Flying the Upper Deck on United's Surprise 747 Party Flight
For just about any day of the week, a flight between Chicago (ORD) and San Francisco (SFO) on United Airlines — even on a wide-body — isn't anything out of the ordinary. The carrier operates numerous daily flights shuttling passengers between two of its largest hubs. Last night, however, was an entirely different story.
We reported earlier this week that United was offering lots of availability on a special 747 flight between the two cities. The airline has been phasing out its aging 747 fleet, replacing the iconic (yet outdated) double decker with more fuel-efficient 777-300ERs, which UA introduced into its fleet earlier this year.
As of now, yesterday's hop was the final scheduled domestic flight for the airline's 747, which we anticipate will exit service entirely sometime this fall. And if the final international flight (which is currently scheduled for late-October, from Seoul to SFO) is anything like the one last night, you'd best find a way to get onboard. Sure, it was a scheduled revenue flight between two major cities. But it felt more like a four-hour cocktail party. As one flight attendant put it: "I have never had a flight like this."
Airport and Gate
The journey began in the airport. I met up with a couple of fellow avgeeks and points enthusiasts at O'Hare in the United Club. They were thrilled about the opportunity to be on this last flight. We talked points, travel and (believe it or not) United's improved service since Oscar Munoz took the reigns.
My new friends, Vern and Craig, told me they found the flight from TPG, and snagged seats as soon as they could. Craig, a New York-based Continental flyer since 1988, was up in the first-class cabin, while Vern, an IT professional based in Pennsylvania, was upstairs with me. Both had flown the 747, but couldn't resist such a unique opportunity. We figured only a few unsuspecting passengers were unaware of the significance of the flight.
Around 5:15pm I made my way to our gate, C18.
The view wasn't great, but the 747 hump was indistinguishable from the gate.
Right when I got there, things were already heating up. In fact, I'd never experienced a gate like this one before. It was lively, in stark contrast to probably every other one I've been to. Several of the flight's pilots (including its captain) were hanging out, taking photos and chatting with passengers and crew.
He even signed my boarding pass!
The United employees I spoke to told me they didn’t anticipate anything too crazy on this flight. With nearly 250 United crew onboard, they expected some fun in store, but little fanfare. Boy, were they wrong. I didn't get a final look, but the last time I checked, the flight had over 180 people on the upgrade standby list...
...and another 200+ on standby to make it on the flight. People were taking photos of the screen! Even local news was there for the event.
Boarding and Pre-Flight
Right before boarding, the captain made an announcement from the gate — he certainly seemed thrilled for the flight. Boarding began on time soon after, although I was one of the last people to board in Group 1.
The 747 is one big airplane, and one that we reviewed last year on this exact route.
I made my way to the famous onboard stairs...
...to find my window seat in the upper deck, but so many people were flooding the upstairs cabin to take photos in the cockpit, I could barely move! There was a line all the way to the stairs!
The flight crew was extremely friendly. They let people come in and snap photos throughout nearly the entire preflight procedure.
When I made my way in, I could hear the captain and first officer testing some of the ground proximity alert systems, while another pilot took my photo in the jump seat.
I took my seat at 12K, complete with extra storage space against the window. I've never flown this business class before, and the seat was pretty comfortable. Once I sat down, I immediately struck up conversation with my seatmate, George, who redeemed miles for the chance to ride on the upper deck of a 747.
Unlike the dreaded 2-4-2 business class downstairs, the upper deck on the 747 is arranged in a 2-2 configuration. In fact, the infamous lack of privacy in United's 747 business class product was perfect for the festivities. Passengers were up and about, introducing themselves to each other.
To my pleasant surprise, fellow passenger and new friend, Gary Cirlin, informed me that the pilots had turned on "From the flight deck" (AKA channel 9) and kept it on the whole flight. Avgeek bliss!
And nothing beats the view when you're sitting so much higher than every other airplane around you.
After a minor delay due a broken seat, we were on our way just about 10 minutes behind schedule. Once we pushed back, we got a great view of all of the ramp and ground workers soaking in the 747. It's so quiet upstairs — I was jealous they could hear the four engines spool up in full glory.
Say what you will about United cabin crew, but all of the flight attendants were extremely courteous and excited. We were cracking jokes all flight long.
For my pre-departure drink, I chose sparkling wine (start it off easy, you know), and the atmosphere upstairs was party-like. Just in my immediate surroundings, I met other 747 and airplane enthusiasts, many of which I was pleased to hear found out about the flight from Zach's post.
Among the group were journalists, enthusiasts and pilots. Jack Boulton, a Denver-based Southwest pilot, told me how this was something he'd wanted to do since he was a kid. Everyone else I spoke to said the same thing. In fact, last night's flight was seen as such a unique opportunity that many passengers seemingly had rearranged their travel plans and booked the flight on a whim... and were taking red-eyes right back to Chicago just a few hours later.
The Flight and the Party
Once we took off and the drink service began, the real party started. I got a Jack and Coke, served with warm nuts in United's Polaris dishware.
Being especially light, our 747 rocketed to our cruising altitude of 38,000 feet very quickly. People moved freely about the cabin — upstairs, downstairs, even in the nose. Passengers and crew alike were extremely generous in letting people into typically cabin-class segregated parts of the airplane.
I spent at least half of the flight on my feet, chatting with passengers who ranged from private pilots to simmers, avgeeks to United buffs, retired military and crew. I even got a chance to hang out with United employees, some of them with multi-generational ties to the airline.
Eager to see the view from the curved front-row seats in the nose, I made my way to first class, where I found the passengers sitting in seats 1A and 1K standing, inviting anyone to sit in their seat and snap photos. I couldn't resist.
Front to back, the airplane was lively.
People were hanging out near the galleys and exit doors (places they wouldn't normally be allowed), sharing stories, drinks in hand.
Props to the flight attendants for doing a great job with such crowded aisles!
One flight attendant even created a video where they ran through the entire plane, capturing all passengers doing the "wave" (admittedly, I'm not sure how it came out).
Just to help you understand how wacky everything was: at one point, the captain came on the PA to announce that we'd modified our route in flight to make up for the minor ground delay. Passengers all around me audibly groaned in disappointment that the flight would be shorter than expected. A flight attendant even announced that some passengers would be continuing festivities at SFO in the lounge upon arrival.
I made it back to my seat just in time for dinner service. I chose the lobster mac and cheese over a lentil-based dish. It was pretty good, but a little too buttery for my taste.
The ice cream afterwards was good, and the food wasn't a focus for me on this flight anyway.
With the sun finally settling into the horizon, we began a smooth decent into San Francisco. And after a greased landing and very short taxi, the parking brakes were set, and the flight came to a bittersweet end.
It's funny — in its heyday, the 747's upper deck was often used as a lounge. Last night, even with regular business-class seats, it really felt like one.
From gate to gate, this was an incredibly special flight, and one I'll remember for a very long time. I've never been on a flight so casual yet commemorative as this, and I may never be on one again. It was wonderfully festive, and extremely well executed by the United teams onboard. The flight felt far more like a celebratory cocktail party than an intra-hub domestic flight. And based on the awesome passenger feedback, I wouldn't be entirely surprised if UA does something like this again.