DL/UA head-to-head: CLT-MSP-SAN 6 Jan and SAN-IAD-CLT 18 Jan

Heading back to San Diego for the final weeks of engagement with this customer, the flight options were limited. I wanted a late Sunday morning departure, but the best I could do was 8:15 connecting through MSP. It’s the latest option until a 4:30 PM departure that arrives close to 10:00 PM and that’s just no good. So here we are.

I still haven’t hit my Gold challenge officially – Delta only started counting when they finished processing the request, not when I actually made the request. In between, there were two full CLT-ATL-SAN round trips, so I’m hoping that this trip manages to finish that off or get them to pull back the start date.

06:30 arrival at the airport, the shuttle bus from long term parking dropped me at the ticketing area at 06:45. A long line for Delta economy ticket agents, but I only waited a minute before getting an open kiosk in front of the Sky Priority lanes. The agent quickly tagged my two bags (it’s a two-week trip) and put yellow priority tags on them. I backed over to the B security checkpoint and there were about 35 economy passengers waiting but zero in the Preferred / Elite line. A quick “opt out” pat down and I was on my way. As usual, it was almost completely useless.

I stopped in the B concourse US lounge with my United Club card for a bagel (no toaster?), oatmeal and coffee. Lounge was busy but fully stocked. No bar tender on duty, as usual for US in the morning.

Gate A8 is one of the former Northwest gates, as this flight was headed to MSP. I’ve been headed to ATL almost every time I’ve been on Delta lately, so I don’t know if this is intentionally still splitting the two former carriers or what. UA still splits – A2 and A4 go to Chicago and Washington (and two AC to YYZ) where A10 and A11 seem to go to Houston and Newark.

The flight was called a bit late (7:55 for 8:15 departure) for preboards (no takers), F and then “Zone 1”. It should have been “Sky Priority” but I didn’t correct the gate agent. On board, I perched in 4A on this ERJ-170 even though my seat was 4B to avoid getting smacked by rollaboards and handbags. Row 4 is the first in Y and where the middle aisle realigns. I was 3 of 4 for 2 upgrades, so I didn’t get it today. On the plus side, my seatmate didn’t show up. Economy Comfort seat with great legroom. We pushed back, were first for departure and were wheels up at 8:24.

F had a hot breakfast, Y had a single pass with a full can and choice of pretzels, peanuts or Biscoffs. The FA’s did not deploy the curtain to separate the two classes. I signed on to gogo using a borrowed account and surfed. Excellent, but not worth $10.

At MSP, it was a long walk from the arriving gate F5 to departing gate G20. No trains and few slidewalks, it took me 20 minutes at a medium pace. Coffee and a muffin from a one-off coffee shop while I waited and watched the kettles head to MCO and MIA.

Another flight where I failed to upgrade (9 of 16 for 8) that was similarly uneventful. We arrived in SAN 25 minutes early.

Before I knew it, two weeks in SAN was coming to an end. We had a change of plans and my flight to AVP was cancelled. By Thursday afternoon, all of the Delta flights for Friday night out of SAN were sold out or extremely expensive. So over to United.com I went, where I found an exit row to IAD available.

Friday evening, I arrived at Terminal 1 at 8:00. SAN still has the backscatter machines and I did my usual opt-out. I mentioned to the TSO that she shouldn’t even be *near* the machines and she said that she’s pregnant. Yep, that makes sense.

United has a club in Terminal 1 for the United fliers to Washington and Chicago, but the former Continental flights are still in Terminal 2 where there is no club. One airline, eh?

It took me a bit to find the lounge as it’s behind you as you step off the escalator. But there it was, with all the usual United amenities – Milanos, snack mix and self-serve coffee plus the usual wrapped cheese. Free beer available at the small bar were Bud Light, Heineken and the local Karl Strauss Brewery’s Amber. I had the Amber and sat for an hour with my laptop on their free wifi.

Over at the gate at 9:40 for the 10:20 departure, I could tell it was going to be slow. 35 teenagers on a school trip to Washington for the inauguration. All with rollaboards and backpacks and all in Zone 4 or 5. I boarded with Zone 2 (I was 8 of 22 for 2 seats). Seat 21A on this A320 is the second of the two exit rows. Excellent legroom in an Economy Plus seat with the tray table in the armrest. 35 minutes of watching the junior kettles and their bags come on and then be removed later, we pushed back 20 minutes late. Light out and a dark beverage/BOB service, the movie Pitch Perfect was on the overhead IFE. No gogo and no inseat power, I worked on my laptop until the battery died and then I had the only overhead light on the whole aircraft with my book for the rest of the flight.

We ended up 20 minutes early into IAD, which was very quiet and very dark at 6AM. I found the D concourse club for a bagel and some juice before heading to the gate.

At the gate is where the trip started to go a little sideways. The gate agent made an announcement that we were delayed because the aircraft was too cold to board and we would have to wait until it warmed up. Fifteen minutes later, the same again. At 8:27, the overhead board reported our 8:17 departure was pushed to 8:29. Finally at 8:50, we boarded the aircraft. I had been upgraded (yay!) to seat 1A on this Embraer 170, so I got to experience the cold Washington weather even though the flight attendant drew the curtain over the door.

The captain made an announcement that we were delayed a few more minutes because the host on the APU starter had cracked due to the cold and we were waiting for a replacement. In the meanwhile, the FA did a pre-departure drink service. Finally, the jetbridge retracted, the door closed and we pushed back at 9:10 for a short taxi to the penalty box. We were informed that due to the late departure, we had missed our landing slot at Charlotte and would be here for 15 minutes to wait. Fifteen minutes later, the second engine started, we taxied to the runway and were off. Another drink service in F, trash pick up and then descent into Charlotte.

Gate A4, so a short walk to the baggage claim which amazingly started only 5 minutes later. That very rarely happens! One of my bags was the second to appear. The second bag was much further back. Both had “Priority” tags on them. Out to the shuttle bus area and even better, a bus to long term 2 was already waiting. That also very rarely happens!

Both carriers provide similar service in the back of the cabin with Economy Comfort or Economy Plus seating. Drinks and a snack. Delta’s wireless internet might be a selling point for those who are willing to pay for it but it’s not enough to cause me to make the switch. The gate agents in SAN should have done a better job with the rollaboards – I’ve heard Delta gate agents make multiple announcements to courtesy check bags but I did not heard that from United.

Summary: Comfortable and safe travel, no real complaints. I’d like to see better passenger handling by United in San Diego. Both carriers did a fine job. A- for Delta and B+ for United.

With as many flights as Delta has from CLT to ATL, MSP, DTW, MEM, JFK and even SLC, they should consider a small Sky Club here.

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Trains, planes, TSA, and exit row seating compliance

Yesterday could only be described as a comedy of errors of sorts.

I arrived at Tri-Cities Regional Airport (TN/VA), checked my Wine Check without incident, passed through security, checked e-mail, etc. Boarding was announced for the plane, which was a few minutes late arriving. Pre-boards and people needing extra time boarded first. I saw one lady board. Zone 1 was next, so I boarded and discovered the pre-board seated to me in the exit row, which I thought was probably not appropriate if she needed extra time to board. I wondered why the flight attendant didn’t notice and switch her with somone else. During the exit row spiel, she even said, “I didn’t even know I was in the exit row, but I will do whatever I need to do.” The flight attendant’s eyes lit up, but she still didn’t move the passenger. I tweeted, “‎@Delta Why is a special assist pre-board in the exit row?” and one of the @DeltaAssist team send me a private message asking for the flight information, so they could follow up.

We departed and it was the longest 45 minutes of my life, as this 65-year-old woman (yes, she told me her age) with some sort of nerve battery implant (why she was a pre-board) told me about her entire life, family, and how she ended up on the flight. She had missed her delayed US Airways flight because despite having medical documentation of the implant, was subjected to not just a secondary search, but one behind the curtain, a full-on, comprehensive body search. She appeared frazzled and shaken from it all, and told me she hadn’t flown in years. I felt sorry for her and at the same time thought, “This passenger should not be sitting here.” Once we landed, I told her to see a gate agent and to check the monitors in Atlanta to obtain to her connecting flight gate. Incidentally, she had shown me her other boarding pass and she was also seated in the exit row on that flight.

I wished her safe travels and visited the Delta Sky Club before heading to my departure gate. Unfortunately, when I boarded the train to my next concourse, it was declared inoperable, so we had to disembark and walk to our concourses.

Once at the gate, we boarded and were ready to depart at 5:40 p.m. when two mechanics boarded. The pilot announced that the forward lavatory was broken, but would be repaired quickly. The mechanics exited and the gate agent tried to shut the door, but it appeared jammed.  It took about three people to finally get it shut and we backed away from the gate. This was a 757-200 with individual in-flight entertainment at all seats, so one of the flight attendants turned on the safety video. It froze, so the flight attendants scrambled to find seatbelts and face masks and gave the fastest pre-departure safety presentation I’ve ever seen. We departed about 25 minutes past the originally scheduled departure time.

After all of this, my trip settled down. I used coupons to purchase a snack box and beer and enjoyed Gogo Inflight Internet on my iPad until we landed 31 minutes early at LaGuardia. My Wine Check, priority tagged and marked fragile, was the third bag to arrive on the carousel.