Saturday, July 30, 2011

ORD-LGA on United: Comfort despite delays

This account of an evening flight to New York is the continuation of a trip that began with a morning hop-skip-&-jump via regional jet from Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field to Chicago O’Hare.

After three-quarters of a workday – par the course for a Friday – it was again time to fly. The day had begun with a drive from Chicago to Milwaukee followed by an immediate return journey in the skies, as mentioned above, and it would wind down in the same, ahem, elevated manner.

Boarding pass already in hand, I arrived at O’Hare’s Terminal One drop-off curb some 30 minutes before my flight’s scheduled departure time of 5:30p. The timing was a tad tight, considering that the duration of Friday evening security lines have both a higher mean and variance than the typical case. And such description applies to United’s elite TSA line too, perhaps even more emphatically.

I was unfazed upon stepping into the terminal, however, for just seconds before I received an Easy Update email that the departure time of United 462 would be pushed to 6:01p on account of an air traffic control delay. The security line bared its fangs but bit gently; I was through in about fifteen minutes.

At this point some cooling of my heels was unfortunately in order – my preferred modus operandi for airport arrivals is seamless passage through the security theater, down the concourse, and into the jetbridge either at the precise commencement of boarding (if traveling with a roll-aboard) or upon the reverberation throughout the crevices of the terminal of my flight’s final boarding call.

Some twenty minutes later, around 5:40p, the gate agent finally propped open the Bravo 10 jetbridge door and began United’s cumbersome boarding procedure. Fortunately, I did not have to wait and cringe as the ridiculous litany of mileage program tiers was sequentially invited to rush the boarding pass control choke-point, as I exercised my option of boarding at the beginning of the whole charade. Stepping onboard the post-merger colours A320 aircraft, I found the flight attendants and pilots chatting merrily and stepped expeditiously into my window seat in row two.

Unfortunately, our flight was in a hurry to go nowhere. As boarding wrapped up, the flight deck crew welcomed us aboard and announced the availability of Channel 9; yet no sooner had we pushed back and commenced taxiing, before I heard (on Channel 9) ATC’s instructions for us to hold 90 minutes in the “scenic pad.”

To this passenger at least, the wait was no tremendous trouble. I unfurled the day’s Wall Street Journal and enjoyed its contents alongside a plastic cup of red wine (glassware is generally not deployed by U.S. airlines while still on the ground). To the flight crew’s further credit, a refill was offered, and I also received an accompanying (plastic) glass of sparkling water upon my request. In no time the hour-and-change passed, our engines were restarted and warmed, and we were taxiing to runway 9R.

At this point, I must comment: the air traffic controller working the 9R – 4L pair was quite the pro! The young, female voice was anything but tenderly feminine; indeed, she suavely motored through an interminable chain of commands, all articulated with the speed of an auctioneer and yet with unslurred precision. At one point, she announced a Shuttle America E170 as cleared for takeoff while the preceding Airbus was still lifting its mains off the tail end of the runway. When the regional jet hesitated in commencing the roll, the controller reiterated the instruction, this time with slight agitation and an emphasis of the clearance as being for “immediate” takeoff. The Embraer complied, and only seconds after becoming airborne an arriving E145 glided in for a landing on the same runway.

Soon enough, we too were climbing into the heavens, all the while proceeding down the runway heading of 90 degrees. The sun was now mere inches over the western horizon and the day was cloudless, meaning that the reddish, sideways light that illuminated Des Plaines, Niles, Morton Grove and Evanston resulted in spectacular views. Periodic glances back toward the wing and pulsating turbofan confirmed that the celestial orb was dramatically low and of a fiery orange hue. What a brilliant sight!

In short order, our A320 made landfall in extreme southwestern Michigan, and the colours outside began morphing into the pale reds and haunting violets that might be found in a Rothko work.

The snack service soon commenced in the forward cabin, with the antipasti consisting not of edible offerings but, rather, of service runs that distributed hot towels, linen for the tray-table, and the passengers’ drinks of choice. (I shifted from red to white wine.) Service was efficient albeit not terribly gracious.

The pièce de résistance was the trayed “snack” distributed to each passenger. The offering is stated parenthetically as United’s reservations system terms the service as such (i.e. as a snack), however, in reality - and fortunately - the meal is considerably more substantive. Passengers have a choice between a panini turkey sandwich and a pasta salad with feta cheese. I opted for the latter and was not disappointed.

To be clear, one must expect a United Airlines domestic meal to err on the side of fat and carbohydrates, and my pasta salad was drenched in a fair bit more oil than I’d usually choose to apply. But I was resigned to a less healthy meal than is my norm, and was furthermore quite hungry; thus, I savoured the pasta, crumbled feta, and chopped assortment of cucumber, tomato and lettuce for what it was: an imperfect but appreciated dose of flavor and sustenance. The white wine accompanied the pasta and vegetables well, and its taste featured interesting hints of spice.

The evening’s route:

As the meal service wound down and tray-tables were cleared, I ordered a final beverage – another sparkling water with lime – and, for a change, bit into some intellectual matter: some end-of-the-workweek introspective writing. Output was greased by the concoction of alcoholic potions earlier consumed, and moments after I finished, our flight deck crew commenced descent.

The evening’s journey across space, thought and experience had one more quick, unplanned addition: a hold of one or two circuits in the vicinity of Trenton, NJ. Soon enough, however, ATC cleared our approach to La Guardia’s runway 22, and I savoured the unique crackle and directness of NY Approach controllers as we vectored toward a wheels-down at 10:51p.

Although the journey ended with a delay exceeding two hours, I cannot say that it was anything but comfortable.

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