SAN FRANCISCO — I had a dilemma when planning my trip flying United Airlines’ final international 747 flight from Seoul-Incheon (ICN) to San Francisco (SFO): How to get there from here?
The easiest answer, flying from SFO to ICN just was not very interesting. But flying eastbound through Europe, making it an around the world trip. Now we are talking!
I must admit, my friend Mark A. came up with the idea: fly around the world in one weekend using shortest possible connection times. Monday morning conversation at the office would go something like this: “What did you do last weekend?” he asked. “I went around the world. How about you?”
I was sold on the idea when I realized I could do this trip by flying only on Boeing 747s with a Star Alliance itinerary: SFO to Frankfurt (FRA) on United, FRA to ICN on Lufthansa, and ICN back to SFO on United’s final international Boeing 747 flight.
What a tribute to the 747! With just three flights, it would be an easy trip. Not only that, it would not cost prohibitive given the ticket would be issued by a single airline (United) as a multi-segment ticket.
I strategized my trip. I chose dates and flights that had confirmed upgrades seats available. While doing the entire trip in a single weekend sounded impressive, creating recovery days in between the two flights would be less stressful. As it turned out, it was needed.
Total flying time: 29 hours 35 minutes
Total distance: 14,495 NM (26,844 km)
Average aircraft age: 19.2 years
Around the world on three 747s: Segment 1
Airline: United Airlines
Flight: UA 926, San Francisco (SFO) – Frankfurt (FRA)
Aircraft: Boeing 747-422
Registration (msn/ln): N128UA (30023/1245)
Built in: 2000
Age: 17.5 years
Scheduled Departure – Arrival: 7:00 pm – 2:55 pm (+1 day)
Actual Departure – Arrival: 9:30 pm – 5:26 pm (+1 day)
Flight Duration: 10 hours 5 minutes
As it turned out, this was the most eventful flight. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
United premium check-in area at SFO was quiet and I walked straight up to an agent to drop off my bag. There, I learned there was a temporary International Lounge while the new Polaris Lounge is being built.
I thought – temporary – can it be good? I seriously considered going to one of the United Clubs in Terminal 3 instead. Sticking with the plan and proceeding to the sliding doors next to Gate G98, my concern was quickly abated after descending to the ground floor.
There, I was greeted with a large space tastefully decorated with Asian themed artwork. Shuttered windows offer a view out to the north ramp.
Food selection was excellent, unlike like the old International United Club I experienced years ago. There was plenty of space to stretch out and store one’s luggage.
I proceeded to gate G95 after seeing my Jumbo being towed there from the nearby maintenance center. There was a bit of a commotion over the airplane by the crew, despite the last 747 flight on this route was still five days away. Passengers were oblivious, but the crew was certainly emotional. All are savoring their last days on the Queen.
Overall load on the flight was light on this Tuesday evening. Upfront, however, every seat would become occupied. This is how you say “premium heavy”. United’s International Business (and First) Class is currently in transition.
Even though food and amenities have been upgraded to the new Polaris branding, the new Polaris seats can presently be found only on the 777-300ER; conversion has been completed on just one 767-300ER so far. To date, none of the 777-200ERs have been converted.
It was quite a contradiction to see the Polaris branding against these old alternating forward-backward facing Business Class seats on the 747. A Saks Fifth Avenue pillow, duvet, and blanket was found at every seat as well as the prized catch: the 747 themed amenity tin. I was happy that United is thoughtful (and mindful) of 747’s history.
My seat, 9K, was a rear-facing seat behind door 2. I specifically chose this seat for the engine view. I was not disappointed!
Flight attendants led by Purser Judy immediately offered water or champagne, along with a pack of welcome chocolates.
I asked for and received a cockpit visit. The pilots were happy to see an enthusiast because this flight was to be their last at the controls of the 747.
Scheduled departure time of 7 pm came and went. The boarding doors did not close. Something was up. PA announcement from the cockpit initially was hard to hear. Later rectified, FO Dave announced that there was a fueling problem.
A creeping delay ensued. Fifteen minutes became one hour later becoming one and a half hour. Pilots couldn’t offer much information because “we are in the dark as much as you are”. Mechanics were seeing boarding and exiting the plane, going up and down the stairs.
FO Dave told everyone that the Boeing 747 is a classic airplane and only five days remain in service. He asked everyone “to bear with us and hopefully, the new airplanes will keep better time”. Flight attendants passed out pretzels, stroopwafels, and small bottled waters to fend off hunger.
Around 8:30 pm, we were asked to take all of our belongings and deboard the plane. At that point, no one – not the crew nor the gate agents knew what was next. Was the flight canceled? Are they bringing another plane? Are we waiting for our plane to get fixed?
Waiting at the gate ensued. Then, as quickly as it came, after only about 25 minutes, we were asked to reboard. FO Dave told everyone that it was a fuel valve problem. After it was replaced, the plane took on fuel just fine. We were finally ready for departure more than two hours late.
Flight attendant said to me jokingly, “this completes your 747 experience!” I laughed. I had read many reports that both Delta and United 747s are having mechanical issues causing delays (they are on their last days, after all), but really did not expect it to happen to me. I took it all in stride because this really did complete my 747 experience.
Twenty minutes after pushback, we lined up on Runway 28L. As we came up to takeoff power, I got pushed forward away from my seat (because I was facing backward). Since I was ahead of the engines, the noise was very hushed, barely a roar.
Despite being a powerful takeoff run, there was absolutely no shake and rattle as I have experienced on my other recent wide-body flights. This ship was solid!
Upon climb out, we banked east while over the Golden Gate with a beautiful view of City of San Francisco below. Paralleling the eastern shore of Marin, we banked to the northwest for our flight across Canada to Europe.
As I got settled into my comfortable seat during climb to cruise, I realized my overhead light was flickering on and off. I couldn’t help but smile that this Queen was ready to retire.
Dinner service began with hot towels followed by beverage service and warmed nuts. Even though wine tasting was available, no one in my area took up the offer. I went with my usual – Coke Zero with lemon. One hour after takeoff, dinner service began in earnest with appetizers.
The baby spinach salad was absolutely great! Totally expected for an airline meal. The strawberries and the spinach leaves were not soggy and the pumpkins seeds were crunchy. Note to self – a simple salad to make at home. The Thai-style lemongrass shrimp with papaya salad was unique, again tasted very fresh.
The wait before my entrée was long – 40 minutes before it finally came. Continuing on an Asian theme – I went with Miso-glazed arapaima fish fillet. I had to look it up, arapaima is a large freshwater white fish.
The fish was very tender, the miso beurre blanc (soy white butter) sauce didn’t taste like miso to me, but nevertheless delicious. The Chinese style steamed vegetables were on point, I felt like I was eating at a dim sum restaurant. The only downfall was the soba noddle – bits of it had dried from sitting in the oven too long.
Overall, though, the fusion of this entrée was well executed.
For reference, here was my seatmates’ quinoa salad with grilled chicken. A healthy choice, it was reported “pretty good”.
Hunger had set in after the long wait for departure and yet another wait for dinner. I finished my fish plate in 10 minutes. I was offered port and cheese, but I skipped it. Despite being midnight back home, I had my eyes on the dessert cart in the galley next to me. Flight attendants joked “no dessert until you are all done!” (which of course, I already have).
The three-tiered pastries and ice cream toppings looked quite impressive. The sundae, after all, is a United signature dessert – I had been looking forward to it since I saw it on the menu before departure.
The dessert cart was something you expect in a restaurant, not on a plane. Topping choices for the vanilla ice cream were: caramel, chocolate sauce, strawberries, heath bar crumples, whipped cream, and cherry.
Flight attendant made it to order: “another spoonful of chocolate?” “why yes, of course!” The only downfall was the paper cup used for the ice cream. It felt like something you’d have at a street fair, not at a nice restaurant.
Two hours into the flight, now well past midnight, flight attendant passed out overnight water bottles. I flattened my seat for sleep. These older design seats do not have any storage space, a feature that later lie-flat seats touted.
I stretched out my arms and my elbows hit the water bottle on one side and camera on the other. I shuffled around a bit working my way around all the stuff on my seat. I was in love with the pillow. It was comfortable yet supportive! I have to look into the brand/type on my next flight.
I woke up around eight hours into the flight. It was 6 am back home and it was time to wake up. We were north of Scotland and I can tell through the window shade that it was full sun outside.
Despite being down for around five hours, I only had medium quality sleep. The air hissed loudly over my seat, probably an artifact of behind an exit door. My noise reduction headset only dulled the hissing but did not eliminate it.
Not only that, lights and noise from the galley next to me woke me on occasion. Such was the price paid for having the engine view. “How did you sleep?” asked a flight attendant. “Just so-so,” I replied. “I understand, it’s hard to sleep in the seat. Can I offer you something to drink?” I was loving the service so far!
About 90 minutes before landing, second meal service began with hot towel. Choices were omelet or cereal with fruit. I went with the omelet. Typically, the pre-arrival meal is the weakest meal of most airlines. My expectation was low.
I was pleasantly surprised after the first cut into my omelet: melted cheese…thick strings of melty cheese. I thought “wow, that’s nice”. And it was delicious! The sausage was not greasy and complemented well with the egg.
A warm cinnamon roll soon joined the limpy croissant. The cinnamon roll was a tasty treat. Of course, I skipped the pathetic croissant. Overall the breakfast was very tasty – I was impressed!
Upon descend and approach to Frankfurt, FO Dave provided the obligatory weather check and followed up with the significance of the 747 at United after 47 years of service. He also noted this being the pilots’ last flight on the 747 and apologized for the delay, saying (using nice words) that it is time for the Queen to retire.
After landing, I made my way back up to the cockpit for another visit. The crew, both pilots and flight attendants, were as enthusiastic and accommodating as ever. They were duly impressed with my continuing trip on the 747 around the world.
United has really stepped up its game with its new Polaris Business Class service. The standout was the meal, easily topping other Business Class competitors I have experienced over the Atlantic.
The dinner entrée choices are unique and imaginative: restaurant-class. The breakfast was high quality as well, a typical let down on most other airlines. Too bad I was asleep and did not try any of the mid-flight snacks.
Just from the sampling I had, I was very impressed with Polaris! Expectations will be high whenever I get a chance to experience Polaris as intended: including the Polaris Lounge and the new Polaris Seats. Until then, United has a great thing going here and the new products can’t come quickly enough for the airline’s premium customers.