CHICAGO — One of the meanest things the "new" United Airlines did after Southwest Airlines won the right to fly to international destinations out of Hobby Airport was cancel nonstop service from Houston to Paris.
Now if travelers want to fly from the Bayou City to the City of Light on United, they have to change planes in Newark, Washington, D.C. or Chicago. Air France flies directly from Bush Intercontinental to Charles de Gaulle, but for those like me scrambling to keep United frequent flyer status for a little longer before deciding whether to give up on the airline entirely, scouring for United options remains a priority.
I wondered, what would the Dreamliner be like in coach?
When planning a trip to Paris to cover next week's Liaisons au Louvre Trois, the big fundraiser for the famed French museum hosted by Becca Cason Thrash that is enticing 50 or so Houstonians to cross the pond for the festivities, I was just about to make a reservation on Air France, when I looked on the United website one more time and found a route that sealed the deal.
I could connect through Chicago to Paris by taking the new 787 Dreamliner from Houston. Of course, it meant a four-hour layover in Chicago to catch the Paris flight, which isn't on a Dreamliner, but I jumped at the opportunity. I've been obsessed with the Dreamliner and wondered if could put some romance back in flying — even on a 2-hour-18-minute excursion to the Windy City.
My buddy, the road warrior Jane Howze, wrote about flying on the Dreamliner late last year (she even sat in the cockpit) before the plane was removed from service for a few months due to battery problems. But she flew first class, where each cubicle is the size of a small house.
I wondered, what would it be like in coach?
Big overhead bins
I wasn't a happy camper after going through a long, slow-moving line at security and arriving at the gate to see boarding in five separate groups. However, the plane, which seats 203 passengers, filled up amazingly quickly (a flight attendant said it really helps to have two aisles instead of only one) and, even though the plane was packed, there was room to spare in the oversized overhead bins.
(A flight attendant noted that each bin holds four sizeable roller carry-ons when each piece is turned on its side. "It allows us to accommodate all of your carry-ons," he said. I thought I was dreaming, as I tried to recall when was the last time I heard those words on an airplane. Never, I concluded.)
"It allows us to accommodate all of your carry-ons," he said. I thought I was dreaming, as I tried to recall when was the last time I heard those words on an airplane.
At just over 6 feet tall, I could stand in the aisle and have another foot-and-a-half to spare before touching the ceiling. And once in my seat, which I later found out was Economy Plus with a little more room, I found that I could cross my legs without having to stick my foot out in the aisle as I have do on most United flights. And when the person in front of me reclined her seat, it didn't come within inches of my face as it does on most flights.
(After the flight ended I went into the Economy section a few rows back and tested the seats, and they, too, seemed much roomier than most airplanes.)
The woman next to me noted that each seat contained a blanket and pillow. "On all other planes, they make you ask for this stuff," she said.
No wonder everyone seemed so happy on this flight. Even the flight attendants seemed to be having a good day.
Before we took off, the lead flight attendant was practically giddy as he urged us to take out our cameras to capture a light test, in which neon-colored lights raced through the plane in a kaleidoscope of colors as the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey played on the intercom.
The windows of the plane are tinted green, which gave me the uneasy feeling that I was underwater, and while we idled on the runway, a high-pitched noise pierced my eardrums. (Fortunately it went away, once the plane moved.)
Except for a bumpy landing in Chicago, the flight was exceptionally smooth, and I felt better than I usually do at the end of most flights. United touts the Dreamliner's new air filtration system and a lower cabin altitude that allows passengers to absorb more oxygen on the flight, resulting in fewer headaches and less fatigue, and I think there may be something to it.
Room for sex
Among other features, the lavatories are big enough to have comfortable sex in (not that I wanted to join the Mile High Club on this flight), and when you flush the toilet the lid goes down automatically.
As on most United flights, soft drinks were free and snack boxes were available for purchase. (I remain partial to the Tapas snack box.)
Each seat in coach came with free headsets and an abundance of viewing choices (I watched an episode of The Big Bang Theory with Mandarin subtitles and the finale of 30 Rock). These and other freebies are obviously meant for international travelers, where most of the Dreamliner planes will soon be headed.
But for now, you can fly the Dreamliner between Houston and other United hubs like Chicago, Denver and Newark. If you're going to any of those cities soon, I suggest you give the Dreamliner a try. A Houston-Lagos international flight is slated to begin in August.
Plus, I found something else really reassuring about the Dreamliner — all of the the metal bins in the galley are still marked with the Continental name.
My only problem now: I'm waiting on the flight from Chicago to Paris on a more traditional plane — the 767. My Houston to Chicago flight is only a dream.
But it was good while it lasted.