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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.

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