UA1540 SFO-PHX A320 seat 4A

We were in SFO almost an hour ahead of scheduled time. Immigration was painless, and the officer even managed to make me laugh by asking why I never smile. (‘Coz you aren’t allowed to in Finnish passport photos.) After its NRT adventure, my bag was unsurprisingly among the first to come out, and I embarked on a semi-circular quest to find my check-in counter — I thought I had an America West flight codeshared as UA, a double mistake at that as “America West” turned into US Airways some time ago, but no, it turned out to be the real thing. Or at least almost: this was my first encounter with the faceless, amorphous, omnipresent entity known only as Ted. There were no earlier UA flights, although I could, theoretically, have gotten onto an HP flight that left 30 minutes earlier, in exchange for spending umpty-ump minutes trying to endorse my RTW over to them — no thanks. But with grandmotherly kindness, Ted gave me an Economy Plus seat.

It was my first visit to SFO, and while it’s heads and shoulders above LAX (which is why I routed this way), seeing signs proclaim it the best airport in the US was a little depressing: surely you could do a little better? The TSA security carnival seemed positively painless compared to LHR last year (although that bit with the shoes was still ludicrous). Only one problem now: I was dog-tired and in severe danger of falling asleep, but I had no watch, my cellphone’s battery was dead and my charger doesn’t like 110V, so I couldn’t set an alarm. The Red Carpet Club was packed to the rafters, but I managed to snag a seat and, through a minor miracle, even get free wireless thanks to some bizarre T-Mobile/Vista crosspromotion thingy, valid until the end of the month to boot — just long enough to cover the US portion of my trip, and just the distraction device I needed to keep me awake. Spiffy.

Dodging somebody else’s projectile vomit all over the men’s bathroom, I eventually headed out of the lounge to find a refugee camp assembling at the gates. Both had Ted flights, and both were late, mine by 20 minutes — but the one to Vancouver, scheduled to leave half an hour before me, was still there as we pulled back.

As expected, the plane was a museum piece, but I was again a little surprised to find an Airbus in this land of Boeings. Oppressively chirpy video announcements told me that Ted wants me to do all kinds of things, including following instructions and fasten my seatbelt. As soon as we were airborne and in the impenetrable fog, I stuck in my earbuds, put on my eyeshades, closed the windowshades and drifted off into a twilight zone of fitful, unfulfilling sleep.

 

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NH8 NRT-SFO B777-300 seat 27K

 The next day, I pottered around Ueno Park and its sozzled hanami (cherry blossom viewing) celebrations and then, finally, got on the long haul out of Ueno by Keisei. Narita’s never been one of my favorite airports, but the advent of the new South Wing at T1 has certainly pushed it up a few notches in my book. While my favorite “last chance in Japan” sushi restaurant seems to have disappeared, alas, it’s been replaced by a tolerable if somewhat overpriced conveyor belt joint (on 5F) and a whole load of new shops. Check-in for Star Golds was as efficient as always, security was a breeze, immigration had the usual queue and the new ANA huge lounge in slick shades of black and white was a sight to behold. Quirky feature award goes to the free noodle bar, although I won’t be changing my NRT routine until they add in a free sushi bar as well…!

At the gate, the boarding pass reader said “boop” and I was taken aside. My RTW was issued as five physical paper tickets and I’d only shown the first at check-in, so could I show my connecting flight onward from the US? Well, I pointed out, it’s a RTW ticket (see the little “YRWSTAR1” notation there?) and the itinerary is shown in computerese at the bottom: starting in BKK, then TYOSFOPHX, out later via NASYYZYOWYVRCDG and eventually back to BKK. The gate agent was convinced and let me through… but came back a few minutes later: the US immigration authorities, she said, wouldn’t let me in without a return ticket (a valid theoretical point, I’ll admit, although I’ve never been asked), so they’d dug up my baggage from the hold and wanted me to get my ticket. Err, OK — my bag was truly procured, I demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction that my RTW does, indeed, exit the US at some point, and I was allowed back in, this time with ticket in hand.

I had tried to get a Star Alliance upgrade for this flight, unsuccessfully — I was told that Friday’s a very popular day to fly out, and hence biz was always full. Needless to say, once on board it became clear that at least half the seats in C were actually empty… and I’d already mentally composed half my angry letter blasting KrisFlyer, ANA and Star Alliance for their intolerable incompetence when it dawned on me that, due to the aforementioned Int’l Date Line muddle, I’d been requesting the upgrade for the wrong day. D’oh! (That would also explain why they had some problems finding my booking, although KF never actually confessed that they couldn’t actually find it.)

My consolations were that flight time was just 8 hours (vs a scheduled 9:30) and that there was nobody in the middle seat, allowing me to stretch out a little. This was my first taste of long-haul NH in eco, and I quite liked the on-demand video-and-more system, which had a pretty good selection of J-pop and allowed me to finally watch 2001 from beginning to end (definitely a movie best sampled in the middle of the night at 33,000 feet over a moonlit Pacific).

The Japanese food, though, was surprisingly terrible, especially considering the excellence of NH’s biz fare. For dinner, it was gluey rice with soggy breaded whitefish, and for breakfast, it was a morbidly fatty chunk of bacon coupled with a rice patty topped with salsa (…?). Other flight amenities were nonexistent: no shades, no socks, no earplugs, no toothbrush, not even a shared bottle of moisturizer in the loo. The control box for the AV system, under the middle seat, was huge and prevented me from stretching out from my window seat; I would be chewing my legs off if I had to sit there! Fortunately I was prepared with all the essentials, and thanks to my new laptop’s 8-hr battery capacity killing time on non-sleepy pursuits wasn’t an issue.

In other good news, my threshold for pain seems to have gone higher. Four hours in economy used to be the point at which I started getting antsy, but half a year of commuting between Singapore and Delhi has pushed that up to six. On this flight, though, I experimentally determined that over seven hours is still unpleasant. Fortunately I’ve timed every other flight remaining on this trip to avoid this situation… except the last. Time to pay for an upgrade?