United Airlines 747-400 economy class San Francisco to Chicago

United Airlines 747-400 economy class San Francisco to Chicago

With only 45 minutes of connection time after my flight up from SAN, I wasted no time in checking the boards to see where this 747-400 flight to Chicago would be departing from. I had assumed that it would be docked at the international terminal with all of the other 747’s, but to my surprise the departure gate this morning was 86 – which is at the end of the UA domestic terminal. I’ve never seen anything larger than a 777 (or DC-10) parked at these gates, so it was completely unexpected and somewhat appreciated since it meant that I wouldn’t have to walk as far to catch this flight.

San Francisco, CA (SFO) – Chicago, IL (ORD)
Saturday, April 23, 2016
Aircraft: 747-400
Registration: N121UA
Seat: 51A (economy)

united airlines n121ua side view
United Airlines 747-400 (N121UA) side view illustration by Norebbo.com
route from SFO to ORD
walking through SFO airport
Making the walk to gate 86 here at SFO.
walking through san francisco airport
Almost there – gate 86 is all the way at the end!

By the time I got to the gate, the boarding zone lines were already massively long. There are separate queues for each zone (1 through 5), and they were so long that it took me a minute or so to figure out where the end of the zone 2 line was. This is a problem with boarding large aircraft from smaller gates I suppose – there’s no easy way to get everyone queued up and onboard!

boarding 747 sfo gate 86
This is what a 747-load of passengers looks like at the gate area just before boarding.

Boarding was called right on time, and right away I appreciated the semi-organized zone lines that UA is now using at it’s major hubs. These dedicated lines eliminate those with higher zone numbers from crowding the podium during the boarding of lower zone numbers. It sounds a bit confusing, but it works surprisingly well IMHO.

united boarding by zone SFO
As you can see, the organized zone queues (to the right) keep the gate entrance free and clear. Nice!
747 gate 86 san francisco airport
The only problem with this particular gate is the fact that is that it doesn’t offer clear views of the aircraft. Oh well…
san francisco airport jet bridge
Walking down the jet bridge to board the flight.

So far my best flight on a United Airlines 747-400 was back in the spring of 2014, as I was wined and dined in Global First all the way to PEK from SFO. Today I’d have to trudge it out way back in economy class, which I honestly didn’t mind since it would be a relatively short flight over to ORD. The last time I was in UA 747-400 economy class was on a flight from SFO to NRT back in October of that same year, and the truth is that it wasn’t a very memorable flight due to the fact that I was stuck in a middle seat.

united airlines 747-400 business class cabin
Walking through the BusinessFirst cabin with the signature 747 staircase to the left.

Today I had a window seat (51A) in the last section of the airplane, and in my distraction of trying to record video of the boarding process, I accidentally sat down in 52A instead. I was quickly notified of my error when an elderly couple came to claim my seat just a few minutes later. Oops – sorry about that!

united airlines 747-400 economy seats
Seats 51 A, B, and C on this United Airlines 747-400.

Once situated in my proper seat, I really couldn’t help but notice how dark, dated, and yellow the interior of this 747 was. She hadn’t been updated and refreshed in years it seemed, and the interior looked worn and tired compared to the bright and clean 737-900 I just came off of.

united airlines 747-400 economy class cabin
The yellow(ish) and dated 747-400 economy class cabin.
rear section united 747 economy cabin
Looking towards the rear of the plane.
united 747-400 cabin interior
Looking forward from my seat.
United airlines 747-400 economy cabin rear section
Here’s a wide angle view from the same perspective showing more of the economy cabin.
747-400 interior wide angle
And now here’s the wide angle view looking towards the rear.
united airlines 747-400 economy class seat pitch
This pic doesn’t show it that well, but leg room (seat pitch) was tight. I’ve done long-haul international flights in these seats, and I really can’t imagine how I did it…
united airlines 747-400 economy class seat pitch
Another view of the seat pitch back here in economy class.
row 51 leg room united 747-400
One last look at the seat pitch on this aircraft, looking straight across row 51.
united airlines 747-400 pillows and blankets
Pillows and blankets on every seat for this short (3.5 hour) flight to ORD. Thanks United!
united airlines 747-400 center arm rest controls economy class
Just some detail pics now (trying to document this aircraft as best I can). Here’s the center arm rest with audio controls.
united 747-400 cabin ceiling
Ceiling detail with lights and air vents.
united airlines 747-400 tray table
Tray table latch. Not very exciting, I know, but this may be the last UA 747 I’m ever going to fly on in economy!
united airlines 747-400 economy seats
The seats were in surprisingly good shape.

Boarding took a while considering that this was a nearly full flight (there was an empty middle seat in the row ahead of me), but they managed to get us pushed back off the gate right on time. From there it was a short taxi out to runway 1R, which I should note was a first for me (I think). In all my years of flying out of SFO, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a flight that departed from this runway. There’s certainly a chance that I have, but I definitely can’t recall a specific instance.

Here’s a video I shot of the taxi and takeoff sequence:

And now for the pics:

747-400 taxiing san francisco airport
Taxiing out of the gate area and on our way out to 1R.
runway 1r san francisco airport sfo
Looking straight down 1R as we make the wide turn for departure.

The climb out of SFO to the east was largely uneventful, though I did take notice of how short our take off roll was. This was my first ever flight on a lightly loaded 747, so I was surprised how quickly and easily she got off the ground compared to all the other long haul flights I’ve experienced on this aircraft type.

departing runway 1r SFO
Blasting out of SFO with the city of San Francisco in the distance.
san francisco airport departure
Crossing San Francisco Bay with the city on the left, and Oakland on the right.
Oakland, CA
That’s Oakland down there!
Leveling off at 37,000ft united 747-400
Leveling off at 37,000ft.

Once in the air at cruising altitude, the airliner nerd in me began looking around and wondering if there were any other passengers who really appreciated the fact that they were on a domestic 747-400 flight today. The guy next to me in 51B appeared not to care one little bit – he seemed agitated and uncomfortable, so I assume that this was just another flight for him. I also found it amusing that a majority of the other passengers probably booked this flight without even knowing (or caring) that it was a 747 and they just showed up to the airport and this is what they got.

United Airlines 747-400 safety card
Just for the memories, here’s the cover of the United Airlines 747-400 safety card.
United Airlines 747-400 safety card
Interior of the United Airlines 747-400 safety card.
sierra mountains california
Starting to cross over the eastern Sierra’s.

It was a pretty bumpy flight across the county today, especially around the Utah / Colorado area. Turbulence was fairly heavy, and the clouds below were indicative of some serious weather going on down there. Check out these crazy clouds:

flying over the clouds 747-400
Clouds starting to build over Utah. Doesn’t look so out of the ordinary yet…
turbulent clouds fly over
They eventually started smoothing out as the turbulence got worse…
soap bubble clouds
And then all of a sudden they turned into this! The turbulence was heavy at this point, but it looked so cool down there!

It was still fairly bumpy off and on all the way to Chicago, which made it difficult for the flight attendants to do their drink and snack service. Once again I took them up on their offer for one of their Stroppwafel waffle snacks but didn’t eat it. They looked good as they passed them out, but…they just look too sweet for my tastes. I did get a glass of water though. Not so glamorous back here in economy, is it?

united airlines economy class snack
United Airlines Stroopwafel and a cup of water. This will have to do until we get to Chicago!
flying over the usa united airlines 747-400
The turbulence eventually died down (but didn’t go away completely) as we pushed east.
flat cloud layer
I did find the mix of cloud structures to be interesting on this flight though. Here we are over Iowa with a flat layer beneath us.
broken clouds 37000 ft
And here are the clouds about 20 minutes later as we kept making our way closer to ORD.
united airlines 747-400 winglet
Gotta love that 747-400 winglet!

I was really hoping that we would be landing to the west today, which meant that it would be highly likely that we would have to do a low-altitude pass over the city of Chicago as we get turned around for our approach. Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be, and we simply glided in (with a few minor turns) and landed to the east.

747-400 descent
Starting our descent just west of Chicago.
ORD approach united 747-400
Twisting and turning our way into the pattern.
united airlines 747-400 flaps
Flaps deployed and it was at this point that I knew we wouldn’t be landing to the west today. Oh well.
approaching ORD united 747-400
The weather is looking really good out there!
landing at ORD united airlines 747-400
Crossing over the airport perimeter.
united airlines 777-200 ORD
Pulling up to gate 16 as a United 777-200 pushes back right next to us at C18.
747-400 cargo pallet chicago ohare
No belt loaders here – all 747 cargo is palletized!

All in all, the flight went by in a flash and I was disappointed when it came time to deplane at ORD. I did hang back a bit and let most of the other passengers go ahead of me so I would have a better chance for final pics and video as I was getting off this bird. As I was making my way up the aisles (recording video the whole time), I encountered a small gathering of passengers posing for pics with the pilots in the galleys – so apparently there were some other hardcore avgeeks on this flight today!

These same guys also took tons of pics of this 747 through the windows from the gate area once we were inside the terminal here at ORD – I did consider introducing myself and chatting with them for a while, but the introverted guy in me passed on the opportunity today.

united airlines 747-400 n121ua
One last look at N121UA parked here at gate C16. It was a great flight!
united airlines c concourse chicago O'hare ORD
Ahhh, good to be back inside O’Hare again (my old stomping grounds).

That wraps up this particular domestic UA 747-400 segment, but the overall experience isn’t over quite yet! Two days later I flew back to SFO on the 747 (in Global First this time), and that trip report is coming soon…

Comments (2)

  1. Josh Walton

    May 3, 2016
    • SANspotter

      May 4, 2016

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