Good news, everyone. Everything is under control!
I just received an email from United Airlines updating me on the progress the company has made in the migration to a single PSS platform which occurred four weeks ago. I cannot help but think of a couple movie scenes that seem rather apropos:
To be fair, I think the situation is a bit more like the latter, than the former, but I’m not really sure that it matters much one way or the other.
Here’s a chunk of what the message includes:
As a Global Services member, you have come to deserve and expect a dependable, rewarding experience from United from end to end. We want to keep you up to date following our recent conversion to a single passenger service system, a single website and a single loyalty program. We know that our customers have experienced various issues since our system conversion. We are working aggressively to resolve the remaining issues promptly. Here is a progress update on key subjects about which we’ve heard from our customers.
Well, the good news, I suppose, is that they have identified the problems. Hopefully the solutions are coming soon. For what it is worth, my experiences actually haven’t been all that horrendous, though I suppose that’s partly because I understand the underlying platforms pretty well having been using (and abusing) them for many years now. My biggest frustration is actually CSRs who don’t understand the new policies and who are unwilling to do the leg work to figure out the changes when confronted with them. Fortunately, that resistance seems to be lessening.
Oh, and there is the bit of news that they plan to being back the bit about pending upgrade status in the future. Personally I don’t see much value in it, but I suppose enough people kvetching about it missing will see it return.
There was an interesting piece in USA Today this week about seat assignments and the ever increasing difficulty for many passengers in actually choosing seats, even on carriers which have traditionally had assigned seats for all customers. The basic premise of the piece is this:
Are some carriers intentionally holding back seat assignments, in the hope we’ll all pay for "premium" seats? It’s a fair question, and the evidence is intriguing.
It is an interesting question, to be certain. It is also somewhat surprising that it took this long to be asked, though I suppose there is something of a lag in the effects of any policy shift and the impact being felt by customers in great enough volume to rate actual reporting on the issue. The short of it is that airlines have realized that being able to have a seat assigned in advance is something that they don’t necessarily have to provide (Southwest simply doesn’t, while most other carriers do). And if it isn’t a critical component of the service then there is no real reason to give it away for free. Hello, incremental revenue!
There are two comments in the piece that I found quite surprising. The first is that it advocates simply budgeting to pay the fee rather than offering up alternative solutions. Not my approach, but I suppose for some folks it makes sense enough. More surprising, however, was the quote from Kevin Mitchell, Chairman of the Business Travel Coalition:
With yield management, consumers are aware and they know that airlines are constantly changing prices on seats. But if this is true, it is unethical—they’re grossly misleading us. The thing that I find so offensive is conveying to me that I have no options, but if I wait a week or two then I do have options.
Sorry, but I have a hard time understanding the unethical component here. Annoying? Maybe. But unethical? I think not. All passengers can still get a seat on the plane for free if they’re willing to wait. The difference is whether they are going to get the seat they want or just whatever others haven’t bought. I struggle to find an ethics argument that makes any sense in this one.
Airlines have been moving this direction for a long time. The most recent to jump in on the seat assignment fee scheme was American Airlines, back in August. United Airlines has offered a paid option for extra leg room (EconomyPlus) for years now, while US Airways charges for choosing an aisle or window seat in many cases.
Even without paying for it I got a window seat on US Airways recently, though I suppose I could have been equally unlucky and ended up in a middle; the guy sitting next to me certainly did. I don’t agree that one should necessarily budget to spend the money no matter what, but it is definitely worth at least knowing what the options are when booking a flight.
It doesn’t take much to convince me that a city might be worth visiting. In the case of Ghent it took only one word: beer. I love Belgian beers and there are plenty on offer just about everywhere in the country. I’ve visited Bruges a couple times and found it reasonable enough, and Brussels is pretty meh as a place to actually be a tourist so I was looking for a different option. Ghent was it.
There are a few churches and some other great architecture in the very compact city center so getting to see all of it was super easy. But it also wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring on this particular day. Such is life, I suppose.
Thanks to the advice of a certain otter I ended up in a great little pub, De Trollenkelder, which offered up a book full of choices for what I wanted to drink. I only regret that I had a scant few hours and a single liver available during the visit.
As I sat in the pub, enjoying my Trappist Ales, I realized that the "usual" stuff in town really didn’t do much for me. Certainly not as much as the phenomenal beer did. Among the few I tried were the Westmalle dark and St. Idesbald Dubbel. The latter is served (if you’re willing to annoy your bartender by ordering it in the traditional manner) in a ceramic bowl rather than a glass. A bit strange, and I’m not sure that it did anything useful to the flavor, but it was quite entertaining.
Wandering about town, trying to find something more interesting than churches, I stumbled across some great displays of one of the other features the town is known for: graffiti. I don’t know the history of the graffiti walls, but there are a bunch of them scattered about town and some of the works are quite impressive.
As I headed down one of the alleys, checking out the work, the smell of fresh paint and aerosol lingered in the air; some recent activity, apparently. Very cool, indeed.
I found a few different resources planning for my visit and, not surprisingly, the usual suspects were actually pretty useless. The guide from use-it.be was awesome, however, and I strongly recommend starting with it as you plan a visit. There is also a walking guide from the official tourist bureau which didn’t completely suck, but it also misses some of what I thought were the highlights of my visit.
I was bored in Singapore. Apparently that happens from time to time. I wasn’t going to take it lying down, however. I was determined to find something entertaining to do, and for me that usually means some sort of ridiculous travel-related event. The region is filled with LCCs and there are plenty of options for day trips. Why not have some fun with that?
I started searching for destinations that were close enough I could actually do a day trip and get out of the airport. I wanted to fly different carriers each direction if at all possible, and bonus points were on offer for routes and carriers that were less well known. Needless to say, when I found a carrier called FireFly operating from Singapore into Subang, the old Kuala Lampur airport, I was sold.
FireFly is a subsidiary of Malaysian, operating a small fleet of ATR72-500 aircraft and serving a dozen or so destinations in the region. They are based out of Subang’s Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah airport. This is the field that operated as the main airport for KL until 1998 when the current facility was opened. Since then Subang is used mostly for a single cargo operator, for a charter holiday carrier and for FireFly. It doesn’t have rapid transit to downtown like KLIA does, though the terminal is reasonably new and nice and taxis aren’t particularly expensive (~USD$20 to KL Sentral). Plus, I wanted that line.
FireFly operates out of the LCC terminal in Singapore. It is actually a pretty decent facility, with a number of shops and restaurants available both inside and outside security. I bought my ticket at the counter there and then had a quick snack waiting for check-in to open for the flight.
Once checked in I was through immigration and security and then waiting for the flight. There is also a small garden on one side of the terminal. It happens to also be the smoking area, but there is enough space out there that you can enjoy it without being overwhelmed by the smokers if that’s your thing.
I headed over to the gate a few minutes early, mostly because it let me wander down one hall of the terminal that was otherwise empty and there were some fun plane spotting opportunities (Jett8 74F and the Qantas A380 with a blown engine, anyone??). As I was taking photos I heard an announcement for a gate change of a different FireFly trip. Okay, not my flight so I shouldn’t be worried, right? Except that the new gate for that flight was the gate mine was supposed to be departing from. Ruh-roh.
We swapped gates with that flight and managed to push back only about 20 minutes late, so not a huge deal, though there was certainly potential for things to go badly there. Our boarding was called and there was much queuing to prepare for the flight. As I had one of the few seats in the boarding area I chose to stay seated and board near last but most others on the flight seemed to very much enjoy the queuing process. We walked out from the terminal to the aircraft and I quickly settled in to my seat.
Pitch was a bit tight, but hardly bone-crushing. It also helped that I had an empty seat next to me.
The LCC terminal is close to the end of the runway so it was a short taxi over to runway 20C and we were soon off to Malaysia.
The service in-flight was reasonable. The flight is only about an hour in the air so there isn’t a whole lot of opportunity for things to go very well nor very badly. Still, there was a complimentary snack and juice service and then we were on approach into Subang.
As flights go I would be hard-pressed to classify this as an LCC, certainly in the traditional “no-frills, all fees” context of the term. They offer up to 20kg free checked bags, free snacks and pretty good service during the trip. The delay was minor and having service into Subang isn’t all that much worse than the remoteness of the LCC terminal at KLIA, so long as you’re starting or finishing in Kuala Lampur anyways; if you need to connect to mainline then being at KLIA is obviously better.
Overall, a completely reasonable travel experience. Nothing too crazy, either on the good or bad side of the ledger. That’s basically what I hope for when flying, so I was pretty satisfied.
I lamented earlier that Singapore doesn’t seem to have much of a soul. Maybe that’s because they’ve been too busy working on their food. I managed to eat quite well during my stay (more than 3 meals/day) on a very limited budget thanks to some great options, both in the hawker centers and in stand-alone restaurants. I think that only one of the meals cost more than $10 and they were nearly all delicious. Here are some of my favorites:
Chin Chin Eating House
Hainanese chicken is apparently a staple around Singapore. Likely because the raw ingredients are cheap – it is basically steamed chicken and rice – but don’t let that simplicity scare you away. There actually was subtlety to the flavors and there are plenty of sauce options offered up with the meal to add some kick to things. One of the shops recommended to me – Chin Chin Eating House – was conveniently right around the corner from my hotel which made it easy to pick up a quick snack one morning as I headed out.
I ordered up a serving of chicken and settled in on the patio to watch the rest of the city wake up and join me for brunch. I was the only guest there when I started but by the time I finished things were picking up noticeably; folks were waiting for my table. I was just disappointed I only had time for one serving of the chicken.
It was quite tender and juicy, making for a delicious start to the day. Of course, spicing it up with some vinegar and peppers didn’t hurt, either. Oh, and I’ve heard that if you wrap the chicken skin around the cucumbers they serve it with then it is actually good for you.
Geylang Claypot Rice
Claypot rice is exactly what it sounds like: steamed rice served in a hot clay pot to sear in the flavors of the meat as it is mixed table-side. Mine started as a bowl of white rice, chicken and pork and when the mixing was done the results were absolutely delicious. The shop isn’t particularly nice – think plastic chairs and wobbly tables in the middle of the red-light district – but you’re not really going for the atmosphere. It is all about the food here.
There were other options on the menu, too. I saw some folks with seafood in their rice and other folks with noodle dishes. I just ordered the generic "clay pot" and got a great meal so I don’t really know about those choices, but the other guests seemed to be enjoying themselves well enough.
Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle
This is one of the shops which came highly recommended but which I ultimately was unable to dine at. I knew that it was popular and that there would likely be a line. What I didn’t expect was for the line to be about an hour long at 2pm on a Sunday. Alas, it was, and that meant either missing my flight or missing the meal. I was tempted by the food, but rational thoughts eventually won out. The bak chor mee here is definitely on my list for my next visit to town; I’ll just have to schedule more time for standing in line.
Looking for a shop in Little India with more than just a famous name? This is where you want to be. The chef focuses on quality ingredients – sourcing his own whole sheep and grinding spice in-house – so the food quality is a notch above. Much of the dining scene in the area seems to be based on having been around the longest, not necessarily being the best, but don’t be fooled. It is priced higher than many other shops in the area – around SGD$9 for a meal – but that’s still quite reasonable and the higher price keeps the crowds down a bit.
Looking for dumplings? This is your place. Yes, it is a chain, started in Taiwan and now with over 20 shops in Asia and North America, including four scattered about Singapore. And, yes, it is a bit more expensive than the hawker stalls and other street food options. But the dumplings were damn good.
In addition to the dumplings we also ordered steamed pork buns. The were just OK; a bit dry to me. We also ordered a fried rice dish. It was pretty good, a welcome change from the Hainanese chicken & rice options. That said, the pork served with it was cooked separate and served on the side rather than all cooked together so that limited the flavor a bit.
Stick with the dumplings and you’ll do quite well. I certainly did.
Tian Tian Stall – Maxwell Road Hawker Center
I tried this one out on a recommendation from TravelSort. They’ve had some good options in the past and I figured it was worth a go. For the experience alone, eating in the hawker centers is an absolute must while in Singapore. The hustle and bustle of everyone is quite enjoyable. That said, I might give this particular stall a miss next time.
They’ve received a lot of press over the years and much of it is used to decorate the walls and façade of the shop. It was good – decent flavor and plenty of options for such a small shop – but it wasn’t amazing. I definitely wouldn’t wait in line for it and I think that Chin Chin (above) offered better food. But Tian Tian is still pretty good.
There were a few other options I also was recommended, including haji kadir (sup tulang) from the Golden Mile Food Center and the original "peanut pancake" at the Tanglin Halt Hawker Center. Alas, it was a short trip and I didn’t get to try them all. Next time, I suppose.
Check out the locations of the restaurants on the interactive map above.
Boeing has resumed deliveries of Boeing 787 Dreamliners this week; Japanese carrier JAL received two of the planes over the weekend. This adds a second airline to the operators list for the type and also introduces the first aircraft with the GE engine type versus the Rolls Royce engines on the ANA planes.
JAL will be using the planes on their Tokyo – Boston route, skipping over an extended period of domestic proving/training runs and getting the plane directly in to long-haul service. And, much like ANA, the carrier is going with a spacious 2-4-2 configuration in coach:
Business class looks pretty nice, too:
Oh, and the toilets up front are a special model developed by TOTO and which include a warm water wash feature.
Six additional routes are planned for the aircraft over the coming year as additional deliveries are made. This includes two destinations new to JAL, San Diego and Helsinki.
Great news that the planes are being delivered again. The backlog at this point is pretty significant and it seemed that the company was starting to run out of storage space at the factory when I was there a couple weeks back. It also means that the other carriers with pending deliveries can start to better plan for receiving those aircraft in the coming months.
A bit more coverage of the delivery ceremony for the JAL 787s can be found from Airline Reporter here.
Photos courtesy of JAL
The new MileagePlus program from United Airlines continues to evolve, with the partner earning rates once again seeing updates this week. This round of changes mostly appears to be filling in the gaps regarding earning rates for flying on TAM and Taca, two partners which were conspicuously absent from the previous releases.
For TAM the rates are reasonably consistent with the rates from the old program. There are higher PQM rates on the premium cabin fares while the reward miles on some of those fares drops. Additionally there are two notable absences on the new chart: P and W. P was a discount business class fare and W was a deep discount coach fare. They both earned in the old program but do not in the new one.
For Taca there are still no PQMs (expect that to change in a few weeks when the carrier joins Star Alliance) and a number of fare classes have no earnings. All the classes which do earn, however, are at least 100%. And the new chart actually adds a number of the cheapest fare buckets, including S and T, to the earning charts.
Good news that the charts are finally published and even better news in terms of what the rates actually are. Hopefully these rates stick for a while.
As always, I’ve incorporated the new rates into the various calculators on the Wandering Aramean Travel Tools site.
Every city has a soul. A vibe. A heartbeat. There is a sort of unspoken, unwritten feeling that sits atop all the other bits. It can be seen and felt on the street, watching and interacting with people as they go about their business. Finding this soul of a city is usually pretty easy for me. Wander around for an hour or two, vaguely following a map towards any particular destination while exploring side streets along the way, and the city will start to come alive. Unless it is Singapore, that is.
I don’t know what it was about my couple days in town. Maybe it is because the weather was festering heat and humidity so people simply avoided being outside completely. Maybe it is because so few people in town are actually from Singapore so there are fewer roots. Maybe it is because I’m a moron and wasn’t in the right places. But finding the soul of the city was nearly impossible.
I tried a few things to help my chances. I visited the "named" neighborhoods like Little India and Chinatown. The Indian area was cute, I suppose, but most of it appeared staged rather than the natural growth of a people who settled together in a particular neighborhood to have comfortable environs as they adjusted to their new homeland.
There were temples (some reasonably old even) and that was nice enough, but I struggled to find the connection between the people and their city.
I walked along side streets and through market streets. I visited the hawker stalls and sat at the communal dining tables to enjoy my meals. And I searched as best I could to seek out the folks who really lived and worked in in town and to see how they did so. I pretty much failed.
To be fair, there are things to see in Singapore. It has monuments, museums and the like. At the same time, however, the major focus of development recently seems to have been the Marina Bay Sands hotel and casino complex, along with the associated shopping mall. The bay is surrounded by other buildings – some offices, some hotels, some shops – and as a whole it makes for a reasonably active area. Thousands of folks wandering around, window shopping in a high-priced mall doesn’t make a city, however. It was activity without soul, without spirit.
I went in to the trip with a bit of a bias. I haven’t heard anyone ever rave about how much fun a visit to Singapore is. There are pockets of excitement that come from conversations, diamonds in the rough, as it were, of a neat thing or restaurant, but rarely a complete experience that rates great reviews. So maybe what I got was simply the predictable out come of my initial expectations. But I’d like to think not.
I walked the streets morning, afternoon and night. And at night, when there was no longer a reason to be stuck inside (other than that it was still ridiculously hot and humid outside) there was a bit more life. People packed in at the restaurants lining one street on Saturday night to drink beer and watch the Premier League soccer matches. It was the closest thing I saw to people actually enjoying their existence. And even then it was quite subdued, hardly a shout or a cheer as the cold beers went down and the matches played out on the televisions.
I’m sure that I could try again, visit the city and start my search for its soul anew. I actually want to go back as there are a few restaurants I didn’t get to try and the few I did were actually pretty good, so at least the city has that. But Singapore lacks a soul, and that’s something I definitely missed.
Panama‘s Copa Airlines is moving closer towards full membership in the Star Alliance; they’ve got a plane painted now:
(Image from Joe Walker/Aviation Week)
The carrier has previously announced a target of April 2012 for their join date and with the aircraft painted they seem to be progressing nicely towards that target.
Copa’s membership in Star Alliance will open up a number of additional routes and destinations for the group, They operate a fleet of 737s and E190s and don’t have a "real" premium cabin product but the majority of the routes they fly are also reasonably short, so the "domestic" first experience generally isn’t too bad.
I’m sitting in the budget terminal of Singapore’s Changi airport this morning, getting ready to board a flight for a day trip up to Kuala Lampur. There are plenty of reasons I decided to do this as a last minute getaway – mostly because there are some fun airports and airlines to be had – and one of them was because it figured to be a pretty cheap trip.
Pricing out the flights my go-to tool was the website www.utiket.com. It is pretty much a Kayak of SE Asian airlines, scraping their websites and compiling the results, but it also includes the LCCs, which is particularly useful in this part of the world. Even better, it knows about all the LCCs, not just the ones I’ve previously heard of, and it knows alternate airports, too. So when it returned the option to fly on FireFly Airlines to Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah airport in Subang rather than KLIA, I jumped on that opportunity.
The booking for FireFly was a bit of a challenge because I was inside 24 hours from the scheduled departure; they shut down online booking at that point. And the internet connection in my hotel was craptacular so Skype wasn’t working. I took a gamble and just headed out to the airport, booking it as a walk-up fare. The price was the same as what I was quoted via Skype when I sortof was able to chat with them so in the end no complaints there.
For the return I’m booked on Tiger Airways from KLIA back to Singapore. That trip is the one where the pricing got all sorts of wonky. I’ll blame or credit that in large part to the fact that the Tiger Airways website is reasonably modern and functional, able to offer all the up-sells that airlines love for ancillary revenue. The base fare for my ticket is only 33 Malaysian Ringits (about USD$10). No surprise, really, that they are looking to make some extra cash, though some of the methods are less than reasonable to me.
First up, the MYR33 fare advertised excludes MYR32 in taxes and fees. These are real taxes and fees so it isn’t that the airline is hiding additional fare components from the customer, but it is a bit annoying that the numbers are not reflected in the initial quote.
After selecting the flight there are a couple up-sells offered. First up is the ability to switch to a flexible ticket. That would increase my fare about 15x so I’m not interested, but the up-sell is offered.
Next up is the ability to assign a seat in advance. Row 1 costs the most, then rows 2-5, then the rest through the exit row. With basically the whole seat map open I wasn’t worried about it, even though the prices are pretty low.
After passing on the seat assignment charge I got the option to buy pre-boarding service from the airline. Only $5 to get to the front of the line. Once again, I decided to pass.
I was given the option for checked baggage, with various price points depending on the weight of the bag. There was also an option for excess baggage. With this just being a day trip for me up from Singapore that wasn’t an issue so again I passed.
And then I finally got to the check-out screen, where the final price was displayed: MYR85. Huh!?!? Where did the extra MYR20 come from?
Apparently there is a "Convenience fee" for the luxury of booking online with a credit card. I thought that maybe booking at the airport would avoid that (similar to Spirit Air) but at the airport this morning the base fare was triple the online rate and there was still a booking penalty at the airport. And it was more than the CC fee online.
So I did what cam naturally, rolled my eyes and then sat down in the food court to take out my laptop and book the online fare. No sense it wasting an extra $35 on the bargain fare.
Just another fun experience with the random vagaries that are airline pricing models around the world.