My schedule’s seen me flying to Chicago three times this year: at the end of June, the start of September and, for the final time, at the end of October. Due to various circumstances, I’ve flown a different airline each time and, although I’ve always started out at Manchester, I’ve also flown three different routes. I thought that it would be interesting to compare and contrast each of the three sets of flights over a series of three Travel Spots, if for no other reason than my own decision-making purposes: I’ll be flying this route at least once a year for the foreseeable future.
June saw me flying with United out of Manchester far too early in the morning, changing planes at Newark, and arriving late afternoon in Chicago. In contrast, in September, I flew from Manchester to London with British Airways, and on to Chicago with American Airlines, catching the last flight of the day. Finally, in October, I flew direct from Manchester to Chicago with American Airlines on the only direct flight of the day. Fortunately, all three return flights were direct: back to Heathrow in July (with United) and September (with British Airways), while in November I returned to Manchester on American Airlines.
Since this is a fairly long post, I’ve split it up as follows:
- Manchester Airport and flying to Newark
- Changing Planes at Newark
- The second leg from Newark to Chicago
- Returning from Chicago to London Heathrow
Compared to my subsequent flights, booking my flight at the end of June was a rather involved process. Summer was coming, the price of flights was climbing and there was only one reasonably-priced flight that I could get. Pretty much everything else I looked at was pushing £900, while the one I booked was a much more reasonable £540, although I did shell out another £300 on exit-row seats, which is the most I’ve ever paid. Even so, once you added on the probably cost of another £100 – £200 for exit-row seats on the other flights, it was still significantly cheaper.
The route I ended up flying was not ideal though. I left Manchester at 9.25 in the morning, which meant having to get a taxi from my Dad’s house at 6.30, which is officially far too early (sorry to anyone who has to get up at that time to get to work, but I really don’t do mornings). The flight got me into Newark in New Jersey just after noon local time (it was officially an eight hour flight, but we actually spent just over seven hours in the air), where I was to change planes and then fly onto Chicago O’Hare, which involved just 2½ hours in the air, getting me into O’Hare at 16.20, a very civilised time to arrive.
This involved a 2½ hour layover in Newark, where I had to go through immigration and customs. Given that I’d done a similar thing in Salt Lake City when flying with Delta in January, only that time I’d only had 1½ hours, it seemed a very reasonable layover. Of course, the downside was that I was going to have to check my bags and put myself through security for a second time at Newark, something which is rapidly becoming my least favourite part of flying. On the plus side, it would mean that I’d be arriving in O’Hare at a domestic terminal, with just my bags to pick up and no customs or immigration to worry about.
Things started out okay. The taxi was punctual and at that time of the morning, there’s not a lot of traffic around, so I arrived at Manchester airport early. I remember being relatively impressed with Manchester the first time I flew from there, but since then I’ve become less enamoured, particularly with the habit they have of making people board via external steps from the tarmac. This is fine in countries with good weather, but in Manchester? Fortunately this was one of the few times it didn’t rain and I made it safely onto the plane, a Boeing 757-200, with relatively little fuss.
Now, I will confess I’ve been spoiled when it comes to long-haul flights. For years I’ve flown on fairly modern Boeing 777s and, more recently, on very new Boeing 787s or, just the once, on an Airbus A380. Even the Boeing 767s I flew with Delta at the start of the year were modern, well-equipped aircraft. The same cannot be said of the United 757s.
To start with, the 757 is a narrow-bodied aircraft, so rather than having three rows of seats, with two aisles, there are just two rows of seats, with a single, central aisle. Anyone used to flying short-haul will be familiar with this set-up and will probably be wondering why I’m making a fuss. Honestly, I’m not sure myself. I had an exit-row seat next to the aisle, and I had sufficient room, enough that I could work comfortably on my laptop.
However, it just felt really, really small: I can’t remember the last time I flew long-haul on anything other than a wide-body jet. It just felt really strange, flying all that way on what was a relatively small aircraft. The only other issue was a lack of at-seat power (although when I booked it, the aircraft was supposed to have at-seat power), but my laptop battery is pretty decent and these days can just about cope with six to seven hours between charges.
Changing planes at Newark is not something I want to do again in a hurry. In fairness to Newark, it’s relatively well set up for this, with clear signs and a relatively easy flow between areas. However, compared to my previous experience, when I transferring through Salt Lake City with Delta, this was a lot less smooth. For starters, Salt Lake City, although a Delta hub, mostly deals with domestic flights, so when I arrived, I suspect ours was the only international arrival, which made the whole process very smooth. Also, being small, everything was right next to each other.
In contrast, Newark is huge, so there was a lot of walking involved. And, of course, there are lots of international flights arriving and lots of transfers, so I found myself in the customary queue at immigration, which is where I hit my first snag. I did the usual passport control, but rather than waving me through, the officer at the desk called forward a colleague and had me escorted downstairs. Of course, no explanation was given and I didn’t feel like asking.
Everyone was very polite and I was sat down in an area next to baggage reclaim where I was called forward to see another officer at a desk after a five minute wait. Of course, it felt an awful lot longer and since this was the first time this had happened to me, I really didn’t know what to expect. Sadly, if you’re looking for an exciting end to this story, it was all very routine, just the usual questions and then I was on my way.
It turns out my name is fairly common and I’d come up on some watch list somewhere, so had been pulled in for questioning, which quickly determined that I wasn’t the person they were looking for. In fact, the whole process was very smooth and professional, while the officer was one of the friendliest and most helpful I’ve spoken to. Nevertheless it was a rather surreal experience.
However, that was about as good as it got. The biggest pain with changing planes (on international flights at least) is that you have to go through security twice. Security at Newark’s not too bad, with individual bays where you can load your tray, meaning four people can be unpacking all at once, which is far better than the one-at-a-time approach of older airports.
The problem comes with the sheer volume of things that have to be taken off/unpacked these days. Nothing in your pockets. No belts. No shoes. No coats. And more recently, no jumpers either (for the whole-body scanners). You also have to take out all electronic devices, a pain when travelling with a laptop and mobile phone, plus a back-up for both (yes, I do carry a spare laptop and a spare mobile phone, and for good reason; both are critical to my work and both have failed once already this year).
I also make life difficult for myself by carrying my coffee-making equipment with me. I’ve found out the hard way that metal cylinders (my feldgrind, for example, or my Travel Press) make security officers very nervous when they appear on x-rays, so these days I take them out as well.
All this means that I pretty much unpack half my bag, the big problem coming when I get through the other side and have to repack everything, plus put my shoes and belt back on, all while tray after tray comes down the single conveyor belt. Aware that I’m holding everything and everyone up, I tend to hurry and that’s how I came to lose my Oyster Card at Newark. It was in its own little wallet, along with a credit card, and must have been in one of the trays, but I failed to spot it.
I realised my error before I even left security, but it was too late: the tray had already gone back in the stack. Now you would have thought that it wouldn’t be too difficult to track it down. After all, I knew which conveyor belt I’d been on and the trays tend to just go around in one big loop, but the problem was the security staff. I couldn’t go nosing around on my own and no-one was the slightest bit interested in finding the wallet. No-one wanted to know and no-one was prepared to help or take responsibility for the situation. I was passed around between about five different members of staff, each one of whom shrugged his or her shoulders, adopted a not-my-problem attitude and then passed me on to someone else. In the end, I gave up: I had a flight to catch.
My flight to Chicago was, of course, an internal flight and, compared to flying long-haul, flying around America can be horrendous. All the airlines seem to have a policy of over-booking flights, so they are frequently completely full. This results in all the overhead lockers filling up, and, if you’re not careful and are at the back of the line for boarding, the gate crew insist on putting your cabin baggage in the hold.
To counter this, everyone queues up, which is one of my pet peeves, since I prefer to sit and wait until the flight is almost completely boarded, then wander on at the end. However, with internal flights this is not a wise course of action, so I ended up queuing, a problem exacerbated by a member of staff trying to single-handedly board a flight of several hundred people. There were other staff around the gate, by the way, they just didn’t seem to be doing anything.
So I queued and, sure enough, when there were five people ahead of me in the queue, the staff began asking passengers to put their hand baggage in the hold. When they got to me, I politely refused, explaining that I’d flown all the way across the Atlantic with my hand luggage and had packed it specifically knowing that it would be in the cabin with me. To my surprise, it worked and I was allowed to take my bag on with me.
After that, the flight was uneventful and on-time. It was another 757-200 and I had the identical exit-row seat. Ironically, since this was just a 2½ hour flight, it had at seat power, but at least that meant I could charge up my laptop.
The final twist came when I arrived at O’Hare and collected my rucksack. At some point the TSA had gone through it, another first for me, and probably related to me being pulled aside at Newark. That was fair enough and they’d left it in a decent state. However, what left me fuming was what else had happened to my rucksack, which, in fairness, was probably nothing to do with the TSA.
At some point along the way, my rucksack had been stood upside down in some water, so everything in the top half of the rucksack was wet. Now this wasn’t the result of the rucksack just slipping, say, and landing in a puddle (it had been raining at O’Hare before we landed). For everything to be as wet as it was, my rucksack must have been standing in water for several minutes. And since everything in the bottom half of the rucksack was dry, must have been stood upside down, no mean feat with a rucksack.
Compared to my two-legged flight out, my flight back was relatively straightforward. I was on the last flight from Chicago to Heathrow, flying, once again, with United and leaving just after nine o’clock, with a scheduled eight hour flight time. I’ve flown long-haul out of O’Hare many times, but up until now, I’ve always flown with either British Airways or Virgin Atlantic, with one exception, many years ago, when I flew with United. All I remember about that flight was not enjoying it and vowing not to fly with United again.
So, there I am, flying with United again…
One of the issues with O’Hare is that while all international flights arrive at Terminal 5, only the foreign airlines (such as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic) depart from Terminal 5. Instead, all of United’s flights leave from Terminal 1, which is United’s terminal at O’Hare (similar to Terminal 5 being British Airway’s terminal at Heathrow). This doesn’t sound so bad until you realise that Terminal 1 handles all of United’s domestic and international passengers. And with O’Hare being one of the busiest airports in the US as well as one of United’s main hubs, that’s a lot of passengers!
So, instead of being one of a handful of flights leaving at any given time, there I was, on one of many, many flights scheduled to leave that evening. And instead of a relatively sedate progress through security at a quiet terminal, as I had done many times before, I was heaped in along with thousands of short-haul and domestic passengers as I found out when to discover a 30-minute long queue for security! Fortunately I’ve also flown out of O’Hare on a couple of domestic flights before now so knew roughly what to expect, plus I’d left myself plenty of time.
Thankfully, that was as bad as things got on the return leg. The flight was on a relatively old Boeing 767-300, nowhere as well-equipped as the ones I’d flown on with Delta earlier in the year (I told you I had been spoiled), but it was perfectly adequate. I had my usual bulkhead seat, by the aisle, but it was a quiet flight, so the seat next to me, a window seat, was also free, which turned out to be very useful. There wasn’t a huge amount of legroom, but it was more than enough, plus there was at-seat power, so I was happy. My seat was also right at the front of economy and, unlike on the larger wide-bodied planes, nowhere near the toilets, so no-one decided to come and stand in my space while they waited. Bliss!
The flight itself was relatively uneventful, except for the first hour. I’d been staying with a friend in Madison, in Wisconsin, and it’s the first time I’d been in the Midwest in the summer. I’m someone who likes thunderstorms and over the years I’ve seen a fair few, but they are infrequent events. In the 12 days I was in Madison, I probably saw more lightning than I’ve seen in the rest of my life!
I mention this because, on the flight back, I decided to shuffle over and look out of the window since I had the two seats to myself. And what did I see? The most amazing thunderstorm! And even better, I was seeing it from above. It must have been a humungous one too, because we flew over it for maybe an hour. I was hooked and spent the entire time looking out of the window at the clouds below which would periodically be lit up with these amazing flashes of lightning coming from within the clouds themselves. Words can’t describe it and, sadly, there are no pictures either. Taking photos of thunderstorms is hard enough at the best of times. Care to try it on a plane? No thank you very much.
The only slightly annoying moment was when the cabin crew started the meal service and turned on all the cabin lights, which made it much harder to see the light show on outside. I must have looked rather strange, sitting there with a blanket over my head, glued to the window. I only stopped watching when my dinner arrived. There is, of course, a deep irony in this, since I spend most of my time moaning about how airlines dim the cabin lights and, on one of the few occasions that I wanted them dimmed, we had to have them on!
That aside, the flight was smooth and uneventful and before long, I was back home in the UK.
You can see how I got on in September when I flew with British Airways and American Airlines in Flying to Chicago, Part II.
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