|Flight: UA 181Route: Guam (GUM) – Sendai (SDJ)
Class: Business (2-class cabin)
Distance: 1417 miles
Flying time: 4 hrs
Equipment: first B737-700 then B737-800This flight is part of an 8-segment itinerary booked on United 10 months earlier before the MileagePlus devaluation took effect. It cost us 100,000 miles plus $92 in taxes and fees. One United flight was involved even though I tried my best to avoid them. And for many good reasons, calling it business class is a misnomer because it’s barely a premium economy product. Here’s the report in pictures.
We showed up at the airport 2 hours before our 7:40 am departure even though we knew full well that the lounge was crappy and there was not much to do. A bunch of United flights to Japan depart early in the morning so there were long lines in economy, even with crowd managers assisting passengers. Hardly anyone at the business counter so checking in took just a few minutes. We got our boarding passes, dropped our luggage at TSA, went through security, and eventually settled in the United Club.
We’re flying on a B737-700 this morning. The aircraft was already at the gate and the sky looked a little cloudy but nothing threatening so an on time departure looked very likely. We were hoping to arrive by 11 so we could have an entire afternoon checking out Sendai. In the winter in northern Japan, it gets dark around 4.
The business class cabin has 4 rows, 16 seats in 2-2 arrangement. The seat is a wide recliner typical of regional business class seats but it looks old and unattractive. On the seat was a flimsy blanket, which used in both economy and business classes. It resembles a heavy shawl than what we usually think of as blanket material.
Through the dew-laden window, I could see our luggage being loaded on the right hand side of the aircraft.
Shanghai Airlines, a Star Alliance member, also flies from Pudong Airport (PVG) to Guam using a B737-700. Today is the first day that Jin Air switched to a B777-200 instead of their usual B737s bringing in Korean tourists from Seoul Incheon to Guam. It was the first ever B777 for this Korean Air subsidiary. The flight already departed at 3:20 in the morning but it’d have been interesting to see a wide-bodied aircraft at this airport, apart from a B777-200 United uses for Tokyo Narita on a certain days of the week.
There was no newspaper/magazine service on board. Before taking off, we were offered orange juice and water, which was served in plastic cups. Classy! No hot towel service either.
This part of the airport was pretty quiet at this time of day. What happened to all the people queuing up for their United flights to Japan? They must all have left. I could only see a few United B737s, a Delta B757 going to Tokyo Narita. Although Guam is a regional hub with many international flights, it feels provincial.
As we took off, an airfield with 2 runways came into view. This must be part of the Andersen Air Force Base, which occupies a large area in the northeastern corner of the island.
We had a smooth take off but then a little turbulence caused the seat belt sign to remain on for a while. Finally after 20 minutes when we seemed to have reached cruising altitude, the captain came on the PA and started making an announcement. We thought it would be one of those routine ones, inviting us to sit back, relax, and enjoy the legendary United onboard service. Actually United never says that. And for practical reasons. Instead, the he started with, “Ladies and gentlemen, from the flight deck, this is your captain speaking, we’re having a disagreement … pause.” At this point, I started thinking, you meant you and the co-pilot can’t agree on what to have for breakfast? OK … but go on. “A disagreement between instruments and out of an abundance of precaution, we’re returning to Guam so the technicians can take a look.”
So he started to make a series of turns. No mentioning of fuel dumping so I guessed it would not be necessary. The flight was not full anyway. As we approached the airport, I could see the rugged interior of the island. Within 20 minutes of the initial announcement, we landed and taxied back to the gate. Two fire trucks and four emergency service vehicles followed us. Out of an abundance of precaution, I guess. He already alerted us to this procedure so nobody was startled. Kind of cool actually. There you have it. My first turn around. I guess if you fly enough, it’s going to happen to you.
Initial estimate of the time it’d take to fix the problem was half an hour. My partner was skeptical; I was hopeful because I wanted to believe that it was not a serious issue. We retreated to the United Club with an air of defeat. Going back to a lounge is usually not a good sign. I only had to do it a couple of times, mostly because I either missed my flight or it was delayed. Either way, once you say goodbye to the lounge dragons, that should be it. A rebound entrance, like in a relationship, is rarely a good thing.
From that time on, I got an email update from United about every hour pushing back the new departure time by one hour. I was getting hungry and bored. So I had to eat what was available in the lounge, which was not much. How come whenever you get delayed, you’ll end up in the crappiest lounge imaginable. When you’re in a swanky lounge with an abundance of food and drinks, your fights are always on time. Life’s really unfair. Anyway, I downed 1 cup of Nissin instant noodles plus a yoghurt and eventually fell asleep. I woke up when there was a boarding announcement for this stranded flight. The boarding was almost completed when we got to the gate. Here comes Part Deux.