Welcome to the third instalment of this, the second (and possibly last, the way things are going) Travel Spot of 2020, all about my trip to America just before the COVID-19 crisis. Part 1 covered my flight to Boston with British Airways to spend a couple of weeks with Amanda in Portland. In Part 2, Amanda and I travelled from Portland to Atlanta by a combination of car and train to visit her mother. Then, after a week in the Atlanta suburbs, we parted company and I flew to Chicago, which is the subject of today’s Travel Spot. I was supposed to be there for two weeks, although subsequent events radically altered that plan!
It’s now exactly three weeks since I made that flight and, sitting here, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it feels very surreal to be writing about taking an internal flight in the US when so much has changed since then. However, at the time I flew, although people were starting to take precautions against catching COVID-19, everything seemed pretty normal. Little did I know at the time that this would be the last “normal” flight I’m likely to take for who knows how long!
As usual, I’ve split this post up into the following sections:
- Flying American Airlines to Chicago
- Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson and the Admirals Club
- First Class on a 737-800
- Flying Over America
- Landing at Chicago O’Hare
This trip has been entirely shaped by the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic. Originally, I’d planned a two-week visit to see Amanda, flying in/out of Boston, followed immediately by a three-week work trip to Shanghai. However, with the outbreak of COVID-19 in China, the meetings were moved to Chicago just prior to the start of my trip. Since I was already in the US, there seemed little point in returning to the UK just to fly back to America again. Instead, I moved my return flight to the end of the month, and spent the extra week in Atlanta with Amanda, visiting her mother, before flying on to Chicago.
However, in a further twist, work then cancelled the Chicago face-to-face meetings when I was already in the US, replacing them with conference calls. Since I plan well ahead for my work travel, I’d long since booked the replacement flights and a two-week stay in a hotel in downtown Chicago. Figuring that I could just as easily do the calls from my hotel room (which was already paid for) as I could from home, I decided to carry on with the original plan, which had the added bonus that I could still explore something of Chicago and catch up with my friends. Not that my revised plan fared much better than the first, but that’s for another instalment of the Travel Spot!
With all that in mind, let’s go back to three weeks ago. Amanda drove me to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport where my flight was due to leave shortly after six o’clock in the evening. This gave us time to briefly pop into Midtown Atlanta to visit Dancing Goats, which, incidentally, is directly opposite the Midtown station on the MARTA system (Altanta’s metro) so I could have done the rest of the trip by public transport. However, Amanda was keen to drive me to the airport herself, dropping me off shortly after 16:30.
As I do when flying internally in the US for work, I was flying first class (which, when you’re travelling with multiple bags, isn’t as expensive as it sounds). Although Atlanta is the home of Delta, and Chicago, where I was going, is the home of United, I flew with American since it allows me to use my British Airways status. My only prior experience of Hartsfield-Jackson had come, ironically, just over a month earlier, when I flew via Atlanta on my way from Phoenix to Portland. On that occasion I travelled with Delta and although I only saw the inside of the terminal (B Concourse), the impression I got was of a large, busy airport.
Contrast that with my experience of flying with American, which uses the smaller T Concourse, effectively a separate terminal, which was much quieter. I’d checked-in on-line, so all I had to do was use the automated terminals to print my baggage tags (something which I’m getting quite good at) before dropping my bags off with an agent and heading to security, a process which took less than 10 minutes. Security was a little busier than bag drop, but the queues moved quickly enough and less than 25 minutes after saying goodbye to Amanda, I was in the terminal, looking for the lounge.
One of the main reasons I use American when flying internally in the US is that my British Airways status gets me access to the Admirals Club, the American Airline lounge, something even flying first class won’t get you (as I’ve discovered to my cost in the past). The Concourse T is arranged in a long row, with the gates on one side and the shops/restaurants on the other. You enter in the middle, opposite Gates T8 and T9 (handy, since my flight was departing from T9), while the lounge is just off to the left, opposite Gate T11.
As lounges go, it’s fairly small, which I prefer, with a seating area on one side, complete with buffet bar, while the other side had a bar and the coffee machines, complete with its own small seating area. There was free Wifi and plenty of power outlets and, while I was there, it wasn’t that busy. However, compared to the level of service I’m used to at British Airways lounges, it’s a step down. There’s a very limited selection of food, unless you’re prepared to pay for something from the kitchen (there are menus on the tables). Similarly, except for the soft drinks, you’re expected to buy your own, which is in stark contrast to British Airways lounges, where everything is free.
I’d already learnt from my experience of flying with American two months earlier, when I went from San Francisco to Phoenix, that on shorter flights, American doesn’t serve food. Since this flight was scheduled for under two hours, I decided to eat in the lounge, indulging in a surprisingly good mac ‘n’ cheese (my third decent one on the trip!) plus a selection from the salad bar. I wasn’t brave enough to try the coffee (although it’s from La Colombe, the one time I did try it in the Admirals Club, I was less than impressed). Instead, I made my own, using my Travel Press and Aergrind, two essentials from my travelling coffee kit. The beans, by the way, were from Tandem Coffee Roasters, with the hot water supplied by the coffee machine. The resulting brew was excellent!
There were only a handful of scheduled flights (an advantage, I believe, of flying with American, rather than anything to do with COVID-19, since American runs a fairly sparse service from Atlanta). However, of those flights, four of them were leaving within a 30-minute window, with my flight the last of the four. As a result, although the lounge was reasonably busy when I started to make my coffee, it was almost empty by the time I’d finished, so I packed up my things and took my coffee down to the gate with me in my Global WAKEcup.
I reached the gate (a two-minute walk) at 17:45, with the flight due to leave at 18:15. By then, the flight had started to board, although it was restricted to group 1 passengers (the groups go from 1 to 9). Since my status with British Airways gets me into group 1, I decided not to faff about and walked straight onto the plane.
I’ve flown quite a bit in the USA in the past couple of years and mostly with American Airlines. With one exception, when I managed to fly on a Boeing 787 going from Phoenix to Chicago last year, I’ve been flying on Airbus A321s, including from Miami to Phoenix two years ago, and on my most recent flight before this, when I went from San Francisco to Phoenix. Even when I flew with Delta, I was on a (you guessed it) Airbus A321.
It was therefore something of a novelty to find myself on a Boeing 737-800, and a very new one at that. I was in seat 3F, which was on the right-hand side by the window. Contrary to expectation, row 3 was the first row of seats (naively I had expected that to be row 1: silly me!), so I had my beloved bulkhead seat, with plenty of legroom and no danger of anyone reclining their seat in front of me!
The cabin layout was similar to the other short-haul flights I’ve taken in the US, with a small first class section at the front, consisting of just four rows of seats, each with two seats either side of the aisle. These are much wider than standard economy seats with a wide armrest between them. This doubles as a small table which you share with the person in the seat next to you.
If that’s not good enough for you, there’s a small drinks holder which pivots out at the front of the armrest. The armrest also houses the fold-out table and although it doesn’t extend all the way across the seat (some tables do, which means that the far end rests on the armrest on the other side), it was still pretty stable and was more than big enough for my laptop. If I have one complaint, it’s the limited forward/backward travel on the table (in fact, you can only pull it closer to you once it’s folded out, and then only by a small amount). However, it was far enough away from me that I could easily type on my laptop, so it wasn’t an issue for me.
Since it was a modern plane, there’s at-seat power, with an international power socket plus USB outlet for each seat. These are between the two seats at the bottom of the stanchion, meaning that they’re fairly ease to access. There’s a large monitor in the bulkhead in front of the seat, with the usual movies and TV shows, plus my favourite, a very detailed flight map. It’s the first time I’ve had a map accurate enough that I could watch us taxiing around the airport! Finally, if you didn’t fancy the screen, then you can stream the content for free to your laptop or tablet instead, plus there’s Wifi access for $12 for an hour or $16 for the flight.
Although it made a change to fly on a 737-800 rather than an A321, I can’t really say I prefer one to the other. The A321s I’ve flown with on American have felt relatively old, whereas this 737 was very new and, as such, definitely a step up. However, the A321 I flew on with Delta at the start of the year was much more modern, on a par with the 737-800. This makes me think that there’s little to choose between the two, with the age of the plane (or more likely, when it was last refurbished) being the main factor.
I was in my seat by 17:50, but because the flight was almost full, we didn’t finish boarding until 18:10. The doors closed shortly after that and we pushed back right on time, which was impressive! After the obligatory five minutes on the tarmac for the safety video, we started our taxi.
Atlanta, as befits the world’s busiest airport, is huge, with five runways, all orientated east-west, two north of the terminals, with the other three to the south. We taxied a short way to the northern runways, which put us at the western end of the airport, before taxiing the full length of the terminals, ending up by Delta’s maintenance facility, passing a huge number of Delta aircraft along the way.
We got to the far end of the airport at 18:30, which was when the pilot announced seats for take-off. As is often the case at busy airports, we were in a short queue, moving forward a small amount every minute as someone took off ahead of us. There were four other planes in all, then it was our turn.
We took off at 18:35, turning almost immediately in a long, leisurely curve as we headed almost due north, a course which would have flying up the middle of the state of Michigan rather than Chicago! There was plenty of patchy cloud about, but since I was sitting on the right-hand side of the plane, not only did I avoid having to look into the sun, but I also got some good views of the city, which was off to the east.
We flew over I-20 as it crossed over the Chattahoochee River next to the Six Flags fairground, which we’d seen on our drive into the airport. As we continued to head north, we went past Marietta, then flew almost over the top of Amanda’s office in Kennesaw before heading across northern Georgia, over Lake Allatoona and on into Tennessee.
About 20 minutes into the flight, having flown steadily north, we finally turned to a new heading, roughly north by northwest, which was something of a relief! However, after a few minutes, we turned again, this time to head northeast, a somewhat unexpected turn of events. This saw us flying roughly along the course of the Tennessee River for almost 10 minutes before we returned to our north by northwest heading, flying out over Kentucky. Our new heading put us on course for the South Bend, Indiana, and the south-eastern corner of Lake Michigan, which was an improvement, but not exactly Chicago!
The cabin crew came around with a drink and some snacks, but that was it as far as cabin service went. We continued across Kentucky, just skipping past Ohio as we headed over southeast Indiana, still heading stubbornly for South Bend. An hour into the flight, at 19:35, the pilot called 20 minutes to landing, which seemed a little optimistic, given we continued in the direction South Bend.
We hit some turbulence at 19:45 and soon after that, we made our move, turning onto a heading that would take us in the direction of Chicago and O’Hare airport. I’m used to long-haul flights where the cabin crew start preparing for landing with about 40 minutes to go. By the time 20 minutes is called, you’re really expected to have put everything away, but here the cabin crew didn’t come around until 19:50 (supposedly five minutes before we were due to land) to ask us to put our laptops away and stow our tables.
We flew pretty much directly over Chicago at a height of around 3,000m, but it was very cloudy, so I only caught the odd glimpse of the city and the lake front, which was a shame, since the views would otherwise have been excellent. Obviously, given our height, we weren’t going to be landing at O’Hare (the map optimistically saying we had one minute to go). Instead, we swung onto a westerly heading just as we passed over the city centre, slowly starting to descend as we flew away from Chicago and the airport.
We flew west until we were about 30 miles from O’Hare, turning just as we crossed the Fox River to fly back almost due east, descending all the time. The pilot called five minutes to landing at 20:15 (19:15 local time) and we were on the ground at 19:20, giving a surprisingly long flight time of 1¾ hours.
Like Atlanta, O’Hare (the sixth busiest airport in the world and the third busiest in the US) has five east-west runways, two north of the terminal complex and three to the south of it. We landed on the southern-most runway, which left us in the southeast corner of the airport, which, you would think, would have been just a short taxi from the gate. However, it was not to be. First, we taxied northeast up to the next runways, then turned west and taxied the whole length of the airport all done at a fairly impressive 55 km/h. Then we slowed to a less impressive 30 km/h and taxiing back east again the reach the terminal buildings.
At this point you might have thought we’d made it, but no. We were at the southwest corner of the terminal complex, while the American Airlines terminal (Terminal 3) is at the eastern end. No problem, you’d think, until you realise that we were taxiing clockwise around the terminals doing almost a full circuit to get to our gate.
Having landed at 19:15, it took us 25 minutes to get to the gate, finally arriving at 19:40. The only good thing was that there were no delays at the gate. We were straight in and straight off the plane, although I then had a long walk to baggage claim, stopping only to put my coat on (it had been a pleasant 20°C in Atlanta and was a chilly 0°C in Chicago!). By the time I reached the carousel at 20:00, my bags were already there.
I picked up my things and made my way to the Blue Line, which runs from the airport all the way into the Loop in downtown Chicago. It’s a journey I’ve written about at length on a previous occasion. The main difference this time is that I didn’t have to get all the way from Terminal 5. Instead, access to the Blue Line was via an elevator and a relatively short, well-signposted walk. In fact, the next time I do the trip from Terminal 5, I think I’ll just get the transit to Terminal 3 and walk from there (last time I went all the way to Terminal 1).
The other main difference is that Chicago’s public transport system now accepts credit and debit cards to pay for your journey (just tap the card at the turnstile), so in theory, you don’t have to queue up to buy one. However, I found that I couldn’t get any of my UK-issued cards to work, so had to fall back on my Ventra card (think Oyster card for London-based readers). If you’re flying in from the UK, I recommend having five dollars in cash on hand in case you need to buy a ticket (since I couldn’t get my cards to work in the ticket machines either)
I caught the 20:15 train and was in my hotel just after 21:00 which meant it had taken longer to get from the point of landing to leaving the airport than it had to get from the airport to my hotel! Anyway, I settled into my lovely hotel room that night, looking forward to a couple of weeks in Chicago, blissfully unaware that within two days, I’d be heading for home…
That, however, is for the next instalment of the Travel Spot.
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