Greeting us warmly at the door were the same two flight attendants but upon inquiring, I was told that the cockpit crew already went home and a new crew replaced them. We returned to the same seats but then I noticed something, “Hey, how come there are 2 extra seats in the cabin?” It turned out that we were now in a new aircraft, sort of an upgrade, a B737-800. Still old. Still crappy. We waived goodbye to our does-not-meant-to-be-on-plane as we were taxiing by it. So after 4 hours, they still could not fix it. I was amazed at my own naivete.
It was supposed to be an early morning flight. Now it was noon. At least out of the window, I was able to see Guam’s rugged eastern coastline brightly lit. The view was much better than in the early morning when it was a little dark and cloudy. In the galley, the two flight attendants were busy preparing the service after the seat belt sign was turned off. It was going to be a long day for them. After arriving in Sendai 5 hours later than scheduled, the aircraft would immediately turn around and fly back to Guam. They would not be back home until after midnight.
I had flown United Business Class 2 times previous from Guam to Saipan and then from Saipan to Manila so I had an idea of their catering on these regional routes. And yet the aviation enthusiast in me wanted me to believe that things would be different. This flight is longer than the other 2 flights. It was going to Japan, an important, wealthy, and demanding market. I was expecting higher catering standards. Macadamia nuts served in a ceramic bowl, à la Korean Air, was all the rage these days. Service commenced with a drink and snack service. Pretzels served straight out of the packet. Something you’ll get in economy on Cathay Pacific or ANA before the main meal. At least drinks were now served in real glass. Because there was no menu, it was hard to know what to drink unless you have a favorite drink and always stick to it. With a paper menu in your hand, you can explore. I believed that the drink cart was fully stocked in terms of booze with choices for red wine and white wine (the inexpensive kind).
I was excited about lunch. All the breakfast food was off loaded and thrown away. New lunches had to be made within a few hours and then loaded onto the new aircraft. This already cost United quite a bit. Because of the extended delay, would we get better foods as a way of saying “we’re sorry for the inconvenience”? My heart sank a little bit when the flight attendant approached us with a smile, “Would you like something to eat?” This meant only 1 thing. There were no choices. No beef or chicken? No fish or pasta? Sandwiches!
For a 4-hour flight, after a 5 hour-delay because of United’s own mechanical issue, this is what we got in Business Class. A simple cabbage salad (a little like a vinaigretted coleslaw), a warm chicken sandwich topped with red and green bell pepper slices with lots of melting (American/mozzarella) cheese on top, and a small piece of chocolate for dessert. When catering is so cheap, it doesn’t matter how nice and professional flight attendants are. You can’t window-dress mediocrity. If this were for a 1 or 2 hour flight, I could see how it would be (kind of) adequate. I got a much better meal on Emirates in economy for flights that last only 90 minutes. Because only United flies directly from Guam to Sendai, the closest comparison we could come up with was Japan Airlines Business Class from Guam to Tokyo Narita, which is slightly shorter. This is the menu.
Roast beef sirloin with Italian grilled vegetables | Virgin olive oil marinates seafood with sweet chili salsa
Salmon meuniere with herb butter sauce
Bread | Butter
Haagen-Dasz ice cream
Fish cake of conger eel | Small porgy & egg yolk sushi | Seasoned freshwater prawn | Okra with sesame dressing | Salmon & onion roll
Simmered taro with Japanese meat sauce
Diced steak with spicy Japanese sauce | Steamed rice
Miso soup | Japanese pickles
Haagen-Dasz ice cream
The United chicken sandwich was not terrible; it was average. And so is United as an airline. I’m not sure why I was disappointed. To fly United is to endure old cramped aircraft, paltry food offerings, no or outdated entertainment system, or hit or miss flight attendants. In our case, the two female flight attendants, both in their 50s, were excellent. They were courteous and professional, although a bit formal (I was called Sir the whole time) and they serviced with a smile. Their work day was quite long and they were probably just as tired as we.
This was tea/coffee service. That little piece of chocolate is borrowed from the meal tray to make things look nice. I wasn’t offered anything to go with my tea when I ordered one.
After lunch, there was not much to do but looking out the window. I jotted down some some notes while my partner engaged in some real work–editing a student’s paper. The flight attendant came back to check on us and offer refills once in a while. On one of the trips to the restroom, I stopped in the galley to chat with her about catering. Airlines employees get to fly for free on their airlines plus partner airlines. They love traveling so they’re definitely not jaded people. I was wondering if she knew how pathetic this business class meal was. I meant if you took away the ceramic plate, it’d be something you get in economy on a 1-hour flight on some airlines. Maybe she already knew that.
As we flew north, the sun was getting lower on the horizon. It was getting dark as we started our descent into Sendai Airport. Passing over a sea dyke on the water’s edge a few miles from the airport, one could not help but remember the terrible destruction brought upon this area of Japan by the earthquake and tsunami almost 4 years ago. I still remember the images of the flooded runways, of cars twisted and piled up in the parking lot, of US service personnel sleeping on cots taking over the entire terminal area during the first few days after the disaster. But all of that was behind us. Now I was about to land in Japan for the 7th or 8th time. This time I was going to experience northern Japan in the winter. It was to be a blast. Of cold air and snow, that is.