Thursday, August 18, 2011

DCA-ORD on United: Efficiency and Gemuetlichkeit

This post is a culmination of a trip that began with a MKE-ORD hop on Skywest and an ORD-LGA journey with United.

The return journey from Washington Reagan to Chicago O’Hare was characterized by efficiency and Gemuetlichkeit.

I had been ticketed to travel DCA-ORD-MKE, departing National Airport at 4:35p and arriving at Mitchell Field at 6:55p, with a brief 40 minute O’Hare layover in the interim. Arrival into Milwaukee would be well-timed for connection to the 7:45p departure of an Amtrak train back to Chicago’s Union Station. Anticipated afternoon thunderstorms in the Chicagoland area, however, led United to cancel the 4:35p DCA-ORD flight. I’d been anticipating the move, as United often pares its flight schedule on routes with hourly service when summer thunderstorms threaten. I noticed the cancellation online around Noon and immediately called the 1K desk for rebooking onto the 5:31p DCA-ORD flight, with the ORD-MKE connection deferred until the following morning. Indeed, I called so soon that upgrade inventory still remained on the new flight, allowing me to immediately clear into the F cabin (although this feat was assisted by the equipment on this later flight: a 757-200 with 24 forward-cabin seats).

Being a connoisseur of early morning flights –the blush of dawn, the endless possibilities of a new day, license for copious consumption of steaming coffee – I was thrilled at exchanging my evening ORD-MKE dash for one at 6:44a on the following day. The morning service would likewise connect nicely with a Chicago-bound Amtrak Hiawatha train, and I was looking forward to the rose-coloured light with which the sun might bathe Chicago’s northern suburbs during my time as airborne observer of the lands below. And I knew that, once I satiated my hunger for natural beauty outside my window, I could redirect my charged and rested mind to the crisp pages of the morning’s hot-off-the-press Financial Times.

But these musings on beauty and knowledge would concern the following day. This Tuesday afternoon would bring a different experience entirely: the quintessence of efficiency and comfort between the Washington and Chicago markets, namely a flight with United’s B757 on the DCA-ORD route.

Why do I boldly describe the journey as such? Indeed, I am writing about U.S. domestic, short-haul commercial air travel, hardly a glamorous topic for most. I will attempt a defense shortly, just after I sketch my transit to the airport.

With the 5:31p departure time bearing down with increasing weight, I departed my friend’s Arlington, VA home at 4:40p – a daringly late departure time by even my highly risk-seeking standards. In the half-hour prior, I was mesmerized by investigation of a notable session in the gold futures market – the yellow metal had sharply accelerated its upward trend and suggested itself as being in a short-term capitulation phase – and, subsequent to mapping the price action’s channels over charts of varying time frame, decided to open a small short position in GLD, one of the metal’s ETFs. All this was finally accomplished by 4:40p, and with a slight jog I emerged from chilly air-conditioning and into the oppressive Washington summer heat.

My friend’s apartment is situated midway between the Clarendon and Rosslyn metro stops; thus, after only a few minutes, I was descending into the relative cool of the underground. While riding the exceptionally lengthy escalator into the depths of Rosslyn, I quickly called up the Washington Metro website on my phone, learning that a DCA-bound train would be departing in a mere minute. Lady luck was smiling upon me.

And so, I was at Reagan with a comfortable 25 minutes before departure time. The security line into United’s pier of gates was particularly short, and I was pleased to avoid the full-body scan on this encounter with the “Agency.”

Pleased and relieved at the efficiency of my transit between Rosslyn and air-side Reagan, I invested some of my surplus pre-departure minutes toward changing into a fresh shirt. I then approached the gate, elected to check my large roll-aboard (as I correctly anticipated that the diminutive overhead bins in F would be already filled), and strode aboard among the last of the passengers.

Allow me, reader, a brief, impassioned interlude: flight with a United Boeing 757 between Reagan and O’Hare is a truly singular experience! My accolades are merited by the journey’s combination of superlative iterations of various factors, including airport locations, frequency of alternative services, and aircraft equipment. Thus: Reagan and O’Hare are both highly convenient airports to my destinations in Washington and Chicago, respectively; United is the only airline to offer hourly service from early morning through evening on the route, with nearly all service operated by mainline aircraft and crews; and of United’s approximately fifteen daily flights on the DCA-ORD route, at least one is usually operated by the Boeing 757, a superior allocation owing to its stately and beautiful proportions, generously sized forward cabin, and rich history as backbone of the United domestic network during the recent past.

Turning left at door 2L, I ventured the few steps to the starboard window seat at row 2 and settled in. The haze of time obscures precise recollection of many pre-departure details – I record this account about a fortnight later – but I believe pre-departure beverages were offered and Channel 9 was enabled.

Takeoff proceeded with minimal delay down runway 19, allowing for customary views of the Mall and Georgetown before establishment of a westerly heading. Once the flight crew settled our aircraft at cruise, further beverage orders were taken and the snack basket was offered. The below exhibits of evidence confirm that I ordered a glass of red wine (merlot, if I recall correctly) and helped myself to a package of Popchips (et al).

Landing occurred, if memory serves, on O’Hare’s 22L, with our approach consisting of a gallop approximately above Western Avenue for much of the Chicago’s length before adjusting heading toward the northeast to meet the downwind channel for our runway. Our 180-degree turnaround then took place over the Lake, just off the coast of Highland Park.

The flight’s rollout from 22L positioned us ideally for a short taxi to the middle of the C pier of Terminal One, where we parked at gate C17. Upon deplaning, I made my way immediately to baggage claim, where my gate-checked bag emerged after a reasonable wait of three or five minutes.

In sum, the journey was notable for its efficiency: I left for Reagan less than an hour before departure, experienced no delays enroute to O’Hare, and was retrieving my checked bag only 3 hours after departing my friend’s house in Arlington. The trip was United’s shuttle service at its speediest.

In addition, the feeling of Gemuetlichkeit was palpable, at least for this ardent United lover. It was a pleasure to fly aboard the Boeing 757, the upgrade into the forward cabin was most welcome, and the efficiency cited above further reinforced the feeling of satisfaction.

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