On board the inaugural United IAH-SCL flight


In a manner which only really makes sense to a very small number of people I decided to book myself a seat on the inaugural United Airlines flight form Houston to Santiago, Chile. Why? Because I like inaugural flights. Plus, I was already going to be in Texas so why not head home via South America?? I booked in to economy class way back in June and bided my time, waiting for the trip to come.

A few days before the flight I checked in with the company to see if there would be any festivities at the gate prior to the flight. I’ve experienced some spectacular displays, such as prior to the DEN-NRT inaugural, and also some relatively disappointing ones like before the HNL-IAD inaugural. I was hoping for the former and would settle for the latter. I was told to expect, at best, just a small bit of fanfare. The “big” party happened earlier in the week in downtown Houston. Bummer.

Still hoping for at least some recognition of the event I headed to the gate about 90 minutes before departure. The plane was there but the sign at the gate was blank. And no signs of any festivities anywhere. Even knowing going in that it was likely to not be much I was disappointed to learn that there was actually nothing. And by nothing I mean that until about 55 minutes prior to departure they didn’t even have the flight loaded in any of the airport display systems. The gate showed “City Test Test” as the destination and the flight wasn’t listed on any of the departures monitors. Ouch.

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Eventually they got the screen updated and started boarding the flight. At least the crew was excited about it being an inaugural flight. Several announcements were made noting the special nature of the flight and eventually we pushed back for a more-or-less on-time departure.

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As is typical for international destinations where paperwork is required the flight attendants handed out the necessary forms. It seems that United hasn’t actually produced its own yet; the arrivals docs were borrowed from Copa.

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I’d like to say that there was anything special about the flight. Like anything. But other than a few announcements from the crew it really was nothing special. I mostly just slept; I did not have either of the meals. What I saw of breakfast makes me think it is basically the same as the TATL arrivals fruit & muffin kit, which is to say not much at all.

I know I shouldn’t be disappointed to not have any celebration at all when I was told in advance that there would be none. Didn’t really help, though. I’m still disappointed.

I was intrigued to speak with one of the FAs and learn that at their seniority level the pay difference for operating IAH-SCL versus IAH-EZE comes to about $600/month (more for EZE because of the slightly longer flight times). Combined with the generally lower costs for the layover while in town and this FA indicated that they intended to try to stay on the EZE line as much as possible, even though they had some historical ties to the SCL route.

At least we got the traditional water canon salute upon arrival in Santiago.

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For the return flight I found myself in seat 1A on the 11pm departure. Due to a combination of bad planning on my part and minimal decent dining options in the terminal after immigration and security I was quite hungry and wanted a quick meal after we took off so I could try to sleep en route to Houston. I was a bit surprised that the flight attendants did not take meal orders prior to departure while we were waiting to push back; I’m quite used to that approach, especially on overnight flights.

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Eventually (30+ minutes after departure) they did take orders and I asked for the Executive Meal service. It was not at all quick, though it was the abbreviated meal version. The appetizer was fine. The steak was served missing the sauce and the cheese plate was the typical, uninspired offering. That it took nearly two hours after departure for the express version to be served was more disappointing than the mediocre meal quality, though that’s mostly about expectations. I expected the food to be what it was; I didn’t expect it to take so long to get served. And most folks were just getting their main course when I was finishing up. There is not enough food to justify it taking that long for the meal service. Especially on an overnight flight.

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Other than that the return flight was quite fine. I skipped breakfast and woke up as we descended into Houston under cover of darkness; the sun still had not come up.

Connections are easy and the flights are well timed. And the service is what it is. I’m not going out of my way to get back on board any time soon but that’s mostly because I’m not expecting to be in Chile again soon.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

9 Comments

  1. Unfortunately this is exactly what United provides, you eventually land at your destination, nothing particular about the flight impresses you, but you land alive and you’re happy about that.

    When you watch the show about BA and what the chef does w/ the crew to make sure they are plating/cooking the meals correctly and getting the meals out quickly so passengers do not have to wait, you realize United is not interested in that sort of investment in the product or the customer.

    This is another reason why I do not care about inaugural flights, basically that was a waste of 85,000ish miles.

  2. Just flew back on the SCL-IAH 11pm flight on Wednesday. I only have gold status but it should count for something. No United club in SCL and no other lounge access. I was told that only business class tickets could access the Delta lounge, which UA is temporarily sharing. Premier Access check-in line was slower than the regular line. And luggage did not get marked priority. Otherwise, flight was fine. Food, I thought, was gross.

  3. Thanks for posting the trip report and for finding something to write about in even the most mundane circumstances! I always appreciate your enthusiasm even if it isn’t reflected by the industry.

  4. I agree with Robert F. I’ve been reading your blog for a while in addition to others in BA and it’s obvious you love all parts of aviation (from destination, plane type, economy/business/first cabins, etc.)
    Was the IAH-SCL or IAH-EZE more lucrative? I wasn’t sure whether the FA’s got paid $600 more for the SCL or EZE route?
    I believe there are a few different kinds of inaugural flights. Which ones do you think is best and has the most fanfare? Inaugural flight for a new plane type ever (i.e. 787 for ANA, A380 for SQ, or the new a350 coming up in 2 weeks)? Inaugural plane type for an airline (i.e. 787 for United)? or Inaugural flight for a new route (such as the one you were on IAH-SCL)? or inaugural flight for a new plane type for an existing route (i.e. your SQ A380 flight from SFO-HKG-SIN back two years ago) ?
    Am I missing other types of inaugurals?

    1. The EZE flights are more lucrative; I’ve clarified that in the post as well.

      As for the various types of inaugurals, I don’t think there is a firm rule on which ones are more celebratory than others. The 748i inaugural with LH was a ton of fun but much of it was the night prior to the flight. The ceremony for the flight itself was in the lounge, not out at the gate. The DEN-NRT inaugural on UA was at the gate for everyone but the aircraft had been flying for a while, both with UA and other carriers. And the final flight on the MD-11 was cosponsored by KLM and the Montreal airport so it filled the gate area and then some.

      I really think it is about what the airline wants to make happen. In this case United clearly chose to not get too excited about the route. It is surprising to me given how it fills in what has been a significant hole in the route network for some time, but such is the way things go.

  5. Thank you for the report. UA BF has boiled down to the seat. It is fairly comfortable for a night flight. May not be the best in the business but it is worth the 60K or so miles you paid.

    Did you spend some time in Santiago?

  6. Heard your verbal report on SCL on DLD. Sorry you didn’t have a better time there. I’ve had really awesome experiences of Chile and Santiago, and was a little underwhelmed by Buenos Aires in comparison. In Sth America i really think having local friends / contacts on makes a massive difference. For this reason BA was to me a bit less fun. Just wanted to give a little balance to some of the Chile-bashing that sometimes gets dished out on the show.

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