United’s 747 Flying Museum (Trip Report)

It’s a light week, so how about another trip report? We used 25,000 miles to get home using a one way saver awards on United in First Class, the weather was good 747 in Chicagoand I expected it to be routine . . . until our flight home from Chicago was upgraded to a 747, the one I now call the Flying Museum. What a trip.

When we made the reservation, there was no First Class available on the short hop to Chicago but we could get it on the flight home to LA. That was fine. A friend of mine who couldn’t stand the thought of us using miles for First but sitting in coach put us on the waitlist for the short haul.

I had already checked in and gotten a mobile boarding pass, but my friend said to check at the counter for our upgrade. There was a line, even in the First Class line, so we checked in at the kiosk seeing if that would do anything. It just printed new boarding passes in coach.

At the gate, I had this frustrating conversation with the United Express-employed gate agent who clearly doesn’t know much about the airline.

Cranky: Hi, just wanted to see if any upgrades were available. We should be on the FFCC list [which is a higher priority, apparently].
Agent: [Blank stare] Uh, what’s your name?
Cranky: Snyder
Agent: I see you’re on mileage ticket so you can’t upgrade.
Cranky: We’re on a first class mileage ticket so we definitely can upgrade.
Agent: I don’t show that.
Cranky: Then why does my boarding pass for the next flight say First?
Agent: It says Business.

At this point, I had to do a double take. There is no business class on the 757 we were supposed to be flying, and I saw our seat had been moved to row 7, which doesn’t exist on the 757. So I regrouped.

Cranky: Huh, well that’s still premium cabin.
Agent: Yeah, sorry there are no upgrades to first on that flight.
Cranky: But I’m asking about this flight
Agent: Oh we’re full.

It was way too early to be so agitated, so I just walked away and boarded when it was time.


December 27, 2010
United 7558 Lv Indianapolis 652a Arr Chicago/O’Hare 655a
Indianapolis (IND): Gate B24, Runway 23R, Depart 3m Late
Chicago/O’Hare (ORD): Gate B18, Runway 28, Arrive 4m Late
N639RW, Embraer 170-100, United white/blue colors, 100% Full
Seat 4A
Flight Time 43m

This was my first ride on an Embraer 170 and it was, well, just like the Embraer 190. We boarded in the pitch black (dawn comes really late in the winter in Indy) and filled up. Soon, we Descending over Chicagowere on our way into the dark and smooth early morning.

There was no service on the short flight, but we did have a spectacular view of Chicago on the way into the airport. After landing, we had to sit in the penalty box while an airplane cleared our gate, but we still blocked in just a couple minutes behind schedule.

Our connection was right next door, and our airplane had been upgraded to the Flying Museum, ship N194UA. United likes to say that all of its 747 and 767 aircraft have been outfitted in the new interior, but that’s no longer true.

United pulled N194UA out of the desert to offer extra capacity. At one point it was scheduled on domestic flights but it did work the occasional long haul as well. Now, I’m told it’s a spare that goes wherever necessary. Today, it was going to LA.

From the looks of the long, worn faces in the gate area, people had been waiting to go back to LA for awhile. There had been snow the day before, and the 89-person long standby list was a telltale sign of a flight meant to clear the backlog in Chicago.

The airplane is one of the only (if not the only) 747s still in the old gray colors. We boarded through the chaos and looked for our seat.


December 27, 2010
United 842 Lv Chicago/O’Hare 810a Arr Los Angeles 1045a
Chicago/O’Hare (ORD): Gate B16, Runway 32L, Depart 5m Late
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 77, Runway 25L, Arrive 40m Early
N194UA, Boeing 747-422, Gray Malevolent Skies colors, 95%+ Full
Seat 7A, Business Class (old seats)
Flight Time 3h30m

It’s clear that the airplane had been sitting overnight because it was a popsicle. We quickly took our seats in row 7, in the first business class cabin on the main deck and unwrapped the blankets to warm up.Biz Class Seat Pocket Broken

Once a door problem was fixed, we were on our way into the clear blue sky that only accompanies a very cold day during the Chicago winter.

The crews did a great job of working what appeared to be a last minute call-out for many of them on this mess of an airplane. We had crewmembers from Chicago, LA, San Francisco, and Seattle. They were all friendly and the attention was good, despite not getting a drink before departure.

The airplane, the only 747 not to have received the recent cabin upgrades, was like a time machine. For a short daytime flight, I probably actually prefer the cradle seat to the flat bed. It’s more comfortable for lounging, but these had clearly seen better days.

The manual controls were a little sticky and the seat didn’t seem to extend fully without some serious effort. The small video screen wouldn’t stow for departure, and when I did pull it out, it wouldn’t stay upright. The screen’s case was really dirty and was actually coming apart in one place. The seatback pocket in front of me had no elastic, so it just hung open and Broken TV Screentempted me like a basketball hoop.

The movies were all looping (not on demand), but I had to find one of the channels that didn’t have sound cutting in and out. (I’d say two or three were unwatchable/unlistenable.) So I caught the Expendables as it started and hope it would turn out better than I had heard. It didn’t.

They did serve us breakfast which consisted of a fairly good omelet with sausage and some dry breakfast potatoes, among other things. There was no choice of United 747 Economyfood, but that’s probably what I would have picked anyway.

After the movie, I wandered to the back to see what I was missing by riding up front. That looked like the ultimate torture chamber. People were sardines in the aft cabin trying to watch a movie on the projector screen. It was barely visible with the windows open and it wasn’t helped by the horizontal lines obscuring and blurring the picture. Then again, most people were asleep, probably because they had spent an uncomfortable night at the airport, so I’m sure none of them cared.

We descended into LA nice and early and we were in a cab before our scheduled arrival time. What a fun trip on an ancient bird. While I have faith that United wouldn’t fly an unsafe airplane on the outside, the interior was in such poor shape that it must have been on the minds of many of the passengers. But for me, it just felt like a blast from the past. It’s not every day you get a ride a 747 on a domestic flight, that’s for sure.


50 Responses to United’s 747 Flying Museum (Trip Report)

  1. I wonder how long they’ll continue flying N194UA. Seems like the Continental side would like to put a stop to flying this old bird…

    I looked around at airliners.net and it was parked in VCV back in February, with two of its littermates in the white/blue colors, and a bunch of other 744s. I wonder why they chose this 744 instead of the others? Probably cycles or something, but it’d be nice to know..

    • rewthur says:

      This was from the CO/UA combined Q3 earnings conference call…

      “During the fourth quarter, we will remove one Boeing 747 that had been servicing as an operational spare and add two Boeing 737-900 ERs to the fleet.”

      I guess they just haven’t got to it yet.

  2. Sounds like a blast from past of the Shuttle by United days. Some days during the week the hourly flights between SFO and LAX would be so delayed by the afternoon, they would just cancel a bunch in each direction and put in a couple of 747’s each way to handle the back log of people. At least they had the equipment just sitting there during the day and were smart to use them until they were needed for the later night international flights. But since this could happen a couple of times a week, they must have planned to have extra crews ready just in case.

  3. Oliver says:

    @Brett – Maybe it’s just me, but I’d prefer a somewhat tattered international business class set over a standard domestic first seat (on your originaL 757) any day.

    @Nicholas — there are rumors that The New UA might pull more UA 747s out of the desert. 787 delay and such. And they probably considered needed maintenance and other factors (ownership) when deciding which aircraft to reactivate.

  4. MeanMeosh says:

    Wow – I haven’t done a domestic hop in a 747 since 1986, a NW bird from DFW to SFO (I have to assume the flight continued somewhere else). That was my first ride on a plane, so naturally, I’ve always had fond memories of the 747. It’s also been awhile since I’ve been on the Flying Museum. 1998 to be precise. The UA 747 actually wasn’t a bad product back then, but sadly, it would appear they haven’t updated it since.

  5. This is always so annoying, when you are expecting one type of aircraft, even go out of your way to get that kind of aircraft and it is substituted for another. I wonder what other travelers must thing when they get on an old bird like that.

    David

    • ptahcha says:

      Actually, it went from a 757 to a 747. Granted, it’s an old bird, but still an upgauge, and I don’t think people are complaining about it, especially folks in the premium cabin.

    • Oliver says:

      Ya think the ride on the probably equally dated 757 that was originally scheduled would have been more comfortable?

    • CF says:

      Yeah, I was more than happy to get the old biz seats. That’s far better than domestic First.

  6. yo2 says:

    Don’t complain I’m sure there were alot of people planning on a trip in Y but got F or C instead

  7. Using this plane was just to get people moving since so many were stranded from the snow storms, so they were just glad to be flying out. But if the plane did look ‘sad’ inside the flyer who doesn’t travel much or on a 747 at all might think that is how all of UA’s 747’s look inside. That could effect those people some day if they were to travel out of the U.S. and pass on UA thinking they would be flying in a ‘sad’ looking plane.

  8. Whenever I’m feeling the need for a true Time Warp experience, I hop a United flight from DIA to Maui via LAX or SFO in first class. I always feel like that plane, and the attendants, were there for the inaugural run to Hawaii back in the . . . . 50’s? 60’s?

  9. Yo says:

    Could be worse, doesn’t Orient Thai 123 or whatever the hell they are called these days still fly some ancient 200’s?

    I once had a choice to fly on a Laotian airline ATR-72 or a Orient Thai YS-11. As a plane geek, the chance to do the YS-11 was intriguing, but, given their less than stellar safety record, I opted for the Lao flight…which was interesting in its own ways.

    • CF says:

      Yeah, they do as far as I know. (I mean, I assume they’re still flying.) I had the chance to fly a YS-11 in the mid-80s on Mid Pacific Air from Kahului to Honolulu. Fun.

      • YO says:

        During the great Bangkok airport(s) closure 2 years ago, I managed to bus up from Phuket to Bangkok, and after a few days rest, a ride up to Chiang Mai for a few days, then on a China Airlines 747 that was pressed into service, no video, no amenities, just an old plane crammed with seats for the 3.5 hour flight to TPE. Thankfully, it was as the crisis was ending, so the plane was mostly empty.

  10. Just think at times during the 70’s it wasn’t unusual to see 747’s/DC10’s/L10’s flying around the USA to places like BUF, TUS, ELP, SAT, IND, DAY, or AA with their 747’s between ORD and PHX. And you know you’ll never again see daily 747 flights on UA ORD-CLE or ORD-PIT.

  11. MARTIN j says:

    so what are the crappy 747s United use from Australia to the west coast? I think they are the same 747s they have been using for 20 years? If they are a refurbed upgrade…ugh. The only reason they are full is that Americans dont realise that they can fly other airlines to Australia! The difference between the Air NZ/Virgin/Qantas classy offerings and United’s appalling offering on that sector is extraordinary!

    • Oliver says:

      Yes, they are refurb’ed — primarily in C and F.

      So tell me, how much more tickets do you think would UA sell on those routes if they ripped out the economy seats and replaced them with new ones with state-of-the-art AVOD?

      I have never flown that route, but since I always bring my own IFE (fully loaded iPad), I factor in seat pitch (Economy Plus on UA… how does Qantas compare?) and loyalty program benefits (how’s your upgrade chance on Qantas/Delta/Virgin/Air NZ?).

    • CF says:

      I believe the only upgrades in the back are that the projectors are gone and they have LCD screens instead. (Right?) Oh and they have fewer Economy Plus seats and a crapload of Economy Minus.

      • WM says:

        I’m still amazed United actually manage to fly anyone between LA and Sydney with the service they offer. My company booked me on United because of the price and it started great on a 777 with personal AVOD between ORD and LAX but on the 747 for LAX-SYD we were on a plane that sounds exactly like the one you flew on Brett. It might be bearable for a couple of hours but it was hell flying across the Pacific when you cannot sleep and worried one of the ancient FA’s is going to fall and break a hip while doing service. I’ll be paying for my own tickets in the future.

        • Oliver says:

          > I’ll be paying for my own tickets in the future.

          Right.

          • WM says:

            Why do you have such a chip on your shoulder Oliver? Do you work for United?

            Just for the record, I’ve just booked tickets SYD-ORD via ICN on Korean at $500 cheaper than United and with people who actually give a damn.

  12. Joe B says:

    Wow..of all the flights you manage to fly on! As a crew member this plane is so random that the majority of the crew will most likely be reserves. I was so proud to fly this aircraft between SYD and LAX and AKL and LAX but that was in the early 90’s. I think airlines naturally go through cycles with the most up to date product. I have a feeling United is at the beginning of the next cycle as we start to take delivery of B787 and A350 in the coming years. I look forward to some new equipment at work!

  13. More reasons why I hate united…

    • Oliver says:

      Useless comment to increase page rank?

    • james says:

      I like Matt’s site but I disagree on this. There’s no reason to hate one U.S. legacy airline or love another. I’d make the blanket statement that they’re all pretty much the same, and your “happiness” with an airline, which for most people is formed from a few flights a year, is based on random things like an empty seat next to you, a pleasant FA, early arrival, overall comfort and other invidivual factors. Same with one’s dissatisfaction: it’s the small things.

      I live in Denver, fly often to UAL hubs, so I fly UAL and partners since they offer the most flights and frequencies – saving me from connections and earning status. If I was in ATL I’d be on Delta, Dallas on AA. And earning status certainly makes the overall “airline” experience better, regardless of fleet types and age.

      If I was going LAX-SYD I’d certainly opt out of UA’s 747 service, and for Europe I always price Luthansa options. But for hopping around the U.S. a seat is a seat, and it’s the little things that make a flight (or airline) pleasant, much more than corporate mandated decisions and directives.

  14. David says:

    Hey Bret,

    I am a long time reader and supporter. Still, what was your point with the last post I read ” United’s 747 Flying Museum (Trip Report)” ? Surely, there must have been something good about the flight more than pompous whining? I have always trusted and read your articles as one of the real people of this world. What is happening to you? Are the spoons not shiny enough for you these days? Down just a notch please.

    With respect to my fellow co-workers in CS and on board, I remain your humble UAL Mechanic, dedicated to get you safely to your final destination, regardless of your comfort level, or class of service. With tools in hand, we treat you all as first class. Really, to us Mechanics, you are all the same . I hope that makes you feel more loved.

    Dave

    • Joe B says:

      Well said. I think t is amazing that United uses a 747 to pick up extra sections. I am sure a lot of snow stranded pax were pleased to get on a plane and get home.

    • CP says:

      I believe that Cranky calls it a “fun trip” and fully explains that the 747 was deployed to get people home, so I’m not sure the point of YOUR post.

      • Frank says:

        but, he also explained that he was AGITATED and FRUSTRATED by the conservation he had with a gate agent.
        Who clearly didnt know what aircraft they were taking??????

        Over a 100 thousand passengers (7 THOUSAND cancelled flights) were disrupted by the weather this holiday season. I understand that “cranky” is your style, but it just doesnt seem appropiate during the holidays when YOU got home in BUSINESS CLASS while I witnessed airports full of distressed passengers sleeping on the floor. How, what was frustrating?

        • I think the fustration is due to the gate agent’s inability to explain the equipment substitution.

          • Frank says:

            according to HIS POST, he knew that.

            Quote:Our connection was right next door, and our airplane had been upgraded to the Flying Museum, ship N194UA. United pulled N194UA out of the desert to offer extra capacity.

            and, reread the conservation. I dont see a QUESTION about the equipment sub, just questions pertaining to an upgrade.

        • CF says:

          Sorry Dave, but there’s nothing I’d change about my trip report. It was a fun ride on a great airplane with a very tired interior. I had plenty of praise for the people of United, so I’m not sure why you only focus on the so-called “pompous whining.” I call it like I see it, and apparently you’re taking it very personally here. Nothing I can do about that.

          AND Frank, COME on. I’ve been up night and day helping people get rebooked for a week and a half (including the European snow) but I fail to see why that should change my opinion about poor customer service from the United Express gate agent. If a gate agent at JFK snapped at me, then sure, I’d be more forgiving because of the situation, but this was just someone at Indy who didn’t know how to do this piece of her job.

          It was a quiet morning for United in Indy, there weren’t long lines, flights were going on time, and there was no extra stress on her from the operation. She should have been able to see that I was on a First Class ticket and confirmed whether or not I was on the standby list. Instead, she gave me attitude (which doesn’t come through in the text) and made me feel like I was trying to game the system when that wasn’t the case. Of course I was agitated and frustrated, and just because there’s bad weather somewhere else in the world doesn’t mean I should just let it slide.

  15. Frank says:

    It was a quiet morning for United in Indy, there weren’t long lines, flights were going on time, and there was no extra stress on her from the operation. She should have been able to see that I was on a First Class ticket and confirmed whether or not I was on the standby list. Instead, she gave me attitude (which doesn’t come through in the text) and made me feel like I was trying to game the system when that wasn’t the case. Of course I was agitated and frustrated, and just because there’s bad weather somewhere else in the world doesn’t mean I should just let it slide.
    =============================================

    You didnt say that. It came across differently to me.

  16. Bruce says:

    Brett.

    Great report on the UA ‘Flying Museum’ 747. I think you hit all the right nails on the head and were very fair. But I had to laff at your comment about 747s on domestic routes. As someone noted earlier, in the ’70s the ONLY a/c used on many domestic routes were the 747s, DC-10s and L-1011s of AA, UA and TWA. I also remember from personal experience riding an AA 747 JFK-DFW and a DL 747 (they had them for a short time) SFO-DFW. Or an AA D10 PSP-ORD. It makes you scratch your head. Why not now? Well, fuel prices are many times higher than they were then and the markets have matured to where frequency is more important to the biz traveler than the size of the a/c, i.e., 11 AA 767s daily JFK-LAX now vs 4 747s on the same route back then.

    • And lets not forget NW using DC10’s roundtrip EWR-DTW-ORD-BIL-GTF-GEG-SEA. At least EWR-DTW-ORD are big business travel markets so a DC10 doesn’t seem out of place, but Billings, Great Falls, and Spokane!

      • Bruce says:

        Who can explain how NW ran its fleet. Back in the day of the ab fab Stratocruiser, NW operated it on bizarre mix of long-haul (SEA-TYO nonstop!) and milk run routes–DCA-DTW-MKE-MPS. The Strat with its downstairs lounge and higher operating costs was meant strictly for high-yield int’l routes and even then it faced challenges operating profitably for PA and other carriers. The economics of DCA-DTW must have been hideous. Perhaps the same scheduler back in ’54 was finally kicked out in the ’70s for putting D10s (the -30 overwater version no less) on EWR-SEA with 5 intermediate stops. Yikes.

  17. David says:

    Bret,

    You had to wait in line, even with a first class ticket. The plane was cold so you had to cover up with blankets. The movies were looping and not “on demand”. Your personal video screen was dirty. You were served a good breakfast, but were not given a choice.

    I am taking nothing personally and call it like I see it too. Still, I re-read your article this time a bit more carefully. You do offer I think some slightly hidden praise for these old birds. I appreciate that as I like and marvel at the 747 myself. They are unique flying machines, but I am afraid to say, are an endangered species. I have not had the pleasure of flying in one for some time, but always look forward to the possibility, even in coach, my main mode of travel. This equipment swap provides me with hope that maybe on one of my frequent trips from ORD to SFO, I might get lucky too. Thanks for you writings, no hard feelings I hope.

    Dave

    • CF says:

      I think you might be mistaking stated facts for complaints. Yes, there was a line at the ticket counter, yes the airplane was cold, and yes there wasn’t a breakfast choice but I wasn’t complaining about it. It’s just how it was so that’s what I said. None of those things bothered me in the slightest, actually.

      Then again, it would have been hard to be in a bad mood after getting on a 747. I do love that plane as well, and it does make me sad to see them all going away. We used to see so many of them at LAX going to Asia and now more and more 777s are coming. Those are great airplanes but you just can’t beat the 747. I’ll miss it when that airplane is gone.

      • Bruce says:

        ” … you just cant beat the 747. I’ll miss it when that airplane is gone.”

        Boy, did you get that right. But with the 747-8I, there’s the chance that some carriers will come to their senses and order it instead of the A380 Great White Whale, keeping the legendary 747 profile alive. And the -8I is even better-looking with the stretch inserts front and back. Given the seating configs chosen by most A380 operators, there isn’t that much difference between the in-service capacities of the two aircraft, to say nothing of the similarities in training, maintenance and ground airport requirements between the -400 and the -8I, resulting in huge cost savings I’m sure. Let the A380 market go to charter operators who wanna cram 880 bottoms into bargain flites.

  18. bob says:

    Cranky: I hope you do a story of what is coming to the airlines soon, good or bad planes, this will have a bigger affect soon on the purchase of new planes
    and large debt that airlines carry.
    http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2010/12/29/companies-exempt-from-derivatives-rules-may-still-get-hit/?src=busln

  19. “United 842 Lv Chicago/O’Hare 810a Arr Los Angeles 1045a”

    The departure time of 8:10 am Central and the arrival time of 10:45 am Pacific makes the flight four-and-a-half hours, which can’t be right. The elapsed time listed in your report is 3:30, so I deduce that either the departure or arrival time isn’t correct.

    • CF says:

      Nope, flight times are right. The schedule “block” (gate to gate) time is 4h35m. The flight time on this flight was 3h30m. Since the weather was clear and there were no delays at O’Hare, we ended up arriving 40m early.

      The block time takes into account the average time to complete the flight, and that means building in expected ground delays and the potential for longer flight times in the air. Also, it’s planned for a 757 and not the 747 that we were on so that impacts flight time as well. If you look at the flight times on days surrounding ours, it was closer to 4h than 3h30m. Add in the usual ground time at O’Hare and it makes sense.

  20. Pegasus says:

    So, on the Flying Museum flight, you were seated in business, correct? Not economy? If you redeemed 25,000 miles one way, then you were supposed to be seated in Business on a 3-cabin plane (35,000 for 3-cabin first), or First on a 2-cabin plane. Sometimes the system glitches during a 2->3 cabin aircraft change like this one and puts you in First. However, here, if the system put you in business, the agent (while maybe less good at explaining than she should have been) was actually correct in keeping you in business rather than first. It does *not* sound like she clearly doesn’t know much about the airline; she actually got the rule right. It does sound like she should have explained it better, though.

    • CF says:

      I thought I was pretty clear here but I guess not. I was not asking for an upgrade on the 3-cabin airplane. I was asking for an upgrade on the short flight to Chicago b/c we were seated in coach – no first class seats were available at the time of booking.

  21. CF says:

    Just a quick follow-up. This airplane has now once again been sent to the desert, so you won’t be stuck on it if you fly a United 747 in the future.
    http://flightaware.com/live/flight/UAL9937/history/20110107/2100Z/KSFO/KVCV

    • Bruce says:

      I suspect that when the merger is complete, CO will bring back any still desert-bound 747s to use on routes like EWR-TLV (UA has no TLV routes), EWR-PVG, EWR-PEK and EWR & HOU to TYO. DL made similar 747 deployments when it acquired NW. On other routes, some 747s mite free up 777s to consolidate two daily 767 flites, such as HOU-HNL. And of course, all 747s will be brought up to the latest seating standard much faster than UA had done in the past.

  22. Pingback: United Looks to Improve the International Travel Experience . . . in Coach - >> The Cranky Flier

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