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A Tale of Two Suites (SFO-HKG-PEK-NRT-SEA-SFO) (Still Very, Very Long) - Part II

A Tale of Two Suites (SFO-HKG-PEK-NRT-SEA-SFO) (Still Very, Very Long) - Part II

Old Nov 15, 99, 11:43 am
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A Tale of Two Suites (SFO-HKG-PEK-NRT-SEA-SFO) (Still Very, Very Long) - Part II

14 Nov. – PEK-NRT-SEA-SFO

14 Nov. – UA 852PEK-NRT

A colleague had flown into Beijing on UA earlier in the week, so he had been given a form by the F class concierge at PEK to be faxed back to UA prior to departure with your passport details, seat preferences, number of bags to be checked, and details on the car in which you would arrive. Although the latter items confused the concierge at the Shangri-La, the result of this information was absolutely fantastic. At the curbside at PEK, were two concierges standing in the cold with a big UA First Class/1K Check-In sitting on a baggage trolley. Our driver pulled up to their position, and as he unloaded the car, I walked to the concierge, said I was Greg99 with Y. Before I could finish the sentence, the concierge knew who we were and brought the trolley to the car, and gave us a ticket envelope complete with boarding pass, baggage check-tags, lounge pass and completed departure forms. We asked her about the service, commenting that it was fantastic, and we had never seen it before. Apparently it’s been introduced in PEK, SHA, as well as LAX/SFO and a couple other places. Thinking back, we realized that all our of recent international flights had been either partner or began with domestic connections, perhaps explaining why it hadn’t been noticed. I’m surprised they haven’t made a bigger deal out of its introduction – they probably will after they get broader roll-out. As we walked in and pulled out our wallets to pay the departure tax, she ran up and said “Do you need me to purchase your departure tax for you?” We handed over 90 yuan, she ran off, ran back with 2 coupons and walked us through the line to hand over the departure tax coupon. Pointing us to the immigration/security line, we walked off, shaking our heads in total disbelief with the experience. This check-in process is one of the most fantastic service introductions UA has done in a long time – absolutely painless. I will definitely be writing a happy letter to UA about it – I want to reinforce positive behavior.

We cleared immigration/security in record time for PEK and made our way through the glistening new terminal to the F class lounge, where we were met with a bright, airy, mahogany paneled lounge with comfortable seats and a nice drink/pastry selection. All in all, our PEK airport experience was one of utter incomprehension. In one fell swoop, the government had managed to upgrade PEK from one of the worst capital city airports in Asia to a passenger terminal that I would put up against any terminal ANYWHERE. Amazing.

The concierge came to the lounge to board us for the flight – a 747-400 OP with the 32 seat F class cabin and the old, old seats. One interesting note about the SIN based F/A’s on the NRT-PEK-NRT run is that they wear different uniforms than other UA crews – charcoal gray wool with red piping. Someone had told me that there was a government regulation requiring those uniforms into PEK, but I’ve never had that confirmed. Great crew on this flight – about 24 seats full, 4 1K’s, 4 1P’s, 3 2P’s, 3 MP’s, 2 VIP’s and a bunch of people with no status. They did quite a bit of upgrading at the last minute on this flight from C.

The Captain had come down to the Chief Purser, and mentioned that he hoped to push about 15 minutes early, but passenger handling delays meant that we pushed about 5 minutes late. A great set of concierges were really pushing hard to try to get everyone sorted out, and made sure that those of us who were already on the a/c had our choice of seats before they started opening them up to upgrades. We stayed in our assigned 5E & F which was effectively an exit row, center pair of seats.

After take-off for the 2h45m flight, the crew served a choice of steak, paprika stuffed chicken and John Dory, along with a starter of smoked scallops and a peppermint ice-cream cake dessert. Very solid – nothing fancy, but tasty. We landed at Narita, and they pulled us into a hardstand away from the terminal. NRT does a good job of bussing F class passengers separately, and we were at the security line at the terminal quickly. We walked through the newly re-constructed terminal areas out to the UA satellite (which was sadly un-reconstructed) past a new Red Carpet Club, and waited for the tiny elevator up to the 4th floor F class Fuji lounge. A short 30 minute wait in the lounge, and the NRT concierge called us for our flight.

14 Nov. UA876 NRT-SEA

We held our breath as we turned to board the 777 to SEA through door 1L (C & Y boarded through 2L), and as we came to the end of the jetway – REJOICE!!! So many disappointments in the past were finally squelched, as we found the new United First Suites. I walked to seat 3E, the left side of the center pair of the 3 x (1x2x1) cabin, and sat in a very nice blue fabric with a subtle pattern and brown suede accents. Like the UA C seats, the seats were remarkably uncomfortable when they were in their fully upright and locked position with headrests stowed. Just a side note, the seats have an interesting feature – when your seat is all the way retracted to t/o and landing position, a green LED lights on the side of the suite, enabling the F/A’s to quickly check cabin status before t/o and landing. Makes an incredible amount of sense.

The senior crew passed out menus, newspapers, noise reducing headsets, amenity kits and duty free selection forms. They also promised to try to get a couple of football scores for me. The Captain indicated that the flight would be a short 8h5m, not unexpected, given the lengthy outbound leg SFO-HKG earlier in the week.

Many in the cabin (OK, it was just me - I was goofy) tried out the different features of the seats – reclining all the way back, etc. While the seats are not as pretty to look at as (albeit cleaner than) the SQ Skysuites, the seat itself was about as comfortable with a nice storage locker between the pair of seats, and a retractable privacy divider. With respect to the reclined position, I found the pitch to be too short for me. I am a little over 6’3”, and I was not able to extend straight head to toe without an uncomfortable flex of my ankles. I would find later in the evening that I would need to curl up in a fetal position to be able to get enough comfort. Also, the foot cubbies where you extend were too narrow for my size 12 feet. I’m not sure why they designed them so narrowly, as there was plenty of room to expand their width. Seat pitch, I understand that this is limited somewhat by cabin design, but it seems like they could make the angle of the herringbone configuration more obtuse, shrinking the aisle width, but giving more length. Along with a bottom, quilted blanket and a top wool blanket, each seat was provided with a small and a large blanket with an unusual corduroy pillowcase. (Reminds me of the old, bad joke about corduroy pillows making “headlines” across the nation).

Anyway, back to the story – the meal featured a single plated appetizer selection, which had gravlax and a couple of other Asian inspired selections, including a red pepper “sushi” – no caviar - I felt good for being so environmentally aware. Salad with the omnipresent Roquefort and Asian vinaigrette followed, along with a couple of passes on the rolls/garlic bread selection. For the main course, I chose a “Texas” chili, which actually turned out to be fantastic – tender steak in a chili that had quite a nice kick. Apparently this is a very popular choice on the Asian routes for Americans who have been in Asia and want something hearty. Fruit and cheese and 45 minutes of extremely moderate turbulence preceded the ice cream sundae. During the meal, I watched “Election” with Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon on the personal video system – Great movie, I’d highly recommend it (OMNI – Sorry). Alas, the video screens are still quite small – I’d say 8 inch screens, nothing like the SQ set-up. I promptly crashed for the night.

There were a few patches of turbulence through the night, and I had to adjust to the shortness of the bed, and the next thing I know, the seat-belt sign has been turned on for landing at SEA-TAC. The crew didn’t ask whether we wanted to be woken for breakfast, and probably (reasonably) assumed that on an 8 hour overnight flight, we would probably pass on our choice of fruit plate or cheese omelette with mornay sauce. Landed about 15 minutes early to light fog in Seattle and taxied to the North Satellite for international arrivals, where customs and immigration was absolutely painless. A concierge was there at baggage claim to give us directions to the F class lounge over in the South Satellite (three trains away).

It was, one of UA’s better performances. A very solid crew, decent catering, mostly comfortable seats, on time departure and early arrival. Maybe it’s because I’ve experienced such poor outcomes on some of my other UA flights, and my expectations can be so low, but I think the overall experience was at least the equal of my earlier SQ SFO-HKG run.

14 Nov. UA1110 SEA-SFO

When we arrived at the SEA F class lounge, the concierge came over and said: “Mr. Greg99, has anyone talked to you about flow control?” Two words that strike fear into the heart of every SFO shuttle traveler. My originally booked flight would depart 1h45m late. This would normally be a good opportunity to sit in front of the TV and watch some NFL. However, on this day, my sister was flying in from Chicago for two weeks with her two cats, and I was to meet her at SFO. As CATMAN can tell you, leaving cats in a cage for any extra period of time is not a good thing. So, the concierge booked me on the earlier delayed flight, which would be departing in about 6 minutes. I relinquished my 2C seat for 7F. Hrrumph.

There is nothing I can add to the UA Shuttle story, other than to say that we held over Point Reyes for about 35 minutes. I had a Diet Coke. I remembered not to remember my earlier Dragonair flight and the multi-course breakfast as I munched on my vanilla cream wafers.

We arrived at the shuttle terminal, and I went to meet my sister’s ORD flight, which actually arrived 32 minutes early. We went down to the madness that is baggage claim, and collected her cats, which arrived promptly and in good health.

In a mixed blessing, I get to stay home for a while. I had made 1K before this trip, so there will be no end of year dashes to make before Dec. 31. I’ll actually get to see my fiancée once or twice.


[This message has been edited by greg99 (edited 11-15-1999).]
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Old Nov 15, 99, 2:06 pm
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Great report! Dragonair is a really good carrier with solid reputation in Asia. Its F/As are fluent with mandarin, cantonese, and english.

About SQ, please write them a letter. They need to hear from you, however, I found their customer relation desk very poorly run.

About the new UA's first suite, I heard mixed reviews, and I am not a big caviar fan either. However, I think UA's food in first and business can be better. A soup or sorbet course will not hurt. Add another choice of dessert is not a bad idea too.

Thanks,
Carfield
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Old Nov 15, 99, 5:50 pm
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Wonderful trip report, greg. I'm glad your UA international FC experience was as good as I've always had---and I haven't had the First Suites yet! Of course, I'm only 5-10, so the length probably won't be a problem.

By the way, International arrivals at SEA are in the South satellite and the UA lounge is actually in North.
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Old Nov 15, 99, 8:29 pm
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Oops.

North, south. There's a reason I don't fly myself to PEK (although I'm about to start working on it - look out Bay Area).



Greg
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Old Nov 15, 99, 9:16 pm
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Nice report, Greg99, liked your interesting description if the first suite on UA. I'll be on QF in April and will post a report of their FC offering then.

Omni: I completely agree with you on "Election." This is one funny movie, and it's recently come out on video. Highly recommended if you don't mind a little s*x and foul language. (It would not pass the Cmdr. Catcop test.)
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Old Nov 15, 99, 9:17 pm
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My experience mirrors greg99's, since I was seated in the seat right in front of his .

I am 5'10" and I found the footrest cubby too narrow as well. It's actually semicircle-shaped, and I could only get one foot into the point, which was long enough. If it had been made square, maybe it wouldn't have been as aesthetically pleasing from the outside, but it would have fit those of us with two legs a bit better.

They must have had at least 2 copies of Election, because I watched it too. Having personal video is very convenient.

I had the breakfast because I was awake... it was papaya, pineapple, yogurt, and a not-hot muffin. Certainly nothing like my BC breakfast on SQ earlier in the week.
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Old Dec 6, 99, 2:11 am
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I've never heard the term flow control in the context of late flights. What does it mean, precisely? Delays in depature/arrival due to too many planes already lined up for take-off or landing?
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Old Dec 7, 99, 12:14 am
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Pshuang -

SFO, like most other airports, has certain challenges during bad weather. SFO's just happen to be worse than any other airport in the US. Flow control is the air traffic control system's term for how this is dealt with.

SFO has two parallel runways that are primarily used for arrivals (and take-offs of large or heavily fueled aircraft - or @ discretion of pilot/tower. These runways are very close together, which is not a problem during good weather, but when the weather gets bad, 2 aircraft cannot "shoot" simultaneous approaches to land on the 2 parallel runways. The aircraft have to be staggered in in a sequence. This cuts the available number of landing slots by nearly 50%.

Airlines, however, schedule for the normal, good weather number of landing slots. So, when the slots go away, and there are too many aircraft trying to land for the available slots, arrivals either have to circle in a holding pattern somewhere over Sonoma County (north of SF) or east of SF, near Modesto or Stockton. As this wastes fuel, and has the unpleasant side effect of frequently causing diversions to Oakland or SJC, ATC implements a flow control system that allots take-off times for flights around the country to try to sequence them in to SFO with the minimum delay.

The same system goes into effect when there is bad weather elsewhere in the US, particularly at hub airports, like ORD.

Hope this helps.

Greg
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