ten minutes before 7 o'clock to report a 'maintenance issue in the cockpit'. Uh-oh! Apparently there was a navigation system anomaly. They were re-booting the system and expected to have further news at 1915. A second glass of Champagne helped pass the time, while I looked at newspaper pictures of London under its heaviest snow covering for 18 years. Pretty much on time, the Captain advised that this had failed and that the next step was to try powering down the entire aircraft, including lights! This proceeded in a phased manner, the crew managing to take the dinner orders before the entire plane was plunged into darkness. Light was restored at 1930, the Captain advising that a further nine minutes should reveal 'where we're at'. He eventually announced it as 'bad news and good news'. The bad news was that all attempts at a fix had failed and this plane was going nowhere in the near future. The good news was that a replacement aircraft was already on its way from the hangar. Already starting to feel just a little bit tired, I collected my belongings, left the 777 and made my way to the next gate along.

Boarding the replacement aircraft started at 2045 and, once again, I was one of the first on board. I'd left my amenity kit on the first plane and was surprised and pleased that the crew had found it and brought it across for me. There was a plea for passengers to get settled quickly, as we didn't want the crew going out of hours. Amen to that! Pushback finally occurred at 2118 and we took off 18 minutes after that. There were some great views to be had as we climbed over the ocean, then turned and overflew the Golden Gate, with the city on my side of the plane.

Service started with drinks : I had some more Champagne, accompanied by ice water and mixed nuts. I'd been hoping that the nuts would be warmed, American Airlines-style, but it wasn't to be. Top-ups were offered all round, the nuts being served by spoon from a large bowl.

The dinner menu was as follows :-



Appetizer   Champagne
Shrimp, applewood smoked bacon and corn cake, with a jalapeno shallot crème fraiche   De Castelnau 1998
    Henriot Cuvée des Enchanteleurs 1999
Artichoke chicken Florentine    
    White Wines
Salad   Jolivet Chateau du Nozay 2006 Sancerre
Fresh seasonal greens with red bell peppers, yellow teardrop tomatoes and seasonal croutons, served with your choice of dressing : Classic Caesar or Balsamic Dijon Vinaigrette   Henri Pellé La Croix au Garde 2006 Sancerre
    Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay 2006
Main Courses   Red Wines
Herb infused chicken breast with organic apricot curry sauce, couscous and sautéed spinach   Chateau Les Ormes de Pez 2004 St Estèphe
Capellini galette with rosemary olive oil poached tomatoes, Japanese eggplant and warm chèvre   Clos de la Font du Pape 2005
Pan-seared filet mignon with horseradish sauce, red and Yukon gold potatoes, sautéed spinach, shallots and mushrooms   Trellis Climbing Shiraz 2005
Rosemary lemon Mediterranean sea bass with tomato and olive ragout, vegetable risotto and green and yellow haricots verts   Benziger Merlot 2005
Cheese and Dessert    
Ice cream with sundae toppings    
Kerrygold vintage Cheddar, Port-Salut and Wensleydale cheeses    

I had the starter, soup and salad and the sea bass. I declined the offer of cheese or dessert, feeling the need to get some sleep, and finished off with a decaffeinated coffee in the hope that it wouldn't thwart my main objective. My memories of the meal consist of a mixture of positives and negatives, the latter sadly outnumbering the former :-

  • No choice at all prior to the main course (although it's quite clear that you are welcome - expected, even - to have all three of appetiser, soup and salad)

  • Only one type of bread roll on offer

  • The soup was delicious and was the best part of dinner

  • The sea bass was nice enough, but the beans were limp, watery and tasteless

I thought that presentation was poor overall, let down by little things like cheap plastic salt and pepper shakers - oh please, in First? It all seemed a long way from Lufty's three-tier starters and red roses! And yet it wasn't all bad; I remember being happy to see restaurant-style trolleys being used to effect. (But LH does that even in Business Class.)

I quickly settled down for the night and was happy to find that the seat reclined into a reasonably comfortable flat bed. I didn't change into a sleeper suit for the simple reason that UA doesn't do PJs! It was a case of doing the best I could using the pillow and thin covering provided, and the eyeshades and earplugs from my amenity kit. You know what? It worked a treat! I slept like a baby, waking up feeling well rested at 1330 UK time. As ever, the timing of the flight was a hugely important factor in determining how well I would sleep.

Half an hour later, I was tucking into a nice breakfast, which actually impressed me more than the main dinner offering. It was a nice way to start the day as we approached the Western Isles. I was most surprised at how long the crew let people sleep and how late they left preparing the cabin for arrival. Our planned hold was cancelled and we were able to make a direct approach to 27L. Going by those newspaper reports, I'd been expecting to see a winter wonderland, yet everything looked depressingly grey and normal.

We touched down at 1515 and, during the subsequent taxi, I became confused about some of the turns we were taking. All soon became clear : LHR was being its old self! We had come to a halt in a holding area, as no gate was available.   It was so annoying to have to sit there for fully half an hour, watching my chances of making my connection melt away in front of my eyes. (In the event, I actually made my connection to Edinburgh at 1625 and, even more remarkably, so did my checked suitcase!)

As for final thoughts, I never for a moment expected this to be in the same league as SQ / LH / LX / BA / etc. Given the state of the USA's airline industry, my expectations were very low indeed. Yet it certainly wasn't a disastrously bad experience. The hard product was OK (rollout of its replacement is due to start in 2009) and the crew were great, despite having a longer than expected day. My first priority was to get a good night's sleep and that's exactly what I got. However there were various soft product shortcomings, especially with the catering, that meant the loss of that 'something very special' feeling that should be an integral part of travelling First Class.  

Date: Wed 04 Feb 2009
Aircraft : Boeing 777
Scheduled dep : 1858
Actual departure : 2118
Scheduled arrival : 1325+1
Actual arrival : 1545+1
Cabin : First Class
Seat : 3J

Linked reports from same trip :-

Flight Log LH454

Las Vegas

San Francisco