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Saturday, November 24, 2012

Thanksgiving Week 2012 Travels

I haven't posted since my return from Italy; I've had some trips to visit Margaret and she to visit me, but I generally just think of posting about international trips and planning for them. By getting the United Explorer Card, I once again have the miles for one of us to go to Europe. I'm generally planning to keep to my practice of making an Italy trip in even-numbered years, but we also consider the chance to go to Italy in 2013 around a Big Event. My visit to Margaret for Thanksgiving week had enough practical travel things happen around the flights that I'm making a post now.

Margaret suggested a visit; with my having the whole week off work and flexibility in dates, I found a reasonable fare to Sacramento on United going Sunday-Friday. The Saturday before my departure, I went to the monthly Italian Club in Kansas City and stayed at the airport Econo Lodge, using points that would otherwise expire at the end of the year. When I arrived at the motel, there was a sign at the front desk saying "Back in 10-15 minutes." The people who came in right behind me called the motel number, and got the person saying she was driving the van to the terminals and would be back shortly. The people indicated they would cancel their booking, since they didn't like the thought that no one would be around in the event of an emergency. I got checked in quickly with no payment needed, and decided to wait for later to pay for parking, while the people behind me sorted out their wishes. With United flights being split since the March merger with Continental between Terminals A and C, I said my return flight would be to United in A, and the desk person said I was the first person to know which United terminal I would use.

I slept lightly, having my iPhone alarm set for 4 a.m. to get the 4.30 shuttle for my 6 a.m. flight. In the lobby, another young woman was sleeping on the couch through a phone alarm, but she woke up and was ready to take me early, the only passenger going at that time. Where I could have carried my bag on, I checked it for free on the minor perk of having the Explorer Card, and was quickly to the gate; I could easily have taken the shuttle at 5.

Using another perk of the card, I boarded the first flight to Denver in Group 4, Priority, not to be confused with the Premier groups who board first. On the turboprop plane, it didn't seem that there was any heat, and I kept my coat on. We sat until departure time, and they said there was a maintenance issue (related to heat and pressurization?) that could not be resolved quickly, but there was a substitute aircraft available, and we could probably make our connections o.k. So we de-boarded; the revised departure time showed briefly as 6.30, then became 7. I thought the original 1 hr. 15 connecting time in Denver was o.k. for having breakfast there, and had charted out the options. Now that was looking unlikely, and I went to the little concession stand in this 3-gate area, getting an $8 not-good sandwich. As I was buying it, I saw pastries that might have been a better choice.

Although it took longer than expected, having a substitute plane on hand in a non-hub airport was a good break. We boarded, with a departure finally at 7.30. This Q400 turboprop was reasonably comfortable compared to the other prop planes that I remember. I turned my phone on on landing, hoping for a text message with the gate number of my connecting flight. That wasn't coming through, and I turned data on (I mostly keep it turned off, aware of the data limits on my plan) to see an e-mail, giving the gate number of the flight but saying that if I missed it I was confirmed on the next flight. This plane came to a stop, having us get off on the tarmac by the ground-level extension of the concourse, at 8.25, with the connecting flight at 8.35. I went to the connecting gate and no plane was there. I'm a big worrier about tight connections but was reasonably confident in this one, with a 6 a.m. departure meaning delays wouldn't have built up during the day, and feeling that overall missed connections are rare, but here I had missed one. It was nice to be confirmed rather than be on standby through who knows how many flights.

I texted Margaret with the new arrival time, and decided this was the time to use one of the United Club passes that I got with the Explorer Card. I went to the Customer Service agents there to get my new boarding pass. I was the only customer, with three agents working; those on each side were advising the one in the middle on getting me the seat assignment and pass; apparently the computer system used since the merger in March is still a problem. She got me an exit row, classed as Economy Plus; I could have gone to a self-service kiosk, but the exit row may have been a benefit of using the Club and getting agents who work with the top customers.

The Club wasn't too crowded, with some bagels and doughnut holes; there was a delay for the bar to open, but I got a Bloody Mary, catching up with things online before going to the departure gate a little before 11.

An advantage to the flight change was that I was on a mainline rather than regional jet. There was seatback DirecTV, which I considered trying but preferred to try to sleep with the full day still to come. The TV was on with a free preview during boarding and through takeoff until 15 minutes into the flight; I could follow football but I figured we'd land just short of the finish of those games.

So, arrival was fine, Margaret met me, and we went to her mother's in Davis, leading to dinner out and going to a symphony concert. I held up well, including driving afterwards to Margaret's home in the Sacramento suburbs.

This is a report mainly on the flights, but it was a great week with Margaret, including seeing the Crocker Art Museum and Thanksgiving at her mother's with more of the extended family.

On Thanksgiving morning I got a text message saying my Denver-Kansas City flight was cancelled. I got online for more details, and found that it really meant that the scheduled turboprop was replaced with a regional jet with a different flight number but at the same time. Also the seating chart was wide open and I could select a seat.

Margaret took me to the airport Friday; with no place to eat outside security, I went on my own to eat at Vino Volo, a good airport option for a brie and prosciutto sandwich with wine. The Sacramento-Denver flight also had DirecTV, but it wasn't interesting enough for me to pay the price. On landing in Denver, again there was no text message about the connecting gate; I went to e-mail and found another flight cancellation notice; oh no! Looking at it more closely, I saw that it was a repeat of Thursday's message about my original flight 4901, and there was no mention of flight 3966, where I was checked in. I used the iPhone browser to find the gate number, wanting to know it in this 50-minute connection (landing 15 minutes before boarding time); I got it and that was sure helpful, because when I was in the terminal and looked at the departure board, they only showed the cancelled flight 4901.

I had also noted that while my flight was showing an on-time departure of 5.40 p.m., they also had a link to the aircraft's previous segment, which was showing a 5.34 arrival, so I figured there would be some delay. The board at the gate kept changing the time, sometimes having gone past the scheduled time, and the gate agents sometimes announced that they weren't being told much, but there was a minor maintenance issue. We eventually boarded and took off about an hour late. This
ERJ-170 felt similar to the mainline flights. We landed, I got my bag, and called to get the van back to the Econo Lodge and get my car.

So these were my flights this week; most of my domestic flights are on Southwest, and even when they have delays, there aren't such big consequences. This trip on United had the noteworthy missed connection, and I felt like making this report, but things could have been worse.