Welcome to the second part of this instalment of Brian’s Travel Spot, which chronicles my various flights to/from Chicago this year. My crazy travel schedule, which has seen me flying over all the world in 2017, has also resulted in my taking three trips to Chicago. The first was at the end of June, the second (September), I’ve just returned from, while the third one is at the end of October. Since I’m flying with a different airline each time and, despite always starting out at Manchester, I’m also flying three different routes, I thought that it would be interesting to compare and contrast my experiences.
June saw me fly with United from Manchester to Chicago (via Newark), returning direct to London. Meanwhile, in October I’ll be flying direct to and Manchester with American Airlines. Today, however, is all about my recent trip in September, when I flew from Manchester to London with British Airways, then on to Chicago with American Airlines, before returning on a direct flight, this time with British Airways, to London. Even better, I flew back business class, just the second time I’ve flown long-haul in business, having done it earlier this year when returning from Vietnam.
This was the fourth time I’ve flown from Manchester and each time I’ve liked it less. At least this flight was at a sensible hour, leaving at 2 o’clock, while my flight from Heathrow was the last one of the day, at 5.15 that afternoon. This left me just over two hours to transfer at Heathrow, but we’ll get to that.
There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with Manchester airport: it just doesn’t seem to do things very well. To start with, there were large queues at security. Although the system of getting people through the scanners was efficient enough, the problem was at the other side, where every other bag seemed to be pulled aside to be checked. Unfortunately, although there were plenty of staff on duty, there were only two actually checking the bags, so there was a long wait there, which meant that the conveyor belt through the scanner kept getting backed up, leading to delays for everyone else.
Once security had been safely negotiated, it was on to the terminal area. Once again I was in Terminal 3, but after the delays at security, I didn’t have that long to wait, so I decided to go through to the gate. Unfortunately the my gate was one of a cluster beyond its own security checkpoint, where you had to show your boarding pass to get through, so I wasn’t sure if once you got through, you could come back again to the main area, which was where all the shops, cafes and seats were.
The actual gate area was terrible. There were four or five seats up against the wall in a long corridor and other than that, no seating at all. The only option was to queue against the other wall of the corridor and wait for the gate to be opened so that we could board the plane. I’m used to terminals not having enough seats at the gate for all the passengers, but to basically have a no-seating policy is ridiculous. Also, we still had to show our boarding passes to get on the plane, so why there had to be a separate security control to get into the gate area is beyond me. It’s another example of airlines/airports simply not valuing their passengers’ time and instead forcing us to stand in pointless queues for long periods of time.
When we finally got on the plane, the flight was uneventful, except for some turbulence coming into land at Heathrow. I was on an Airbus A319 and had booked my customary exit row seat. There wasn’t a huge amount of legroom, but there was enough that I could get my laptop out and work on it. However, the flight itself only lasted 40-minute flight, a mere hop really, and we only got to 19,000 feet, before starting our descent. What with the time eaten up by take-off and landing, I only had about 20 minutes when I could to use the laptop. On the other hand, the exit row seat only cost £15, which is probably worth it for the extra comfort.
The transfer at Heathrow was pretty good, but it still took almost an hour to get off the plane, transfer to terminals and clear security, my least favourite exercise, although this was far smoother than it had been at Manchester. And it was a vastly superior experience to the one I’d had at Newark, made even better by having my bag checked all the way through to Chicago, so there was no waiting around at baggage reclaim.
Of course, I had made this slightly more difficult for myself compard to the last time I’d tried this when, ironically, I was actually flying to Newark and the whole transfer had taken 15 minutes. The problem was that my flight from Manchester was with British Airways, so I arrived at Terminal 5, but since I was flying to Chicago with American, I had to transfer over to Terminal 3, which involved a bus ride across the airport. That said, it was all very swift and efficient, although for some reason we were all re-issued with boarding passes (despite having been issued with boarding passes for the Chicago flight in Manchester).
After all that, I had about an hour to kill in Terminal 3, which is far more pleasant than I remember. There was even time to break out my Travel Press and brand-new Aergrind and make myself some coffee before I had to board the flight.
Having flown to London on British Airways, my flight to Chicago was with American Airlines (on a codeshare with British Airways). I approached this with significant trepidation, having once flown with American (again on a code share) many years ago and not particularly enjoyed the experience. What’s more, earlier in the year, I’d had the misfortune to fly with American from Miami to Boston, a miserable experience, which I have no intention of repeating.
However, I did have some cause for optimism, having recently flown transatlantic with both United and Delta. The Delta flight in particular was excellent (sadly Delta don’t fly direct from Chicago to London), which went a long way to allaying my fears about flying with US airlines. Ten years ago, they were distinctly inferior compared to British Airways and Virgin, but they’ve really upped their game. Also, comparing internal flights with international ones (or potentially short-haul with long-haul) is like comparing apples and pears: taking internal flights in the US is not something I look forward to, but flying transatlantic is a very different experience.
Given my misgivings, you might wonder why, when British Airways has two flights a day to Chicago, I chose to fly with American instead? The answer is simple: I had little choice. I had to take my Dad to hospital for a routine check-up that morning, so the earliest flight I could catch out of Manchester was the 2 o’clock one, which got me into Heathrow at 3 o’clock. Now, there is a 4 o’clock flight with British Airways which shows up as a connection when you’re booking, but I really didn’t fancy my chances of making the transfer in under an hour (bearing in mind that boarding tends to close 20 minutes before scheduled take-off time).
Hence, I ended up flying with American, which, as it turns out, was not a bad choice. To start with, British Airways is currently operating its old Boeing 747s on the route (although rumour has it they are being replaced by Airbus A380s next year), while American fly brand new Boeing 787s, which are rapidly becoming one of my favourite aircraft. When flying in economy, there really is no comparison, especially since the 747s don’t have at-seat power, one of my key requirements.
As usual, I’d booked a bulkhead seat, which was another bonus. Because of the layout of the 747s British Airways use on the Chicago flights, there are no exit row seats in economy, just one row of bulkhead seats, which are, understandably, reserved for those flying with babies and small children, so getting one can be a bit hit and miss. You certainly can’t reserve on before the flight.
In contrast, the American 787-800 only has two classes, business and economy, with quite a small business section at the front. The US airlines have also realised that they can charge people like me a relative fortune for seats with extra legroom (£100 in this case, compared to a round-trip flight cost of £750), so there are plenty of seats at the front of economy with extra legroom.
Best of all, there’s a row right at the front, by the bulkhead, that you can reserve (and pay for) ahead of time, which beats my other choice, the exit row seats, which are further back, hands down. While the exit row seats have far more legroom, these are invariably by the toilets and also sometimes by the galley, so they can be very noisy. Even worse, other passengers have decided it’s a great place to queue for toilet, which infuriates me.
It turned out that my flight was only one third full, so when I was re-issued with my boarding pass at Heathrow, the check-in staff were happily offering to move me to another row, which they proudly announced I would have to myself. It took quite a bit of explaining of my behalf to convince them that I had deliberately booked a bulkhead seat so that I wouldn’t have a reclining seat in front of me. Eventually they relented, but moved me from my original seat, 8D, in the centre, to 8J, another aisle seat, but on the right, since I’d have an empty seat next to me, which was thoughtful.
I was therefore rather surprised when I boarded the flight to find a family with two small children in the two seats next to me, while the middle three seats were empty. The family didn’t look too impressed when I turned up either. It turned out that they’d been put in the seats next to me in the middle (which is why I’d been moved) but the flight crew had moved them over to these two seats since it had a basinet for their baby. I’m not sure who was more relieved, me or the family, when we discovered this and I moved back to my original seat in the middle, where, ironically, I had the whole row to myself…
After all that the flight was excellent, perhaps the best I’ve had going transatlantic in economy. One of the nice things with the bulkhead seats on the newer aircraft such as the 787s is that you get a separate monitor (in addition to the fold-out one in your seat rest) on the bulkhead which permanently displays the flight map, making it easy to follow your route, even if you’re watching a movie (or, in my case, writing an article for Caffeine Magazine).
The meal service in particular was very efficient, with the vegetarian food arriving at the same time as everyone else’s meals (usually I get served first and have finished eating by the time everyone else’s food arrives). Even better, the food, a mushroom stroganoff, was very tasty, and the dessert, a cherry crumble cake, was superb, making it the best meal I’ve had in economy. There was also a spinach and goat’s cheese folded pizza for dinner just before we landed, while midway through the flight, the crew came around with ice cream and tea/coffee, something British Airways could learn from! I declined the coffee, by the way, having made my own earlier on, giving my new Aergrind its first experience of grinding mid-flight.
My only complaint was the usual one: despite this being a day-time flight (in fact, looking at the map, we were chased across the Atlantic by the setting sun) the window-shaded were set to full blackout and cabin lights were dimmed for most of the flight, something I find extremely annoying.
We landed in Chicago on time and I got my rucksack back in good order (no dunking in a bucket of water this time!).
As much as my flight over was enjoyable, flying back was even better, although that might have had something to do with my deciding to upgrade the return leg to business class.
Between them, American Airlines (four) and British Airways (two) have six daily flights from Chicago to London, with American flying 787s and British Airways flying 747s. However, while the 787s are definitely configured for economy passengers, with just 28 business class seats, British Airways has its 747-400s configured with a whopping 86 business class seats, plus another 14 in first. Clearly this was a popular option since, on my flight, I think every seat in business class was taken.
One advantage of flying with British Airways is that all its flights leave from Terminal 5, which is by far my favourite terminal at O’Hare (yes, of course I have favourite terminals!). Unlike my experience with United back in June, complete with horrendous queues for security at Terminal 1, flying from Terminal 5 is a joy.
Small, compact and rarely very busy, I’ve flown out of Terminal 5 on many occasions. I particularly enjoyed breezing through security and may well factor this into my future flying choices: the stress of not having to go through security at Terminal 1 is a definite bonus and makes everything so quick! There was one famous occasion when, due to construction on the Blue Line (which connects O’Hare with downtown Chicago), I arrived at the terminal 20 minutes before my flight was due leave. Had this been somewhere like Heathrow, Gatwick or even Terminal 1 at O’Hare, that would have been that. At Terminal 5, I was checked in, through security and on the plane inside five minutes!
When I first flew from Terminal 5, going back 10+ years, once you were airside, there wasn’t much going on. No food, no shops, nothing. I can remember arriving about three hours early for one flight (probably an over-reaction to my experience with the Blue Line) and having nothing to do except sit there until the flight boarded (this was in the days before I flew with my laptop and a long to-do list: in fact, I don’t think I even owned a laptop back then!).
These days, Terminal 5 is lovely, with plenty of shops and food outlets airside, and with lots of seating at the gates as well, plus free WiFi. Not that this mattered to me, since with my business class ticket, I could use the business lounge. While not quite as swanky as the business lounge in Hanoi, it was pleasant enough, although since every seat in business class was booked on the flight, the lounge was also full and I had to resort to hanging out in the restaurant, where I had an early (free) dinner. I also got the helpful staff to bring me a jug of hot water so I could make myself some (decaf) coffee.
The only slight problem with the flight was that I was unable to check-in on-line and even when I got to the airport, I wasn’t assigned a seat at check-in, instead having to go to the desk in the lounge. Normally, that would have had me fretting about getting stuck in the middle seat somewhere in the back of the plane, but since it was business class, I really wasn’t too worried about which seat I would get.
The seat I was eventually assigned was on the lower deck and right at the back of business class. British Airways makes full use of the 747’s width, with four seats in the centre and two on either side. These alternate, with one of each pair facing forwards, the other facing backwards. In the centre four seats, the outside two seats face forwards, while the inside two face backwards. This makes the two inside seats very popular with couples, since you are effectively side-by-side, but since most people in business class are flying alone, they’re actually the least popular seats.
Naturally, since I only got one of the last available seats, I ended up right in the centre, in a rearward facing seat (22E for those who are interested). Unlike my experience flying business class on a 787, there was no nicely cocooned pod-like seat. Instead, particularly with the barriers down for take-off and landing, it’s more like sitting in a spacious row in economy. You get a little more privacy when the barriers are up, particularly in the outside seats, where the barrier between the opposing seats completely fills the gap. However, in the centre two seats, there’s little separating them.
At first I was a little concerned by this, but then I remembered the countless flights I’d taken in economy, cheek-by-jowl with the stranger next to me, and sometimes with a seat reclined to within a few inches of my face, and I began to cheer up. My main complaint is that there’s no real storage space. Again, compared to my pod when I flew business class on a 787, with its shelves and cupboards, there was nowhere, except a single fold-out table, to put anything. There is a drawer on the floor by the television (which folds out from the side), and you could put things on the floor itself or under the seat, but it wasn’t very convenient. However, compared to economy, I really shouldn’t have been complaining.
The seat itself was very comfortable, and while it’s the first time I’ve flown sitting facing backwards, other than feeling a little odd when taking off, it was fine. On the plus side, compared to the 787, the seat had far fewer controls and was much less daunting. The seat converted to six-foot long bed, which, at 6’2”, I found quite comfortable. There was also a fold-down stool at the end which formed part of the bed.
The flight time was just 7 hours 15 minutes, which really isn’t very long, particularly when you’re trying to get some sleep. In the end, I managed about four hours, which doesn’t seem much, but actually made all the difference. Normally when I get back from the US, I’m jet-lagged for at least a week, if not two, but this time I’ve been fine.
The catering was interesting. Since it was a night flight and British Airways expects a lot of people to eat beforehand in the lounge, they only cater for 50% of the passengers. Sadly, more than half of us wanted to eat and since I was at the back of the cabin, they’d run out by the time they got to me! Good job I’d eaten in the lounge then…
In fairness to the crew, they’d raided first class and were able to offer me whiskey and mushroom soup, which turned out to be the perfect nightcap and far better than a heavy meal (my neighbour had roast chicken).
The flight was very smooth, the only real problem coming right at the start when we boarded. Unfortunately the air-conditioning wasn’t working, a problem with the generator at the gate and it was only when we pushed back and started the engines that it came on. Since it was 30C and humid in Chicago, the plane quickly heated up and was unpleasantly hot and (very) humid until we got going.
I’ll leave you with one observation, a major difference when flying on British compared to US airlines. On the way over, flying with American, the seat-belt sign was on for much of the flight even though it was very smooth. On US airlines, the seat-belt sign seems to be largely advisory. I even went up to the galley and asked for some hot water for my coffee while it was on and no-one batted an eyelid.
In contrast, on the flight back there was some turbulence and the seat-belt signs came on. Immediately the crew came through the cabin, checking everyone was in their seats with their belts fastened. Then, five minutes later, off it went and everything was back to normal…
In conclusion, if you ever get the chance to fly long-haul in business class, do it!
I’ll be taking my third set of flights to Chicago, this time flying direct from/to Manchester with American Airlines, in October/December, so check back then to see how I got on.
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