Welcome to the second instalment of the first Travel Spot of 2019, which started when I flew to Phoenix on the 4th January, getting upgraded to First Class along the way and experiencing not one, but two sunsets. I spent a week in Phoenix for work, visiting what coffee shops I could, before taking week-long road-trip east through the mountains of Arizona and southern New Mexico, returning through the desert to Tucson, where I spent a long weekend hiking and visiting coffee shops. Finally, I drove back to Phoenix on Tuesday, 22nd January and caught a flight to Chicago. Well, tried to.
Flying internally in the USA is one of my least favourite travel activities. I’ve had mixed experiences, ranging from okay to downright awful. My last internal flight was this time last year, going from Miami to Phoenix with American Airlines, a 4½ hour flight which I decided was best done in First Class. This year’s flight was slightly shorter, a mere three hours, but even so, I decided that First Class was still the best option, once again flying with American Airlines. Unfortunately, my flight coincided with a major snowstorm in the Midwest, which had some predictable consequences…
You can see what happened after the gallery.
Everything started off fine. I drove up I-10 from Tucson to Phoenix, calling in along the way at Peixoto in Chandler for a quick espresso and to deliver its Coffee Spot Awards certificate. Then it was on to Sky Harbor Airport to drop off the rental car, a Nissan Rogue which had served me well on my 1,500-mile journey. I made good time and, after a short shuttle bus ride, I arrived at Terminal 4 (my “usual” terminal at Sky Harbor) at 12:45, with more than enough time to spare before my flight, which was supposed to be at 15:07.
I was early for two reasons. The first was so that I could visit Cartel Coffee Lab, which has a branch in Terminal 4. The second was more pragmatic: the US Government shutdown was into its fifth week and one of the (many) branches of Government not being paid was the TSA, responsible for airport security. Although there were no reports of problems at Sky Harbor, I didn’t want to risk missing the flights if there were long delays at security, hence I allowed myself some extra time.
As it was, I really didn’t have to worry for all sorts of reasons, the first of which was that as I arrived, I noticed that the flight had already been delayed by 40 minutes to 15:50 (it could have been worse: the previous flight, due to depart at 13:10, had been cancelled). I checked in and dropped by bags using the automated kiosks, and 15 minutes later I was in the queue at security, where I had my own special lane, which speeded me through right up until the point my bag was pulled aside for inspection.
I turned out that the TSA staff (who were working unpaid at this point) had taken an interest in the bag of coffee I’d just bought at Peixoto. I could have kicked myself since I’d thought about putting in my checked bags when I got to the airport, but then didn’t bother. That said, once they’d opened it and had a look inside, they were perfectly happy, but I definitely don’t recommend taking sealed bags of coffee in your hand baggage if you can help it.
Even with that delay, I was through security inside 15 minutes and now had 2½ hours to kill before my flight. Or so I thought…
You can see what I got up to after the gallery.
First stop was Cartel Coffee Lab, even though it’s on the other side of Terminal 4 from where my flight was due to depart (I was in the A-gates, it is in the C-gates). It’s quite a long way, maybe a 10-minute walk (if you think of Terminal 4 as a long rectangle with the gates around the edges, my flight was in the top-left hand corner and Cartel is in the bottom right-hand corner), but definitely worth it. It’s not just that it serves excellent coffee, it also makes no compromises for its airport location, serving exactly the same range, including pour-over, as it does in all its other branches.
I decided to have a cappuccino in my HuskeeCup (although Cartel has proper cups for customers who want to linger) and I also picked up a bag of coffee (the Providencia Black Honey from El Salvador that I’d tried in Tucson) to go with the bag I’d got from Peixoto. However, the other purpose for my visit was to drop off Cartel’s Coffee Spot Award certificate, appropriately enough for the Best Takeaway Coffee Award.
After that, I wandered back to the gate, wondering how to spend the remaining two hours before my flight. On previous visits to US airports, I’ve discovered that lounge access is jealously and fiercely guarded. Even flying First Class within the US (including flights to Canada and Mexico!) won’t get you lounge access. If you’re on an internal flight, the only thing that will open doors for you is status. Fortunately, all the flying I’ve been doing in the last two years has done wonders for my status with British Airways and, since British Airways is part of the One World Alliance with American Airlines, that status carries over.
Even so, I didn’t know whether my British Airways silver status was sufficient to prise open the lounge doors. So, when I got back to my gates, I approached the doors of the Admirals Club with some trepidation…
I was really not sure if I was going to get into the lounge, but it turns out that silver status with British Airways is good enough, so in I went, which, as you’ll see, made a huge difference to the trip. I’ve had lounge access before in Terminal 4 before, but that was the British Airways lounge, in the next block over at the B gates. The Admirals Club (there is one in each of the A and B-blocks) is the American Airlines lounge and this one was a rather different beast from the BA lounge.
To start with, it’s not very big, with some lounge seating (mostly armchairs) on the left, a generously-stocked bar (see below) on the right and, along the front, two long, high tables with bar chairs overlooking the taxiway and gates. Finally, there were a handful of low, round tables in the middle. All the chairs, as well as the table at the front, were well equipped with power outlets, while lots of the armchairs had laptop rests which hinged across the seat.
The lounge offers free coffee, water and juice, with a choice of espresso-based drinks from a bean-to-cup machine that I didn’t pluck up the courage to try and a couple of flasks of pre-brewed coffee from La Colombe (regular plus decaf). I tried some of this, but sadly it didn’t show off La Colombe’s coffee to anywhere near its best. When it came to food, there was a small range of soup and snacks on a self-serve counter near the round tables, while if you wanted anything more substantial in either the drinks or food department, there was a menu you could order from at the bar.
I hadn’t eaten since breakfast six hours before, but as I’d be having lunch on the plane, I didn’t want anything heavy, making the snack options (in my case, a plate of hummus with a plate of veggies and some cheese on the side) ideal. I managed to get a spot in the window and spent a happy hour working on the laptop, eating veggies and hummus and watching the planes come and go. The Wi-Fi, which was free, was far superior to any of the various hotels I’d stayed at, so I got quite a lot done. Then, at 15:10, the flight was called for boarding, so I packed up my stuff and heading out to the gate, which was a couple of minutes’ walk away.
In typical fashion, although the flight had been called for boarding, when I got there 10 minutes later, everyone was still queuing up and no-one had started boarding. The plane, a Boeing 787-800, was stood at the gate and, not for the first time, I was very glad I had lounge access, because the gate, although better than a lot I’ve seen in American airports, was nowhere big enough to sit a whole 787-worth of passengers.
A few minutes went by and then came the announcement. The flight was delayed. Due to bad weather in the Chicago area, which was experiencing a winter storm, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was closed and no flights were being allowed to land. As a result, our flight wouldn’t be taking off any time soon.
Under other circumstances, I might have been really annoyed by the delay (if, for example, I was stuck sitting at the gate), but as it was, I turned right around and went back to my seat in the lounge. It could, I reflected, have been a whole lot worse, particularly if we’d made it into the plane and were stuck there instead (although, once again, being stuck in first class is a whole lot better than being stuck back in economy).
One thing I will say about US carriers/airports, is that they are much better at managing delays than has been my experience in the UK. In the UK, the likelihood would be that the flight would have been “delayed” with very little information and no indication of when it would leave. Here, by the time I had returned to the lounge, the flight was shown as delayed until l 18:30, another three hours, and that’s how it was for the rest of the afternoon. I sat in my seat, worked away at the laptop, and watched the planes come and go. Every time I checked, the flight was shown as departing at 18:30, so I worked away with confidence and, sure enough, at 17:50, the flight was shown as boarding (my only slight annoyance was that there was no call this time around, so I had not checked, I might have been in trouble).
I packed up my stuff again and headed down to the gate, where I found that most of the passengers had already boarded, so I didn’t even have to queue.
I had forgotten, until I boarded the plane, that I was flying on a Boeing 787-800, a distinct step up from my other internal US flights, which have been on a mixture of Boeing 737s and Airbus A321s. Even when flying First Class, which I’ve one a couple of times, most recently from Miami to Phoenix this time last year, the seating has been nothing to get excited by, more like flying Club Europe than First Class. However, my 787 had full business-class pods, just like the ones on my flight from Manchester to Chicago last year (which was also on an American Airlines 787-800) and with an identical layout.
There are five rows in a small First Class cabin at the front of the plane, with another two rows in an even smaller section behind the galley. Each row has four seats, two in the centre and one on each side by the windows. These are offset by about 30° and alternate forward and rear-facing. I had chosen 1A, right at the front on the left, one of the forward-facing seats, the same one that I had on my flight to Manchester last year. Everything was much as I remembered it, with the exception of the shoulder strap on the seat-belt, which I had completely forgotten about (I had to be reminded by the cabin crew to put it on before take-off!).
As I wrote back then, I really like this configuration, which offers quite a lot of space, both in and around the seat, including places to put things during the flight. There are plenty of easily-accessible power outlets (two multi-socket outlets and two USB outlets) and the only real criticism I have is that, as on my flight from Manchester, I found the seat shell quite narrow at the back, but that really is a minor complaint. Compared to the previous internal flights I’ve taken in America, even the first-class ones, this was so much better. Take a look at what I said back in 2018 if you want a detailed description of the cabin and my seat.
In case you think it’s an indulgence, by the way, flying First Class, the flight cost just over £250. Although I could have done it for half that in economy, bear in mind that I was in the middle of a four-week long trip, flying with two checked bags, plus if I’d been in economy, I would have had a pay for an exit row or bulkhead seat, plus if I’d wanted to eat on the flight, that would have been extra too. Once you add all that up, flying economy worked out at over £200, so it was (for me) an easy decision.
I was boarded and in my seat by 18:00, and, true to all the information screens, which had shown the flight delayed until 18:30, we pushed back from the gate pretty much dead on 18:30. After a five-minute wait on the tarmac, we trundled off, heading for the end of the runway, a 10-minute journey which included at least one bridge over a road below.
After about a minute sitting at the end of the runway, we were off, leaving the ground at 18:45 and quickly leaving the bright lights of Phoenix, Tempe and Mesa behind. Within five minutes we were over the Superstition Mountains and it was completely dark outside.
The flight time was scheduled for three hours, with the captain announcing that we’d be on the ground at O’Hare by 21:45 and at the gate by 22:00 (23:00 local time), a delay of 3½ hours. Unlike my experiences flying long haul, where the cabin crew take their time with the meal service, the smells from the galley that had been emanating well before take-off suggested that we wouldn’t have to wait long for our food, and so it turned out.
I had a bowl of warm nuts on my table, along with a pre-dinner drink, by 19:05, while my meal, a three-bean vegetable chilli with a polenta cake arriving at 19:30. The meal service was rounded off with ice cream at 19:55. On previous flights, I’ve not been that impressed with the food, but I have to say that this was excellent.
By now we were over the plains of Kansas, not that you would know it from looking out of the window. Indeed, this was my one regret of having been delayed: I’d chosen the flight specifically so that I’d be flying over the mountains, including the Rockies, during daylight, but due to the delay, the entire flight was in darkness. Worse still, as soon as the meal service was cleared away, the cabin lights were dimmed, even though, with a three-hour flight, I can’t imagine anyone was trying to sleep.
The rest of the flight went past quickly enough. In fact, it went by more than quickly enough. For a long time, the on-board map was predicting that we’d arrive at 21:45, but about two hours in, I noticed that we were getting tail winds of over 100 mph, peaking at 159 mph! Suddenly the remaining flight-time plummeted and by 21:00, just 2¼ hours into the flight, we were 22 minutes away from O’Hare!
In fact, we were being pushed along so quickly that at one point, our landing time was projected to be 22:19 (local time), almost half an hour ahead of schedule. However, we did a big S-shaped approach, then went around in a circle, eventually landing at 22:30, still 15 minutes early. Naturally, we were then too early for our gate, so spent 20 minutes waiting on the ground before we rolled up to the airbridge. After a last look around the cabin, I wander off to get my bags, although that wasn’t quite the end of the story.
I was meeting up with a friend of mine at the airport, who was due to arrive just after 11 o’clock, which would have been perfect, except her flight had also been delayed, eventually getting in at 1:40 that, so I had a two-hour wait in an almost deserted airport before she arrived. By the time we got to our friends’ house and got into bed, it was gone three o’clock in the morning, which would have been fine, except that I had to be up for a conference call at eight o’clock the following morning…
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