Flying the World's Most Elusive 747: The Houston Express to Angola
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If you were to refer to the "Houston Express" to someone in casual conversation, there's a good chance they'd think of a passenger train from the golden age of rail travel. But to those of us who are #AvGeeks, the Houston Express is something else entirely, one of the most storied flights to ever exist — a nonstop (on a chartered 747 no less!) between two very unlikely cities for a direct link: Houston, Texas, and Luanda, Angola, in southwest Africa, two major nodes in the global system of oil production.
These days, it's hard to find a flight as fabled as the Houston Express, and that's exactly why we decided we had to be on it. But we had to act fast — the flight was officially terminated at the end of March. Read on to find out what it was like to be on this one-of-a-kind flight.
A Bit of History
Houston is one of the big oil towns of the world. The city attracts business from oil-rich countries around the globe. One of them is located some 7,700 miles away, far off south on the African content, hugging the Atlantic coast. Luanda is not only the capital of Angola, a former Portuguese colony that won its independence in 1975. It also happens to be one of the world's most expensive (and unequal) cities, due to the unprecedented oil boom the country has experienced over the last several years.
As one of Africa's most oil-rich countries, Angola, and its national oil company Sonangol, attracted the attention of energy giants like ExxonMobil and Chevron — so much so that there arose a need for a direct link between the two cities so that employees could travel back and forth with ease. Luanda is far, and getting there from the United States without a direct flight involves laborious connections via Lisbon or Johannesburg. Thus, the Houston Express was born as a way to more easily transport the thousands of oil executives and other workers whose business took them to and from Angola.
Launched as a private charter flight in November of 2000, the Houston Express was truly one-of-a-kind. Three times per week, a specially configured, low-density jet would fly nearly 14 hours and almost 8,000 miles from Houston's Bush Intercontinental (IAH) to Luanda's Quatro de Fevereiro airport (LAD). Before the Queen of the Skies flew the route, it was operated for nearly 10 years by a reconfigured former World Airways MD-11 with a special livery in the colors of SonAir, the aviation branch of Sonangol. In 2010, global freight carrier Atlas Air picked up the contract and started using its two passenger 747-400s for the route. All other jumbos in Atlas' fleet are cargo jets, so these passenger 747s are quite the novelty.
For its almost 18-year run, this special charter flight was mostly private — an invitation-only charter for oil-industry people. Only last year, in May of 2017, did SonAir finally open booking to the general public, offering a convenient way to reach the coast of southwest Africa for anyone willing to fork over the cash. Oil employees didn’t stop flying on the route, but rather it began to attract a much wider crowd, including tourists bound for bordering Namibia and Zambia.
As it turns out, the boom in Angola has turned to somewhat of a bust, due to the global collapse of oil prices. Citing "financial and commercial difficulties", SonAir announced it would be axing the route at the end of March, 2018. As things go at TPGHQ, we scrambled to figure out a way to get on the final Luanda-bound flight on Wednesday, March 28. And, before you ask, while the flight wasn’t bookable with miles, I was able to enter my United MileagePlus account number to earn some redeemable miles with the airline. However, the earning rate was pretty dismal — I only received 3,750 miles for the nearly 8,000-mile flight.
It may have been a public charter, but getting a hold of the folks at SonAir — err, rather those at the booking agency responsible for loading up the aircraft — was no easy task. Luckily, I got some help in the form of former TPG Points and Miles Writer (and travel whiz) JT Genter, who was able to crack the code and put me in touch with Atlântida WTA, the booking agency, which handled the booking for me.
The Houston Express operates in a four-class configuration: first, business, premium economy and economy. It wasn't entirely clear from the available information what the distinction between each class of service was, so I needed to clarify with WTA. First is in the nose (no surprise there), while business and premium economy occupy several different cabins onboard the aircraft (including on the upper deck). Premium economy, I was told, sported the same physical seats as business class, but didn't offer the same level of amenities you'd get in business. Lastly, economy is only five rows, and is exactly what you’d expect: upright seats with a monitor attached to the seat back in front of you. Because I wanted to fly like an oil exec, but without paying exec prices, premium economy seemed like the perfect compromise, though it still wasn't exactly cheap — my ticket ran just more than $3,000 one-way.
I couldn’t choose my seat beforehand, and I was told that it would be assigned at check-in. I didn’t love that, but wasn’t going to complain considering I managed to snag a seat only four days prior to departure.
Check-in and Lounge
I arrived at Terminal D at 8:15am, when it was still very quiet. Despite being a charter flight, the Houston Express departed from a regular passenger gate. Like any other airline, there were separate lines for business and economy check-in.
Before departing, I enlisted the help of Allied Passport and Visa to confirm that I could indeed transit in Luanda without a visa. Allied contacted the Angolan embassy in Washington, DC, which gave me the green light. This, however, was clearly unprecedented, as the check-in agents still had to make calls to their supervisors to confirm that I could fly without a visa. After a few minutes on the phone, I was given the all-clear and a window seat.
Around the corner, even without my usual TSA PreCheck (I couldn't get it for this flight), I cleared security in under five minutes. There was very little activity at the terminal at this time. With more than an hour till boarding, I headed over to D12, the usual gate for the Angola-bound Houston Express, located at the far end of the international terminal.
Sadly there was no view of the aircraft, but I did notice some SonAir lounges on my walk. One for Business Class passengers and one for those in First Class. With my lowly premium economy ticket, I couldn't get into either. It didn't matter at all, though. Houston (IAH) has a Centurion Lounge in the same terminal from which I was departing! Even as an authorized user on a Platinum Card® from American Express account, I was granted access without issue.
As I made my way to the Centurion, I passed by two pilots (presumably of my flight) who were discussing this final charter service:
“It’s ending May 1, right?” one asked.
“No, this is it. This is the last one.”
I smiled to myself. Clearly, this wasn't going to be like United's last domestic 747 flight. The Houston Express, it seemed, would be fading quietly into the sunset.
Anyway, back to the lounge. The Centurion was great, and only a few minutes away from the gate. Following signs, you take an elevator up one floor and proceed down a corridor. Not particularly crowded, and with a hot breakfast up for grabs, the lounge was a pleasant place to pass the time as I made my final preparations before boarding.
There were newspapers and fruit throughout the lounge, and I even stocked up on some snacks for the flight and the next day's layover, given that I had no idea what to expect once I landed in Luanda.
On my way out, I mentioned that I'd be flying the Houston Express to the lounge agents, and they were sad that the flight was ending. According to them, the fight was usually crowded, so they were surprised and disappointed that it had to come to an end.
With 10 minutes left until boarding, I made my way back to the gate. I noticed the gate area was filled with a slightly different crowd than I expected. There were business people, sure, but there were also numerous families and others who I took to be tourists traveling to Africa for reasons other than oil contracts. I also noticed some, though not much, press taking photos at the gate.
Our 747 was parked right next to a Monterrey-bound Interjet Sukhoi Superjet 100, another AvGeek treat. I quickly dodged out of line to get a few photos.
After snapping some pics of this elusive Russian-built airliner, I eagerly walked to my 747.
Inside the Aircraft
Boarding was normal. Gate agents checked passports like any other flight, and after they scanned my boarding pass, I made my way down the jetway and toward my jumbo jet chariot. As a lifelong AvGeek, it's always a thrill for me to board a 747.
I boarded through door L2, turned right, and made my way through business class to seat 40K, my home for the next 14 hours.
As I mentioned earlier, SonAir operated the flight with low-density passenger Atlas Air 747-400s. These birds feature only 189 seats — 10 in first, 44 in business, 99 in premium economy and just 36 in regular economy. It's crazy to think just how few seats were on board this giant plane — a typical commercial 747-400 packs in around 380 seats, depending on the airline.
Taking a quick tour, first class was in the nose, in a 1-2-1 configuration...
...business class in the forward and upstairs portion of the airplane, in a 2-3-2 configuration.
...while premium economy (the same seat as business class) and just five rows of regular economy took up the aft section. Economy was laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration — a more spacious layout than the typical 3-4-3 on 747s.
The aircraft was broken up into several small cabins — most of these had only about five or so rows of seats, making each cabin quieter and presumably more pleasant for passengers. My seat, 40K, was in the very last row of premium economy.
The seat reminded me of Air India's 2-3-2 seat on its 777. It was comfortable, leather-clad and came adorned with a standard economy pillow and blanket. It went almost completely flat on the upper portion of the seat, but the bottom half leg rest only extended to an angle position.
While miles ahead of a standard economy seat, the angled foot rest made my legs a bit sore by the time we reached Luanda.
The plane was spacious, quiet and nicely air-conditioned. The cabin was definitely on the older and slightly dirty side, but it didn't feel gross or particularly unclean. I used a few sanitizing wipes to clean off my tray table, arm rest, seat controls and area where my head would be.
Hoping to do some work, I was relieved to find a functional power port at my seat beneath the familiar IFE controls. No Wi-Fi, though.
The seat controls weren't too unfamiliar, either, with controls for upper and lower seat controls. They were certainly worn a bit, but not too shabby.
Even as the cabin filled up around me, the seat next to mine never did. I was lucky — I wasn't going to have a seatmate for the flight, making a lack of direct aisle access irrelevant as I had two seats to myself. My other issue with the seat (lack of personal storage space) was no longer relevant either, as I proceeded to store my small personal items next to me on the empty seat, and freely used the overhead without bothering a seatmate (stowage was not allowed in the space in front of my feet).
I noticed my cabin to be a good mix of business people and families. I counted at least six small children, all of whom, I should add, behaved pretty darn well for a 14-hour red-eye. There was also an English-speaking couple a few rows in front of me who looked like tourists, and I wondered if they were traveling to Luanda for a safari. The Houston Express, after all, is a nonstop to an otherwise pretty inaccessible part of the world for US residents. If you don't mind paying for it, why not take the nonstop?
I also noticed an exercise instruction sheet to help cope with the extended hours in a seat — a nice touch.
As for the IFE, I really wasn't sure what to expect on a jet that operates for an international flight crew based in Angola, on an airline that flies cargo almost exclusively. But I knew I was in for a treat when I saw the SonAir safety video.
It turned out to be pretty functional. There were a total of 12 movies, including new releases like Dunkirk, IT, Battle of the Sexes, Lego Ninja Movie and some lesser-known others. I'd only be taking this flight once, so these were more than enough. That being said, if I were a regular aboard the Houston Express, I'd probably get pretty tired of the selection. Most people tried to sleep for the majority of the flight anyway.
Besides watching movies, I spent a lot of my time checking out the moving map, always there to remind you just how long you'll have to be in a pressurized cabin with recycled air. I like it particularly so I can look out for interesting views, and to know what we're flying over, of course. Considering nearly 5,000 miles of this flight would be over water, I didn't expect too much scenery.
With a functioning IFE with more than enough content to keep me occupied at my disposal, I was ready to kick back and enjoy this one-of-a-kind flight.
The Flight and Service
Atlas Air 100, callsign "Giant," was operating on time when I took my seat. With the low-density configuration, the whole flight took only about 30 minutes to board. I noticed there was a full team of flight attendants for our flight, even though this low-density 747 wasn't even full. Despite the quick boarding process, there were some delays with loading cargo and finalizing paperwork.
The captain took this opportunity to come on the PA and welcome us on board the final Houston Express. The day's flight was expected to take 13 hours and 18 minutes, shorter than the scheduled 14 hours. We would be flying northeast at first, beginning our Atlantic crossing near Virginia Beach before spending some 10 hours flying southeast over the water. Our flight was leaving in the morning but would arrive in Luanda around 7:00am local time the following day. I planned to relax for the first few hours before trying to get some rest once the sun set over the Atlantic.
We pushed back at 11:23 CST, about 40 minutes late, but also sat still before our taxi. We ended up being delayed for about an hour in total — this delay made me wonder if chartered flights have a lower priority in airport operations than regular commercial flights. Before long, however, our mighty 747's engines roared to life. We dropped several notches of flaps for our heavy takeoff and off we went to our assigned runway.
The crew dimmed the cabin lights for departure, and within a few minutes our jumbo jet was screaming down runway 15L, before gently lifting off the ground toward the overcast skies above.
The double chime a few minutes after take off (we climbed slowly at first) indicated that we were above 10,000 feet. Immediately, the IFE came back on and one of the service portions of our flight began. Flight attendants came around with small amenity pouches — a nice touch considering I'd be receiving economy-class amenities.
The kit featured the usual collection of items to make the long-haul more bearable. I particularly liked the full travel-size toothpaste, as I was able to reuse it for the duration of my trip.
We'd be served two meals: dinner a little while after reaching cruise altitude, and breakfast about 90 minutes prior to landing.
Soon after the double chime, a flight attendant came around with a warm face towel (an actual towel, not just a thin cloth) and asked for initial drink orders. I started off with a can of Coca-Cola and decided to sit back, relax and enjoy views of the American South before we made it to the ocean.
Roughly 1.5 hours in, it was time for food. The crew was calling this "dinner," which I knew meant after eating everyone was going to go to bed. I chose the pasta over a chicken dish.
The meal was pretty substantial for an economy meal — it came with shrimp, a salad, a roll, the pasta and a brownie for dessert. To drink I chose the house white — I got a healthy pour, which is always appreciated. The shrimp was surprisingly good and the pasta surprisingly bad, but I didn't really mind. It filled me up, and I was on the Houston Express, en route to Africa!
Throughout the flight, the cabin crew was courteous, polite and helpful.
About two hours in, I caught a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, and soon we were six miles above the vast expanse of water. Almost like clockwork, everyone in my mini cabin lowered their shade and reclined their seats — time for bed, I figured. I was up not only because it was barely 2:00pm in Houston, but because I was excited to be on board this flight. Plus, I didn't expect to sleep for 11 hours on this flight anyway. Other people, clearly focused on their arrival in Luanda (and the work they'd probably need to do the next day), wanted to rest. I kept my shade open for another hour or so and then I lowered it almost completely, just sliding it open every once in a while to snap a photo as the sun began to set over the ocean.
I ended up relaxing and watching movies until were about halfway to Luanda, cruising fast at 37,000 feet above the central Atlantic.
There were four lavatories available for my cabin and the economy cabin behind me (at least as far as I could tell). I've never used the lavs in the very back of a 747 before, but these were pretty cool. They were a little larger than your standard airplane lav — you had to turn when you entered, so there was some additional square footage. And, SonAir provided more than you'd get on any commercial flight — mints! And hand wipes!
I woke up with only about two hours left in the flight. About 20 minutes after that, FAs came around the cabin with a refreshing hot towel and another drink service. Literally every single person in front of me ordered apple juice, and figuring there might some secret Angolan custom about drinking apple juice before landing, I followed suit. I also ordered some Lipton tea.
Before the next meal service, I changed my clothes in the bathroom, brushed my teeth and decided to go over my documents to ensure a smooth transfer in Luanda. Seeking a light meal, I opted for some bread, fruit and yogurt. Soon after we were descending quickly into Luanda.
So quickly, in fact, that I think we seemed to drop our first notch of flaps over 10,000 feet, an unusual occurrence, especially considering Luanda's airport is at sea level. 10 minutes later we were flying low over Luanda, with shantytowns and heaps of garbage in full display. It's clear that the oil boom helped only a very small group of people who became wildly wealthy, while the majority of the population suffers due to the insanely high cost of living in the city. Like many countries in the developing world, staggering disparities in wealth and government corruption are the norm — this was made abundantly clear simply from passing over the city from above.
Right before touching down, I caught view of some European and Angolan widebody aircraft: a TAP Air Portugal A340 bound for Lisbon, an Air France 777-300ER bound for Paris and a TAAG Angola 777 bound for an unknown destination. In true final-flight fashion, the pilot in command greased the landing and slowly eased the aircraft to a taxi speed. Interestingly, he did not use thrust reversers. We turned around and back taxied on the runway we landed on. The flight was over, and I was in Angola. The hot and humid climate immediately fogged all three of my windows.
We deboarded on regular outdoor airstairs. The flight attendants were kind enough to let me photograph some of the other cabins before I deplaned and turned around, snapping one more photo of the mighty 747.
Right after, as I boarded the bus that would take us to the terminal, I was handed this incredible t-shirt.
Off the bus, I turned left to international connections, went through a metal detector and x-ray machine and took a seat airside, gazing out at the Queen that so elegantly flew us 7,800 miles. The airport was busy with international travelers headed to Europe, South America, Asia and of course other destinations in Africa. I did notice the entire crew — cabin and flight — posing for photos on the stairs next to our plane. This was something special after all.
Considering the final Houston to Luanda and Luanda to Houston legs were the last US-registered 747s operating a scheduled passenger flight, the Houston Express was bittersweet. With the ending of the flight, Houston is no longer connected to all six inhabited continents with nonstop flights. Atlas Air's passenger 747 will move to another service and the SonAir crew will be busy serving other flights around the world.
The oil industry has changed and continues to change, and energy as a whole is entering a new phase. We'll have to wait and see if the evolving market will create a need for an exclusive charter flight like this one, and if a new Houston Express will pop up in a different form down the road. With its expanding operation out of Luanda, perhaps we'll see a TAAG Angola flight filling the void of the now extinct Houston Express, connecting Houston to Luanda once again. For now, though, I'm lucky to have been a part of this final trip — as an AvGeek and passionate traveler it's something I'll surely remember forever.