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Old Mar 28, 08, 11:13 pm   #1
 
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IAH-LAD-IAH in C on the "Houston Express" - World Airways / SonAir

This trip report is from my second trip to Angola, in early 2007 (some of the details might be a little fuzzy - sorry for not posting earlier). This was my second trip on the Houston Express, the charter flight World Airways operates for SonAir three times a week between IAH and LAD. WO 100 departs IAH on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings, arriving in LAD the next morning. WO 101 departs on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday nights, arriving at IAH around 8 the next morning. Sunday night the dedicated MD-11, N278WA, sleeps at the FedEx terminal at IAH. The plane is configured in a 12 F, 78 C, and 23 Y configuration. There are flat beds in F arranged 1-2-1(see this article), old style recliners in C arranged 2-2-2, and domestic first-style seats in Y arranged 2-3-2. An old-style overhead monitor system is used for GeoMaps, and Empower adapters throughout for use with the digE players.

My roundtrip C ticket cost about $6,700. Rountrip Y is about $4,000.


N278WA from Airliners.net

---------------------
WO 100 - IAH-LAD
Departs: 11:00
Arrives: 08:30 +1

I arrived at IAH Terminal D around 9:00. This was the only flight open for check-in at the time, and the ticketing hall was very quiet. A large contingent of WO staff was present, and check-in was completed quickly. Even though this is a charter flight, standard boarding cards are issued, and hand baggage is tagged. Most of the passengers on this flight are American oil workers on four-week rotations, and many check coolers full of food to sustain them during their hitches!

F and C passengers are given passes to use the BA Terraces lounge, which is opened just for the flight. The lounge was well stocked with drinks and a small assortment of snacks. I enjoyed a Sam Adams and some Milanos. Unfortunately, the BA lounge isn't that large, and seating was scare by 10:00.

Boarding was completed by 10:45. The flight was about 90% full. Orange juice, champagne, and mimosas were handed out, and the flight attendants came through with a trolley of magazines and newspapers, and distributed amenity kits. Heavy blankets, big pillows, and noise-reducing headsets were waiting in the seats. The flight attendants and crew are all World employees, with the exception of one SonAir flight attendant for Portugese-speaking passengers (the passengers appeared about 90% American; there were just a handful of Angolans), and after a short delay for cargo we departed on runway 15L. The thrust and whine of the trijet engines at takeoff was awesome. Menus were quickly distributed and cocktails served. Enjoying a very nice glass of Pinot Noir, I chose the Beef Tournedos (not bad - I believe LSG did the IAH catering). World operates this flight for SonAir, the aviation division of SonAngol, the Angolan national oil company, and SonAir has made a huge investment 'branding' the flight. Not only is the SonAir logo painted on the dedicated plane, but all the china, linens, and glassware onboard are embroidered or engraved with the SonAir logo. SonAir even produces a corporate magazine that's in every seatback pocket. Everything is very high quality.


Menu


Appetizer - Crab Cakes and Salad


Entree - Beef Tournedos

Not sleeping well on planes, I woke up after a short post-dinner nap. At this point the flight attendant was going through the cabin, taking midflight snack orders from the passengers who were awake. I had the hamburger, which was really big and tasty. Remembering that I enjoyed the pinot noir at dinner, the F/A brought me another glass. All of the F/As on the flight were great - senior and experienced, but very proactive and friendly. Chatting with them, I learned that they layover at LAD for their required rest period, and head back to IAH that same night. Apparently many of them enjoy the regular schedule and easy to deal with passengers.

Did some work, watched another movie, grabbed a cup of tea from the galley, and caught a few more hours of sleep. About 1:30 before landing, the cabin lights came on and breakfast was served. I had the pancakes, which were OK, and lots of coffee. Approaching the African coast, I cleaned up in the restroom, grabbed an extra bottle of water from the galley, and got my arrival documents in order.

We arrived at LAD on runway 23, made a U-turn at the end of the runway, and taxied up to the terminal. It being a Tuesday morning, the weekly AF 777 had already arrived (a security fence with armed guards was set up around the plane). The bus came up to our plane and took us to the terminal. Since all the passengers on this flight were familiar with the Angolan immigration drill, formalities were handled swiftly and without any hassle - you present your vaccination card to get your immigration card stamped, hand over your passport and visa receipt (in case your visa was arranged by a local agent), collect your luggage, get your passport returned shortly afterwards, and head through the red/green customs lanes. I was met outside customs by our local agent, driven over to the domestic terminal to catch my helicopter, and headed offshore to my platform after a great, worry-free flight.

---------------------
WO 101 - LAD-IAH
Departs: 22:30
Arrives: 07:00 +1

My visit to Angola was brief - just two days - so I was headed back to IAH on the Thursday night flight. I arrived back onshore midday Thursday, grabbed some lunch and a shower at my company's compound, and then waited for the agent to take me to the airport. He was supposed to meet me at 17:00, and when by 17:30 he hadn't arrived and I was very nervous! I phoned him and he was stuck in the bad Luanda traffic, but arrived around 17:45. The drive to the airport was quick - less than 20 minutes, and I arrived just as check-in for the evening flights was opening.


Views of Luanda

It being Thursday, there were three other flights departing, all around 22:00: BA to LHR, DT (Taag) to Lisbon, and WO 101 to IAH. Check-in for all three flights opens at 18:00, and as one might expect the ticketing hall was a madhouse of people trying to check in at that point. The actual check-in area is screened off to keep non-passengers out. Three lines were formed, one for each flight. World has a staff of agents at LAD who complete the security screening and check-in (they appear to be Portugese expats). There are some great old mechanical scales at LAD that your luggage is weighed on. I was assigned the same bulkhead seat I had coming over and was given a pass to the lounge.

I didn't have a bag to check, so I got my departure stamp, headed through security and the currency inspection (it's illegal to take Angolan currency out of the country), and up the stairs to the departures lounge. There are two lounges at LAD - the Taag lounge and one other that's not branded. I received some advice on my first trip to use the Taag lounge (the other gives two drink chits per passenger, while there's an open self-service bar at the Taag lounge). The Taag lounge is definitely not the LHR VS Clubhouse, but it is adequately air conditioned, has what may be the cleanest bathrooms in Luanda, and has a good selection of liquors. There were some very tired looking sandwiches (cheese?) wrapped in plastic, but that was the only solid food around (at this point I was glad I had brought some snacks of my own). I grabbed a couple of cans of Castle lager before the lounge filled up (I learned on my last trip that the beer quickly disappears once all the WO passengers arrive) and chilled out with my Ipod until boarding time. By 8:00 the lounge was packed.

Around 9:30, the WO passengers headed downstairs to the departure gates. There are two gates at LAD (no jetways). One was roped off for WO; the other was being used for BA and DT. DT loaded up first, and it didn't appear that more than 40 passengers boarded. Their boarding cards were all hand-written. This trip was before DT was put on the EU blacklist, so I'm not sure if the Lisbon passengers were travelling on DT's 777-200, one of their old 747-300s, or one of the leased SS (Corsairfly) 747-400s Taag was using at the time. Once they finished, BA started boarding. The BA flight was packed, and loaded up just before us.

All the WO passengers were hand-searched for liquids, and our shoes were inspected. Around 10:15 the flight was ready to board, the bus pulled up, and we were driven to the plane. Champagne, orange juice, and mimosas were passed around. The WO ground staff walked through the plane to make sure everything was in order, the doors were closed, and we taxied to runway 05 and took off.

No menus were loaded, but a chicken and pasta or beef dish were offered for dinner. There was a smoked salmon and caviar appetizer and a small salad. Unfortunately the catering ex-LAD wasn't as good as ex-IAH. The chicken was prepared with the bones still in it (common in Angolan cooking), but the same pinot noir that I enjoyed on the flight over was available and I had a few glasses.


Appetizer and Dinner

DigE players were handed out, and I watched another film (unfortunately since I flew in earlier that week, the 6 or 8 selections on the players were the same). After the movie, I grabbed a cup of tea from the galley and had a few hours of sleep. After waking, one of the F/As saw that I was up, and offered me a mid-flight snack (a cheese pizza - it was OK). Afterwards I chilled out with my Ipod for a few hours as we approached Trinidad and the southeastern Caribbean. About 1:30 from IAH, the lights came on and breakfast was served. I had waffles and sausage and some juice and coffee. I packed my carry on, and we soon landed at IAH on 08R. We pulled up to terminal D, and within 15 minutes I was through immigration and was headed to my car.
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Old Mar 29, 08, 12:02 am   #2
 
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Thanks for the great trip report studiospotter.

It is great to read about a very different sort of flight to the norm, to a fairly uncommon destination.
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Old Mar 30, 08, 1:02 am   #3
 
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I've always wondered what World Airways' planes were like. I guess many of them are outfitted differently, I imagine none so posh as the SonAir MD-11. I usually associate WO with troop flights, I've often seen hundreds and hundreds of soldiers in gate areas waiting to board WO flights. I have a feeling that, unfortunately, our soldiers don't get the same interior layout!

Anyway, thanks for sharing, esp so long after the trip when the newness of the memory has worn off. I've got 2 or 3 TRs that are unfinished that I just haven't put the time in to finish, so I know how it is.
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Old Apr 15, 08, 11:20 am   #4
 
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I'm a frequent flyer to Angola for one of my clients. The bookings usually go through a sponsoring company to Carlson Wagonlit Travel in Houston. The World Airways charter known as Houston Express is a joint venture between SonAir, ExxonMobil, Chevron, and BP. SonAir is the airline of Sonangol which is the national oil company of Angola. While LAD is the main destination, many of the inbound passengers will take further flights to a variety of oilfield jump-off locations such as Lobito and Cabinda. The regional flights are also under the charge of SonAir. The oilfields are offshore, though for the most part my work keeps me onshore.

The MD-11 aircraft have a few F seats up front and a few Y seats in the back, which of course means most of the seats are C. Most of the time the F seats are empty. The flight is usually pleasant, the food is okay, and the service is courteous. The flight attendants are usually retirees from other airlines and report that this is good duty. The planes are old and do require a ton of maintenance. There is one main plane and one backup aircraft. The backup aircraft does not have a enough C seats, and no F seats. So when they run the backup plane a lot of C people will get Y seats. However, you get five Y seats to make up for your lost C, so that you can lay down. Plus you get triple C miles for the inconvenience of it all. Most will fight for the Y seats when the backup plane flies, especially on the LAD-IAH flight. These are 2-5-2 seating arrangements. Most of us on these flights know each other, even if from different companies, due to common oilfield routes that we travel.

M8
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Old Apr 15, 08, 1:35 pm   #5
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A most interesting report. Thank you for sharing.
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Old Apr 15, 08, 1:36 pm   #6
 
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Fascinating report, thanks for sharing.
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Old Apr 15, 08, 1:39 pm   #7
 
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Neat! I've always wondered about this flight. Is it open to anyone, or do you have to work for a petroleum co? With the $4k Y seat though, it would be cheaper to go via Europe or South Africa.
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Old Apr 15, 08, 7:52 pm   #8
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Martinis at 8 View Post
Plus you get triple C miles for the inconvenience of it all.
M8
Who do you get miles on?
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Old Apr 15, 08, 8:07 pm   #9
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Awesome report about an airline we don't often read about!
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Old Apr 16, 08, 7:53 am   #10
 
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Originally Posted by FlyingDoctorwu View Post
Who do you get miles on?
United Airlines.
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Old Apr 16, 08, 8:03 am   #11
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by hauteboy View Post
Neat! I've always wondered about this flight. Is it open to anyone, or do you have to work for a petroleum co? With the $4k Y seat though, it would be cheaper to go via Europe or South Africa.
Passengers on Houston Express have to be sponsored by one of the joint venture companies. It is essentially a closed charter.

Via Europe is not cheaper, and takes longer. Angola right now is bottlenecked in terms of airline capacity and hotel space in Luanda.

I've made the trip via Lisbon-Newark-IAH. Very long stopovers, and not fun. LAD-IAH is a straight shot on Houton Express. Depending on the season, we will fly southerly or northerly routes to take advantage of the tailwinds. The flight is usually 14 hours, but we have made it in as little as 12.
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Old Apr 17, 08, 2:47 am   #12
 
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Martinis at 8 View Post
Passengers on Houston Express have to be sponsored by one of the joint venture companies. It is essentially a closed charter.

Via Europe is not cheaper, and takes longer. Angola right now is bottlenecked in terms of airline capacity and hotel space in Luanda.

I've made the trip via Lisbon-Newark-IAH. Very long stopovers, and not fun. LAD-IAH is a straight shot on Houton Express. Depending on the season, we will fly southerly or northerly routes to take advantage of the tailwinds. The flight is usually 14 hours, but we have made it in as little as 12.
If I went I'd use miles on BA or go via South America, EZE-JNB.
I was surprised to see there's actually an Angola consulate in Houston, though maybe not so surprising.
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Old Apr 18, 08, 10:40 am   #13
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Great report, thanks for sharing. Did you happen to get any pictures of the interior of the plane? I'd be interested to see what the different cabin layouts look like...they all sound fairly comfortable. Do you know how the service compares in F or Y?
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Old Aug 15, 08, 10:27 am   #14
 
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How many flight attendants does World staff their flts with?
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Old Aug 15, 08, 2:05 pm   #15
 
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Thanks for the great report with all the background information
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