Low Cost vs Legacy, Southwest vs United LAX-SFO


As soon as I purchased my tickets to LAX, I began to wonder what I could do with my time in USA. Obviously, flying was something which was inevitable as I wanted to try some airlines. I had some wacky plans written up all over my desk pad and ideas ranged from flying to Seattle, Vancouver, Denver, Las Vegas, San Diego and Phoenix. In the end, I opted for the easiest option – direct to San Francisco and back, partially due to the fact that it was Thanksgiving week, apparently the busiest travelling week of the year.

I was given some suggestions to try out a legacy airline as well as a low cost carrier so in the end, I settled with Southwest up to San Francisco and United on the return leg (for the 757) after tossing Virgin America and American Airlines into the mix.

Welcome to my 18th trip report. This covers my return trip to San Francisco from Los Angeles with some shots from San Francisco between the flights.

There are tonnes of flights between the two major cities in California. Legacy airlines compete with so called ‘low cost carriers’ these days. Booking processes are amazingly much easier on the budget airlines with both VX and WN willing to accept my non-US credit card. It’s bemusing to think why UA and AA didn’t accept credit cards outside of USA – this move sent me to Travelocity in order to book my UA flight. It’s definitely something they need to change.

So the day came for my first taste of a domestic flight within USA. A few clicks on the Southwest website was all I needed to print my boarding pass. A 28 minute drive from where I was staying in Santa Monica to the airport didn’t seem to take too long. As we approached the terminal area, there were a few police cars at the entrance just keeping an eye on things and waving most cars through to the concourse. Southwest use Terminal 1 at LAX – very handy as it’s the first stopping point! From what I’ve noticed, the terminals seem to be quite like Australia – there’s nothing but check in desks landside and a handful of shops airside. But absolutely nothing to do landside - not what I'm used to. With no bags to check and my boarding pass in hand, all that was left to do was to clear security. After hearing about the constant whining of people about the TSA agents and this whole body scanning saga, I was wondering what to expect. For US domestic flights, you have to show some kind of ID – for foreigners, a passport is basically the only acceptable form of ID. The TSA agent checking my ID was extremely kind by wishing me a good flight and also called me by my name. It was a great touch – something that was completely unexpected; as I had expected to be handled in a way which was similar to Youtube clips and news items I had seen. I didn’t see any body scanners. It wasn’t as stressful as I had imagined it would be but there was nobody telling you what to do and it seemed protocol to take your shoes off for the x-ray. It only took 10 minutes to clear security and I entered what was a packed departure area in Terminal 1.

I was a bit apprehensive at first about taking photos. You never know if someone is going to report you just because there’s this huge camera you’re using to take photos.

Busy apron!

Not many free seats around

Further down was packed too

US Airways also use this terminal

We were assigned Gate 4B initially but our flight was delayed so later on there was a PA announcement that the gate had changed to the opposite side. Immediately, there was a migration of people heading to the new gate lounge sitting opposite the original gate. The flight was scheduled to depart at 1250 and they later expected a 1335 departure as the plane was late coming in from Phoenix. Boarding started at 1320.

The boarding process at Southwest is very interesting. It is not the conventional way where you’d be given a seat on the boarding pass. Nor is it a free-for-all scramble to get the best seats you can. It’s a very orderly process. When you check in, they provide you with a boarding number and letter. It is done in blocks of 30 so you’d be issued A, B or C with a number between 1 and 30. 15 passengers board at once and they stand along the line in numerical order. The letter of the boarding group displays on the screens to inform you of where they’re up to. The first to check in generally speaking get first priority with seating. I was given B17 which meant I was the 47th person to board the flight.

The signs that you stand next to before boarding

Flight Information

22 November 2010
Routing: Los Angeles - San Francisco (LAX-SFO)
Airline: Southwest Airlines
Flight: WN166 (Flight originates from PHX)
Scheduled Time of Departure: 1250hrs
Actual Departure: 1339hrs (pushback), 1348hrs (rotate)
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 1405hrs
Touchdown: 1445hrs
Flight time: 1hr 6 min
Aircraft: Boeing 737-300 (-3H4)
Registration: N357SW
Seat: 21A

Southwest have a huge fleet of 547 737s [as of September 2010]. This 737-300 was delivered on the 27th May 1992. It is among one of 173 733s in the fleet. I find it amazing that Southwest can do so much with just 737s. WN have fitted blended winglets on all their 733s and it’s pretty hard to distinguish between a 737-300 and a 737-700 at a glance!

The boarding process would work a little better if everyone was ready and in line. Your boarding pass gets taken off you and subsequently scanned at the gate. The boarding process itself was pretty slow, mainly due to the unassigned seating and also the fact that people preferred the front part of the cabin. It’s something that strikes me – people would rather take a prisoner seat up in rows 5-10 instead of going further back down the plane and getting an empty seat next to them. Anyway, that was the case for my flight. I took the window like usual and someone came to sit on the aisle but nobody filled the gap.

My seat

The legroom is extremely good – probably 33 inches. Very generous, especially for such a short flight. Apparently the seats are narrower than seats further forward according to Seatguru.com but it felt fine, especially as the seat next to me was empty. The seat itself was pretty hard, especially around the lumbar area. There was barely any recline given but who needs that when there is ample legroom? The tray table was fixed but barely needed. The air vents were blowing really hard.




The flight attendants came through the cabin before pushback taking drink orders which seemed very efficient. I ordered a coke. Pushback finally occurred with the pilots reporting we’d be cruising at 34,000ft. It was the shortest taxi of my life to the active runway, Runway 24L; where we waited for 5 minutes before taking off. The crew were excellent – very chatty and extremely funny. I guess that made up for the lack of singing or whatever else they usually do onboard..

The short taxi

Looking back at the terminals

Lining up 24L

QF A380s still there..

Climbing, VA 77W below

And heading out over the Pacific Ocean

Anyway we took off in a two-stage climb. We crossed back over land over Santa Barbara and banked due north. Drinks were brought around 15 minutes into the flight in trays holding 12 cups. It seemed as though each flight attendant was assigned to 7 or 8 rows each to serve the drinks and there was a little wait before they got to delivering my drink.

Tray table

Santa Barbara below

Over Santa Maria

So finally the drinks reached my aisle. I was a little disappointed to find out that there was quite a bit of ice in the cup (the cup itself was tiny) I ended up trying to melt the ice and drink the water after I was done with the coke. 2 packs of peanuts were also given out – each sachet enough for a handful. Better than nothing though, I must say. Later on, the flight attendant in my area went around asking if anyone wanted more to drink so I happily accepted and ordered another coke. The service was great for such a short flight – 2 drink runs and a couple of rubbish collections. There was a strange screeching sound throughout the flight – I never figured out what it was because I’d never heard such a noise on a 737 before. Sooner or later, descent started. We banked right over Monterey.

Cup of Coke


Enjoying the view, over Carmel-by-the-Sea

Approach over San Jose

Foster City

We touched down a good 40 minutes after our scheduled arrival. It took 8 minutes to get to into the gate from the runway after a short wait for our gate to vacate and then we waited a bit longer to disembark.

Short final to 28L

Slowing down

The security line at SFO looked much longer than at LAX but I was going landside so it didn’t bother me. I headed up to the Airtrain to make my way to the BART which took me into the city center. The Aitrain is an awesome fully automated train which takes passengers around the terminals and also to the carparks and the BART station. SFO has been designed very well.

Airtrain Station

A bit of spotting from the Airtrain stations –KL MD-11

Qantas 747-400 and Rolls Royce. Need I say more, other than how amazing it is that it’s flying? ;)

International Terminal – EK 77W and NZ 772

The BART is an easy way to get into the city from the airport. It doesn’t take too long either and frequencies are generally quite good.

Here are some shots from my time in San Francisco:

San Francisco Town Hall

The Painted Ladies at Alamo Square

Powell Station

Cable Car

On the cable car

Passing close to parked cars.. And a great view!

Lombard Street

Turnaround point

I hired a bike and decided to bike up to the Golden Gate Bridge.

Alcatraz Island

Golden Gate Bridge

Looking back to the city

It’s not hard to see that this was a huge engineering feat

Looking across at the Oakland Bay Bridge

It was extremely windy and quite cold on the bridge so I turned around and headed back for the city. I also decided on cycling down Lombard Street but was punished on the way up the steep hill while watching cable cars fly past, making the ascent seem so easy. It was an extremely fun cycle down the most crooked street in the world.

Bottom of Lombard Street

On The Embarcadero

San Francisco Ferry Terminal

Animals for adoption are displayed in this window at Macy’s every Christmas:

Union Square

Fishermans Wharf, Pier 39

Seafood Chowder in a sourdough bowl.. Yum!

Coit Tower

Probably the most unflattering view of the Transamerica Pyramid

The gradient of Lombard Street looks exponential!

Anyway after that, there was a mad dash to the airport to catch my flight home. The BART had announced that the next airport train was leaving in 20 minutes.. Luckily enough it was wrong and within 5 minutes, a train to the airport rolled up. I didn’t check in online because I wanted a proper boarding pass. So I made it to the self service check in counters just in time.. And to my surprise, the eve of Thanksgiving seemed quieter than a usual day at check in!

Self service check in kiosk

I was asked if I wanted to upgrade to First for US$65 which I declined because it was such a short flight. The pre-assigned seat that I chose on Travelocity remained mine and I was happy to see an empty seat in the middle.

Boarding pass

No time for anything, I headed straight through security which seemed less efficient than at LAX. Once I was through, I noticed that my flight was boarding so I made my way down the end of the pier to where my gate was.

The terminals at San Francisco are much nicer than at Los Angeles just about in every way. It feels far more spacious and updated.

I rocked up at the gate to gaze upon the first 757 I’d be flying. Very shortly after, I lined up and boarded.

Flight Information

24 November 2010
Routing: San Francisco – Los Angeles (SFO-LAX)
Airline: United Airlines
Flight: UA844
Scheduled Time of Departure: 1515hrs
Actual Departure: 1509hrs (pushback), 1523hrs (rotate)
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 1645hrs
Touchdown: 1616hrs
Flight time: 1hr 7 min
Aircraft: Boeing 757-200 (-222)
Registration: N520UA
Seat: 33F

United Airlines now operates both the 757-200 and 757-300 since the merger with Continental. Pre-merger, there were 97 752s operating for UA. In addition to the CO 757 fleet, it comes to 149. N520A first flew on the 6th September 1990.

I made my way right down the plane to my seat in row 33. It’s a really long plane but it’s a fun walk! I got to my seat to find much less legroom than what was on my Southwest flight. Seatguru says 31 inches but it felt a bit tighter than that. The seats are old and dated but surprisingly they have phones onboard. I wonder how long these will remain in the fleet because they could do with some sprucing up if they’re going to be around for a few more years to come. The recline isn’t bad though – far better than what was offered on WN.

There was this loose bit of metal that caught my attention:

Nobody was in the middle seat so it didn’t matter. So that made 3 flights on this trip where there was an empty seat next to me!

View out the window

We pushed back at 1509 and the safety video played over the extremely dated CRTs located every few rows down the aisle. In the safety video, it sounds like she says: “To use, pull the cushion from your seat, slip your arms through the strap and hump (rather than hug, as it says on the subtitles) the cushion to your chest, as shown on the safety card”. My seatmate and I had a little chuckle about that..

Anyway we continued taxiing to Runway 1L for departure. It took about 12 minutes to taxi around from Terminal 3. Being at the back of the 757 is funny when taxiing, especially when turning because it seems like you move heaps. That’s the interesting part of being in a long plane.

3 Virgins, Continental and an Air France

It wasn’t long before we took off towards the east, turning left and doing a 270 over San Francisco before heading south towards Los Angeles.


Oakland (Not Auckland!) Airport

San Francisco from the air

I must have been looking quite strange with my headset on throughout the initial stages of the flight. I was tuned into Channel 9 in the hope that they’d turn it on. Not long after takeoff, something was heard through the headset and I was overjoyed that it was Channel 9 and I was listening to the ATC! What a great early Thanksgiving gift that was.

The pilots remained quite chatty and friendly throughout the flight, keeping everyone informed of arrival time etc. The pilot who spoke to the cabin ended each announcement in an Elvis “thank you, thank you very much” which was pretty cool.

Passing Monterey

About 15 minutes into the flight, the cabin crew sprung into action with the drinks. It took a little while to reach the back of the plane where I was but it finally got there. I asked for a can of coke and the flight attendant replied, “a can of coke?”
My reply was “yes please” and he gladly handed me the full can with a cup filled with ice. The can lasted about 3 refills of the small cup.

Tray table

Can of coke

The rest of the flight went by nicely, listening to ATC, looking out the window and sipping on the coke. And just like that, it became apparent over ATC that we were getting close to LAX. I was a little surprised at how many times the pilot reconfirmed information such as cruising altitude, speed and bearing. But we got to LAX safely and that’s all that matters. Our approach took us over Santa Monica, around past the USC campus and down onto Runway 24R. My quick flight on the 757 was over – far too short though!

LAX on downwind

USC/LA Coliseum

Downtown LA

Over the 405

Over the best burger chain in the world, In-N-Out


Vacating 24R while a KL 744 is seen departing off 24L in the distance

There was a long taxi right around the terminals to the United terminal – Terminal 7. There wasn’t much activity and I was on the wrong side to see the planes docked at the terminals.

CX 777-300ER

KE 744

Pulling into Terminal 7

Docked up at Gate 72

Being at the back of the long 757, disembarkation took a while. But it was worth the wait as I snapped some nice cabin pictures. I also asked the pilots if I could take a picture of the cockpit. They said “I don’t see why not” and so I went up and took some photos. I also thanked them for turning on Channel 9 and headed down the air bridge to the terminal.




That completes this short trip report. It’s extremely hard to judge the difference the airlines on such a short flight but I was definitely impressed by both of them, after hearing so many bad things about US airlines. It could be a different story if I had bags to check in however and I think the US airlines are stupidly reducing the amount of checked luggage and making people fill up the overhead bins with ridiculously oversized bags. There might be signs around saying that there are regulations on hand luggage but it’s quite fair to say that nobody is regulating it. I thoroughly enjoyed the flights nonetheless and didn’t think too much about the security. If I faced longer lines, it could have become a problem.

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