The Swedish Arctic - The Hub team
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The Swedish Arctic

By The Hub team , January 25, 2017

Story by Ben Ehrenreich | Photography by Joachim Lundgren | Rhapsody, November 2016

In search of the northern lights from a base camp at the world famous Icehotel

I had always wanted to see the northern lights.

I grew up in the New York City suburbs, where the only lights in the northern sky traced the flight path to LaGuardia, JFK, or Newark International. The notion of a vast, shimmering curtain of glowing green and violet falling over the sky like the entryway to some otherwise invisible reality sounded too whimsically beautiful to exist. But it did exist. You just had to climb the globe far enough north and hope for clear skies and distant storms on the surface of the sun.So in early January, as the rest of the hemisphere longed to travel south, I flew to Stockholm, and then to Kiruna, the largest town in the Swedish arctic, a quick ride from tiny Jukkasjärvi, home of the famous Icehotel, and one of the better spots on the planet from which to view the northern lights. The thermometer read seven degrees Fahrenheit when I boarded the hotel shuttle. “Perfect weather," the driver said with a grin—the day before the low had been 40 below. It wasn't yet two in the afternoon, but the sun was already setting, a thin orange light in what the compass on my phone suggested was not the west but the southern sky. I was nearly on the top of the world, and it felt like it, the landscape a study in monochrome, snow-frosted earth and snow-heavy trees, like the top of a wedding cake.Fortunately, the Icehotel's reception area, restaurant, and half of its rooms are permanent structures, well-heated and insulated against the elements. I checked into a “warm room," furnished in sleek Scandinavian style, its walls crafted of more conventional materials than ice. The hotel's bar, chapel, and 55 of its 65 total rooms are constructed of ice and compressed snow—“snice," they call it—and built from scratch each year when the cold descends. A team of artists and builders carve blocks of ice and spray snice like stucco onto prefabricated metal forms, which are then removed, leaving behind clean, silent, cavernous halls and rooms. The whole thing is destined to melt in the spring and flow back into the river Torne, which will soon freeze again, providing ice for the hotel's future incarnations. (This month, the property is adding a new solar-powered building, Icehotel 365, which will be made of ice and snow and kept at 23 degrees year-round.) The author drives a reindeer sleigh on the frozen tundra of Jukkasjärvi. This buck proved an obstinate travel companion.

I took a quick walk through the ice rooms. The simplest were unadorned chambers of snow, like the inside of an igloo but equipped with a platform bed, blue-tinted lighting, and a government-required smoke detector. Individually titled “art suites" were more elaborate, and often extraordinary, designed by jury-selected artists flown in to sculpt in snow. Some were abstract. AnnaKatrin Kraus and Hans Aescht's The Flying Buttress, in which I would sleep two nights later, felt like the apse of a polar cathedral: Overlapping arches surrounded the bed, a square, ice-rimmed altar topped with two pillows and a reindeer hide. Some suites were whimsical, others surreal. In AnnaSofia Mååg's Elephant in the Room, a glassy, larger-than-life pachyderm stared dolefully down at the bed. Another guest room was lined with busts of dozens of blank-faced men in hats and a bas-relief turtle looking on from above. I peeked in at the chapel and caught a wedding in progress. The bride and groom wore snowsuits. They had to take off their ski gloves to exchange rings.“I was staring at electrically charged winds that had been cast out by the sun and traveled through 93 million miles of void. Or at the wandering souls of someone's ancestors. It didn't matter."That evening, I pulled on not one but two ski masks, or balaclavas—“the balaclava is your best friend," the guide assured me—and joined an expedition to seek out the northern lights by snowmobile. We set off in a long caravan, skirting the hotel compound and the few houses of Jukkasjärvi until the lights of the town disappeared. We sped along what looked like wide, flat plains—in fact it was the surface of the frozen Torne—onto a curving track through the forest. Spruce and pines rose frosted on all sides, clumps of snow staring down from their upper branches like an audience of silent ghosts. We sped across a lake, then back through the woods and over frozen marshes. It began to snow, dashing my hopes of seeing the lights, but the snow eventually stopped, as did we, at a camp of wooden cabins where our guides lit fires and heated meals of reindeer stew.The Sami people, who inhabited the Scandinavian arctic long before it was divided into nations, regarded the northern lights with appropriate awe, as visitations from the spirits of the dead. The contemporary scientific explanation is no less mystical: Charged particles are carried to Earth by solar winds and pushed by the planet's magnetic field to the poles, where they collide with atmospheric gases, producing colored lights, just as neon bulbs do when electricity passes through them. In other words, the northern lights really are a window onto an invisible reality, the unseen currents that connect us to the sun. Very rarely, they appear far to the south: Galileo saw the lights over Venice and in 1619 dubbed them aurora borealis, combining the names for the Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek god of the north wind. But the closer you get to the pole (and the farther from the artificial light of human settlements), the more likely you are to see them. After that, it's up to luck and the weather on the Earth and on the sun.The entrance to the IcehotelBy the time I'd climbed back onto the snowmobile, the sky was clear, starless, and dark, a richer and more variable black than I was used to seeing. If I stared long enough, I could imagine it was tinted red in some places and green in others, but as hard as I looked, even with my imagination on overdrive, I couldn't fool myself. There was no aurora that night.I'm not sure how it happened, but the next day I ended up driving a reindeer sleigh. The Sami, who still populate much of northern Scandinavia, run tours in Jukkasjärvi to supplement their income from herding reindeer. They roped a buck for me, harnessed it to a one-man wooden sleigh, and handed me the bridle. The reindeer was a reluctant partner in the adventure, stopping whenever it could to glare at me with dull rheumy eyes before burying its nose in the snow and snarfing whatever greens it could find frozen there. We trotted out through the woods to the river. Even absent the aurora, in the middle of the short, arctic day, the sky was magnificent, pink and gold where the sun, just risen, was already setting, the air a crisp, unearthly blue.Late that evening, I bundled up and wandered out onto the icy river. It was almost entirely overcast. Again, I imagined I saw colors in the sky, but I knew it was wishful thinking. I wanted to see “the silver dance of the mystic Northern Lights," as the British-Canadian balladeer Robert W. Service put it, “wild and weird and wan … a sight for the eyes of God." Suddenly, a sharp white light illuminated the horizon and swept the sky in a long arc, but it was only a faraway car with its high beams on. The silence was so deep that it had texture—there were whole rooms in it and long hallways connecting room to room. I wandered through them for a while. It was bitterly cold and after midnight. I went inside. I had one more night.The Elephant in the Room suiteOn my last day in Jukkasjärvi, it snowed all morning and all afternoon. I trekked down to the old church at the end of the road. It had been there for 400 years, built when the town was just a seasonal gathering place for the still-nomadic Sami. The murals behind the altar were magnificent, the colors so bright they seemed stolen from some more temperate climate. Later, I let myself be convinced to try the local sauna ritual, which involved plunging into the frigid waters of the Torne through a hole carved in the ice. I whimpered, I confess, in a most unmanly way. After an excellent dinner, warm again, I prepared myself for the night I was to spend in the cold room by heading back out to the river. (It wouldn't be necessary: The sleeping bag the hotel provided was more than warm enough.)When I reached the bank, I lay down in the snow. The sky was overcast. I stared up at the shifting clouds until a space cleared just above the horizon to the north. Suddenly, without introduction, a shimmering green light appeared in the gap beneath the cloud, growing in intensity and fading and brightening but unmistakably there, unmistakably an aurora. The silence deepened. The lights seemed to dance. I was staring at electrically charged winds that had been cast out by the sun and traveled through 93 million miles of void. Or at the wandering souls of someone's ancestors. It didn't matter. I forgot that it was cold. I forgot I had a body even. And then, as quickly as they had appeared and with as little fanfare, the lights dimmed and went away. I stood, slapped the snow from my snowsuit, and retreated to my bedroom, blue and cozy, a balmy 23 degrees.

Working to bring people home – repatriation flights underway

By The Hub team , March 26, 2020

When and where possible, we are working to repatriate travelers who are stranded abroad in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Our teams are working closely with government officials here in the U.S. as well as in other countries where flying has been restricted to gain the necessary approvals to operate service. In regions where government actions have barred international flying, we have coordinated with the the U.S. State Department and local government officials to re-instate some flights. Additionally, we have been operating several extra flights to countries in Central America and South America as we continue to play a role in connecting people and uniting the world.

This week, we are operating 21 flights from Panama City, Quito, Lima, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa and Roatan, to bring nearly 2,500 Americans home. We will continue working with government officials to operate extra flights to Houston from Quito, San Pedro Sula, Tegucigalpa and from Lima to Washington Dulles. We continue to review more opportunities for flights between the United States and other countries to bring citizens home.

Video provided by the U.S. Embassy Ecuador of Americans returning home on United.

Additionally, our Customer Solutions and Recovery team is working with customers in the following markets to rebook them on flights back to the United States as capacity allows, either on our aircraft or on one of our airline partners' planes:

  • Quito, Ecuador
  • Managua, Nicaragua
  • Roatan, Honduras
  • San Pedro Sula, Honduras
  • Amsterdam
  • Brussels
  • Munich
  • Singapore
  • Tokyo-Haneda
  • Seoul, South Korea
  • Melbourne, Australia

Map showing reinstated international flights to help bring customers home during COVID-19 crisis.

We also recently reinstated several international flights back into our schedule to support customers and essential businesses which depend on these routes. As a result, we will be the only airline to offer service between Newark/New York and London, San Francisco and Sydney, as well as Houston and São Paulo, Brazil.

Domestic and international schedule reductions

By The Hub team , March 25, 2020

While travel demand and government restrictions continue to impact our schedule, we know some people around the globe are displaced and still need to get home. While our international schedule will be reduced by about 90% in April, we will continue flying six daily operations to and from the following destinations — covering Asia, Australia, Latin America, the Middle East and Europe — in an effort to get customers where they need to be. This remains a fluid situation, but United continues to play a role in connecting people and uniting the world, especially in these challenging times. Learn more about what we're doing to keep customers and employees safe.

Flights continuing from now through May schedule:

  • New York/Newark – Frankfurt (Flights 960/961)
  • New York/Newark – London (Flights 16/17)
  • New York/Newark – Tel Aviv (Flights 90/91)
  • Houston – Sao Paulo (Flights 62/63)
  • San Francisco – Tokyo-Narita (Flights 837/838)
  • San Francisco – Sydney (Flights 863/870)

In addition to the above, we will continue to operate the following flights to help displaced customers who still need to get home. In destinations where government actions have barred us from flying, we are actively looking for ways to bring customers who have been impacted by travel restrictions back to the United States. This includes working with the U.S. State Department and the local governments to gain permission to operate service.

Atlantic

The following flights will continue through March 28 westbound:

  • New York/Newark – Amsterdam (Flights 70/71)
  • New York/Newark – Munich (Flights 30/31)
  • New York/Newark – Brussels (Flights 999/998)
  • New York/Newark – Cape Town (Flights 1122/1123)
  • Washington-Dulles – London (Flights 918/919)
  • San Francisco – Frankfurt (Flights 58/59)

The final westbound departures on all other Atlantic routes will take place on March 25.

Pacific

  • We will continue to fly San Francisco-Seoul (Flights 893/892) through March 29 and San Francisco-Tahiti (Flights 115/114) through March 28.
  • Our final eastbound departures on all other Pacific routes will take place on March 25.
  • We will maintain some Guam flights as well as a portion of our Island Hopper service.
  • Hawaii's governor issued a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine order for all travelers arriving or returning to Hawaii. Travelers must complete a Hawaii Department of Agriculture form that will be distributed on board their flight which will also include the requirements for the 14-day quarantine, as well as the penalties. You must show a government issued ID upon arrival along with your form. You can find more information on the governor's website.

Latin America/South America

  • We will continue to fly Newark/New York – Sao Paulo (Flights 149/148) through March 27 outbound.
  • The last southbound departures on most other routes will take place March 24.

Mexico

  • We will reduce our Mexico operation over the next five days. After March 24, we will maintain a small number of daytime flights to certain destinations in Mexico — more to come in the next few days.

Canada

  • We will suspend all flying to Canada effective April 1.

In destinations where government actions have barred us from flying, we are actively looking for ways to bring customers who have been impacted by travel restrictions back to the United States. This includes working with the U.S. State Department and the local governments to gain permission to operate service.

The revised international schedule will be viewable on united.com on Sunday, March 22. We will continue to update our customers with information as it's available.

If you're scheduled to travel through May 31, 2020, and would like to change your plans, there is no fee to do so, regardless of when you purchased your ticket or where you're traveling. Please visit united.com for more information, or reference our step-by-step guide on how to change your flight, cancel and rebook later.

For any customer, including residents from other countries, whose international travel is disrupted by more than six hours because of schedule changes resulting from government restrictions, they will retain a travel credit equal to the value of their ticket. That credit can be used towards any flight, to any destination, for 12 months from the time of purchase. If the customer chooses not to use the credit, they will receive a cash refund at the end of that 12-month period.We continue to aggressively manage the impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak on our employees, our customers and our business. Due to government mandates or restrictions in place prohibiting travel, we are reducing our international schedule by 95% for April. The revised international schedule will be viewable on united.com on Sunday, March 22.

Domestic schedule

We're also making changes to our domestic schedule. While we don't plan to suspend service to any single U.S. city now — with the exception of Mammoth Lakes and Stockton, CA — we are closely monitoring demand as well as changes in state and local curfews and government restrictions across the U.S. and will adjust our schedule accordingly throughout the month.

Additionally, today we announced a further reduction in our domestic schedule — the changes will result in a 52% overall domestic reduction from a previous 42%, and our overall capacity will now be down 68% overall.

Hub city Route suspensions Remaining service
Denver Arcata/Eureka
Amarillo
Kona
Kauai Island
SFO
IAH
SFO
SFO
New York/Newark Akron/Canton
Grand Rapids
Hilton Head
Honolulu
Milwaukee
Madison
Omaha
Portland, Oregon
Providence
Seattle
Salt Lake City
Sacramento
Knoxville
Fayetteville
ORD
ORD, DEN
IAD
ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO, LAX
ORD, IAH, DEN
ORD, DEN
ORD, IAH, DEN
ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO
IAD, ORD
IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO, LAX
ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO, LAX
ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO, LAX
IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO, LAX
ORD, IAH, DEN
Washington-Dulles Grand Rapids
Portland, Oregon
Sacramento
ORD, DEN
ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO, LAX
ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO, LAX
Houston Hartford
Boise
Grand Rapids
Lexington
Ontario, California
Palm Springs
San Jose, California
Akron/Canton
Reno
IAD, ORD, DEN
ORD, DEN, SFO, LAX
ORD
ORD, DEN
IAD, ORD
DEN, SFO
DEN, SFO, LAX
DEN, SFO
DEN
Los Angeles Arcata/Eureka
Austin
Boston
Baltimore
Bozeman
Cleveland
Kona
Kauai Island
Orlando
Madison
Kahului
Redding
Reno
San Antonio
St George
SFO
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO
ORD, IAH, DEN
DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO
SFO
SFO
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN, SFO
ORD, DEN
DEN, SFO
SFO
DEN, SFO
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
DEN
Chicago Asheville
Bismarck/Mandan
Bozeman
Kearney
Panama City
Eugene
Fresno
Spokane
Hilton Head
Wilmington
Jackson
Kahului
Palm Springs
Reno
San Jose
Valparaiso
IAD
DEN
DEN
DEN
IAH
DEN, SFO, LAX
DEN, SFO, LAX
DEN, SFO
IAD
IAD
IAH
DEN, SFO
DEN, SFO, LAX
DEN, SFO
DEN
IAH
San Francisco Atlanta
Nashville
Baltimore
Bozeman
Columbus
Detroit
Fort Lauderdale
Indianapolis
Kansas City
Madison
New Orleans
Omaha
Philadelphia
Pittsburgh
Raleigh/Durham
San Antonio
St Louis
Tampa
Fayetteville
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
ORD, IAH, DEN
DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
ORD, DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
ORD, IAH, DEN
ORD, IAH, DEN
ORD, IAH, DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
EWR, IAD, ORD, IAH, DEN
ORD, IAH, DEN

United’s cargo-only flights: getting critical goods to people and businesses who need them most

By The Hub team , March 22, 2020

We have begun flying a portion of our Boeing 777 and 787 fleet as dedicated cargo charter aircraft to transfer freight to and from U.S. hubs and key international business locations. The first of these freight-only flights departed on March 19 from Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD) to Frankfurt International Airport (FRA) with the cargo hold completely full, with more than 29,000 lbs. of goods.

Getting critical goods into the hands of the businesses and people who need them most is extremely important right now. To support customers, employees and the global economy, we will initially operate a schedule of 40 cargo charters each week targeting international destinations and will continue to seek additional opportunities.

With coronavirus (COVID-19) creating an increased need to keep the global supply chain moving, we are utilizing our network capabilities and personnel to get vital shipments, such as medical supplies, to areas that need them most.

"Connecting products to people around the world is the United Cargo mission," said United Cargo President Jan Krems. "That role has never been more crucial than during the current crisis. Our team is working around the clock to provide innovative solutions for our customers and support the global community."

On average, we ship more than 1 billion pounds of cargo every year on behalf of domestic and international customers. For more information, visit unitedcargo.com.

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