Brian’s Travel Spot: From Phoenix to Portland with Delta

My Global WAKEcup with a pre-flight V60 from Giant Coffee at Phoenix Sky Harbor Terminal 3.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.

  • From the sub-zero morning temperatures of Flagstaff to a summer's day in Phoenix!
  • I left my motel in Flagstaff, complete with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop...
  • ... and took my hire car on one last drive, 150 miles down to Phoenix...
  • ... where I dropped it back at the hire car centre, having driven 925 miles in all.
From the sub-zero morning temperatures of Flagstaff to a summer's day in Phoenix!1 I left my motel in Flagstaff, complete with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop...2 ... and took my hire car on one last drive, 150 miles down to Phoenix...3 ... where I dropped it back at the hire car centre, having driven 925 miles in all.4
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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.

You can see how I got on at the airport after the gallery.

  • I began, as usual in American airports, at the automated check-in machine...
  • ... before moving onto the surprisingly long queue for bag drop.
  • Within 15 minutes, I was heading upstairs to security...
  • ... and 20 minutes later, I was out the other side, where I found the first Starbucks.
  • This is part of a small central area with a couple of other food outlets.
  • I, however, needed the F Gates, which are down this wide corridor...
  • ... and past this restaurant/bar.
  • The terminal itself is this long, wide, bright corridor, with gates on one side...
  • ... and concessions and food outlets on the other...
  • ... including another Starbucks.
  • My gate, F10, was all the way down at the far end. There's plenty of seating, free WiFi...
  • ... and lots of power outlets, as befits a modern terminal.
  • I was beginning to despair after the second Starbucks when I noticed this: Giant Coffee!
  • Terminal 3 has speciality coffee after all! I started with a cortado in my HuskeeCup...
  • ... and then followed that up with a V60 which I split between my Thermacup and my...
  • ... Global WAKEcup which I took on the plane with me.
I began, as usual in American airports, at the automated check-in machine...1 ... before moving onto the surprisingly long queue for bag drop.2 Within 15 minutes, I was heading upstairs to security...3 ... and 20 minutes later, I was out the other side, where I found the first Starbucks.4 This is part of a small central area with a couple of other food outlets.5 I, however, needed the F Gates, which are down this wide corridor...6 ... and past this restaurant/bar.7 The terminal itself is this long, wide, bright corridor, with gates on one side...8 ... and concessions and food outlets on the other...9 ... including another Starbucks.10 My gate, F10, was all the way down at the far end. There's plenty of seating, free WiFi...11 ... and lots of power outlets, as befits a modern terminal.12 I was beginning to despair after the second Starbucks when I noticed this: Giant Coffee!13 Terminal 3 has speciality coffee after all! I started with a cortado in my HuskeeCup...14 ... and then followed that up with a V60 which I split between my Thermacup and my...15 ... Global WAKEcup which I took on the plane with me.16
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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!).

I had planned to explore the terminal some more, but in the end, I spent all my time at Giant, where I had a cortado and then a pour-over which I took onto the plane with me in my Global WAKEcup.

Talking of which, you can see how I got on after the gallery.

  • I took my coffee and headed off to board my flight...
  • ... which was waiting for me at the gate, being loaded before takeoff.
  • A closer look at my ride to Atlanta: an Airbus A321-200.
  • Boarding had already started by the time I arrived at the gate...
  • ... but as a priority passenger, I skipped the queues...
  • ... and quickly made it to my seat, 1D, right at the front of the plane...
  • ... and by a window on the right-hand side.
  • If you are wondering how close to the front: this close.
  • I had my usual bulkhead seat, which came with a large monitor...
  • ... and plenty of legroom.
  • I was very impressed with the monitor, which came with...
  • ... lots of useful information, plenty...
  • ... of TV and films to watch, plus a USB power outlet (along with a headphone jack).
  • There's more power, a full international plug and another USB outlet, between the seats.
  • Finally, there's one more USB outlet in the wide central armrest between the seats.
  • Talking of which, as well as the drinks holder at the front, it has a full, fold-out table...
  • This lifts out and folds over in the usual fashion...
  • ... then folds out again to form a full-width table.
  • Although it's quite wide, it's not wide enough to reach the other armrest, which is a shame.
  • However, it was still large enough (and stable enough) for me to work on my laptop.
  • There's the usual array of overhead controls, including a light and an air vent.
  • The view out of my window and another Delta A321, on its way to Salt Lake City.
  • I spy, with my little eye, my bags waiting to go into the hold.
  • My seat really was ideal for watching the baggage being loaded on.
  • And we're off, pushing back from the stand five minutes before our scheduled departure.
  • Time for the safety video...
  • ... which used mutliple cabin crew to keep your attention.
  • And we're underway, taxiing towards the end of the runway.
  • We leave Terminal 3 behind and trundle past...
  • ... Terminal 2, which is soon to be shut down, its operations moving to Terminal 3.
  • The big, open spaces of the runways and taxiways of Phoenix Sky Harbor.
  • This is the Sky Train, connecting the terminals, main parking lot and Phoenix tram system.
  • It's being expanded westward to include the car rental centre. This is part of the new line.
  • Downtown Phoenix in the distance behind the car rental centre.
  • We turn at the far (western) end of the airport...
  • And here we are at the end of the runway.
  • And off we go! We head down the runway...
  • ... picking up speed as we pass  the National Guard airbase...
  • ... and then we're airborne!
  • We quickly leave Phoenix behind...
  • ... flying west over the nearby cities of Tempe...
  • ... and Mesa.
  • Next stop, Atlanta!
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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.

You can see what I made of the flight after the gallery.

  • We continue flying east, crossing over SR101, with the Tempe Canal down below.
  • Looking of the southeast across Gilbert, we catch a distant glimpse of what I think...
  • ... is San Tan Mountain.
  • Closer at hand, here's SR202 as it turns south to cross the Salt-Gila Aqueduct...
  • ... while the very obvious hill is Brown Mountain.
  • We're now approaching the edge of the Greater Phoenix metropolitan area...
  • And there it is: the edge, almost as if someone had drawn a line with a ruler.
  • From up here, it's so abrupt: everything is flat, then suddenly there are mountains!
  • And what mountains! This is the southern reaches of the Usery Mountain Regional Park.
  • As we cross over to the Superstition Mountains, down below is the Apache Trail...
  • ... which I've driven along and highly recommend (and I don't much like driving!).
  • This is the view to the south, over the wilderness of the Superstition Mountains...
  • ... while to the north is the Salt River (which we can't see) and a series of reservoirs.
  • This is where we are.
  • The mountains continue in all their glory...
  • ... as we fly steadily east.
  • I never tire of flying over mountains.
  • Soon the mining area around Globe comes into view, less than 10 minutes into our flight.
  • I've driven through the area around Globe and, sadly, it's no prettier on the ground.
  • The mountains to the south are beautiful though. The road is SR188, to Lake Roosevelt.
  • We leave Globe and the mining behind, passing over what I believe is...
  • ... Copper Mountain
  • ... while this is US60 as it heads north and east through the mountains beyond Globe.
  • What an amazing landscape. One day I might have to drive that road!
  • Our location, north of Globe, heading for Whiteriver.
  • Looking further south, into the far distance, we have our first glimpse of snow.
  • The landscape slowly becomes more varied and much greener.
  • Obviously, there's a lot more water around here!
  • We're over north San Carlos Reservation, or south Fort Apache Reservation, which are...
  • ... separated by the Black River. I think that's Georges Basin, but I could be wrong.
  • Our location, high above the mountains.
  • It's now quite flat down below, but high and getting higher...
  • ... as you can see by the appearance of snow down below.
  • The snow becomes more prevelant on the mountain peaks to the south...
  • If anyone knows what this frozen lake is called, do let me know!
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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 SR88, otherwise known as Apache Trail, a wonderful, winding road which leads through the Superstition Mountains, linking Phoenix with Lake Roosevelt to the northeast. It’s paved for the first part, then gives way to a dirt trail. I’ve driven it a few times 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 US70, then cut across the mountains to Silver City, but our flight took a much more northly (and direct!) route over the mountains and across US60, 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!

You can see more of the glorious landscape in the gallery.

  • There were more magnificent views of snow capped mountains and frozen lakes as we...
  • ... flew over eastern Arizona, close to the New Mexico border.
  • I think that this mountain to the south is Mt Baldy, but I can't be sure.
  • Soon, however, we left it behind.
  • Oour position, if that helps anyone.
  • We continued our progress over snow-capped mountains and valleys...
  • ... as I marvelled at the scenary below.
  • I'm really not sure what this feature down below is. It's too straight and wide to be a road.
  • It looks more like a massive firebreak or maybe powerlines. Does anyone know?
  • More snow-capped mountains, probably in western New Mexico.
  • I particularly loved this one off in the distance.
  • By now we've definitely crossed over into New Mexico, probably north of Apache Creek.
  • The mountains start to give way to high plateaus...
  • ... with the occasional mountain popping up along with way.
  • I'm reasonable sure that's Mangas mountain, but I could be wrong.
  • Our position, if anyone wants to join in the guesswork.
  • More isolated, snow-capped mountains, which are getting less frequent as we head east.
  • No less magnificent though.
  • By now the tables had been laid for lunch...
  • ... and a welcome drink (sparkling water for me)...
  • ... and a snack (Californian almonds) had been served.
  • At last! A very recognisable landmark: the Very Large Array of radio telescopes
  • For once I know exactly where we are!
  • Our old friend US60 is back, taking an easterly course as it heads for the Rio Grande.
  • One last mountain range, the Magdalena Mountains, before we reach the Rio Grande.
  • The mountains down there include North Baldy, South Baldy and Timber Peak.
  • The mountains give way as we approach the valley of the Rio Grande.
  • Alomst there.
  • And here it is, the Rio Grande, which I drove beside last year, albeit much further south.
  • The point we crossed the Rio Grande...
  • ... and then went straight over a large bank of cloud...
  • ... which was probably just as well since it meant that I could concentrate on my lunch...
  • ... a vegetarian lasagne and this particularly fine chocolate cake.
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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.

You can see how the last part of the flight went after the gallery.

  • As we left the mountains behind, I note that we'd only covered ¼ of our flight!
  • However, we've flown almost the whole way across New Mexico.
  • Down below, the clouds begin to break...
  • ... and the mountains give way to plains...
  • ... gouged by river valleys like this one (I think that's the Pecos River).
  • However, much of eastern New Mexico is like this: a patchwork of fields...
  • ... stretching as far as the eye can see.
  • I was fascinated, however, by the circular fields. What's that all about?
  • We crossed the border into Texas just under an hour into the flight.
  • Northwest Texas is much like eastern New Mexico: fields, fields, fields. But wait!
  • What's this coming into view? I do believe it's the Palo Duro Canyon.
  • I love the canyon's folded countours and the way that the fields stop at the canyon edge.
  • Down below, flowiing through the canyon, is the Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River.
  • This is where we are, in anyone is interested.
  • The canyon continues. It's actually 190km long, the second-longest in the USA!
  • A second river joins from the north.
  • As much as I love mountains, this is just as good.
  • The Prairie Dog Town Fork Red River flows east and we follow it, some way to the north.
  • Down below, more fields.
  • Soon we reach the border with Oklahoma...
  • ... and carry on across the seemingly endless fields.
  • We fly north of Lake Altus-Lugert...
  • ... between Elk City to the north and Altus to the south.
  • The lake in more detal, with the mountains beyond.
  • The land begins to get more hilly here and, for the first time on this flight...
  • ... I can see a wind farm (the Blue Canyon Wind Farm, I think).
  • I'm still fascinated by the landscape beneath us...
  • ... but as we head east and the sun heads west...
  • ... it's starting to get rather dark down there.
  • However, I'm about to lose my views for another reason...
  • ... as just as we cross over from Oklahoma to Arkansas...
  • ... we fly over another bank of cloud.
  • The sun is beginning to set behind the plane, a golden light flooding across the tops...
  • ... of the clouds below us.
  • As much as I love my landscapes, I love a good sunset, made better by clouds.
  • Soon the aircraft was filled with a golden/red light.
  • There were occasional gaps in the cloud, but mostly it was...
  • ... the sunset that captured my attention.
  • While all this was happening above the clouds, we crossed the Mississippi at Memphis.
  • By now, the light was fading very quickly.
  • Going...
  • Going...
  • And pretty much gone. I like to think that at least one of those lights is a star.
  • By now, we were getting close to Atlanta.
  • The clouds had cleared and I could see the lights of various towns below us.
  • I have no idea what any of them were, mind you!
  • I was actually surprised by how much darkness there was...
  • ... particularly considering that we were just 16km from Atlanta.
  • Of course, that didn't last long.
  • That's Atlanta airport, by the way...
  • ... which we seem to be flying north of at the moment.
  • It's all part of our cunning plan to sneak up behind it and catch it unawares.
  • Or something like that.
  • We're now further away than we were 10 minutes ago! Via a series of turns...
  • ... over the southeast of the city (the airport is to the south of the centre).
  • ... we get ourselves onto the final aproach, heading west, back the way we came!
  • Downtown Atlanta, off to the north.
  • And we're down!
  • Now we just have to find our gate. Atlanta is a big airport...
  • ... and it takes about 10 minutes of taxiing...
  • ... past various terminals...
  • ... before we finally slide into our gate, marking the end of the flight.
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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…

You can see what I made of Atlanta airport after the gallery.

  • The B Concourse at Atlanta airport, essentially a long corridor with lots of gates.
  • There's plenty of seating at the gates, by the way...
  • ... and easy-to-access at-seat power, along with free Wifi, so that's all good.
  • Also, on the plus side, like most airports today, there's plenty of (cold) water.
  • Downside: no speciality coffee that I could find, so you need to make your own.
  • By the time I'd worked that out and made my coffee, it was time to board my MD-90.
  • I was flying first class in my usual seat right at the front (although this is my neighbour's).
  • Since it was a night flight, I'd gone for the aisle seat. More than enough legroom.
  • If you're wondering how close to the front it was, it was this close.
  • There was no monitor in the seat/on the bulkhead, but there was at-seat power...
  • ... and a generous-sized table which lifted out of the central armrest...
  • ... and folded out to its full width (just not wide enough to reach the other armrest!).
  • However, it was plenty big enough for my laptop. And stable enough too.
The B Concourse at Atlanta airport, essentially a long corridor with lots of gates.1 There's plenty of seating at the gates, by the way...2 ... and easy-to-access at-seat power, along with free Wifi, so that's all good.3 Also, on the plus side, like most airports today, there's plenty of (cold) water.4 Downside: no speciality coffee that I could find, so you need to make your own.5 By the time I'd worked that out and made my coffee, it was time to board my MD-90.6 I was flying first class in my usual seat right at the front (although this is my neighbour's).7 Since it was a night flight, I'd gone for the aisle seat. More than enough legroom.8 If you're wondering how close to the front it was, it was this close.9 There was no monitor in the seat/on the bulkhead, but there was at-seat power...10 ... and a generous-sized table which lifted out of the central armrest...11 ... and folded out to its full width (just not wide enough to reach the other armrest!).12 However, it was plenty big enough for my laptop. And stable enough too.13
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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.

  • It was dark, so I didn't get any pictures of the flight itself. Instead, here's my plane.
  • In contrast to Atlanta, Portland Jetport is a lovely little airport. Look, there's rocking chairs!
  • You know it's late when there aren't any flights after yours on the arrival board!
It was dark, so I didn't get any pictures of the flight itself. Instead, here's my plane.1 In contrast to Atlanta, Portland Jetport is a lovely little airport. Look, there's rocking chairs!2 You know it's late when there aren't any flights after yours on the arrival board!3
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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!

Don’t forget to check out the final instalment of this Travel Spot, which covers my flight back home from Boston with British Airways.


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4 thoughts on “Brian’s Travel Spot: From Phoenix to Portland with Delta

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