How I [almost] flew First Class on United
After a three-month long stint in Ukraine, it was time to escape the weather and head back to the States. Flying standby, I had the best chance of catching a flight out of Frankfurt as United has almost a dozen daily flights from there to Newark, Chicago, Washington, Houston, and even San Francisco. I was hoping that at least one of them would have an open seat for me, so I got to Frankfurt on Saturday after a quick half-day stop in Istanbul. Being too late in the day to catch any of the flights to US and having a few friends in town, the rest of Saturday was spent indulging with the goodies at the Christmas market with Timon and Jan.
Next day, on Sunday, my parents were scheduled to fly from Kiev to Frankfurt and then onto Washington so I thought it would of been nice if I could score a stand-by seat on their Frankfrut-Washington flight. A lot of people normally fly on Sundays so I figured it was not likely to happen but I went for it anyways. It seemed like there was a first class seat available as well as a few economy seats so I went ahead and booked in first. Not because I thought I would get it (normally, there are plenty of frequent fliers that would get upgraded to take up any available business or first class seats), but because it would let me be eligible for any seat left open on the flight - whether it would be in first, business, or economy.
As I walked up to the gate, the preboarding TSA madness was in full swing and my parents were visibly delighted to see me there. However, when I asked the gals at the gate on how it was looking for standbys, they gave me a sorry look saying that I would be lucky to get a middle seat in economy. Brrr!
Oh well, I expected that so I told my parents to go ahead and board while I waited patiently near the counter. Soon, the girl called me over, smiled and said she was able to get me a better seat - 1K - the one of only eight first class seats!
I have flown in business class quite a few times during my round-the-world trip as well as United business class earlier this summer when I was coming back from Euro 2012 (also from Frankfurt). While there are only eight seats (two rows) in first class, they did not impress me much - sure aren't the suites on Emirates or Singapore First Class. Really, the main thing that seemed to differentiate the first class seat from the business class on United was the number of storage compartments - normally I quickly run out of room trying to store my laptop, external hard drive and a few other things in the seat pockets, but in first class, I could put all that away and also found some space for my pillow and blanket - nice!
Of course, United being United, not all was well as one of my storage compartments was quite visibly inop:
But I am just being picky - it all sure beats the economy!
Talking about economy, as I was walking back to tell my parents I made it, the captain made an announcement saying that we will be waiting for a while for deicing. The ops told them at least thirty minutes but apparently there have been aircraft waiting for as long as three hours already for the trucks.
With nothing else to do, I started going through the menu:
Settling down on Fresh Seasonal Greens and Creamy Porcini Mushroom Soup (we could get two appetizers in first class!), Peruvian-style (on a flight from Germany?) Breast of Chicken with Vegetable quinoa, sautéed spinach and bell peppers, finished off with an International Cheese Selection and ice cream (two desserts too!), I had nothing else left to do but sit and wait, watching the snow falling out of two windows I had all to myself.
Unfortunately, it did not appear as if anything was happening outside. We just sat at the gate with a brand spanking new Boeing 747-800 Intercontinental parked next to us. Oh, and there was also the ANA Boeing 787 Dreamliner not far away - first time I saw both of these birds "live".
It is worth mentioning that it was not snowing as hard as it appears in that picture. It seemed like the normal snowfall, something that would not have been a problem in places like Chicago or New York. But apparently, it was enough to bring the second biggest airport in Europe to a halt (as we have found out later).
As we set there at the gate, the captain made a few announcements to the tune of "we have no clue what is going on either, operations are no longer responding to questions regarding deicing times". In the mean time, I have finished sorting through all my photos from the last couple of days and settled in to watch some TV shows. Unfortunately, because we were still on the ground, they were not serving any food. Needless to say, after FOUR hours of sitting there, we were getting pretty hungry. At least we got some nuts and a bowl of ice cream in first class and I sneaked out a few candies and some water to my parents in the back - at least they had the seats in the emergency exit row with more leg space than I had (but, admittedly, not as comfy).
Finally, after five hours of not moving an inch, and still with no sign of deicing trucks anywhere near, the captain made the call to cancel the flight. It took another hour for the ops to figure out how to get us out of the airplane. So much for flying first class! I was tempted to take the care kit with me but then figured I would not carry all that stuff with me anyways so I just left it there.
I have to give props to United here - sure there was total chaos as they were trying to get some people onto the later flight (that did end up taking off) and changing their story about every two minutes on whether we need to pick up our bags (my parents had two suitcases checked-in) or if they will be magically transferred to another flight. Still, even though this
fuck up unfortunate circumstance was somewhat of the weather fault (but mostly Frankfurt airport ops), United arranged for rooms and meals at a nearby hotel for everyone not making the later flight. What was even more surprising is the fact that they told us just to go to the hotel and it will all be taken care of - no vouchers or anything. It sounded too good to be true, but it actually worked - we just exchanged our boarding passes for the room keys.
Logging into my parents' reservations on United's website, I was able to quickly rebook them through Chicago on a flight next day. Again, props to United IT team - I did not expect this to be so easy (while the phone number we were given to call just had a recording saying "Thanks for calling United. Our office is currently closed... blah blah blah").
Now that my parents were all set, I checked my sister's flight (she was flying from Frankfurt to Prague earlier in the day) and Lufthansa showed it as cancelled. With no way to get a hold of her, and not sure if she actually made it to Prague on another flight or not, we went back to the airport to try to find out. There we finally saw how big of a f' up it was - the entire Terminal 1 was filled with thousands (tens of thousands?) of people in seemingly endless lines - over 150 flights were cancelled.
There was no way we could have talked to anyone without waiting through the night in one of those lines and were about to leave the airport when out of shear luck I saw my sister in this crowd. It turned out that they also sat on the plane for six hours before the flight was cancelled (they did get deiced though, twice!) and she has spent another six hours in line trying to get to Lufhansa counter to figure out what to do next (with seemingly another six hours to go)!
Being the awesome brother I am (and knowing that since she was on an award ticket, we could just change it with United), I called up United GlobalDesk and quickly changed her ticket to fly to Munich the next day (she was going to go there from Prague anyway).
With the entire family reunited and set up for the next day, we headed out to Römer for some glühwein. Unfortunately, the Christmas market was already shut down for the night but it was still nice to walk around for a bit after sitting in the metal tube for the most of the day.
So, no first class experience for me after all. Oh well. I was just glad I did not take an earlier flight out on Sunday and left my family there to deal with that mess... Against all odds, I was able to score a seat together with my parents on the flight to Chicago the next day (even though it showed as overbooked by over 20 people) - not first class, but still plenty of leg room in that exist row - and my sister continued her journey onto Munich. All's well that ends well, right?