Why Can’t Every Flight be Like United’s 747 Farewell?

Nov 8, 2017

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Flyers, especially those who travel frequently, are often guilty of taking flight for granted, grumbling when there are delays and complaining when the service isn’t up to standard. The truth is for many flying is a fact of life, something that just happens day in and day out. And airlines, especially those in the US, haven’t done a whole lot to combat the monotony of the experience.

That is, with one exception: Tuesday’s final United 747 farewell — which TPG was lucky enough to be a part of, having purchased a ticket for first class and one for coach — that flew from San Francisco International Airport (SFO) to Honolulu (HNL), the original 747 route for United, to honor the retirement of the iconic plane after 47 years in service. It was a celebration of flight itself, from the aircraft — which has built up a cult-like following among AvGeeks, plane spotters and airline employees alike — to the destination. It was also a celebration of those who made it all happen.

The festivities for flight UA747 began early in the morning. Those who were in attendance were serious enthusiasts — some even had parents who worked on the 747, either as flight attendants, on the maintenance team or a variety of other positions related to the success of the 747. Almost everyone was totally decked out — most were wearing “Aloha” shirts (a nod to our final destination) or 70s-themed outfits (a nod to the decade during which the plane entered service for the airline), though there were some that came in the actual uniforms that flight attendants working the Hawaii flights wore in the late ’70s.

As soon as boarding commenced, the mood got even lighter. As each boarding group was called, cheers erupted from those who were eagerly waiting to step onto the Queen one last time. I found my window seat (50K) on the right side of the plane, and delighted in the fact that there were so many people just as excited as I was, if not more, to be a part of history.

Once on board, each passenger received a special “747 Farewell” gift bag. Whether you were seated in seat 1A like TPG’s Zach Honig, in business or in row 60, all bags were the same, which was a great recognition of how special this flight was to each passenger. It didn’t hurt that United gave each coach passenger its Saks Fifth Avenue-branded pillows and blankets, either.

Inside each bag were several items related to the 747 and its history with the airline. We even got one of those awesome, limited-edition 747 amenity kits that business- and first-class passengers are receiving on intercontinental flights.

However, the flight itself began with a delay on the ground at SFO that lasted almost an hour due to an issue with the air conditioning system. On any other flight, this would be cause for frustration, but for once the delay was welcome. Everyone wanted more time with the Queen.

As soon as we were airborne, the Champagne started flowing and a United exec gave a toast to the iconic jet.

Then, flight attendants made their way around the cabins with drinks for all — I chose to have a Mai Tai, of course. And then three more after that. Yes, they were pre-mixed, but hey, it’s better than nothing, right?

The food was special, too. United crafted a unique menu for the flight and included options that the airline actually served decades ago. Each meal came with shrimp cocktail and a traditional Hawaiian Namasu salad of pickled carrots and cucumbers. For the entree, coach passengers had a choice of:

  • Braised short ribs with mashed sweet potatoes and almond-topped green beans
  • Grilled hibachi teriyaki chicken with gingered rice and spinach

I chose the short rib, which was delicious. I wish all meals in coach were of this quality!

For dessert, we could choose between:

  • United’s famous ice cream sundae made with vanilla bean gelato
  • A luau ambrosia parfait with mandarin oranges, crushed pineapple, mini marshmallows, whipped cream and toasted coconut

I don’t know if this was supposed to be the case, but the parfait was served with the dinner. But, I couldn’t resist United’s famous sundae, so I had both — though I only had a few bites of the ice cream since I was stuffed from the meal.

Every aspect of this flight was special — from the outfits of the flight attendants to the “Halfway to Hawaii” game passengers participated in. It helped me envision a time when flight was truly special, when the experience of being on a plane matched the anticipation that so many felt upon boarding a flight destined for an exotic destination such as Honolulu.

Before we took off, I introduced myself to my neighbor, Carole, who has worked for United for 23 years — seven of which she worked as an in-flight supervisor on United’s 747s and now as a Customer Solutions Manager in the Network Operations Center (NOC) located in Chicago’s Willis Tower.

As an in-flight supervisor, Carole would fly once per week with the objective of observing flight attendants to make sure they were giving the best service to passengers as well as following all safety procedures, while being a United representative for all those on board. We chatted throughout the flight, and she recalled many fond memories of flying between Chicago (ORD) and Tokyo (NRT) on the Queen.

Carole explained to me that United opened up approximately 50 seats for employees on UA747; those who wanted a chance to be on the flight could enter on the airline’s internal website. The first step of getting chosen was being selected from a random lottery, and then it was narrowed down further based on the employee’s record of service with the airline.

She credits United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz, with the opportunity to be a part of such a special day. “It’s Oscar who organizes these kinds of things for employees. Any other CEO would’ve sold every seat and just taken the money,” she said. She felt very proud to be representing United as an employee on this flight, and told me that Munoz is very keen on involving employees in special events such as this to foster pride in working for the airline.

United truly went all out to give the Queen of the Skies the sendoff she deserves. For some employees on board, this flight represented the culmination of decades of hard work to keep the 747 flying in top form and for others memories of 12+ hour flights to far-away destinations. For the rest of the passengers like me, it was one helluva retirement party, which I count myself lucky to have been a part of.

For everyone on board, this flight was a reminder of why we all love flying so much — from the machine itself to the destination it transports us to, and perhaps most importantly, the journey. Farewell to the Queen of the Skies.

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