Welcome to the third instalment of the first Travel Spot of the new year, documenting my first trip of 2020. Part I saw me flying from London Heathrow to San Jose on 3rd January, while Part II saw me take the relatively short hop from San Francisco to Phoenix. Now, after two weeks in Arizona (one for work, in Phoenix, and one travelling in Northern Arizona), Part III sees me flying all the way from Phoenix to Portland (Maine), my final stop before making my way home with British Airways.
Although I’d have loved to have done the trip by train, it would have taken a minimum of three days and cost an awful lot more than flying. I did a similar journey in reverse in 2018, when I went from Providence to Tucson by train, but that time I allowed myself a leisurely two weeks for the journey with plenty of stops along the way. With time against me on this trip, I ruled that out and decided to fly. Since you can’t fly directly from Phoenix to Portland, I was faced with various combinations of airlines/routes, eventually settling on going via Atlanta with Delta (my favourite US airline).
You can read more about the flight after the gallery.
I had a choice of all three major US carriers (United, American and Delta) for the trip, with the choice quickly whittled down to American or Delta. Whereas I’d flown with American from San Francisco to Phoenix, that choice wasn’t so clear cut here.
The big draw of flying American was the chance to add to my growing pile of British Airways Airmiles and status, while also being able to use said British Airways status to get lounge access. However, the disadvantage with American is that the flight I was looking at connected via Philadelphia, compared to the Delta flight via Atlanta.
If I’d been flying later in the year, I’d have probably gone with American, especially since Philadelphia airport has several La Colombe coffee shops. However, flying in January in the northern states runs the risk of having your flight disrupted by bad weather (for example, this time last year, my flight from Phoenix to Chicago was delayed by 3½ hours due to a major snowstorm).
There was always the risk that my flight into Portland would be delayed by bad weather but flying into Philadelphia just doubled that risk since Philadelphia was just as likely as Portland to be hit by a snowstorm. In contrast, the Delta flight to Atlanta was less likely to be affected by weather (although, as it happens, I just missed a major rainstorm which might well have delayed the flight!), plus it left at a more convenient time (14:35 as opposed to 12:10), so it was decided.
I started my day in Flagstaff, in Northern Arizona, where the morning temperatures were a few degrees below freezing and took the leisurely, 2¼ hour, 150 mile drive down to Phoenix (and I mean down, Flagstaff being at an elevation of 2,100m while Phoenix is a mere 330m!) to drop off my hire car, which I did just after noon. From there I caught the shuttle bus to the airport to continue my journey.
After dropping off my hire car, I caught the shuttle bus to the airport, where I realised my first major mistake. In recent years, I’ve always flown to/from Phoenix with British Airways or American, which has meant going via Terminal 4, home of Cartel Coffee Lab. In fact, I’d become so familiar with the vast Terminal 4 that I was only vaguely aware that Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport has other terminals and I’d certainly not taken it into account when booking my flight. However, as I went to catch the shuttle bus, I had a sinking feeling: Delta flies from Terminal 3…
I arrived at Terminal 3 at 12:30, checking in using the automated machines, but then having to queue to drop my bags off for what seemed like forever, but was only for 15 minutes. Nevertheless, it seemed to rather negate the point of the machines/bag drop that I was in the same queue as people who were checking in manually and taking five minutes about it…
When I came to drop my bags off, I confirmed what I already feared. Although you can get between Terminal 3 and Terminal 4 on the Sky Train (and overhead light rail system), once you were through security, the two terminals are completely separate. And since Cartel is beyond security in Terminal 4, that meant no coffee…
Disappointed, and annoyed at my lack of forethought (plus vowing never to fly Delta to/from Phoenix again), I made my way up to security, where I used my priority to skip the (long) line of people waiting to get their boarding pass and ID checked, although I still had to wait in the (slightly shorter) line to go through security itself. After 20 minutes of queuing, I was through security and into the terminal itself.
Terminal 3 has been around since 1997, but was recently refurbished, with a new wing, holding the F gates, being opened a year ago in January 2019. It’s a very modern terminal, but small (just 10 gates at the moment, compared to over 80 at Terminal 4). There’s a wide, open central corridor, the gates on one side and concessions, restaurants and restrooms on the other. There seems to be plenty of seating at the gates, with lots of power and free WiFi.
There are plenty of food outlets, from grab-and-go operations to full restaurants. However, as I walked past the second Starbucks, I was still kicking myself for missing out on Cartel. Then a miracle happened. I noticed the name Giant, then I noticed a coffee counter, the EK43 grinder catching my eye. With a leap of the heart, I realised that Giant Coffee had an outlet in the new terminal! All was well with the world and Delta was back on the fly list (if you’re flying with another airline, later this year, Sky Harbor will close Terminal 2 and all airlines will use either Terminal 3 or 4, so everyone will have access to good coffee!).
My flight, which was from Gate F10, started boarding on time at 13:55. I already knew it was full, since when I’d checked in that morning, Delta was offering passengers inducements to give up their seats. Therefore, I hurried along, taking my coffee with me, and found boarding in full flow as I reached the gate. However, as a priority passenger (Priority 1 on a scale of 1 to 9!), I walked straight on and quickly found my seat.
As I had when flying from San Francisco to Phoenix, I was flying first class, which is not as glamourous as it sounds (and not that much more expensive when you add in extras such as bag charges). I was on an Airbus A321-200 and had secured Seat 1D, in the front row by the window on right. The first class cabin was relatively small, with just five rows of four seats per row. There’s an equally small premium economy cabin behind that with another five rows (this time with six seats per row) and then the rest of the plane is economy seating.
Compared to the A321 I’d flown on two weeks before with American, this was a much more modern aircraft. The seat was similar in size and comfort, but was much better equipped, with a large TV monitor on the bulkhead, plus plenty of power outlets. There was one easily-accessible international plug, with a USB outlet, between the seats, while the armrest had another USB outlet and there was a third on the bottom of the monitor.
As is typically the case in domestic first class cabins in the US, there are two seats either side of the central aisle. These are much better than standard economy seats: to start with, they are wider, so you don’t feel as if you are levering yourself in/out, plus there’s a decent amount of leg room. In my case, I had the bulkhead seat, so had even more leg room, but previously I’ve flown in the third row and had ample leg room.
There’s a decent gap between the seats, which is occupied by a wide armrest. This doubles as a small table which you share with the person next to you. The table is pretty good too, with a large fold-out table in the central armrest. Although it’s not quite wide enough to reach the armrest on the other side, it was stable and large enough for my laptop, so I was happy.
Since the flight was quite full, it took us a long time to board, but even so, the doors were closed at 14:25 and we pushed back at 14:30, five minutes ahead of our scheduled departure time. We spent the obligatory five minutes on the tarmac for the safety video then started our short taxi to the end of the runway, taking off, heading east, at 14:40.
Our flight was scheduled for 3½ hours, with an estimated three hours flying time, which would get us into Atlanta at 17:40 Phoenix time. This equates to 19:40 Atlanta time, well ahead of our scheduled arrival time of 20:06.
One of the things that I’m still amazed at, despite all the flying I’ve done, is how quickly modern airliners gain height. Partly this is because half the time I end up flying straight into cloud after takeoff, but on this occasion it was a gloriously sunny day. Within a couple of minutes, Phoenix was looking tiny down below us as we flew due east over Tempe then Mesa (where I’d been a week before, visiting Pair Specialty Coffee & Tea).
Within five minutes, we’d left the urban sprawl behind and were heading out over the desert, which abruptly ended at the Usery Mountain Regional Park. We flew over some amazing mountain landscape, which is cut through by SR 88, otherwise known as the Apache Trail, a wonderful, winding road which leads through the Superstition Mountains, linking Phoenix with Theodore Roosevelt Lake to the northeast. It’s paved for the first part, then gives way to a dirt trail. I’ve driven it three times now and highly recommend it (and bear in mind that I really don’t care much for driving).
From there, we flew north of Globe, its mining operations a clear scar on the landscape, even from this height. We carried on heading east, following a similar route to the one I’d taken this time last year when I drove over the mountains on my way to New Mexico. Back then I drove along US 70, then cut across the mountains to Silver City, but our flight took a much more northly (and direct!) route over the mountains and across US 60, into the Fort Apache Reservation.
The views were magnificent as we crossed over the mountains, although at that point I wish I’d been sitting on the left-hand side of the plane, since I was getting considerable glare from the sun. On the other hand, if I had been over on that side, I’d have missed the glorious sunset I enjoyed later in the flight, so I won’t complain too much!
We continued flying over the snow-capped mountains and frozen lakes of eastern Arizona. Since this was a relatively long flight, we had a full meal service (another advantage of flying first class: in economy, you have to pay for your food if you want to eat during the flight). Our tables were laid for lunch at 15:00, just 20 minutes into the flight, followed by a welcome drink and a choice of snacks (sparkling water and almonds in my case). I had a pre-ordered a vegetarian meal but the cabin crew offered me the option of having the vegetarian option from the main menu (lasagne). This sounded really good, so I had that, and I didn’t regret my choice.
We crossed over in New Mexico at roughly the same time that we had the tables set for lunch, passing quite a way north of Silver City (where I’d been this time last year) and over the northern reaches of the Gila National Forest. The fantastic views of the mountains down below continued as we flew across New Mexico. As you will have seen in gallery, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time playing “guess the mountain”. If anyone knows whether I’m right or not, please do get in touch!
We left the mountains behind as we approached the Rio Grande, passing the Very Large Array (a Y-shaped array of radio telescopes, exciting for me since, when I did my PhD 30 years ago, I knew people who worked at the VLA and studied with people who went on to work there). Then, 35 minutes into our flight, at 15:15, we crossed the Rio Grande and flew straight over a bank of cloud, ending the views for a while.
Lunch was served at 15:25, my lasagne proving to be particularly tasty, although all the food was very good. The service was also excellent, the cabin crew proving to be very attentive. They were always on the go, checking if people wanted anything. This is very much in contrast to my (limited) experience with other US-based carriers, where I’ve found that once the obligatory elements of the cabin service are over, the cabin crew seem more interested in chatting amongst themselves (or to their friends) than actually providing service. Another reason why I like flying with Delta.
Lunch was done by 15:40, just as we left New Mexico and crossed over into Texas, roughly following the line of the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River in the eastern part of the state. The last time I passed through Texas (back in 2018), it took me a whole day to get from one side to the other (admittedly that was by train). This time, it took a mere 15 minutes, helped immensely by our route taking us across the Texas Panhandle, which is about a quarter of the width of the state.
In contrast, it took 30 minutes to fly across Oklahoma, where I again admired the scenery, including a wind farm which ran along a mountain ridge. We crossed over the border into Arkansas just south of Fort Smith, from where we followed the route of the Arkansas River. Not that I saw any of it, since we flew above another large cloudbank at this point, hitting some mild turbulence, causing the seat belt signs to be switched on for 20 minutes.
By this point, with us flying east and the sun heading west, the sun was rapidly setting behind us, rewarding me with a pretty impressive sunset which really lit up the clouds below us. We flew over the Mississippi just south of Memphis at 16:50 and five minutes later, it was almost completely dark outside, sunset having taken just 10 minutes!
At 17:10, 2½ hours into the flight, the pilot announced we had 30 minutes to go before landing. Normally, the seatbelt signs are turned on with 20 minutes to go, but in this case, the pilot was concerned about turbulence on our descent (remnants of the recently-departed storm), so the sign went on immediately. Worried by the risk losing my laptop for a second consecutive flight, I put it away in my bag in the overhead bin rather than leaving it in the seat-back pocket.
The clouds had cleared for our final descent, giving me a view of various streetlight-lit towns and cities as we approached Atlanta. We flew south of the downtown Atlanta and north of the airport, where I could see the lights of other planes coming into land, before taking a series of fairly tight turns to land in a westerly direction. We touched down slightly ahead of schedule at 17:35 (19:35 local time) and ten minutes later, we were at the gate. Now all I had to do was catch my flight to Portland…
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport is big. A major hub with five runways (Heathrow, eat your heart out) and two terminals (domestic and international), it’s spread over seven concourses with nearly 200 gates. And, somewhat surprisingly, it’s regularly rated as the world’s busiest airport in terms of both passenger traffic and aircraft movements. Not that I’m being rude to Atlanta, but I would not have put it at the top my list of destinations, although I suspect that it’s role as a hub is a major contributor, with a lot of people, like me, just passing through.
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t much care for it, which is a tad unfair since it’s actually not a bad airport. It’s just that I’m not a huge fan of large airports, particularly not large US domestic airports. It instantly reminded me of the domestic terminals at Chicago O’Hare and Newark, neither of which I particularly enjoy flying through. On the plus side, I didn’t have to go anywhere near security.
As it turns out, I didn’t have to go anywhere at all, with my flight from Phoenix arriving at Gate B24 and my onward flight to Portland leaving from Gate B32, a walk of no more than two minutes. I arrived at 19:45 local time, and with my flight to Portland boarding at 20:45, I had exactly an hour to kill, which was just about enough time to walk the length of the B Concourse in a fruitless search for good coffee.
Note that I walked the length of the B Concourse, rather than its breadth. That’s because it’s essentially a long corridor, lined with gates on either side, interspersed with shops and food outlets, while in the middle are the links to the other concourses. In the end I gave up my search, got some hot water from Dunkin Donuts and made my own coffee.
I’d just made my coffee and got back to B32 when boarding started, so I walked straight on the plane and was at my seat (1C) by 20:50. Rather than the Airbuses that I’ve been flying on recently, this was a McDonnell Douglas MD-90. It’s a fairly old plane (the last one was built in 2000 I believe), but it had received a refit at some point in the not too distant past.
As before, I was flying first class and had a bulkhead seat at the front, although since it was dark outside, I’d gone for the aisle seat rather than the window. The layout is basically the same as the Airbus A321 from earlier in the day, with two seats on either side of the central aisle. However, there are only four rows in first class (as opposed to five) and a further five rows of premium economy, then the rest (25 rows, 117 seats) is economy.
The fuselage is also considerably narrower than the Airbus: back in economy, there are five seats per row (two one side, three the other) rather than six in the Airbus and up in first class, the seats are about 5cm narrower (enough for me to notice, but not enough to make a difference). There’s at-seat power and WiFi, but no monitor (although you can still stream movies and TV for free over the WiFi). Meanwhile, the foldout table was more than big enough, although it still wasn’t quite wide enough to reach the opposite armrest! That said, it was quite stable and perfectly adequate for me to work on my laptop, so despite my gripes about it not being an Airbus, it was more than adequate!
You can see how the flight to Portland, the final leg of my trip, went after the gallery.
Although the flight was very full, we were boarded with the doors closed at 21:10. We pushed back a few minutes early at 21:20 as the crew did a very quick manual safety demo before we started our taxiing at 21:25. The pilot called seats for takeoff at 21:30 and we left the ground at 21:35.
One thing that immediately struck me was how noisy the interior was, far noisier than the A321, which was interesting since the engines are at the back rather than under the wings, which, naively, I would have thought would have made it quieter. Because we were flying at night, the cabin lights were turned down the entire flight, which left me relying on the overhead light, which I always find too harsh.
Since this was a relatively short flight (the scheduled flight time was 2½ hours with roughly two hours in the air) there was no meal service, just snacks and drinks. As it turned out, this was probably just as well since half an hour after takeoff, right in the middle of the drinks service, we ran into the storm that had passed through Atlanta earlier in the day.
I’m used to airlines putting on the seat belt signs when it gets a little bumpy. However, this was full-on turbulence, with a couple of stomach-churning drops, which sent the cabin crew scurrying for their jump-seats, which I’ve never seen before! It was so bad that I had to put my laptop away since I can’t type on a moving keyboard.
Things calmed down enough after 15 minutes for the cabin crew to be able to retrieve their trolleys, and about 10 minutes after that I got my laptop out again, but it was only after 45 minutes that the seat belt signs finally came off.
20 minutes later, at 23:15, we started our descent, the cabin lights coming up at 23:30. That’s when we were told to put our laptops away, even though the seat belt signs had come on at 23:15. After my experiences on my flight into Phoenix two weeks before, I once again ensured that I put my laptop in my bag in the overhead bin!
It was weird having no map and flying in the dark, since I had no idea where we were for the entire flight. I did try to use the map service on the WiFi, but it didn’t work (kept getting HTTP 403 errors). The cabin lights were only on for five minutes, being turned off again for landing at 23:35. By now, I could see lights out of the windows and realised we were pretty close to Portland, landing at 23:40, just five minutes behind scheduled.
In contrast to Atlanta, Portland International Jetport (which, as far as I can tell, has no international flights) is tiny, with a single terminal and a handful of gates, making it a very quick taxi to the gate. From there, it was off to baggage reclaim, where Amanda was waiting for me. One of the advantages of flying to Portland over Boston is that it’s just a 15-minute (rather than 2½ hour) drive to her house, so we were home not long after midnight.
So ended a journey that had started 12 hours before, in freezing temperatures, and which ended in freezing temperatures (although nowhere near as cold as Chicago the year before), while in the middle I’d been basking in warm, 20°C sunshine!
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