An Aborted Attempt to Fly a KLM 747 (Almost A Trip Report)

KLM, Lufthansa

Last week, I mentioned how the good people at Hahn Air asked me to be the first passenger to fly on a reservation ticketed via blockchain. Unfortunately, this turned into a giant mess. I suppose I could try to blame KLM for the delay or my children for passing on their sickness, but ultimately, it falls on me. I just couldn’t push myself hard enough to make the trip, and I felt awful about it. Still, this makes for an interesting post not only because of my attempt to fly the increasingly rare KLM 747-400 Combi but also my first (positive) experience using rideshare to leave LAX.

[Disclosure: Hahn Air paid for my flights, but that money is being refunded since I didn’t fly.]

My flight plan for this trip was rather fantastic. My return was going to be in First Class on Lufthansa. Going out, I opted for a ride on the KLM 747-400 Combi even if it was only in Economy Comfort (extra legroom coach). These airplanes will be retired soon, and they leave Los Angeles after the winter, so this was likely my last shot to fly the airplane.

A week before travel, I woke up with a cold. No matter, I figured. I’d be fine by the time the trip came around. I was wrong. I ended up feeling slightly better midweek, but by week-end, I had taken a turn for the worse. I had a bad cough, a stuffed up head, a runny nose, and I was very low on energy. Despite that, I was still determined to make this trip.

On Saturday, I loaded up with drugs and left for the airport at noon. Upon arriving, I was surprised on two counts. First, traffic was moving very smoothly. This whole “move rideshare and taxi out of the terminal area” thing seems to be working. Second, I realized that they were basically pulling down large chunks of the facade at the Bradley Terminal. That meant I could be dropped off only at the southern half of the curb, and that made it very busy. On the inside, however, that Bradley ticketing hall felt just like it did when I was a kid.

My ticket was on a Delta codeshare, and I had checked in on the day prior. I had no idea they were this integrated, but I got my Delta boarding pass and never had to touch KLM’s technology. That meant I could skip the ticket counter.

It was then that I realized I didn’t have Precheck on my boarding pass which was a bummer. The south checkpoint is now only for those with Precheck, so I had to trudge up to the north end to join the regular people. Lines weren’t long, but things were moving very slowly since people were confused about what to do. I had to put my stuff in three separate bins, and the guy who was helping people was not very effective, spreading out the bins making it more difficult on the other side for everyone to gather their stuff.

Once through, I went and bought a big bottle of water and then slowly made my way down to the last gate at the southern end of Bradley — 159 — where our big, beautiful 747 was waiting in the sun. I had the gate agents check my passport (as noted on my boarding pass), and I was good to go.

KLM puts out banners with zone numbers on them, so that people can line up behind each one. I just sat down and didn’t care. I was just trying to let the DayQuil kick in. The way they boarded each group was to walk up, pick up the sign, and have everyone follow them.

Once everyone in line had boarded, I followed behind. KLM uses two jet bridges, and both Business and Economy Comfort get to use the forward one, so I turned left.

November 16, 2019
KLM 602 Lv Los Angeles 155p Arr Amsterdam 905a (on 17NOV)
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 159, Runway… didn’t get that far, Depart 5m early the first time, but then there was a 4 hour delay and I gave up
PH-BFT, Boeing 747-406M, 2014 Curved Cheatline colors, ~99% Full
Seat 10A, Economy Comfort

There is just nothing in the world like a 747. Walking onboard at the first door, I couldn’t help but be transported back to my youth. That giant beast just feels so… massive. The near-vertical sidewalls on the lower deck along with the big windows make it seem so special and different. There will never be another airplane like this one.

KLM has added to the airplane’s uniqueness by giving it a very quirky layout. Business Class is in the nose and upstairs. Economy Comfort sits very far forward in the first 8 rows behind Business, but they are half rows in a 3-2 configuration on the port side. The starboard side of the airplane in that area is a giant galley that stretches front to back.

It’s actually quite smart. The galley can be used from the front to serve the business class passengers without anyone else being near. Then from the rear, they can serve economy, or at least parts of it. (From a space utilization standpoint, I have no idea if this makes any sense.)

I took my seat and moved aside the pillow and blanket. There was ample legroom in Economy Comfort, and the seats were old-school comfortable.

The inflight entertainment system looked older, but the screen was plenty large.

We pushed back 5 minutes early as I steeled myself for the 10 hour flight ahead. After we made it on to the taxiway, we stopped. I couldn’t hear much from the PA from my seat, but the captain came on and then I heard groans in the cabin. Uh oh.

The guy next to me was Dutch but lives in San Diego, and he said something had broken. He seemed unsurprised, saying this was his third flight on the 747 in recent times that has had a lengthy maintenance delay. He relayed that we had to go back to the gate.

I saw someone from line maintenance walk up to the airplane holding tools, but then I also saw the rampers come out with their sticks to guide us back in… or so I thought. They were actually there to guide an Asiana 777 into our gate. We were pushed back further into the taxiway, and we waited.

The Captain again came on and said that we were going to have to go to a another area to have the maintenance work done. He was very specific in telling us that there was a problem with the starter for engine number four. They had hoped to fix the issue quickly, but they couldn’t. The problematic part had to be replaced.

My spirits sunk. Here I was barely feeling capable of taking a 10 hour flight, and it was now going to turn into something longer. As we taxied, I received a notice that the airline had posted a 4pm departure, 2 hours late. The guy next to me laughed, and I agreed. There was no way it was going to happen that fast.

We made it down to the remote gates at the west end of LAX. Those are the ones that actually have jet bridges attached to indoor concrete ramps. The jet bridge moved up, the door opened, and I figured we were getting off. I was wrong.

The captain explained it would be a minimum of two hours to do the work and get us ready to fly. He asked that we close the window shades so it didn’t get too hot. I shuddered. We had already been out for over half an hour, so I wasn’t surprised when the update rolled in pushing us to an optimistic 4:30pm departure which again my seatmate and I didn’t believe.

Once we were parked, seatbelts came off and a group a few rows back gathered. They weren’t speaking English, but they seemed to be having a great time. People got up, walked around, and used the lavs. The flight attendants came through handing out water, stroopwafels, and ultimately, headphones. It seemed clear there was a protocol for how to handle this.

I couldn’t sit still, so I took the opportunity to walk into the nose just two rows ahead of me so I could get a glimpse of the Business Class cabin. It was a nice setup even if the seats aren’t the most current generation. Behind that cabin on the port side, there was a curtain blocking Business from Economy Comfort. On the starboard side, there was access to a lav and the galley. Another curtain blocked that from being used by us riff-raff.

I walked further back into the short coach cabin. Since it’s a combi, there’s a big bulkhead behind that separates the self-loading cargo from the actual cargo. I couldn’t make it back through the mess of people. I stopped at door 2L where the purser was standing.

I was fading fast, and the cabin was getting warmer. I was not feeling well, and I made the decision. I asked the purser if I could get off the flight. I had no bags and didn’t need to be reaccommodated. She said no, it was too complicated. I went back to the front and hung around the empty flight attendant jumpseat where there was more room to breathe. I had been on my phone updating people when I realized that I had to conserve energy. There is no power outside of Business Class on KLM’s 747s.

More people started crowding around the jumpseat, so I walked back and forth trying to find a quiet corner where I could be alone, but that wasn’t to be. Everyone was crawling around all over the airplane. I passed the door with the purser again and she motioned to me. She said I could get off if I wanted to, but I couldn’t get back on. Even though I had made my decision, I hesitated for a second knowing that I’d be letting Hahn Air down, but I just couldn’t muster the strength to stick it out. I walked to my seat, grabbed my bag, congratulated my seatmate on now having a window with an empty middle, and walked off the airplane.

They made us sit in the waiting area for awhile while they figured out the bus situation. There were others who joined me in getting off the airplane at this point. We eventually were dumped off back at Bradley. Then I had to find my way home.

My wife had already dropped me off a few hours earlier, and she couldn’t come back to get me, so I figured this would be a good opportunity to try out the new rideshare situation which they call LAX-it (pronounced L-A-exit). Everyone has to take a bus to a remote lot next to Terminal 1. This arrangement started out rocky, but it appears to be working quite well now.

On the arrivals level, the lanes between the two curbs on the inside are now only for buses. I walked on the LAX-it bus, and we waited a few minutes until the next bus showed up. Then we went straight to the lot… there was no stopping at every terminal. It did not take long at all.

At the lot, I had requested my Lyft. It gave me a code, so I just had to get in the non-existent Lyft line and wait for any car to show up. I gave the driver my code, and he instantly had my route and was ready to go.

He said he had done this multiple times since it opened, and it’s getting much better. They used to have every car enter through the same place, but now they’ve spread it out to help the flow. And getting out wasn’t an issue either.

I made it home just as the next delay rolled in on my phone, pushing the flight back to a 5:45pm departure. It turns out that actually held, and the airplane did leave about 4 hours late. I, on the other hand, collapsed in bed. I slept for 11 hours, and could barely move the following morning.

I still feel terrible for not being able to live up to my commitment on this, but sometimes, as a friend said, you just gotta take the sign.

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24 comments on “An Aborted Attempt to Fly a KLM 747 (Almost A Trip Report)

  1. Bummer, but flying while sick is an agonizing experience. I once sat in a center seat on a SwissAir MD-11 at that remote hangar for many hours, being a non-rev, I got no kind of accommodation when we finally got to ZRH, but I did find a shower, and a nice couch to sleep on and caught a flight the next day. The KLM combi’s are fun, flew the 300 once AMS-LAX, in a “non-smoking” seat that was inconveniently one row in front of smoking. 10 hours of smelling terrible hand-rolled cigarettes….

  2. You just need to focus on getting well & forget about airplanes even if it makes you cranky. Are you better now?

  3. Thai had (maybe still has) the long galley layout as well with 2-2 business class on the other half, which also would avoid an awkward middle seat on what would likely be 2-3-2 otherwise. As long as the wall is relatively soundproof the only downside seems to be the lack of an actual window if you like to look outside.

  4. Hope you feel better, Brett. I was at LAX last week – my experience of LAX-it was polar opposite to yours – a complete clusterf*ck. Passengers hated it, drivers hated it, and it wasn’t even THAT busy. The drivers have been moaning about how much time is lost navigating the crappy road layout.

    As for technical issues on old birds, my last two 763 flights on UA have both had 2+ hr delays after push back at Heathrow; the old planes might be graceful (and paid for) but they are becoming increasingly petulant about when they want to fly.

  5. This reminds me of flying on a UA 747 from DEN – ORD. There was a maintenance delay, to the point where the FAs started playing the movie and pulled the carts out to do first round of drinks. Then the flight was cancelled, with no other options that night to Chicago. This is where the elite phone line helped, where they were able to rebook me and another random passenger I met on the plane on the first flight out at 6am, taking the last 2 seats. The UA customer service area was completely overwhelmed, and they could not book hotel rooms for 200+ people, so they handed out slips to tell people to call a specific number for booking rooms at distressed passenger rate.

  6. OMG!!
    As an ex airline employee and now a travel agent you KNOW you should not be flying! What the hell… many people were exposed to your cooties while you were on that plane!! Shame on you. No sympathy from here. Next time you’re unwell stay in bed. I’m sure all those people you came in contact with enjoyed a lovely week or so downtime because of you!!

  7. The other nice thing about the strange galley layout is that KLM has lower deck passengers walk through the galley back to door 2 to disembark so that business class can exit first even though economy comfort would otherwise be in the way (when door 1 isn’t in use, anyway). From having done that once and walking through the galley, I don’t think there’s any way it’s an efficient use of space, unless it’s the only galley for the entire plane … it’s just huge and I was wondering if its size was set during a time when meal service onboard was more elaborate than it is now.

  8. Not sure I agree with the philosophy of loading up on NyQuill for a 10-hr flight across the pond. I felt a scratchy throat the other week as I was taking off for a quick day trip to Atlanta. That evening at ATL while waiting for my return flight in the Skyclub the full contagion hit me and I’m sure at least a 757 full of pax got what I had. Was laid up in bed for two days after that. I shouldn’t have gone. And if the next ebola is going to break out – it’ll probably spread via Atlanta Hartsfield.

    1. I understand everyone saying I shouldn’t have taken the trip since I was sick. I can understand and generally agree, but sometimes, that’s just not a simple option. I spoke with Hahn Air on Saturday morning, and they had the press release ready to go. They asked me to try to make it. I had made a commitment and didn’t want to leave them stranded. Sometimes, you just have to go, as unfortunate as it is.

      1. With all due respect, Brett, I strongly disagree. If Hahn Air urged you to fly after you told them you were ill, that reflects very poorly on them. I hope that for your own good as well as that of your potential fellow-passengers and crews, you choose not to fly ill in the future, no matter how many promotional plans hang in the balance. Exposing your body to a long flight when you have a communicable (and worsening) respiratory illness, and exposing a planeload of passengers and crew to that illness during your flight, would be dangerous for you and beyond inconsiderate of you I know because, as a former cabin health officer for a major international airline, I learned just how much harm one such passenger can do to himself and those onboard with him.

  9. Sorry you were ill… and sorry to add insult to injury…
    But being as sick as you were, you had no business getting on that airplane at all. Planes, even 747s, are tiny spaces and Incubators for whatever is going around. One sick person on a flight can spread the ick to others. It’s no wonder some people always wind up sick a few days after flying.

    In an extreme worse-case situation, had you become extremely ill enroute, given pressure changes and whatever else, the crew might have been faced with a challenging decision to divert for your own health and safety.

    As a manager, I always tell employees they do nobody any good by being a “hero” and trying to “work through it”. That’s nonsense. You only risk making others ill and delaying your own recovery. People who are that sick have no business trying to take any kind of flight, especially a very long one.

  10. One of my best 747 experiences was on a KLM bird – Schiphol to Nairobi 747 was only about 25% full, had a middle 4 seat row couch for the 9 hour flight.

  11. Sorry that you not only were unable to take the trip but even more that you have to endure self-righteous people questioning your judgment here.

    I doubt any of them are willing to tell us all that they do in their life so that the peanut gallery could find fault with their actions. I shutter at the number of men I see walk out of public restrooms without washing their hands – for example. Using a cell phone while driving?

    Thank you for being honest and real.

    As for the Combi, I flew one just once and the primary sensation I had was that the cabin I saw in seemed way disconnected from the aircraft I saw at the gate. Sort of like a narrowbody passenger experience in a jumbojet; the upper deck of a 744 was more fun because you knew there were hundreds of people below you.

    Given the enormous cargo capabilities of new generation widebodies in addition to the passengers they can carry, it is surprising that the combi has remained in service as long as it has.

    1. Totally agree. The average cold takes 18 days to get over. You’d never go anywhere if you never flew with a cold.

      Plus, There’s always a sick kid on an airplane anyway.

      1. There’s also a diaper stuck somewhere, someone that has put their hand all over the overhead bin after touching their privates etc.

        Aircraft including w/ the 747 are equipped with air filtration systems that keep the air cleaner than in the average home. HEPA filters, properly maintained, and I trust KLM to do that, remove most filtration.

        The reason most people get sick not just on airplanes but also in every aspect of life is stress. CF doesn’t cause someone else stress. Stress is internally controlled.

        If CF was blowing snot all over his seat mate, I would be concerned. But since he was full of Nyquil, he probably didn’t produce any snot anyway.

        Give it a rest peanut gallery. And when you are free of sin, feel free to throw the first stone. Until then, give someone that has managed to build a business that most of you would die to have the credit for making wises decisions.

  12. A long time ago I caught a cold/flu thing on the way out to do a job in Singapore. It was just before Christmas and my return flight was one of the most miserable I can remember, in the middle seat of a Qantas 747 coming through from Sydney, two massive Aussie blokes either side of me. I sweated buckets for the entire trip and spent the rest of the holiday period under a duvet on the sofa. I’m sure I made a whole bunch of other people’s christmases miserable by sharing my cold around the tin tube.

    You have my sympathy, I hope you got better quickly and well done for making it off the plane.

  13. I sympathize, as I just had to cancel a long-planned Thanksgiving trip to LA because my son caught the flu (even after getting the flu shot…grrrr…) last Thursday. I was hoping he’d be better by yesterday but no such luck. You ended up doing yourself a favor, though. I once had to fly back home from India with a sinus infection. It sucked big time. Descending especially was excruciating and left my ears blocked for a good two days. Not something I want to repeat again, ever!

  14. I flew a 747 Combi from AMS to ORD in 2016. I was on an aisle in the center section towards the back but I thoroughly enjoyed it. The seat was cold but comfy like you said. I took several laps and talked with the flight attendants while most of the plane seemed to be napping. It was really cool with the galley configuration. I don’t know when KLM stopped using that equipment on that route because now it seems to only be the 777. It’s sad now, what other airline still does passenger service on 747’s to ORD aside from BA and Lufthansa?

  15. Loved reading this. Hope you are feeling better. When I first encountered the DayQuil and NyQuil products when we lived in LA, I wasn’t aware of DayQuil. I was merrily using NyQuil during the day, wondering why I couldn’t stay awake, and kept falling asleep everywhere. The penny finally sank in when I mentioned it to a friend.

  16. I suggest that on future flights you carry a fully charged battery pack so that it won’t matter if your airplane seat doesn’t have power.

  17. Brett,

    I hope you get to try this again before the 747s are retired.

    I flew one of the combis ORD-AMS last fall, and it was a delightful experience. I was in business class, lower deck, the singleton seat on the port side – nothing but a closet and the radome between me and the front of the airplane. Because of the taper, the seat is at an angle – you can basically see forward through three (3!) windows as the plane taxis.

    You point out that the business class seats aren’t current-generation standard, but for us tall people, that’s good. I was able to stretch out fully, which I couldn’t do on an AA 787-8. (That might be a KLM thing rather than a generational one, since the Dutch tend to be tall.)

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