Working on the West Coast: My Business Trip to California

Back in December 2016, I started a new job as a Marketing Manager for a big data company. Not only was this a big step for me professionally, but I also knew that I’d have the opportunity to travel for work – a prospect which I was excited about.

As it turned out, I didn’t have to wait long for my first business trip. My company – specifically, my department – was scheduled to be a sponsor at a conference in March 2017 in San Jose, CA. Needless to say, I was excited to book my ticket, and equally enthusiastic about being able to fly on an airplane, which is something I clearly enjoy doing in my spare time, for work.

I had contemplated flying into San Jose, but the only non stop option for the return flight was a red-eye. As such, I decided that flying into San Francisco – which is around 40 miles north – would be preferable.

Given that Boston to San Francisco is a big market with a large number of flights, I had a variety of choices. And though I contemplated taking a few different flights, I ultimately settled on two United Airlines flights: UA2400 and UA768, both operated by Boeing 777-200s. Not only were these flights on wide body aircraft – a situation which is becoming more and more rare for domestic flights within the United States – but they seemed to work out well schedule-wise. Heading out, I would leave Boston on Monday evening, getting into San Francisco on Monday night. Coming back, I would take off from San Francisco on Friday morning, landing back in Boston on Friday afternoon.

March 13, 2017

Waking up Monday morning, my big concern remained that my flight would be cancelled due to the impending snowstorm, which was to bring more than a foot of snow to Greater Boston. While the weather forecast called for snow to start on Tuesday morning, I had been worried that the storm would instead start on Monday night. After all, the conference was to start on Tuesday, and who knows what would have happened if I couldn’t leave on Monday?

Thankfully, the weather held, and Monday ended up being a sunny day. I worked from home in the morning, ran out to run a few pre-trip errands in the early afternoon, and left for Logan around 4:30 p.m. for my 6:30 flight.

I got to the airport and through security relatively quickly, and saw the plane I’d be taking to SFO with its spoilers deployed and thrust reversers engaged, meaning that it had just landed. It wasn’t long before the plane had taxied to the gate, enabling the inbound passengers to disembark.

Outbound aircraft N779UA parked at the gate.

Around this time, as is often done on full flights, the gate attendants were asking people to check their bags. I had a roll-aboard suitcase that I wouldn’t need during the flight, so I volunteered myself, not knowing that the announcement was targeted mostly at passengers in Group 4 and Group 5 (I was in Group 3). When I asked the gate agent if it would take less than an hour to get the bag from the baggage claim, I was given an answer in the form of “I don’t know,” and then was asked to hold onto my bag until in the jetway. At that point, I’d started to regret my decision to check my bag, but there was ultimately no turning back, so I told myself I’d deal with it.

Our boarding was scheduled to start at 5:52 p.m., so I went to line up, almost forgetting my roll-aboard bag. Yet while I stood waiting to board, no one else in the front of the line was boarding. It turns out that the flight was being delayed by around a half-hour for mechanical reasons. It was never disclosed to us exactly what that meant, but I thought little of it, as I was soon able to get on the plane and find my seat – 44A.

The view from seat 44A.

Additionally, we had been informed that the Wi-Fi on the flight would not be working. This would normally be a non-issue on most 777 flights, as most have seat-back TVs, but United’s domestic 777s don’t, meaning that the in-flight entertainment provided on personal devices is contingent on the Wi-Fi working. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘a six-hour flight with no IFE.’ Regardless, I was simply satisfied that the flight wasn’t being cancelled as I had feared.

After all of the passengers had boarded, we pushed back – a solid half-hour past our scheduled time. The evening rush had subsided somewhat, so our taxi to Runway 22R was pretty quick. Once we were on the runway, it was only a short time before rotation, which was followed by the feeling of the G-force pushing down on us as we climbed into the sky.

As is common on the vast majority of Logan 22R departures, we made a left turn immediately after takeoff. We started on the HYLND4 departure that would take us over the southern parts of New Hampshire and Vermont, although there wasn’t much that could be seen with the limited light left in the sky.

Turning left over Castle Island.

While I wasn’t able to sleep much on the flight, I did manage to get an hour or so of shut-eye in towards the end of the flight. As we began our descent into SFO, I began to see more and more lights appearing, signifying that we were emerging from the wilderness that we had been over for several hours into the cityscape of Northern California.

The last time I’d flown into SFO – also on a wide body, that one being a Delta Air Lines 767-300ER from New York JFK – I remembered flying over the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge just before landing. This time, I saw the bridge, which is curved at the west end, appear under the plane, so I knew that we were close.

Upon landing Runway 28R, the captain informed us that, while we had arrived on-time, we would have to wait 10-15 minutes until our gate opened up. That 10-15 minute timeframe soon turned into 20, 30, 40, and perhaps even 50 minutes. And while he said that United’s operations department had informed him that “some flights” would be held so that passengers could make their connections, only two flights ended up being held: one to Las Vegas, the other to Los Angeles. Needless to say, the four passengers sitting in my vicinity traveling to Reno were not happy.

Between the delayed takeoff, the Wi-Fi not working, and the extensive wait on the taxiway for a gate, I was pretty unhappy with United, as I felt that all of these factors were at least somewhat within the airline’s control. However, I kept reminding myself that suffering through this situation was still better than having my flight cancelled.

The one thing that did go to plan was that my bag was at the baggage claim in virtually no time at all. From that point, I had about an hour until the last Caltrain of the night to San Jose, so – after taking BART to the Millbrae station – I went to the nearby In-N-Out Burger and got myself some food. All told, I arrived at my hotel around 1:55 a.m. on Tuesday.

At least there was an In-N-Out nearby!

March 17, 2017

The conference ended on Thursday afternoon at 4:20 p.m., and I didn’t have to fly home until the next morning. As such, I had a free night.

Instead of getting a good night’s sleep in my hotel room, I decided to venture up to San Francisco for the rest of the afternoon. I walked around the city for a while, got some good food, and even managed to check out Fisherman’s Wharf, something that I had wanted to do during my previous visit but didn’t have time. Ultimately, I didn’t think that I would have the opportunity to venture north, so it was a nice surprise to be able to get to go to The Golden City.

Fisherman’s Wharf – San Francisco, CA

Friday morning, I woke around 5:15 a.m. My boss and I had agreed to meet at 5:45 in order to catch an Uber from our hotel. Naturally, I made it to the lobby right on time, and not a minute too soon. Hey, we said 5:45, not 5:44!

We arrived at SFO around 6:30, which was more than enough time for me to catch my 8:30 flight. I went through security, staked out where my gate was, and grabbed a bite to eat at an airport diner. It wasn’t anything incredible, of course, but the two pancakes and side of home fries were much better than I’d have expected.

Soon enough, it was time to board. This time, boarding seemed to be much more efficient than on the flight out, although that could have just been my perception. Despite the pleas from the gate agents for passengers to volunteer to check bags, this time I brought my roll-aboard on the plane. Once again in Group 3, and this time with the knowledge that only those in Group 4 or Group 5 should be concerned, I was not in the mood to wait any longer than necessary once we were back in Boston.

My return aircraft, N774UA.

Our pushback and taxi were relatively quick, and soon enough we took off from Runway 1R. Sitting in seat 47A, I could see the City of San Francisco, as well as the Golden Gate Bridge.

This time, the Wi-Fi and IFE system worked, so I watched a couple of movies on my iPhone. The flight went by relatively quickly, and the service was solid. Even better, I managed to sleep quite a bit, probably close to two hours.

Pretty nice view, if I do say so myself.

Around 4:00 p.m., we started our descent into the Greater Boston area. As we flew over Southern Vermont, I saw that the snowfall from earlier in the week had fallen from the trees and onto the ground, creating an incredible landscape. The reflection of the snow below the trees almost made the mountains look like they’d been drawn with computer-generated imagery (CGI), which was an incredible sight.

Very cool view of the snow-covered mountains.

We touched down on Runway 27 just after 4:30 p.m., and it took us just six minutes to get to the gate. To my surprise, the deplaning process went by relatively quickly: I was back in Terminal B shortly after 4:40, and got an Uber home a short time after.

All things considered, United did fine. Flying to SFO, I have to say I was less-than-impressed with my experience – from the mechanical delay to the Wi-Fi not working to not having a gate for us when we arrived, I felt that there were a lot of things that could have been done that weren’t. Moreover, I didn’t find the cabin crew to be incredibly accommodating or friendly, which compounded the already-unpleasant situation. Yet while the flight back to BOS wasn’t equal to, say, my experience on Hainan Airlines, I would say that United redeemed itself on the way back: the flight was on-time, the crew was friendly, and everything that went wrong on the way out seemed to go right on the way back.

As for the aircraft itself, the fact that United’s domestic 777s are 10-across in terms of seating configuration makes things a bit tight. However, the trend towards more densely packed aircraft doesn’t seem to be something that’s going away any time soon, as many legacy airlines are reconfiguring their planes to fit more seats, seemingly a direct consequence of increased competition from low-cost carriers and the consequent need to lower prices. Moreover, I was unimpressed that – with no seat back TVs like most 777s – United’s IFE system didn’t work on the way out. Thankfully, however, it worked on the way back, which went a long way to making the flight more enjoyable. On top of that, I enjoyed the opportunity I had to fly on a domestic wide body not just one way, but both ways.

Overall, I was happy with how my first business trip went. Sure, I wish that the outbound flight hadn’t been delayed, and I wish that United’s domestic 777s were a little more spacious, but I recognize that one can’t have everything. That said, I got to fly for work, something that I had longed to do, was able to visit San Francisco, and even managed to enjoy In-N-Out burgers. Though there are a couple of events on our department’s schedule for this year, I’m not exactly sure when my next opportunity for this kind of travel will be, although I’ll likely know soon. Either way, I certainly enjoyed this experience.