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The IRROPS saga of UA154 (Island Hopper) of Friday the 13th

The IRROPS saga of UA154 (Island Hopper) of Friday the 13th

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Old Feb 16, 15, 4:36 am
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The IRROPS saga of UA154 (Island Hopper) of Friday the 13th

I flew UA154 from HNL on Friday the 13th of February, ticketed to GUM as part of an IAD-HKG MR-worthy low fare trip to cross "Flying the Island Hopper" off of my bucket list. Thanks to IRROPS, the next time someone uses the phrase "if you were stranded on a remote island surrounded by sharks..." I can respond "Been there, done that."

SUMMARY:

1) UA154 leaving HNL Fri 13FEB arrived MAJ on time on Sat 2/14 after crossing the International Date Line, then went mechanical. MAJ has no hangar, UA154 carries an on board mechanic due to remote nature of route and lack of maintenance help on the route. After 4 hours of attempts to fix the aircraft, a decision is made to fly new parts in from GUM (via separate, otherwise empty 737). Given MAJ is about 2,500 miles from GUM and HNL, this is an overnight job. Pax were put up in hotels and given meal vouchers, using pretty much every hotel room on one of the most geographically isolated islands on Earth. Oh and MAJ is home to the world's largest shark sanctuary.

2) Next day, 14FEB: problem fixed, UA154 departs MAJ 21 hours behind original schedule MAJ-KWA-KSA-PNI-TKK. At TKK, around 3 PM local time, the pilots expired on hours of service. With no crew bases between HNL and GUM, plane was delayed another 10 hours for crew to rest and re-report.

Fortunately, it was a Sunday night so UA189 came through around 2 AM on its once weekly PNI-TKK-GUM supplement to the Island Hopper, about the same time the Island Hopper's crew came back on to continue to GUM. Pax were split between the two flights for TKK-GUM, with both arriving GUM about 35 hours later than an on time UA154 would have. That is two days and two nights in transit for what should have been a day flight.

The flight crew and gate agents at MAJ and TKK did their best with all that was within their control given the circumstances. Special mention to the lead FA (Int'l Service Manager) on board and the Station Manager at MAJ, who went above and beyond.

As of now, UA emailed me and offered me $150 eCert or 7,500 miles to compensate the delay specifically in MAJ. Wonder if I'll get something else for the delay in TKK.

MY ISLAND HOPPER TRIP REPORT/ EXPERIENCE (LONG VERSION)

For those unaware, UA 154 is United's westbound Island Hopper, a thrice weekly ex-Continental Micronesia flight between HNL and GUM that is scheduled to fly an all day run HNL-MAJ-KWA-KSA-PNI-TKK-GUM, serving remote islands in the Pacific, most of which otherwise have no scheduled passenger service to the outside world. This plane handles everyone from medical situations requiring care beyond that available on remote islands, to divers going to some of the best diving in the world in Chuuk, to military and defense contractors going to/from Kwajelein. United's Island Hopper even handles the mail in and out of these islands. I first read about the Island Hopper as a teenager in the May 1998 issue of Airways Magazine, it was on my bucket list ever since. Last November, I found that I could earn 19,000 PQM (plus credit card spend points) for $1,283 by flying IAD-SFO-HNL-MAJ-KWA-KSA-PNI-TKK-GUM-HKG-EWR-DCA. So I booked that itinerary, with 3 nights in HKG to trigger the low through fare.

After two fine flights IAD-SFO (save for wifi advertised/not working) and SFO-HNL (which had working wifi), and a great night at the Waikiki Gateway hotel, my friend and I boarded UA154 in HNL early on the morning of Friday the 13th, scheduled to fly HNL-MAJ-KWA-KSA-PNI-TKK-GUM, with 90 minute connection in GUM to UA159 GUM-HKG. The HNL-MAJ segment was relatively uneventful, save for a 15 minute delay at pushback due to late security screening of checked surfboards. After takeoff, the FAs passed out customs forms for everyone's appropriate destination: the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia or Guam (which is a separate form than the normal US form). The look on the International Service Manager (purser/head FA)'s face was priceless when he learned we were going to GUM, because normal people take the HNL-GUM 7-hour nonstop. I am not normal. He quickly figured out this was a bucket list thing for us, and went the extra mile to provide us with a full bottle of water as we'd be on the plane the whole day. He mentioned he'd been working the Island Hopper since Nu Ju and Ju Ju, the first two 727s to fly the Island Hopper and inaugurate jet service to the islands (the planes started flying the hopper in 1968, not sure when our International Service Manager started). We arrived in MAJ on time, but that's where things went downhill.

Upon reboarding in MAJ around noon local time (transiting passengers are welcome to stretch their legs), the air conditioning on the aircraft wouldn't work and the jet engines wouldn't restart. After about 30-60 minutes of attempts to fix it, we were deplaned to wait in MAJ's tiny terminal. (For those expecting a club, MAJ is not NRT. Many of the signs in the airport are hand painted and the only carpet in the airport is the Premier Access Line). We were given updates every 15 minutes that were all to the effect of "The Mechanic is still working on it."

To give you a better idea of our predicament: the Island Hopper flies with an on board mechanic because it flies to some of the most remote islands on Earth. When our plane broke down in MAJ, the nearest 737 hangars were 2,000-3,000 miles away. That's like EWR-LAX distance.

In the terminal there is paid Wi-Fi: $5 per 50 MB. Your smartphone will go through that within seconds loading a Facebook feed (all those photos are a couple megs each), and you'll also go through it before even tapping out a first text if your phone has any auto updates in the background. I had to go through about $15 to text my wife at home about our situation. This is not some profiteer price gouging: it's the frank reality of the communications available in one of the most remote places on earth. Underwater cables over long distances to serve only a few thousand people. I later learned that all Internet on the island of Majuro comes via a fiber optic cable from other islands which receive it in turn from Guam, and that bandwidth is a huge issue for the residents of Majuro.

During this time we saw a gentleman asking crew questions and otherwise just watching what was going on on the Tarmac from the passenger waiting area. After chatting a bit we learned he is another FTer and was also flying the Island Hopper to Hong Kong to cross it off of his bucket list too. So we were kind of a group from there on out. I'll let him identify himself if he so wishes in the replies.

We were given snacks (Long Tarmac Delay/"LTD" kits, per labels on the box) and drinks about an hour after deplaning, and the ham sandwich meals which would have been served on board two hours after deplaning. Around 3 PM, we are informed that the mechanic has tried everything he can, but that a new part has to be flown in from GUM, so that we will be taking off tomorrow. We were taken through immigration to enter the Republic of the Marshall Islands, claimed baggage, and given hotel and meal vouchers (lines did form as MAJ only has a handful of agents, staffing to handle a few dozen passengers coming on or off the plane on a normal day, but not the entire plane!).

We were shuttled to a hotel, the Lojkar Hotel and Apartments, which actually turned out to be an incredible apartment suite with three beds/2 bedrooms for the three of us (due to the scarcity of rooms on MAJ we were asked to share rooms with anyone we could. Those with family and friends on the island were asked to contact them first).

The internet situation at the hotel was slightly different: you could buy prepaid wifi cards from the adjacent store for $5 except these cards instead gave you 50 minutes of access instead of 50MB.

After taking care of some online necessities, my traveling companions and I took a walk around Majuro. The island is shaped as a giant "C," only wide enough for one two-lane road, a set of homes or businesses on one side and a set of homes or businesses on the other side. That's it. Lots of dogs and cats, and even some roosters. The airport appears to be on the widest part of the island, the only area wide enough to fit an airport.

Ground transportation on the island of Majuro is mostly via foot to little counter-style retail stands, via car or via shared ride taxi, which have guidelines but no regulated fares and run almost every minute up and down Majuro's lone road. We took a cab to dinner after our walk, paying $7 one way and $12 back for three people on a 20 minute drive.

Dinner was at the Tide Table using the $21 per person in United vouchers we were all given. Locals we spoke with said was the best restaurant on the island. Food was plentiful and good, mostly American staples such as pizza, steaks, etc. Most of the others in the restaurant that night were fellow passengers.

We were told later that while we were gone, the hotel owner received word from United that the flight would be scheduled to depart at 7:00 AM the next morning. She knocked on our door but we were gone. After dinner, we used more of those 50 minute Internet cards and saw that UA154 was now scheduled for a 7am departure. We went to bed around midnight with alarms set for 4:30 AM.

I want to make something really clear here: EVERY United employee and every hotel employee we encountered on Majuro were courteous and professional and trying their hardest to help as best they could given the circumstances, even though stress levels were high all around. This had to be hard both in terms of unplanned hours and mental stress on the part of the staff but they didn't show it.

Sunday, February 15 we woke up early and quickly readied for heading back to the airport. The hotel owner was using a van to shuttle the many passengers to the airport. When we arrived there were long lines at check in, as passengers had to re-check baggage and inquire on connecting itineraries (although Guam was handling a lot of the rebookings). Apparently there was a long wait for customs/immigration, who showed up later than expected per the flight crew later on. The manager at MAJ informed us that United was unable to secure hotel space in GUM due to the Chinese New Year for misconnects. We used one of our last remaining wifi cards from last night (which worked on the airport wifi network) to do our own search and found two rooms for the three of us...and not much more than that available on the whole island.

Once passengers had cleared customs and immigration to exit the Republic of the Marshall Islands, we were back on board our 737-800, with a 737-700 rescue plane also on the Tarmac at MAJ's other stand. United was amazingly able to source a plane load of breakfasts (egg, ham, rice) from a restaurant on the island. After a few minutes additional wait for forks (of all things!) to arrive, we were wheels up around 9 AM. The five FAs (more than the usual four because of the Island Hopper's grueling 14-hour, six-segment day...when things go right) served breakfast, drinks and picked up everything to a mostly full plane in the ~25 minute window between leveling off and descent on the 46 minute flight to Kwajelein. On our descent, the International Service Manager DID announce that since KWA is an active US Military installation pictures were not allowed during the stop (I know this has been discussed before on FT with conflicting accounts). We were, however, allowed to walk about inside the plane to use the restrooms during the stop. A ramp agent came through and asked passengers to identify which overhead bin items were theirs, to make sure no luggage was left on board by a deplaning passenger, a practice repeated at the remaining stops. Only passengers ticketed for KWA were allowed to deplane.

After KWA, the next stop was KSA, Kosrae, Micronesia (pronounced Kosh-u-ree), about an hour of flying time later. We were asked to stay on board the plane here to expedite getting out on time. The approach and airport surroundings were breathtaking.

After KSA, the next stop was PNI, Pohnpei (pronounced Pohn-ah-pay), an hour or so flying time from KSA. Another breathtaking landing. This time we were allowed into the terminal, and actually saw another aircraft on the Tarmac: apparently a flight for 9air was having a refueling stop in PNI at the same time we were in town.

Leaving PNI, we taxied to the runway then waited about 15 minutes for Oakland Center to clear us for takeoff for another hour long flight to TKK, Chuuk (formerly Truk), Micronesia.

Upon arrival in TKK, around 3pm local time on Sunday the 15th, we were allowed to exit and deplane, but after we re boarded the aircraft, we learned that the pilots had, by a slim margin, ended up in a position where they would exceed their hours of service if they were to continue to GUM.

Because the Island Hopper flies six segments in 14 hours with no crew change point (on a good day), the flight operates under a waiver from the FAA where pilot rest rules are different than for normal flights, a second pilot and copilot sit in BusinessFirst and swap out at some point. The time issue must have affected both sets of pilots because our flight could not go anywhere. And so, for the second time in as many days, we were deplaned and brought into yet another one-gate terminal, on another island, once again served ham and cheese sandwiches an sodas from carts offloaded from the plane. No hotels were available on the island. However it sounded like the hotel next to the airport in TKK is currently being refurbished (which sounds like a good thing per previous reports on FT).

One of the members of our group was a 1K and was able to raise the 1K line via his cell phone and get us reacommodated. My original plan was to continue on to HKG, spend two days and return HKG-EWR-DCA, but the connection to the less than daily GUM-HKG Flight was long ago broken on Majuro, so I figured I'd go home, and was rerouted GUM-NRT-IAD. I had no cell coverage, and while my phone reported there was a wifi connection in the airport of similar nature to MAJ, I couldn't even connect to the network to pay for access.

After about 2 or 3 hours of TKK waiting for a game plan from "Either Guam or Chicago" (per announcement in TKK terminal), we learned that there would be two planes much later in the evening: UA189 supplements the Island Hopper once a week PNI-TKK-GUM, and would pass through westward at 2:50 AM. Meanwhile, our pilots would be rested and ready to fly again around 3 AM.

As the wait was going to be long, we were allowed to exit the waiting room and enter the country, and once again I picked up a new passport stamp, this time for the Federated States of Micronesia.

The UA staff at TKK were courteous despite having already been through a LONG day. They offered to lock our baggage in a back office room for a few hours, so the three of us decided to take a walk around Chuuk before dinner (Past FT discussion has said TKK isn't great to wander about after dark). We walked around a largely residential part of the island. Families played baseball barefoot in a field, children swung from vines across side streets, kids raced each other up and down quiet streets, and nearly everyone would say hi to us as we passed them on the street, front porches, etc. After about 6, it got dark and we returned to the airport to see if there was any update. There being none, we went and got dinner across the street from the TKK airport at the Lei Side Coffee Shop. Despite its name, this coffee shop had a full menu of fish, pizza, wings, even steaks. Quantity and quality of portions were good. They normally closed at 8 on Sundays, but stayed open until 10:30 for us marooned Island Hoppers. A big THANK YOU to their staff as well!

After 10:30 we headed back to the airport, where everyone was in line to once again check in to either Flight 189, the PNI-TKK-GUM flight, or Flight 2102, which Flight 154 was renumbered as it was now going to take off on Monday morning, the same calendar day as the next regularly scheduled Island Hopper departing HNL. We were ticketed on 189. This check in process took over two hours for the agents, who normally only have to process a fraction of the Island Hopper's ridership, with even fewer itinerary changes.

Finally, around 1:30 AM, over ten hours after the Island Hopper arrived in TKK and nearly 35 hours after flight 154 should have left TKK, Flight 189 arrived, promptly boarded enough passengers to fill every remaining seat, and took off. This was a quick flight, we arrived into Guam early at about 4:10 AM. Nearly 35 hours after my original flight, scheduled for 14 hours, was scheduled to arrive.

Once in GUM, one of my traveling friends made a discovery: the boarding passes we were reissued in TKK said "Ticket: paper" at the bottom instead of providing the correct 016 numbers. A trip to the ticket window revealed this actually was a big problem, the BPs would not allow boarding if not connected to the correct ticket. So we got all of our tickets changed. My ticket (all UA Metal) was quick to change, but one of my friends was going GUM-NRT-SFO-YVR-YYJ with an AC leg at the end, and that required a half hour of work and a call to AC on the GUM agent's end.

Thinking back, while the agent at TKK may need to receive training on preventing a rebook from kicking the boarding pass off of the 016 and onto "Ticket: Paper," the agents at TKK to a person all maintained a professional attitude and calm despite a truly terrible situation on their end. One agent at TKK said some had been working since 5 AM, which might have meant some ground staff at TKK pushed 24 hours straight of work by the time the two flights left that night. The UA agents on all the islands, MAJ, TKK a and GUM did the best they could with what they had, and displayed the attitude and demeanor that showed they were giving their all in these trying situations. Same with the FAs on the Island Hopper; courteous and professional the whole way through with every customer interaction I was involved in or saw.

With proper boarding passes in hand, we went to the hotel rooms we luckily booked on our own at GUM to salvage least three hours of sleep before our onward flights. We were up for well over 24 hours at that point, given the time changes between MAJ and GUM. We were lucky that the last rooms on the island were at the Pacific Star, the rooms were comfortable and the service great. I'm already hoping my wife and family can maybe stay there sometime in the future (maybe, just, take the nonstop from HNL or NRT then?).

Finally, it was time to get up, shower, and catch my flights home to IAD with my HKG trip IRROPPED out. UA196 GUM-NRT got in early (ironically, it became the next flight for the same 737-800 I had on the Island Hopper HNL-TKK, which arrived in GUM shortly after flight 189 did). After a quick connection, I made UA804 back home. I can attest UA804's Wifi is available and working because I am posting from it.

To sum it up in a sentence, I bought my Island Hopper itinerary looking forward to an adventure, and wow, did I ever get one, even if it was different than what I had expected. Hong Kong didn't happen, but I actually got to get out of the airport and explore parts of the world that are far harder for most to ever visit. I even got $150 in eCerts due to the overnight stranding in MAJ (was offered that or 7,500 award miles, the 1K in our group was offered a $200 eCert). Not sure if we'll get a similar offer for the TKK stranding, will update if I am offered.

Sorry if this was wordy, but FT has been a wealth of information for me on both how UA handles situations and also the Island Hopper, so I wanted to share my most unusual experience.
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Last edited by aoumd; Mar 18, 15 at 7:00 pm Reason: Clarify delay occurred on Friday the 13th of FEBRUARY 2015, as the following month also has a Friday the 13th
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Old Feb 16, 15, 4:47 am
  #2  
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Better to be stuck in MAJ where there are hotels and other facilities than in KWA like some of us were last March. We were guests of the US Army for ~12 hours while awaiting a fixed airplane.

A bit unfortunate they didn't find a way to get a reserve crew to you in TKK; that's not so far from GUM that it would be impossible to schedule it to happen.

Did you try to declare Trip In Vain at GUM and get your fare refunded? That was another 6 hour ordeal on our trip.
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Old Feb 16, 15, 4:54 am
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Originally Posted by sbm12 View Post
Better to be stuck in MAJ where there are hotels and other facilities than in KWA like some of us were last March. We were guests of the US Army for ~12 hours while awaiting a fixed airplane.

A bit unfortunate they didn't find a way to get a reserve crew to you in TKK; that's not so far from GUM that it would be impossible to schedule it to happen.

Did you try to declare Trip In Vain at GUM and get your fare refunded? That was another 6 hour ordeal on our trip.
I didn't declare Trip In Vain at GUM. I booked an Island Hopper adventure and got one for sure. My HKG hotel is the only HKG cost I am out and can probably get that reimbursed through Chase Sapphire Preferred Trip Delay/Interruption coverage. I paid $1,282 AI for the original itinerary, and already figured I'd get 2/3 of that back in the Hawaii ticket I won't buy next year when my wife and I plan to go to HNL for a real non-MR vacation (the ~22,000 PQM+card spend miles take my account balance to the next 45,000 point increment for IAD-HNL). So I'm not out all that much, learned a lot, made a new friend and had an interesting time with another friend. Not bad for a long weekend.
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Old Feb 16, 15, 5:02 am
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Wow. What a saga. A good story for your family. (I won't suggest that you avoid Friday the 13ths to begin travel in the future.) At least you had a bed in MAJ, compared to other islands where you cannot leave the airport. Since MAJ is a shark sanctuary, I guess you did not have a choice of shark for dinner. Glad a shark did not have you as a choice for dinner either.

Don't hold your breath for an offer for TKK stranding.

Last edited by mkr; Feb 16, 15 at 5:15 am
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Old Feb 16, 15, 5:12 am
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Wow, what an adventure!

Thanks for taking the time to write that detailed post. It was a very enjoyable read. I hope to do the island hopper, myself, sometime in the not-too-distant future.
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Old Feb 16, 15, 6:40 am
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Very cool story to read. Glad you found the adventure you were looking for...
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Old Feb 16, 15, 6:49 am
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Man that is quite the ordeal, but a cool story since it's not like you HAD to be somewhere on the other side of the Pacific. When I flew the Hopper a couple weeks ago everything went smoothly. Though it sure does tell you something when they fly a second set of pilots and a mechanic.

Also I received a similar response when I told my seatmates that I was going all the way to Guam. They're like, you know there is a direct flight, right?
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Old Feb 16, 15, 7:17 am
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Thanks for sharing your detailed adventure! I thought last Julys HNL-GUM, Midway Island IRROPS was crazy till I read your story.The island hopper is on my future bucket list and thanks to you, I know what to prepare and expect.
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Old Feb 16, 15, 7:54 am
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Cool story. Appreciate you sharing. I had an on-time experience but would have traded it for yours!
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Old Feb 16, 15, 8:46 am
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Cool story and now that is adventure!!

A previous poster here was complaining about 45-90 min delays on the IH lol
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Old Feb 16, 15, 10:52 am
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Originally Posted by sbm12 View Post
A bit unfortunate they didn't find a way to get a reserve crew to you in TKK; that's not so far from GUM that it would be impossible to schedule it to happen.
Also I think any reserve crew United may have had in GUM was resting themselves after flying GUM-MAJ with our rescue parts! The rescue plane left after we did, so they probably would have been in the crew rest period after returning.
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Old Feb 16, 15, 10:55 am
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At least the former CMI (CS) staff would have been using SHARES for many years.

Originally Posted by aoumd View Post
Also I think any reserve crew United may have had in GUM was resting themselves after flying GUM-MAJ with our rescue parts! The rescue plane left after we did, so they probably would have been in the crew rest period after returning.
Also Sunday night is the twice weekly GUM-CNS too, so one less team/plane that could help.

Westbound Island Hoppers are Tue/Thu/Sat, and only Sat could connect to HKG, which is Mon/Wed/Fri/Sat. May I ask if any FTer tried booking USA-HKG fare with a 26-hour layover on GUM? Does 24+ make it more expensive?

Last edited by HkCaGu; Feb 16, 15 at 11:00 am
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Old Feb 16, 15, 10:59 am
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Originally Posted by krazykanuck View Post
Man that is quite the ordeal, but a cool story since it's not like you HAD to be somewhere on the other side of the Pacific. When I flew the Hopper a couple weeks ago everything went smoothly. Though it sure does tell you something when they fly a second set of pilots and a mechanic.
You raise a point I think is very central to the issue of Island Hopper reliability/IRROPS, but did NOT apply to me. For me this was a trip for fun, but the Island Hopper isn't specifically a touristy flight: it's the Marshall Islands and Micronesia's lifeline. As the Airways article on it in 1998 put it, "bringing the mail in and sick patients out." People going to family weddings or funerals, business travelers, the like. There is no other flight most of the time for most of these islands. So when the Island Hopper runs really late it really can hurt others, even if I was able to take the delays in stride.
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Old Feb 16, 15, 11:17 am
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wow, that's definitely an adventure and has been on my bucket list.
Did you use a GPU (or RPU?) on these flights? or were you in back?
Did the plane have power? I'm assuming the plane doesnt have wifi
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Old Feb 16, 15, 11:41 am
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Originally Posted by eng3 View Post
wow, that's definitely an adventure and has been on my bucket list.
Did you use a GPU (or RPU?) on these flights? or were you in back?
Did the plane have power? I'm assuming the plane doesnt have wifi
Back of the bus. Regular economy.

Plane does NOT have power nor does it have Wi-Fi, I brought external iPhone battery to keep my phone charged since it's the best camera I have, and helps pass the time (in airplane mode, of course!).

For United to put Wi-Fi on these flights would be huge, since the United connection is better than what's available on land in these islands.

Last edited by aoumd; Feb 16, 15 at 4:15 pm
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