Newark Liberty to Milan Malpensa on United 968

First in a series on Lombardy, Italy

The Drive to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR)

After Snagging a Great Fare for an Italy Getaway, I planned a short trip to Lake Como and Milan.  The afternoon of April 9 we drove up to Newark, NJ.  I’m a big fan of using public transit, but Amtrak (a steep $104/person or 8000 Guest Rewards points RT) didn’t have a convenient schedule for the flight and using SEPTA and New Jersey Transit would have doubled the transit time from two to four hours.  E-ZPass gives a slight discount on the New Jersey Turnpike.  Roundtrip tolls from Delaware to EWR including the Delaware Memorial Bridge on the way back comes to $25.30.  I examined various off-airport parking options at Cheap Airport Parking and eventually settled on SNAP, which had good reviews.  At $57.69 for five days, SNAP was about $10 more than other off-airport parking options, but its valet parking in a secure garage appealed to us.  EWR’s environs aren’t great areas and Newark’s crime rate is legendary.  SNAP provides clear directions for a confusing series of interchanges.  Check-in was quick and painless and they shuttled us the 5-10 minute drive to the airport.

This was our first time flying out of EWR.  Despite the lackluster reputation New York-area airports have, our airport experience was pretty good.  It had been eight years since I’d flown United internationally.  I was surprised the night before when we’d been unable to check-in online unless we downloaded the United app to scan our passports, but we still got boarding group 3 checking-in in person.  Check-in at the automated kiosks was fast and painless (especially compared to a 45-minute ordeal that was checking in at MXP on the way back despite a short line).  Security took about 20 minutes- half the lanes were closed initially but it sped up after they reopened.  We got a snack while waiting for boarding to begin.  Although there were lanes for each boarding group, they were quite short and as is normally the case the boarding area got quite cluttered.

United's From the Flight Deck
United’s From the Flight Deck

From the Flight Deck – the old “Channel 9”

It was nice to be flying on a Boeing 777 for the first time since 2007.  Most of my long-haul flights since then have been out of my home airport PHL on US Airways, which doesn’t use them.  I settled into 36A, just behind the Economy Plus section and exit door.  The seats were comfortable enough and had enough legroom that I was satisfied I hadn’t splurged for Economy Plus.  The promised electrical outlets were nowhere to be seen.  I was pleasantly surprised to see “From the Flight Deck” among the audio options.  It had been years since I’d taken a long-haul flight on United and last I heard the old United Channel 9 was in danger of going the way of the dinosaur.

It was interesting to compare the emergency services communications procedures I was familiar with to aviation.  When repeating instructions back to the ground, the pilots always give their call sign at the end of the transmission rather than the beginning.  I know of one and only one EMT in the county who transmits this way- I wonder if he has an aviation background.  In some ways it was more casual- no ten codes, and both pilots and ground controllers give a greeting when entering the particular region (and who knew that “Good day” would be as common a salutation as “Good afternoon” in North American airspace?).  Somehow I can’t picture the emergency services adopting similar procedures.

Engine 9-3: “New Castle Departure, Echo 9-3 heavy.  Responding to incident at 100 East Main Street, Elkton at flight level zero.  Good day.”

Fireboard: “Good day, Echo 9-3 heavy.  Contact Cecil Center on Tac 6.”

Engine 9-3: “Tac 6, Echo 9-3 heavy.  Good bye.”

Fireboard: “Good bye.”

as opposed to

Engine 9-3: “9-3 responding with four personnel.”

Fireboard: “9-3, 2023 [hrs].  Tac 6.”

One thing I had to admire was the pilots repeating all instructions back to the ground.  On occasion the controller would correct a digit or letter.  It’s a smart practice to prevent mistakes in a potentially unforgiving field.

Sunset over Connecticut.  Lowell Silverman photography, 2015
Sunset over Connecticut. Lowell Silverman photography, 2015

Heading to the Atlantic

Although we pushed back from the gate on time, there was quite a bit of congestion on the ground and we didn’t take off for almost an hour.  Once we did, I could see there were another seventeen aircraft of all sizes (and another two probably on the way) waiting on the taxiway parallel to our  runway.  The flight crew announced that they would try to make up some time in the air but anticipated we would arrive 20 minutes later at MXP.

No matter how many times I fly, I still marvel at how in three minutes you can go from the dreariest of days to bright sunshine above the cloudbank. We enjoyed a brief sunset over the sea of clouds covering Connecticut.  This was my first time requesting a special meal on a flight since it was still the week of Passover.  Now I see why some travelers who don’t practice swear by Kosher meals.  Not only were we served a good fifteen minutes before the rest of Economy, but the meal was quite good.  Sweet & Sour Asian Chicken, sweet potatoes, and carrot salad along with some dry cake (as Passover baked goods often are).  My compliments to Regal Meal out of Jamaica, NY for a job well done- though our return flight’s meal outdid them-Stogel Kosher Catering out of Antwerp, Belgium provided a veritable feast of chicken, salmon, two kinds of vegetables, matzah, and two desserts!  (It wasn’t even Passover by that point but the meals they already had wouldn’t keep until next year.)

I’ve never managed to sleep on overnight flights to Europe, and this case was no different despite having brought my trusty NEMO Equipment Inc. Fillo travel pillow.  In the darkness over the Atlantic west of Ireland, I was surprised when we banked to the right slightly and another jet passed very close and slightly above, its contrails clearly visible despite the dark.  It appeared our flights had intersecting flight paths, ours heading southeast and this one heading northeast.  I was surprised that over the Atlantic two flights could come so close.  I didn’t have my headphones in and have no idea if the turn was because the other aircraft was getting too close, or whether the other plane and ours were appropriately separated by altitude and it merely looked close.  I would suspect the latter was the case, since I assume that given the intersecting flight paths an altitude change rather than a change of heading would have been in order to prevent a collision.

Normandy bathed in morning light
Normandy in morning light

Morning in Europe

We passed south of the Irish coast and over Cornwall, England before crossing into French airspace.  The clouds above Normandy glowed a pretty pink as the sun came up, catching a contrail from an earlier flight on the same route particularly well.  The Seine was visible at times, but the city of Paris was hidden by haze.  Our pre-arrival meal of Passover muffin and citrus cup looked considerably less appetizing than the croissants distributed to the other passengers.

Swiss Alps seen on approach to MXP
Swiss Alps seen on approach to MXP

It’s always a treat to fly over remote mountainous areas that would be difficult or impossible to visit by ground.  The modern aviation network is truly a wonder among our civilization’s greatest accomplishments.  The unintended effect is that more people than ever before have the chance to experience a grand tour of Earth’s wonders from a vantage point that a century ago would have been virtually inaccessible to even the wealthiest.  Of course, even now it amazes me how few people look out the window when we pass over such natural wonders as the Swiss Alps.  Next time I fly into MXP in the morning, however, I should try to get a seat on the right side of the aircraft.  Seated on the left, the landscape was sometimes a bit obscured by haze lit up by the morning sun and by flare on the windows.

United 968 landing at MXP
United 968 landing at MXP

Despite the delay getting off the ground at EWR, the flight crew managed to keep their promise to try to make up the time in flight.  We landed at 8:23am local time.  We got to the gate in about eight minutes and got off the plane at 8:40am, the same as the scheduled arrival time.  There does seem to be a lot of padding in international flight itineraries, but you’ll never hear me complaining about getting off the plane at the exact time we’re supposed to arrive.  We got through passport control in less than ten minutes but had to wait another twenty for my suitcase to come through baggage claim.  We hurried downstairs to Malpensa’s train station.

Train from Malpensa Aeroporto to Como Lago

In the United States, airport train stations are a bit of a rarity.  Amtrak stops at BWI, Newark Liberty, Milwaukee, and Burbank; commuter railroads stop at a few more like Philadelphia and Denver.  Fortunately, in Europe many airports have rail links, including Malpensa.  I’d printed out various rail itineraries in advance and if we missed the 9:19am train we’d have to wait an hour for the next.

I’m not the first to point it out, but the credit cards companies who use Chip+Signature as a selling point claiming it is useful abroad are full of it.  At automated kiosks like in train stations, only cards with a PIN will be accepted, and the one at the airport did not take cash.  There was a ticketing agent but the line was too long for us to make a train in five minutes. Fortunately, from prior research and experience on my last visit to Italy I knew I could use my debit card at the machine- since it has a PIN, it’s accepted even though it has a magnetic strip and not a chip.  I had to pay a small foreign transaction fee that only amounted to 60 cents on a small charge like this.  (Every other transaction at places which accepted credit cards, I was able to use my Chip+Signature credit card which has no foreign transaction fees.)  We raced downstairs and made it on board the Malpensa Express with about a minute to spare.

Malpensa Express at Saronno
Malpensa Express at Saronno

The Malpensa Express has two destinations.  Some trains go to Milano Centrale, the main Milan rail hub, a scheduled 52 minute journey.  Other trains go to Milano Cadorna (labeled Milano Nord Cadorna on Trenitalia’s website – possibly because it is a station on Trenitalia affiliate Trenord) in 35 minutes.  Downtown Como is served by two train lines from Milan.  One line runs from Milano Centrale to Como San Giovanni and continues north to Switzerland.  The other line runs from Milano Cadorna and terminates at Como Lago station.  Como Lago (labeled Como Nord Lago on the Trenitalia website) is right in the downtown area, close to the funicular and ferries.  San Giovanni is perhaps ten minutes’ walk west of the heart of the city.

The fastest route from Malpensa to Como by train is to take the Malpensa Express only as far as Saronno and transfer to a train heading north to Como Lago.  With transfer the journey is about 1:15 to 1:30.  Continuing to Milano Centrale and taking another train to Como S. Giovanni takes about 1:48 to 2:00 with transfer, because downtown Milan is considerably further south.  Once the train got underway, I briefly wondered if I’d made a mistake because the overhead display indicated the train was “Diretto” to Milano Centrale.  As it turned out, it’s the same as airline terminology, where “direct” does not mean the same thing as non-stop.  We got off at Saronno and had some time to kill before transferring trains.  Curiously, the ticket validation machine at Saronno did not seem to be working.

In Italy, as with some other European countries, it seems that conductors only occasionally collect tickets.  Tickets for local train tickets without seat reservations are not assigned to a particular regional or suburban train and could be used on any similar train along that route until the expiration date.  As a result, the company requires you to validate your ticket on the platform which encodes a date stamp on the ticket.  Reportedly, if a ticket collector finds you on board a train without a validated ticket, you will be fined severely.  (On a previous trip to Italy, I was in the same car with some German or Swiss tourists and the ticket collector didn’t hassle them beyond telling them to validate their tickets in the future.)  Anyway, an employee at the ticket window told us not to worry about the machine not working.  We didn’t have our tickets collected on the train anyway.

The train to Como Lago was a modern looking bi-level commuter train.  It wasn’t really designed for travelers- the overhead luggage racks were too small for our carry-on sized suitcases.  A young man kindly gave up his seat near the staircase which, unlike the 2×2 seating everywhere else had a single seat and an empty area and room for the suitcases.  It was a nice ride with fairly rural scenery.  A lot of flowering trees were in full bloom in northern Italy.  We arrived in Como around 10:45am, passing a neat hilltop medieval tower ruin, Torre Baradello.

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