A couple weeks ago I recorded my first ever podcast. I’m rarely convinced that anyone wants to listen to me ramble about travel so I’m always pleasantly surprised to hear that someone really does. Or at least they think people do.
And chat we did. About my trip on the Lufthansa A380 Inaugural from San Francisco, Starwood promos, American Airlines promos, United Airlines changes and many other topics. I think the best part for me was that I was learning so much throughout the conversation, even as I also got to provide some information about the service and the trip I took.
Anywho, it is a great chat with a great group of guys and well worth listening to if I do say so myself. Oh, and it is a week old. Apparently I missed it going online last week due to working too hard or something. Whoopsie.
Check it out here: http://upgrd.com/upgrd/upgrd-86-springtime-travel.html.
If you’ve got the days to spare (4 night minimum) and can find flights that work, this is a deal not to be missed. The Japan National Tourism Organization has partnered with JAL, Continental, ANA and United Airlines as well as five hotels in Tokyo to offer up a simply unbelievable package. It is pricing at $780 including all taxes and fees and includes round-trip air and four nights of hotel in Tokyo.
Considering that the best sale fares seem to hit around $575 or so adding on $200 for the hotel is a bargain unless you planned on sleeping in a plywood box like I did last time I was there. And the hotels participating appear to be pretty nice (one has rack rates over $250/night).
Availability is spotty but it is there for some departure dates. Bookings must be done through an affiliated travel agency, not online. And there are no guarantees that you’ll earn frequent flyer points on the flights as they could be considered consolidator tickets. Still, if the inventory shows up and you can spare the time this is a phenomenal deal. Plenty of time to have a blast in Tokyo.
If you need some ideas of things to do once you get there, consider these:
Today was supposed to be an easy travel day. Apparently such a thing is not possible. Just a quick hop from LaGuardia to Raleigh-Durham International Airport on American Airlines (technically American Eagle). It would involve a new line (LGA-RDU) and a new aircraft type for me (Embraer E-135). And it wasn’t even so early a departure that I’d have to wake up ridiculously early to get to the airport. An easy travel day indeed.
And then I tried to actually execute on it.
I should have known that there would be problems when it took me longer than it should have to catch a cab to the airport this morning. Or when I was in line to clear security and realized I was trying to get to the wrong secure area, meaning no access to the Admirals Club for a breakfast snack or photos for my lounge guide. Or when I ran in to irrationally slow TSA screening at the correct terminal. But I kept my high hopes right up until I got to the gate about 15 minutes prior to the scheduled departure and witnessed this:
That cannot be good.
Turns out that the flight was canceled. I have no idea why. I heard someone mention a mechanical issue but I have no idea if that’s accurate or not. With the weather (overcast and low ceilings) it wouldn’t surprise me if the flight was just scratched because it was easy to accommodate the passengers. Either way, I was now late for work in Raleigh.
The AA website was useless, displaying no updated information other than that my reservation had changed. No details about rebooking options or the fact that I had actually already been rebooked as I would later discover.
The AA 800 number was only slightly better. It informed me that I still had my original reservation and made no note of the canceled flight. It also mentioned a second flight but it was nearly impossible to get out of the IVR tree to get to an agent. After about 10 minutes I was finally queued to an agent with an estimated wait time of 16 minutes. Not getting much better.
Realizing that both the line at the counter and the phone were pretty much lost causes I briefly considered going back out to the ticket counter. As I walked in that direction I happened upon another gate that had a couple agents doing a whole lot of nothing while waiting for the flight they were working to be ready to board. About 90 seconds later I had my boarding pass in hand for the next flight out, only about 75 minutes later than the originally scheduled flight.
I have no idea why I got protected on that flight and other passengers didn’t. The gate agent (who did a yeoman’s job handling the upset customers) suggested to another passenger that it was based on status and fare paid. I had neither of those going for me (no status and a ~$130 one-way fare) but, whatever the reason, it worked. The only real problem (as much as it can be considered such) is that the new flight was on a Canadair CRJ-700 rather than the E35. I’m still missing the E35 from my collection.
Truly an uneventful flight other than the lack of apple juice in the beverage cart and a quick 1:10 later I was on the ground at the sparkling new terminal in RDU. Seriously a beautiful airport terminal, though very long to go from one end to the other and I can see how planes could get stacked up with the limited taxi-way area on the inside alley. But, still, really a pretty facility.
Just another day on the road, living the dream.
The answer to this question is probably a resounding "yes" but generally there is some need to qualify it. Crazy smart in many cases as they seem to be still making money, despite the complaints, gripes and crazy policies. And the boss certainly has a way of making noise and getting himself out in front of the cameras. Generally speaking I have no problems with their business model or approach to the game. They’re pretty up-front about all the extra fees and such and they continue to book huge volumes of passengers. But this latest move might just be a bit too much.
Thanks to the eruption of another volcano in Iceland there’s an ash cloud that threatens air traffic over Scotland. The impact last time around was enormous, with some carriers pushed out of business in part due to the costs of the flight cancelations. This time around at least one airline is fighting back. Ryanair has flown at least one aircraft through a forecast ash zone and reported no visible impact. And they’re pushing up against regulators and air traffic controllers with their intentions to fly more, even in supposedly dangerous areas.
Thus the question: Is Ryanair crazy?
Certainly the costs of not flying are huge. Particularly with the EU’s Right to Care requirements, the costs of a canceled flight are not just lost revenue or upset customers; there are significant hard costs that must be shouldered. But what are the costs of flying into such potential harm? Can they even be calculated?
The air travel industry is incredibly safe. Odds of even an injury, much less a fatality, are miniscule compared with nearly every other mode of transportation. This is almost entirely attributable to the sometimes painfully conservative approach taken to safety. Redundancies and backups are the norm, not the exception and the rules err on the side of not flying unless there is tested evidence that things are safe. The German air traffic controllers are holding to that line, refusing passage of aircraft through predicted ash zones. They are suggesting that any airline looking to make such flights provide proof that it is safe, not just that it is likely to not be dangerous. Ryanair is taking the opposite tack, suggesting that the ash issues are a "myth" and that flying is probably safe enough.
Is this simply a case of profits over safety? Or is the air travel industry too conservative to begin with? In other words, is Ryanair crazy?
And, not just to pick on Ryanair, but most other airlines are operating nearly all their flights today, too; only about 500 cancelations are expected. Still, some flights to Northern England, Scotland and Ireland are being scrapped. Unless you’re on Ryanair.
UPDATE: Despite the previous statements that they’d fly, Ryanair has succumbed to the rule of law and canceled their flights.
Following a direction from the Irish Aviation Authority Ryanair regrets that we have been forced to cancel all flights to/from Scottish Airports for the remainder of the day (24 May).
Despite Glasgow Prestwick and Edinburgh Airports being outside the ‘red zone’ on the most recent UK Met Office charts click here for details the UK Civil Authority (CAA) have decided that these charts are wrong and have closed the airspace.
Earlier today Ryanair confirmed that it operated a one hour verification flight up to 41,000 feet in Scottish airspace this morning (24th May). The aircraft took off from Glasgow Prestwick, flew to Inverness, on to Aberdeen and down to Edinburgh – all of which according to the UK Met Office charts were in the “red zone” of “high ash concentration”.
During the flight there was no visible volcanic ash cloud or any other presence of volcanic ash and the post flight inspection revealed no evidence of volcanic ash on the airframe, wings or engines. The absence of any volcanic ash in the atmosphere supports Ryanair’s stated view that there is no safety threat to aircraft in this mythical “red zone” which is another misguided invention by the UK Met. Office and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Ryanair has also received written confirmation from both its airframe and engine manufacturers that it is safe to operate in these so called “red zones” and, in any event, Ryanair’s verification flight this morning confirms that the “red zone” over Scotland is non-existent.
As part of the prize package from Lufthansa and the A380 Inaugural flight from San Francisco we were given two nights in the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof hotel. The Frankfurter Hof is arguably the flagship hotel in the Steigenberger chain. With over 130 years of history, a Michelin starred restaurant and a beautiful façade, it is readily regarded as one of the nicer properties in Frankfurt. Based on our experience there it is easy to understand why.
The property is located in the heard of the financial district, just around the corner from the Euro Central Bank headquarters and less than a kilometer from the main train station in Frankfurt. Add on the U-Bahn station just outside the front door and the location could hardly be better.
As best as I can tell the room we had was just a standard room. It was, however, anything but "standard" compared to other hotel stays I’ve had in the area. In addition to being rather large (and the fire escape map suggests that it was just the same as the others on the floor) it had a walk-in closet, high ceilings and was generally well appointed.
The room was nice without any over-the-top luxury at play. It also, as it typical of European hotels, was somewhat lacking on the air conditioning front. There was one and it mostly worked, but we had it set as cold as possible and with the fan on high and it barely cooled off the room; It was only in the mid-70s outside. Were it the middle of the summer I’d be worried about just how warm the rooms would get. Yes, this is typical, but I’d still be wary of it. The windows do open which can help with the ventilation if the weather isn’t too muggy.
Our room rate also included complimentary breakfast. I’m not usually a breakfast person and when we missed it the first day because of jetlag I wasn’t all that broken up over it. When we woke up early the second morning before our flight home and did have time to dine I immediately regretted having missed it the day prior. For starters, the listed rate for breakfast was €32. I don’t know of any breakfast that is actually worth $50 and I’d never actually pay that, but if it is included in the room rate then why not, right? It was definitely worthwhile.
They had American (omelet bar, bacon, etc.), European (sliced meats & cheeses, breads, etc.) and Japanese (noodle bar, soup, etc.) options available. In addition to the traditional smoked salmon they had a house-cured gravlax; it was delicious. Plenty of fruit and other light options, too. Oh, and sekt. Lots and lots of sekt. We were in a hurry and there was plenty more in the Senator Lounge when we got to the airport so I wasn’t too disappointed at only getting a couple glasses in during breakfast, but it was a nice accompaniment to the great food being served up.
I certainly would not go so far as to consider the Hof a luxe property. Luxurious in many ways, but not luxe. Still, it has a sort of old-world style about it that makes it quite the lovely place to stay. Things like live jazz music on the patio in the afternoon for snacks or cocktails. Those bits add up to make for a wonderful hotel experience.
And, needless to say, it was a much nicer hotel than I would have had were I paying for my room.
United Airlines has finally stepped up in the ever escalating battle over the San Francisco/Los Angeles-Chicago market, adding a targeted double EQM promotion for locals flying between those cities. The new promotion, however, has sufficient fine print that it isn’t nearly as good a deal as it could have been or that American Airlines is offering. The promotion is valid through the end of August 2011.
Like usual, United is only offering the bonus to itineraries ticketed after the bonus was announced (19 May 2011). This is unfortunate but given the goal of driving new revenue it is somewhat understandable. And the offer is targeted at Mileage Plus members living in California and Illinois only. Also restrictive but most promotions are more targeted than not these days so not particularly surprising. The other significant clause, however, is much more limiting:
Offer valid on nonstop flights between Chicago O’Hare (ORD) airport and Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO), on roundtrip itineraries for travel solely between Chicago O’Hare and Los Angeles (LAX) or San Francisco (SFO) and not on any connecting or additional city on the ticket.
That last bit is pretty severe. Historically this sort of promotion has been available so long as the passenger is flying between the cities mentioned, even if they continue onwards at one end or the other. By setting up the rules this way United is effectively increasing the costs of participating in the promotion. Hard to blame them for trying to be as specific as possible in rewarding targeted behavior, though it does mean that the promo is not nearly as useful for many folks.
Registration is required: http://united.com/offer/mpd771.
It isn’t often that an airline gets the opportunity to establish a brand name for themselves so the stakes are rather severe when they do. In the case of JetBlue there have been a number of hints since the TrueBlue program re-launched that some sort of recognition would be coming down the pike for the very frequent customers, akin to the elite status offered by other programs. There are still no formally announced plans for such a program but there are a lot of hints out there that it is coming. So it is time to come up with a name.
According to at least one source there are at least three names being considered and, well, I’m not entirely convinced that any of them evoke a sense of loyalty or recognition that I’d be excited about. The choices being reported are:
I actually thought that last one was a joke but apparently it is not, though I still think it should be. These are two of the responses of friends to the suggestion of that name:
I would make fun of them, mercilessly..
I would think that the airline was being run by teenaged girls.
I cannot argue those points at all.
Hopefully they come up with some better ideas before the product launches.
UPDATE: An insider has informed me that none of these are actually in line to be the name of the new program and it was more a test balloon to see how folks will react to the program concept. A name will be forthcoming from a different set of choices.
UPDATE: The folks in Chicago woke up Wednesday morning to the mess that this caused and immediately issued apologies and stated their intentions to fix it. All’s well that ends well, I suppose.
The integration progress between Continental and United Airlines is pushing ahead with great speed and things are changing near everywhere you look. Today those changes included the announcement of mostly aligned standby policies which is no big deal. It also included an update to some flight numbers, including a couple codeshares.
Normally I don’t care about the flight numbers; what difference does it make to me if it is flight 8 or 88 or 888? But this change is different. This change is going to rile a lot of folks up. This change has UA 93 and UA 175 back in service for the first time in just under 10 years.
Sure, there are only a limited number of flight numbers available, but they really do not need all 10,000 of them. And it is a codeshare, not actually operated by United. But certainly these two could remain retired. Putting them back in service is a horrible move and shows a complete lack of sympathy and respect.
Bad form, United. Bad form.
A bit of excitement coming out of Australia this morning as Qantas has announced several changes to their frequent flyer programme. Most of the changes appear to be rather beneficial to customers, particularly at the high end, but there are a couple moves that quite likely will limit earning potential in the program as well.
Perhaps most significant is that a new elite tier is being added to the program. The "Platinum One" level will require 3,600 tier points to qualify (Platinum is only 1,200) so this level is not going to be something that many folks reach. It will require 20 paid one-way trips in business class between Sydney and San Francisco or 10 paid one-way trips in first class between Sydney and London in a year to reach this level, for example. The specific details of what benefits will be included are not yet published.
In addition to the new top tier level the earning rates for travel are changing, mostly for the better. Passengers who already have elite status will see their bonus miles earning rates grow and passengers flying in premium cabins will also see the bonuses they earn grow.
||Old bonus rate
||New bonus Rate
||Old bonus rate
||New bonus Rate
All good news, right? Well, maybe not. There is one area where the earning is going to change a bit for the worse. As explained on the announcement page:
Currently members earn a Loyalty bonus of 5,000 points for every 450 Status credits earned. Loyalty bonuses will be calculated this way only until 30 November 2011.
From 1 December 2011, Members will earn a Loyalty bonus of 8,000 points for every 500 Status credits earned within a single membership year – up to a maximum of four Loyalty bonuses per membership year.
At 1 December 2011, Status credit balances relating to the calculation of the Loyalty bonus will be adjusted to recognise only those earned within the member’s current membership year. Status credits earned in previous membership years will not be recognised in the calculation of Loyalty bonus after 1 December 2011.
Not a huge devaluation there, though the 4x maximum annually seems a bit limiting. Those passengers aren’t even at the top tier level (only 2000 tier points, just over half way to Platinum One) and they no longer will be earning the Loyalty bonus points.
Overall it would appear that these enhancements are actually that, changes that make the program better. It certainly is nice to see that happening in an industry where program devaluation seems to be more the norm lately.
A few weeks back Lufthansa held a contest via Twitter and FaceBook to give away seats on their inaugural flight of an Airbus A380 from San Francisco to Frankfurt. Given that I like to travel and I like to do it for free I entered. And I lost. But my friend Scott won and it was a trip for two so guess who eventually got the text message asking if I was available to go to Germany on May 10th? This guy!
A quick hop (as much as a transcon can be) from JFK to San Francisco had me out there in plenty of time to see the plane arrive in from Frankfurt and to join the party that the San Francisco Airport and Lufthansa hosted out in the Bayfront Park, just off the airport grounds. It was a surprisingly solid crowd out to welcome the first regularly scheduled A380 service to SFO.
They had box lunches and picnic blankets that they were giving away as well as a raffle to win free tickets and a trivia contest to win other toys. I didn’t win the raffle but, well, apparently I’m loud enough that I managed to win at least one of the trivia question toys. And I am pretty sure I got a few other answers right but no big deal.
After the party outside the airport we headed back into the terminal to the official party being hosted near the boarding gates. This one was a bit harder to attend as it was officially only for press and other invited dignitaries. Such limitations are trivial to me, however, and I managed to negotiate for access to the party for all three of us. Some good snacks and more cool toys (I seriously almost needed an extra bag to bring all the good stuff home), plus getting to catch up with a bunch of my Lufthansa friends. All good things.
Finally it was time to board and begin the long flight over to Germany. Boarding was, not surprisingly, a bit of a mess. Getting 500+ people onto a plane is always a bit of a challenge, even with three jetbridges in use on two different levels. And the walk to our seats (4th row from the back) was a long one. Still, we got into our seats, stowed our bags and started to make friends with the flight attendants and other passengers with whom we’d be spending the next 12 hours or so.
Part of my "settling in" process at my seat was to unpack the blanket I brought with me for the trip. I acquired it from United Airlines on my flight from JFK earlier that morning and it is wonderfully comfortable. It was also still in the plastic wrap when I put it down on my seat and headed to the back galley area to chat. Imagine my surprise a few minutes later when I returned to my seat to find that the blanket was missing. Sortof.
It seems that my seatmate also noticed that the blanket was really nice and she figured it was fair game since it was still wrapped up. Oopsie. I don’t know that I’ve had a more awkward conversation with a total stranger before this one, trying to explain that it was a blanket that I had rightfully stolen and that I’d like it back. On the plus side, we did chat off and on the rest of the trip so it was a decent icebreaker.
The rest of the flight was surprisingly uneventful. The meal was fine and the open bar was well stocked and free flowing. I did discover that I was unable to get my "favorite" beverage – Fernet Branca – as it is only available in business class. I had to make do with the brandy that they were serving in coach instead. And then I slept. Even wedged into an economy seat and even all the way in the back of the plane I managed to get a solid 6 hours of sleep. That’s definitely an advantage of the longer flights from the West coast; on a flight out of JFK sleeping 6 hours would have me in the hangar after they finished unloading and cleaning the plane.
Overall it was a great trip and a ton of fun. Plus we had 2 days in Frankfurt lined up for more grand adventures!