The next morning we all headed out dark and early for the airport. The first flight we wanted to get on left around 8:30am. So with a 45-minute drive to the airport plus needing to get there 2 hours early to allow for the usual security shenanigans meant a 5am wake-up call. The loads were looking light for the flight so we probably would not have to resort to any of our backup flights.

Going through security in Orlando can be a hassle at times simply due to the high number of tourists coming through who are not familiar with all the security procedures in place. Lots of families with kids and folks who only fly once or twice a year can really back the lines up. Fortunately that morning the lines hadn’t built up yet so we breezed through.

Once we got to the gate the waiting game began. Non-revs get seat assignments only after all paying customers get taken care of first. So we could be waiting until just before the doors close to find out if we’d get on board and where we might be sitting. Lucky for us that morning we didn’t have to wait until the last second to find out our fate. Just before boarding began our names were called. All three of us got seat assignments in first class! It was certainly a nice way to start the trip.

I admit I felt a bit out of place sitting in the front. I nearly turned right instead of left when boarding! It was the first time I had ever flown on United and my first time in the front of any plane. Whether it was getting drinks in actual glasses instead of plastic cups or in a can or just being able to stretch out were all little touches that told me I was no longer in the back with the masses. For most of the flight, I either doze or listened to Channel 9- United’s audio channel that plays the air traffic conversations between the plane and the controller. It’s a feature I’ve only seen on United, and it’s not always on (it’s up to the pilots if they want it on or not). But when it is, it’s cool to hear the plane get cleared for takeoff or listen to other pilots give condition reports or just the constant call of “good day” as pilots switch frequencies. It’s a feature I would love to see on other airlines.

The flight was fairly short- only 2 and a half hours, so we were soon landing at Dulles Airport in D.C. Once we got to Dulles, we had a couple of hours to kill before the next flight. This was my first time to IAD, so I enjoyed looking around some of the terminals and taking a ride on the ubiquitous “moon buggies”. The moon buggies are technically called mobile lounges and they carry passengers between the main terminal and the midfield concourses. They get the moon buggy moniker because they are very large, very white, and have moon rover-like wheels on them. The lounges roll up to the building and connect with the building so passengers walk right on- no need to go outside like with a bus. The lounge then rolls around the airport, sometimes having to stop for other traffic, until it gets to the next concourse. It’s certainly one of the odder ways I’ve connected in an airport.

A "moon buggy" at Dulles International Airport

A "moon buggy" at Dulles International Airport.

Some of the moon buggies have now been replaced with the Dulles AeroTrain that opened earlier this year. The airport is working on several construction problems with the hope of phasing out the lounges entirely.

But no matter how futuristic-looking the moon buggies are, they can’t carry people all the way to Japan. So it was time to spin the wheel again on standby roulette for the IAD-NRT leg of the trip. We were fairly certain that we would at least get on the plane- people usually don’t decide at the last minute to go to Japan. But what we weren’t sure of is where on the plane we would all be sitting in. Some seats were open in both first and business classes, but several passengers were also trying to upgrade into those seats. All we could do was wait until all the passengers were checked in. United has large information screens hanging at the gates that show the boarding process, including when the different classes have checked in full. Unfortunately for us, business checked in full, which increase the odds that one or more of us would be in the back.

After hearing the gate agent page other passengers for a while, he finally called our group. The good news was that one of my friends made it up front. The bad news is that my other friend and I were in the back. We did get into different rows of E+. E+ is United’s version of premium economy that has about 4 inches of extra legroom over regular economy. When you’re flying for 13 and a half hours, every inch makes a difference.

In the end, I would not have minded if I had gotten stuck in a non-reclining middle seat by the lavs- I was thrilled just to be on a plane to Japan with good friends. The rest was just details.

The flight itself was long, but not bad. The plane was a Boeing 777 and it was my first time on this type. It’s also the largest plane I’ve been in. The -200ER subtype that we were on holds 253 passengers. One advantage of being on such a large plane is that there’s plenty of space to get up and walk around. It’s quite a contrast to the Boeing 737s I usually end up in. My friends and I often met up in the back to chat after meals.

In the back, United has an in-flight entertainment system with small screens on the back of every seat. It’s not an on-demand system, so movies started every two hours. They offer seven channels of movies and two TV show channels. For the easily-amused like myself, it was enough to keep me entertained for several hours. I got to catch up on several movies like The Proposal and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 that I hadn’t seen yet.

The beef option

The beef option in United Economy.

Foodwise, the flight included dinner shortly after takeoff, mid-flight snack, and a light lunch along with several drink runs. Dinner was pretty much a “chicken or beef” affair. The snack was ramen noodles and lunch was a choice between pasta or stir-fry. Overall, the food was fine for economy-class fare.

About a month or two before our flight, United had changed their drink policy to free drinks for all passengers, including those in economy. No doubt this change was made to make United more competitive with other international carriers that have had that policy for years. It certainly helped make the flight more bearable. Between chatting with my friends, the movies and dozing off somewhere over the Bering Sea, the flight flew by. It was a fairly quiet flight- since we were chasing the sun across the Pacific, nearly everyone kept their window shades closed to keep the cabin dark. Between meals, most passengers just watched movies, read a book or slept.

Soon the blue waters of the Pacific turned into the green farmlands of Japan. We made it!

Coming tomorrow- the first night in Tokyo.

The Japanese countryside.

The Japanese countryside.