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Star Alliance: TAP Portugal & United Airlines
by Joe Wolf

In October 2006, I flew the Star Alliance from Lisbon to Minneapolis. I flew on TAP Portugal from Lisbon to London Heathrow, and United Airlines from Heathrow to Chicago O’Hare then on to Minneapolis. While I found the in-flight service on both airlines reasonably good, I was exasperated by every airport I passed through except MSP.

TAPPHOTO: EWAN PARTRIDGE

Flights: TP352, UA949, UA793
Route: Lisbon [Lisboa] (IATA: LIS/ICAO: LPPT)–London (Heathrow) (LHR/EGLL); LHR–Chicago-O’Hare (ORD/KORD); ORD–Minneapolis/St Paul (MSP)
Date: October 4, 2006
Aircraft: Airbus A310-304 (CS-TEW), 777-222 (N772UA), 737-222 (N311UA)
Seats: 24J; 35J; 14A
Departure times: 0810; 1250; 1700
Arrival times: 1045; 1520; 1830
Passenger: Joe Wolf


Check-in

My departure time from Lisbon to London required me to leave my hotel at 0600. Lisbon’s airport is one of Europe’s most convenient, however, and as I was leaving before rush hour the drive took only about 15 minutes, and taxi fare was just 10€ ($13).

Unlike in the USA, TAP Portugal assigns specific check-in counters to individual flights, instead of allowing passengers to be helped by any available agent. There was already a long line when I reached the pair of counters assigned to the flight to LHR. It took nearly half an hour to reach the front of the line.

Knowing that passengers flying out of London are limited to one small carry-on, I stuffed anything I wanted to see again into my smaller bag, and reluctantly checked my larger bag through to Minneapolis. After clearing security and immigration, I had a brief walk to Gate 19, the second-floor hold room assigned to our flight. Lisbon still allows smoking inside the terminal; I was nursing a hangover after staying out late the previous night, and the smell of stale cigarette smoke together with greasy food from the airport restaurant did not improve my outlook.


Boarding

Around 0740 we were asked to go down a flight of stairs, where we boarded three busses to stand E2, at the north end of the airport on the cargo ramp. Our transport arrived at the stand before the flight attendants were ready for us to come aboard; we waited ten minutes on the very overcrowded busses before we were allowed off. Because we were not allowed off the busses by row numbers, the boarding process quickly became chaotic, with passengers jamming the airstairs, and the ramp below them, as they waited for the A310’s aisles to clear enough to reach their seats.

boarding 1PHOTOS: JOE WOLF
boarding 2

Doors were finally closed around 0825, 15 minutes after scheduled block time. From our stand we had a lengthy taxi to the threshold of Runway 3, although we had to wait only for a TAP Airbus A320 to depart before it was our turn. After rotation, I had a nice view of the new Vasco de Gama Bridge on the east side of Lisbon, before clouds largely obscured the ground.

In-Flight

After we reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants came through the cabin with breakfast of a tasty hot ham and cheese sandwich, and yogurt. Knowing it might be 1430 before I saw lunch, after the meal service was finished I went back to the galley for seconds. Although this was a very full flight, the flight attendants were able serve everyone within 45 minutes; they also passed through the cabin several times after the meal with drink refills.

lunch

Our route of flight passed over northeast Portugal, northwest Spain, the Bay of Biscay, and Normandy. Clouds obscured most of the Iberian peninsula, breaking up only over the water. The sky was clear over Normandy, giving me a beautiful view of the bocage farmlands far below. We passed briefly into UK airspace over Jersey, went back into French airspace over Cherbourg, and then finally returned to UK airspace near the Isle of Wight.

The sun had risen high enough that I was able to enjoy a wonderful view of the Solent and England’s west country. Winds were out of the west, so I was able to have a spectacular view of the city of London. We made our final turn toward LHR east of the Docklands, near London City Airport. The Docklands, Tower Bridge, St Paul Cathedral, the Houses of Parliament, and Hyde Park passed by in quick succession. On final we flew over a football pitch that, the last time I’d passed through LHR, had a sign on its roof saying, ‘Next time, fly KLM through Amsterdam’. Now, the advertiser was Qatar Airways.

london 1


london 2

After landing on Runway 27R, we had a very long taxi around Terminals 3 and 1, before pulling into Gate 7 at the soon-to-be-demolished Terminal 2. Our late start from Lisbon, and our post-landing circle tour of LHR, caused us to pull into our gate around 1055, about ten minutes late.


Connecting

I had a long walk from the gate to a large room near the Queen’s Building, where all passengers making connections from Terminals 1 and 2 to Terminals 3 and 4 go through security re-screening. Eleven in the morning is a peak time for LHR, as passengers arriving from elsewhere in Europe make connections to trans-Atlantic flights. Thus it took me about 35 minutes to pass through the line.

TAP had issued only my LIS-LHR boarding pass when I checked in at Lisbon, so after I went through security I stopped at United’s check-in counter to pick up boarding passes for my remaining flights before taking a bus to Terminal 3. After I arrived at Terminal 3, I had another long walk to Gate 22, where the United 777 had already begun boarding.

UALPHOTO: JOHN WEGG


In-Flight (again)

Pushback was exactly on time. We had a long taxi past Terminals 2 and 1 to the threshold of Runway 27L. Despite the peak hour, we had to wait for only three or four aircraft to take off, before it was our turn. Despite our nearly full load, we were able to rotate around the time we reached T3, and we climbed out steeply over T5 after rotation.

Although it had been clear when we approached LHR, clouds rolled in while I was on the ground, and I was able to see the ground for only a minute or so after takeoff before the clag enveloped us.

After takeoff, we flew northwest over England and Scotland, before intercepting our trans-Atlantic track over the Shetlands. Upon reaching our initial cruising altitude, the flight attendants came through the cabin first with beverages, then with lunch. United now charges $5 for an alcoholic drink, but a friend had given me two drink coupons, enabling me to enjoy two glasses of California chardonnay with lunch without fiscal pain. The choices for lunch were chicken or pasta; I chose the pasta, which came with a small piece of cheddar cheese, water crackers, a dinner roll, a small salad, and a cup of strawberry ice cream. Like my breakfast on TAP, all of the food was quite tasty.

lunch

United’s 777s have PTVs, but instead of watching a movie, I chose to listen to Channel 9 (the ATC communications), while reading The Times and The Financial Times I’d picked up in London. As I was reading The Times, I found out for the first time about the Brazilian midair collision five days earlier; I’d been too busy sightseeing in Portugal to pay attention to the news.

Greenland

The low clouds broke up over the Atlantic. We passed over the southern tip of Greenland, giving me a beautiful view of its mountains, glaciers, and vast snow pack. After leaving Greenland behind, we flew over Labrador and northern Québec and Ontario, finally entering US airspace over Sault Ste Marie. The weather in Chicago had been marginal all day, and several Chicago-bound flights had been slowed for ATC sequencing as far away as northern Québec.

Although we had not been slowed down, we were sent east of the Straits of Mackinac after entering US airspace, with the locks at the Sault and the Mackinac Bridge between Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas easily visible below us, then we were zigzagged southwest, then southeast, along Michigan’s lower peninsula. Over northern Michigan, the flight attendants came through the cabin with a snack box containing a bag of potato chips, a turkey submarine sandwich, and a Twix bar.

lunchbox 1lunchbox 2

At ORD, we would be landing to the east, and were given a relatively short downwind leg before being turned for our landing on Runway 9R. After landing, we had only a brief taxi to the international terminal. Despite our on time departure from London, the ATC delays caused us to arrive 20 minutes late.


Connecting (again)

Several other international flights arrived around the same time as we did, but fortunately the lines at immigration moved very quickly; I was able to pass through within 15 minutes of deplaning. My suitcase was already on the bag belt when I reached it, and I was able to sail through customs without delay. Although my bag had been checked through all the way to MSP, the one carry-on bag limit no longer applied as a US domestic passenger, so I didn’t drop my checked bag off at the baggage re-check desk, instead hurrying to the inter-terminal monorail in hopes of making my connecting flight to MSP. Passengers arriving from international flights at ORD have to stand in the same security lines as locally originating passengers. It took 25 minutes to pass through security; I finally cleared around 1640, 20 minutes before my flight to MSP was due to depart. As soon as I cleared security, I checked the monitors, only to discover my flight had been delayed until at least 1815.

When I arrived at the gate, there wasn’t even an aircraft there. I guessed (correctly) that the delay would escalate. My aircraft finally pulled in around 1745, and the crew, coming off a different flight, didn’t show up for another half hour. Unfortunately, the gate agents did not make a single announcement about the flight’s status throughout the delays.


In-Flight (yet again)

We finally pushed back around 1900, two hours late, then had to wait another 20 minutes on the ramp because an outage with UA’s weight and balance computer system prevented the pilots from having the information they needed to depart. Adding to my irritation, Channel 9 was cutting in and out; only by continually adjusting the volume was I able to hear anything. We took off on Runway 4L, and turned northwest almost immediately after takeoff. I then unplugged my headphones, fed up with the aggravation caused by the balky sound system. Seemingly as soon as we reached cruising altitude, we were beginning our descent for MSP’s Runway 30R; we pulled into gate E8 at 2045, 2hr 15min late. I finally arrived home at 2215, 24 hours after I’d awakened in Lisbon.


Overall impression

I would give TAP Portugal and United high marks for the in-flight service I received. With the exception of the last leg of the trip, all of my flights arrived close to schedule. Equally important, all of the cabin crews were friendly and seemed to be trying hard to make the flights enjoyable. The only negative was United’s charging $5 for a drink on a trans-Atlantic segment. This is one of those ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ decisions that are irritating to customers. I enjoy having wine with my in-flight meals, and if the fare is the same between a US carrier, where I will have to pay for wine, and an overseas airline, where I won’t, I’ll choose the airline with free wine.

On the ground, unfortunately, things did not go as well. LIS, LHR, and ORD were all frustrating airports to fly through.

I appreciated Portela’s proximity to the city of Lisbon, but a new terminal needs to be built that will eliminate the need to bus passengers to and from aircraft. I know LIS has relatively little land to build on, but Chicago Midway and Washington National are examples of close-in airports with limited space that have been able to construct terminals that are enjoyable to fly out of.

TAP Portugal should reconsider its policy of assigning check-in desks to specific flights; it was frustrating to be waiting in a long line, while agents working other flights were idle. It would also be nice if I could have received boarding passes for all three of my Star Alliance flights, so I wouldn’t have needed to check with United at Heathrow.

Finally, TAP’s ground staff should not have sent the first bus to the aircraft until the flight attendants were ready to board passengers, and the second and third busses should not have left the terminal until the passengers from the first bus were on board the aircraft.

Chicago O’Hare’s decision 15 years ago to build a stand-alone international terminal two miles from the domestic terminals is, in my mind, a serious mistake. At Detroit and Minneapolis, international arrivals are in the same terminal as domestic departures, and passengers connecting to domestic flights are screened at their own dedicated checkpoints. It was exasperating—especially after a trans-Atlantic flight—to have to jam onto an overloaded monorail to the domestic terminal, and then have to clear security in the same lines as domestic passengers who had originated in Chicago. At one time, Chicago was considering demolishing Terminal 2 (the E/F concourses), and building a new international terminal for the Star Alliance and One World airlines in its place. If Chicago wants to remain competitive with other gateways, these plans need to be revived.

I was also unimpressed with how United’s ground staff at ORD handled the escalating delay. They did not make any announcements about the status of the flight; this would have been particularly helpful during the period when the aircraft was on the ground, but passengers had to guess that the continuing delay was because we were waiting for our crew.

Making an interline and inter-terminal connection at LHR was just as tedious as I had expected. However, LHR’s plan to consolidate all of the alliances in their own terminals once T5 is completed should make things much better. The demolition of T2, with its low ceilings and Seventies interior, will surely make everyone happy; everyone, that is, except those who have a sentimental attachment to the terminal because they visited its long-closed rooftop observation terrace.

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