Friday, December 31, 2010

Winter 2010-11 Central Europe Trip Report, Part 1: ORD-MUC-VIE

United 906, ORD-MUC, B777, C class (old config.), seat 8D and
Lufthansa 2328, MUC-VIE, A319, Y class, seat 7F

Willkommen an Bord.
Vielen Dank, dass Sie sich für United entschieden haben.

So begins, predictably enough, United’s menu on ORD-MUC. I was the fortunate recipient of an operational upgrade on the route during travel earlier this week. And since this does profess to be a joint markets and travel account, allow me to regale you, kind readers, with an account of that particular travel day.

The morning began with a departure for ORD at the crisp time of 6:30am. Living an über-convenient distance away from that four-terminal gathering point of majors, regionals, internationals alike – and indeed, of the multitudes of humanity –, transport between doorstep (itself under the runway 28 arrival traffic flow) and United’s Terminal One is a most invigorating 10 minutes’ ecstasy of open-throttled cruise down the John F. Kennedy expressway. The experience is, indeed, profoundly invigorating: to be motoring to that great facilitator of extraordinary experiences, salutary perspectives, awesome creativity, most superior optimism; and moreover, to be doing so at the early morning dawn, when life itself awaits, when a day of unbridled possibilities is born from the pregnant night. To be soon heading into the heavens, the acceleration and lift being a great constant in a life of tumult, the unfailing inspiration amidst a world of fickle investments, is the gentle kiss of love itself.

And so, arriving at United’s worldwide home, I proceeded straight to the faux-luxury oasis-cum- pig pen known by the bombastic appellation of Red Carpet Club. If ever there was a prime example of a misnomer, of flagrant false advertising, nay even of a humourless euphemism, the restricted-access grounds near Charlie Six are surely it! Alright, critical and non-existent readership, I do indeed jest. Yes, guilty as charged: my flight to München, the fair United Niner-Zero-Six, was not until the evening time of 6:12pm, and I was journeying some eleven hours early to O’Hare for the sole purpose of reclining in the clubby milieu. Or rather, I was heading to the source of the cheapest available internet connection, for “home”, where I no longer reside, has extinguished the inaudible ping-ping of its Cisco something-or-other. By some miracle I convinced the United gate keeper to provide the necessary wifi scratch-off card, a most generous gesture for which I, as neither a club member nor an international premium cabin passenger, was not strictly entitled. (Entry itself to the RCC was by the book, by virtue of holding Star Alliance Gold status, though this is mentioned in strictly humble breadth, in recognition of the supremely trivial qualifications necessary for this again overly-flattering honorific; indeed, it seems even Ma and Pa Kettle fliers can, these days, round up the 19,000 qualifying miles, which is all that’s necessary in the low-standards Aegean Airlines program.) I got straight to work, pausing intermittently for that greaser of output, yes that quintessential conduit of cognitive output: coffee. And I made fine progress on some academic deliverables. Indeed, much like the commerce of UPS, a true academic’s output (and a faux academic’s work too, apparently) never pauses, er, sleeps. No matter that the semester has been tied up in a nice bow.

After some four hours of Gulag-like labour deep within the maze of cubicles at the ‘ole RCC, it was time to glimpse the outside world anew. And so a date with the Blue Line was initiated, though my excitement for the time spent together was admittedly curtailed when I glimpsed an empty gate Michael One as we trudged out of O’Hare; the gate is sometimes occupied by the stately Boeing 767-300 in LOT colours. And Back to the work-a-day hum-drum of Jefferson Park I ventured, with chief task of preparing my journeying bag accomplished with alacrity. But then: back to those privileged airside surroundings.

I opted for a different club for my pre-push drinking. Indeed, I did not even have time to engage in drinking in any proper sense, for a glass of “house white” is all for which time permitted before I dashed to C12, where the Boeing 777-200 for MUC was just commencing boarding. And, as I’d anticipated, I was presented with a new boarding pass upon approaching the counter to discreetly inquire about just that very matter: I’d received an operational upgrade to Business Class, seat 8 Delta within the forward mini-cabin.

Hoorah! How pleasing it is to be bestowed with that last-minute reprieve from the contortions and sacrifices of Economy. No matter that one is truly excited about venturing to beloved Europa, indeed no matter even that one would welcome a seat in Economy, even the last middle one, over the plushest hotel bed, any night of the year, so long as a take-off and landing in a stimulating locale were included. But nonetheless: a chance of significantly less fitful sleep and the guarantee of significantly more/better food and drink brought tremendous gratitude and, dare I say it, relief. Now a word about this drinking. I rarely drink, though I do admit to being a budding oenophile (though most definitely of hopelessly neophyte skill); however, the standard operating procedure on red-eye flights invariably calls for generous alcohol to catalyze the exhaustion of a long travel day into emphatic and unbroken sleep. On domestic flights, a glass or two of red-wine is the lubricant of choice. But on international services, the repertoire is expanded: some domestic sparkling wine before push-back, a usual choice of earthy red during the Express meal service, perhaps a dabble in red port with cheese. In either case, expeditious consumption is the over-arching priority. On red-eyes, which can be as short as 2h45m in the case of a recent LAS-ORD service, I try to be producing the brain waves of sleep within 15 minutes of wheels-up. When TATL or other transcontinental service is in play, I have taken a predilection towards ordering the “Express Dine” (or equivalent) meal service, whereby everything is served at one, and with which I might finish the final course of cheese within an hour of the unfurling of our craft’s airborne-ness.

And so, soon after wheels up, the result of a take-off roll that commenced at the Tango Ten intersection with Runway 32 left, I made the following selections for the dinner service aboard UA 906, opting for Express Dine:

Zum Angang (beginnings)
• Center cut smoked salmon loin, over a bed of fresh cucumber relish
• Seasonal mixed greens, roasted garlic red wine vinaigrette

Hauptgericht (main course)
• Herbed Boursin® rotisserie chicken with pomegranate-lime glaze; bulgar wheat pilaf with cranberries and pecans, stir-fried sugar snap peas and carrots

Zum Abschluss (to finish)
• Artisan cheese selection (served with red grapes and crackers); Sartori Bellavitano, Montchevré Sun-dried Tomato and Basil Chévre

Pre-departure, I enjoyed a touch of Pommery Brut Royal NV Champagne, a departure from the expected northern California origin of United’s onboard carbon dioxide -imbued alcoholic beverage. With the chicken, I selected Cave la Suzienne Racines Profondes 2007 AOC Cotes-du-Rhone. Given the passage of several days since my consumption of the above food and drink, I will refrain from detailed commentary thereof, save to comment, in a most general sense, that I was highly satisfied with the meal, particularly with the chicken. I’d never previously opted away from the beef or fish selections when travelling in an intercontinental premium cabin, but on 906 I was influenced by having recently eaten lackluster ribs, which was the only beef or fish selection on offer. Additionally, I recalled a meal tasting with United in which I partook in May (coincidentally enough, in a conference room at the C16 RCC, which I visited immediately before boarding the 777 sojourn being reviewed here), during which I was favourably impressed with the rotisserie chicken with which our focus group was presented.

And soon, so very soon, after polishing off the port and tuning off the Flight of the Conchords, I reclined and fell promptly asleep.

Nearly six hours later, I was back within the belly of the aluminum whale – not just my mass, but my consciousness, too. Breakfast was a perfunctory affair, and swiftly we glided ever-lower across the manicured and stoic German countryside, kissing the runway as we bid Guten Morgen to the assorted aircraft of TATL joint venture partner Lufthansa that were stationed all around. It was the usual trek from the high Hotel gates to German (or, should I say, EU) immigration, and my naturally quick pace meant I was comfortably ahead of the 906 pack by the time of our reaching that row of barren visages. Lines for re-clearing security appeared surprisingly populated, but a discreet Lufthansa agent directed me towards the ostentatiously segregated Lufthansa First Class check-in (and its associated security control); it’s extraordinary, in the literal sense of the descriptor, how LH cares for the Star Golds it carries, some of whom have accrued as few as 19k annual status miles (as I described above).

The obligatory visit to the G29 Senator lounge was as pleasant as ever. A delightful assortment of Germanic breakfast items; sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, Bavarian cheeses and meats, Swiss muesli, glass-housed latte machiatos was, as usual, but a sampling of the rich offering. I snatched an FTD, IHT, and naturally enough, FT for my intellectual enthrallment (in my case, I mean that quite literally!), and I was off! – just promptly enough to make the final boarding opportunity of the LH A319 service to Wien. Our lightly-loaded ship rocketed into the milky atmosphere after seemingly a mere 3k-4k of used pavement; indeed, we heard the pilots’ wir starten and felt the pronounced push of the twin turbofans while our aircraft was still taxiing onto the active runway from an access-providing high-speed taxiway. There was no ultra-conservative 90-degree point turn at the extreme threshold, an MO often seen at the hands of uptight (though admirably safety-uncompromising) American helmsmen. And, after too quick an exploration of the Mainline and feeder (Companies and Markets) operations of Pearson’s flagship, it was Grüß Gott Schwechat!

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